The Sept. 11 attack was coordinated with military precision under the guiding principle that this act of terrorism must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.
There were seven TVs in The Daily Yomiuri’s open-plan newsroom in Otemachi, Tokyo, where I was working the night shift on Sept. 11, 2001. The Sports desk had three; one faced the desk occupied by the editor and managing editor; one sat on the filing cabinets behind the copyediting desk, one was on the filing cabinets behind the Systems desk, and one was placed at one end of a large, oval desk in the centre of the newsroom.
Tokyo time is 13 hours ahead of EDT, New York time. Shortly before 10 pm, I was searching for an archived article at the far end of the newsroom, with one eye on one of the TVs. CNN had interrupted its regular programming to show live footage of a fire near the top of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Under the “BREAKING NEWS” strapline, the subtitle read, “WORLD TRADE CENTER DISASTER.” The North Tower was hemorrhaging smoke into the cerulean fall skies over Manhattan. Just three months previously, I’d admired the Twin Towers and the Statue of Liberty from a restaurant near the top of the Empire State Building.
Absent some big sports or political event, the DY newsroom was always quiet on night shifts, manned by a skeleton staff of around 10 people. That night it seemed even quieter than usual during the 16-minute ‘phony war’ between American Airlines Flight 11 impacting the World Trade Center’s North Tower and United Airlines Flight 175 screaming into the South Tower at close to 1,000 kph, wings angled to inflict maximum damage. Colleagues had gathered round the oval desk, arms folded, saying little until a dark streak arrowed into WTC 2, and the tower noiselessly blossomed a terrible, angry orange.
Immediately, there was a great deal of swearing, shouting into phones and rushing around in the newsroom. The managing editor and other members of staff who had worked the day shift came back to the office to lend a hand. The first thing to do was to get an extra out. This was achieved within an hour of the collapse of the South Tower. It may seem odd that the extra, harking back to the golden days of newspapers, has survived into the 21st century in Japan, but it’s not so odd when you consider that slightly more than one daily newspaper is delivered to each household in that country. While a few people, including me, scrambled to gather enough news from the TV and wire services to cobble together for the extra a report to accompany the apocalyptic picture of the moment WTC 2 began collapsing, other staffers began ripping the guts out of the first three pages of the newspaper, making way for a first draft of history.
It may sound callous if I say the work was exhilarating, but it was, and though I didn’t leave the office for 56 hours—I caught a few hours’ sleep on the roof at dawn on Sept. 12—I wasn’t tired for even a minute.
Mark Austin is a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India.
Photo: US Navy