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Bin Laden news causes memories of 9/11 to rush back

03 may 2011, 17:12
0

The death of Osama bin Laden invoked memories of that terrible day of September 11, 2001, for hundreds of millions around the world – and I was no exception.

I was executive editor of the News Herald, a medium-sized daily in Panama City, Florida, when 9/11 occurred.

I was eating breakfast a little after 8 a.m. when a staff member called my home.

“Turn on your television set,” he said.

I did, and watched in horror the footage of passenger jets slamming into the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington.

I knew it was Al Qaeda, and I knew this would spark a long and bloody war on terrorism.

But as I headed out the door for the office, my more immediate concern was giving the News Herald’s readers the best coverage of the attacks that our staff could muster.

The first step was asking the publisher to increase the number of pages we would publish that day. I wanted comprehensive coverage, and that would mean additional space for dozens of stories and photos.

Adding pages is costly, but to the publisher’s everlasting credit, she agreed without hesitation to increase the page count for such a momentous event. And she continued to do it several days after 9/11.

A concern on everyone’s mind that day was whether Al Qaeda would attack other military targets besides the Pentagon – with bombs, not planes.

So I dispatched reporters and photographers to two nearby military installations -- Tyndall Air Force Base, which has fighter jets, and the Naval Research Center, which develops next-generation naval-warfare equipment.

As it turned out, the Al Qaeda plot was limited to the New York and Washington areas, but no one knew that in those early hours after the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks.

One thing a newsroom leader does on a big story is rally the troops – give the reporters, photographers  and editors a pep talk to produce a superlative account that readers will appreciate forever.

As I was doing that, I noticed how distraught our lone Muslim staff member was. Mohammed was the late-20s son of a prominent Panama City doctor of Pakistani descent.

The father had an excellent reputation as a doctor, and the family a record of upstanding citizenry.

But many American Muslims feared a backlash against them in those first emotion-laden and uncertain moments after the attacks, Mohammed included.

I tried to calm him, telling him that most Americans wouldn’t blame entire religions or ethnic groups for the attacks. I also told him that if he encountered slurs or other kinds of retaliation for the attacks as he was reporting, I would rush to his defense.

He remained nervous though --  and, as it turned out, for good reason. I had forgotten Mohammed’s off-duty passion: flying. He had been talking enthusiastically in the newsroom about his quest to obtain his pilot’s license.

Some of the 9/11 hijackers, U.S. intelligence quickly learned, took flying training at schools in south Florida.

Sure enough, agents found out that Mohammed had been taking pilot’s training, and called on him. Thankfully, they quickly decided he had no connection with 9/11. But I would be less than forthright straightforward if I didn’t admit I was concerned about him for awhile.

Another vivid memory I have of 9/11 is the exceptional photo that News Herald staff member Terry Barner took in the earning evening of the day of the attacks.

Young Muslim women in white burkas held a candlelight vigil in a Panama City park to show their solidarity with the vast majority of Americans who deplored the attacks.

Terry used only the light from the candles to shoot his photo. That soft, subdued light enhanced the forlorn faces of the young women, creating an unforgettable image.

The News Herald is a member of the Associated Press news cooperative, and the AP recognized how riveting the photo was, and sent it around the world. It appeared on Page 1 of top newspapers on every continent, in magazines and on television.

That was quite a tribute to a young photographer working in a small news market.

My other overarching 9/11 memory was very close to home.

My daughter Angie, a singer, keyboardist, and songwriter in Portland, Oregon, was so devastated by the tragedy that she sat down and wrote a song to get her feelings out.

“Never Forget” led to her getting air time at radio stations in the United States and Europe, and receiving an invitation to New York to meet with some of the firefighters who responded to the Twin Towers disaster.

At the time, Angie was a technical writer -- and that’s still her “day job.”

But the success of “Never Forget” prompted her to form two bands and record a CD of her songs. She’s now on her second CD. She also created a Web site about her life and music at www.angiefoster.com.

Like hundreds of millions of people around the world, the 9/11 attacks changed Angie’s personal life forever. But unlike many, it changed her professional life as well.

Neither she nor I nor anyone who knows her would have wanted her to start a music career on the back of a terrible tragedy like 9/11.

But life works in strange ways sometimes, doesn’t it?


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