‘Nation under attack’: Daily Chronicle staff reflects on covering 9/11
By Inger Koch
When I walked into the Daily Chronicle office on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I never expected the paper I designed that day to be one that people would save.
It’s the kind of historic page that people hang on to and you sometimes run across at a local estate sale, along with papers announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination.
Much of that morning is a blur. I remember seeing the planes flying into the World Trade Center on TV and the early confusion about what was happening. And then came the adrenalin rush of putting the paper together by noon – the Chronicle was still an afternoon paper at the time.
I looked through dozens of terrifying AP photos to chose one for the cover. And typed “Nation under attack” in the biggest font I had used on Page 1 in the seven years I had been at the paper.
Looking back at it now, it’s not some of my most artistic work, but it reminds me of a scary day when my newsroom colleagues and I worked together to do the best we could as quick as we could for our readers. That’s why I’m proud of that paper.
Twenty years later, as the only journalist from that day still at the Chronicle, I reached out to some of my former co-workers about what they remembered. Here’s what they had to say:
John Kelleher, managing editor
I was driving down Sycamore Road at 7:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. Late for work as usual.
We don’t have that much for Page 1, I thought as I planned out the day. Maybe something will happen yet.
The radio was tuned to WBBM. They interrupted their usual newscast to switch to their New York City affiliate. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, and there was panic and confusion.
I envisioned a lost Piper Cub straying into the building. It soon became clear that it was way more than that.
As I pulled into the parking lot I met up with Advertising Director Jim Horn. He too had been listening to the radio. Usually not one too attuned to news, he knew we had a big story on our hands.
“Turn on the TV,” we barked. The newsroom staff was still unaware that they would soon be covering the biggest story of their lives.
The newsroom shifted into emergency mode.
We rushed to send the inside pages to the press room so we could concentrate on the late-breaking news.
Still, the question remained. Was this a horrible accident or a terrorist attack on the United States?
We didn’t have to wait long to find the answer.
Photo Editor Don Vaughan was monitoring the television while editors were signing off on pages and reporters fanned out over DeKalb County getting public reaction.
“A plane hit the second tower,” Don yelled out.
It was clear. We were at war with terrorism.
Never has a newsroom worked faster or harder.
A plane hit the Pentagon. Then there were reports that a bomb went off at the State Department. That turned out to be a false alarm.
Chicago skyscrapers were being evacuated. A plane crash landed in rural Pennsylvania.
“Nation under attack,” is the headline News Editor Inger Koch came up with. We all immediately agreed that it captured the news. That would be the headline for that day and our streamer for the rest of the crisis.
Before long, the paper was set to go to the press. The staff huddled around the negatives as Inger made the final corrections.
Then the pressroom got the paper.
We sold thousands of extra copies. People were waiting at the front desk for souvenir editions. There are probably some copies still floating around DeKalb.
The news staff sat back, reflecting on how they had played a role in recording history.
Then we started planning follow-up coverage for the next day.
Chris Rickert, city editor
I watched the second plane fly into the World Trade Center on a TV near my desk that was more or less permanently tuned to CNN Headline News. The publisher, Chris Doyle, came by and said, “How do we localize it?” and I thought, “How would we localize an attack happening in New York City in DeKalb, Illinois – which I soon realized was a dumb thing to think because clearly, the United States under attack is a local, state, national and international story.
I and a couple of reporters made some calls and there was at least one local angle I remember: DeKalb’s little airport had been shut down, like all the rest of the airports in the country, presumably out of a fear there were more airborne attacks to come (there were).
Because we were an afternoon paper, we were able to get the story of 9/11, and a local sidebar, in the Sept. 11 Daily Chronicle. It was a very well-done front page on a very bad day in America.
Chris Doyle, publisher
In those days, we had a TV going in the newsroom to keep tabs on major news. I remember walking by and seeing the image of smoke pouring out of the World Trade Center tower from the first plane and asking what was going on. It was explained to me that it was unclear. At first, it was even unclear the size of the plane that had hit the tower.
And then the second plane hit. It made no sense. I remember thinking it looked like something from a movie. It didn’t seem real.
We were all shaken. I began my career as a crime and courts reporter, so I had covered some ugly things. But watching the live murder of hundreds of people was something altogether different.
John Kelleher used to like to say that we were the first newspaper to publish the story, which may have been true, as we were an afternoon paper.
I think I stayed awake that night and maybe that week, watching coverage and figuring out what we could do for our communities.
Dan Campana, reporter
By Sept. 11, 2001, I had been at the Daily Chronicle about 17 months, so my morning routine was just that – a routine. Fire up the old Mac, check the AP wire, scan a few other news websites, just the normal things I’d do before finishing up any stories for that particular day’s paper.
Being a Tuesday morning, I probably had a Sycamore city meeting story to write, but the image on CNN’s website of a fire at the World Trade Center immediately distracted me. Plane hits building? Crazy, but likely not anything we’d have to worry about – just interesting enough for us to turn on the newsroom TV to follow along. Before the click of the remote could happen, the AP wire sent an alert that a second plane hit the second tower.
Over the next several hours I remember the editors trying to make sense of this from a worldly perspective and then boiling it down locally. I talked to an NIU professor and heard the name Bin Laden for the first time. I might have been the one to chase down information on then-Speaker of the House Denny Hastert’s whereabouts. We checked on what schools were doing. Everything down to concerns at little Taylor Airport. All of this while watching horror unfold in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.
My longtime friend Rob Carroll – who I met at the Chronicle – and I talk about that day every anniversary. It is undoubtedly a “Where were you?” moment that defined our years in newspapers. That’s the reason I pull out my copy of the Sept. 11, 2001, paper every year: to remind myself of how I’m proud I still am of what we accomplished for our readers as history unfolded and, personally, to know I played some small part in documenting it all for our readers in DeKalb County.
Rob Carroll, reporter
We were likely one of the few newspapers in the country still working on that day’s issue when the first plane struck. Afternoon newspapers were fairly rare even at that time. Even though we immediately hit the street looking for local perspective for that day’s paper, I’m not sure we were ready to tell that story. How do you interview someone about a story that is changing by the minute thousands of miles away? How can you as a reporter expect someone to process something so catastrophic when you haven’t even had a chance to do that yourself?
The reality is I was still trying to process what happened for several days. The phrase “ever since Sept. 11” became commonplace during interviews for stories weeks later that had nothing to do with that fateful day. Nearly every event we covered in the following days was attended by those still looking for the “why” and “how.” We were all still trying to process what we saw on Sept. 11, 2001.
Don Vaughan, photo editor
Sept. 11, 2001, forever changed our lives. I was in the newsroom that morning working on deadline when the national news started reporting the attacks. It was like nothing we had seen before. The first few days are somewhat all mushed together. It was constant coverage, especially searching for any DeKalb County connections to the attacks.
As I look back today, besides the shock of the actual attacks, two events that I photographed after the attacks stick out the most. Shortly after the attacks, I traveled to O’Hare Airport to photograph President George W. Bush while he addressed the nation. There was a whole new level of security at the event.
The first Ramadan after the attacks, I went to the local mosque to photograph the event. Not only was I welcomed to take photographs, the men asked me to join them as they broke their fast by eating dates, as well as sitting down to share a meal with them. Given how uncertain the times were, it’s one of my most memorial assignments as a photojournalist.
• Inger Koch is Lifestyle editor for Shaw Media and editor of The MidWeek. On Sept. 11, 2001, she was news editor of the Daily Chronicle. She can be reached at email@example.com.