The Palestine Herald, Palestine, Texas

September 12, 2013

"As clear as day": Local news hounds remember 9/11

Staff Reports
Palestine Herald-Press

PALESTINE — EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a recollection of the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 as described by editorial staffs at the Jacksonville Daily Progress and the Palestine Herald Press. The information was compiled by Herald-Press news writer Cristin Reece, who at the time worked for the Jacksonville Daily Progress.

Most would agree — for better or worse, the events that occurred in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, irrevocably changed this country and its citizens’ lives.

The terroristic attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center buildings, damaged the Pentagon and killed 2,977 people — including more than 400 police officers and firefighters. Many Americans can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing during that 102 minutes. Jacksonville Daily Progress current and former staff members remember the day with crystal clarity.

“Several things stand out in my memory when talk turns to ‘where were you on 9/11,’” JDP reporter Jo Anne Embleton said. “Driving the few miles from my house to the Catholic Chancery in Tyler, where I worked as a reporter for Catholic East Texas, I was amazed at how gorgeous the day was turning out to be, and it was only 8 a.m. The skies were a beautiful shade of blue, the air wasn’t quite crisp, but definitely cooler than the summer heat we were accustomed to. I actually debated calling my boss to let him know I was taking a last-minute vacation day … then my cellphone rang.

“And before I could answer ‘hello,’ my husband urged me to turn on the radio, because ‘World War III just started.’

“The drive from our apartment to the chancery was less than 10 minutes, and it was surreal hearing the reports of a plane flying into the Twin Towers in NYC,” Embleton continued. “I remember reading about how, when ‘War of the Worlds’ first aired on the radio, the programmers continually reminded people that it was a fictional story — that the world really wasn’t under attack by aliens from outer space. I think a part of me was seriously hoping that the reports were something similar, but the look on my editor’s face when I went into his office only confirmed the horrible reality of what had just happened.

“About an hour later, one of the secretaries came around to each of the offices to say the school’s superintendent, Deacon Vic Bonnaffee, was leading a prayer service in our chapel at 10 a.m. for the victims of that tragedy. I remember being grateful that Vic acted so quickly, because it gave us great comfort knowing that in our own little way, our little staff in East Texas were joined in solidarity with the rest of the country as we remembered those killed in that attack.”

Daily Progress Editor Amy Brocato Pearson was the Features Editor at the Beaumont Enterprise at the time, and — besides the news aspect of the day, has another, more personal reason she remembers so many details of the day.

“I was on my way into work on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when I heard the news on the radio,” she remembers. “The first of the planes had struck the World Trade Center. I was usually one of the first people to work in the newsroom each morning. Sure enough, when I walked in, only the business editor and I were there. He already had the television on and was tuned into the devastation playing out right in front of us.

“We watched in silent disbelief as the second plane crash into the iconic tower. My brain was going in a million different directions at once. How did this impact Beaumont, Texas? Was this an accident? My friend, Lisa, worked in World Trade 7, was she OK? (Her office was destroyed that day, but she’d stopped to vote on the way to work that morning and was not at her desk at her usual time. It saved her.)

“I grabbed a reporter’s notebook and decided to run over to the Federal Building, just a few blocks away.

“Now when I say ‘run,’ I was about six months pregnant at the time with my first child,” she said. “I can tell you what I was wearing that day — a periwinkle maternity shirt, a black skirt and the most comfortable sandals I owned. Not easy to run in, let me tell you. Clutching belly in one hand, cell phone, pen and notebook in the other, I wobbled over to the Federal Building and ran up the marble steps. I zipped through the double doors and cleared security just as the announcement came over the loudspeaker that the building was locking down. Security guards rushed into action, barring the doors. I did a few interviews with officials too discombobulated to talk before the building was completely evacuated as a precaution.

“By the time I got back to the newsroom, the Pentagon had been hit and the last plane had crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

“My son likes to hear the story of how he was ‘in my belly’ on 9/11. It was only in the aftermath of the attacks that it occurred to me to think, ‘What kind of a world am I bringing a child into?’ The child who was ‘in my belly’ on Sept. 11, 2001, is about to turn 12. He’s mildly autistic and went through a phase where he was fascinated with everything 9/11. He’ll recite facts and tell me about things he’s read and I sometimes remind him that I watched it all unfold, albeit from news wire service reports.

“I really don’t remember many more details after the sharp clarity of the morning, but I do know we were operating on pure adrenaline. Even though the events of the day were happening thousands of miles away, the impact of those planes changed the lives of everyone in our coverage area forever.”

That’s the part of 9/11 that stuck with former JDP Assistant Editor Cristin Reece, now a news writer for the Palestine Herald-Press.

“We were just ready to put that day’s Progress to bed — I mean, literally, finishing up the last page of the day’s paper,” she said. “I remember exactly where I was standing, right next to the printer waiting on proofs to print so we could make the last edits and corrections when my fellow reporter, Stephanie Little, blurted out ‘omigosh!” I looked up at the newsroom’s TV just in time to see the second plane hit the building. For one single instant, it seemed, everything and everyone just stopped. I don’t think the phones even rang in that one moment.

“And then we redid the front page,” Reece said with a laugh. “The way our deadline fell at the time, we were an afternoon paper — I think probably lots of local, small papers were — and it just so happened the JDP was one of the few newspapers of the day that actually had coverage of 9/11 on the front page that day. Lots of the big papers that come out in the mornings and the afternoons had it in their second run, of course, but we were one of the first with front page coverage. I was a brand new reporter, so I was a little impressed at that.

“It also made me realize the very scope of my job was changing right before my eyes,” Reece continued. “The world became much, much smaller that day, at least as far as the newsroom was concerned. That day, a cub reporter in Jacksonville, Texas, was scrambling to cover an event that didn’t even occur in the same time zone. Rather than just bringing readers the story of what happened — which we certainly did, thanks to the Associated Press and our sister papers — we also covered the impact those events had on our hometown. It really underlined that invisible link we all have with one another, no matter how far away we might be from each other.”

Back in September 2011, the Palestine Herald-Press was an afternoon newspaper too.

Community Editor Cheril Vernon recalls the morning of 9/11.

“Back then my sons attended Neches Elementary School. I remember dropping them off and later hearing on the radio on the way to work that a plane had crashed into a building in New York City,” Vernon recalled. “At that time, people were still trying to figure out why that happened. We turned on the TV at the newspaper office to find out, when they announced that a second plane had hit the World Trade Tower. That’s when we knew it wasn’t an accident.”

Working on that afternoon edition, newspaper employees from all departments gathered around the television, while the newsroom would share the latest news and photos from the Associated Press.

“Because of the afternoon deadline, we were still able to get a newspaper out that day on Sept. 11, something most newspapers around the country weren’t able to do. I can still remember placing color photos on a back news page — pictures of people running from the smoke covered in ash as the second tower collapsed and of people holding each other in tears. Memories like that will never leave you,” Vernon said. “Our reporters at the time tried to contact people living in New York City who had local connections, such as former Palestine resident Bonnie Bentley.”

Bentley, the daughter of 369th District Court Judge Bascom W. Bentley and Carol Bentley, was living in New York at the time. Newspaper staffers were able to contact her and get her account of what was happening in New York at the time. She described the devastation and chaos surrounding the tragic events via a telephone interview with the Herald-Press.

In addition to carrying Associated Press stories and photos from those events as they were unfolding that morning, the Herald-Press provided readers with a story with a local connection, thanks to Bentley.

The day is now observed as the National Day of Service and Remembrance (previously Patriot Day). Initially, the day was called the Prayer and Remembrance for the Victims of the Terrorist Attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. When the new name was proposed, it received opposition from Massachusetts, which already had a Patriots’ Day.

On this day, federal officials request the American flag be flown at half-staff at individual American homes, at the White House, and on all U.S. government buildings and establishments, home and abroad. Americans also are asked to observe a moment of silence beginning at 8:46 A.M. (Eastern Daylight Time), the time the first plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.