Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The “Flash” that changed everything

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was asleep in my bed with my cat Garfield by my side when the telephone rang.

I had moved to Vero Beach in July, selling my house in Lake Worth and heading north to take a job with the Vero Beach Press-Journal. On the night of Sept. 10, I had come home from the copy desk and sent out a couple of e-mails, then went to bed.

The phone was in the living room of the cottage I was renting, and the caller was my mother.

“Are you up?” she asked. “Turn on the TV.”

“What happened,” I asked, noting that she sounded odd. I thought my grandmother had had a medical setback or a worse tragedy in the family.

And I heard what I’m sure many others heard that day: “Two planes just hit the World Trade Center.” Then she broke down.

I watched in horror the replay of the second plane hitting one of the towers, said goodbye and hung up. It was a nightmare day. I watched for about an hour as the news, rumors and other information flowed in through CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. This can’t be happening, I thought. I’ll wake up and realize it was just a terrible dream.

But it wasn’t.

Soon, I had to decide what to do. I’m a newsman, I thought, I have to be in the place where newspeople go when a big event happens. I thought about calling the editor at the Press-Journal, Larry Reisman, and asking if I should come in, but decided that he was probably swamped and would wonder if hiring me was a good idea if I called to ask if I should come in early. That’s something you know instinctively in journalism: to show up when something happens without being called.

I muted the sound on the TV, got into the shower and then shaved and got dressed. I petted Garfield, made sure he had food and water, and ran out to the Alero for the seven-mile drive to the newspaper, down the road on the barrier island and across the bridge.

It was a wet day in Florida, and I spun the front wheels of the car leaving the gravel driveway, turned north and began the drive. I set the cruise control to the speed limit and finally turned left onto the bridge. A quick trip across the Intracoastal Waterway, and I was just about at work.

I arrived to a newsroom that was not chaos. People were working, talking and watching the newsroom TVs tuned to all the cable networks, watching as the horror unfolded. I logged into my computer and joined the crowd at the TVs. My first assignment was to call in another copy editor.

I got his answering machine. He was asleep and I left a message: “Come in to work. Turn on the TV. You’ll know why.”

Minutes later, he called. “What’s up?” he asked. “Did you turn on the TV?” I asked. “No,” he said.

“Two planes just hit the World Trade Center,” I said.

On Sunday night, May 1, 2011, I was in the newsroom at the Gainesville Sun and was basically just backing up my fellow copy editors. I had finished and sent out the Gainesville B section, my assignment for the day, and was reading “A” section pages for the other two copy editors at the paper, Mike Veronie and Keri Peterson.

Another copy editor was doing the Web that night, and another had done the Ocala B section and was reading pages, too.

Suddenly, someone said that there was a special news bulletin. President Barack Obama would be speaking to the nation at 10:30 p.m.

Now, the president doesn’t just jump into your life and the news world on Sunday night at 10:30 p.m. just because he needs to tell someone something. This was big, earthshaking news, and speculation ran rampant. Were we pulling out of Afghanistan? Was an asteroid headed to earth? Was he resigning? Was he not going to run in 2012?

A few minutes later, we heard that it was about a “national security matter.” Were we under attack? Did it involve Osama bin Laden?

At around 10:30 p.m., I turned up the TV. Wolf Blitzer was on CNN talking about what it could be. Then, at 10:46 p.m., the word came out: “Osama bin Laden is dead.”

The creature who planned the 9/11 attacks that had caused so much hurt and pain around the planet had been killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan.

On my computer, on the Associated Press wire, there was the news with a slug: AP-NEWSALERT. Now, these are used for Lindsey Lohan and unemployment numbers, but there was a word above the single sentence: FLASH.

In the old days, I’m told, a FLASH would trigger bells on the teletype machine. In the “AP Stylebook,” FLASH is used for a world-changing, seminal event that changes history.

This was deserving of the term: FLASH.

It changes everything, including the front pages of daily newspapers, even though the editors think they’re finished for the night. It changes websites, and producers got out of bed and started reworking their sites.

At The Sun, we changed our two papers, the Ocala Star-Banner and Gainesville Sun, and Keri figuratively ripped up her front page, with its stories on the state budget and changes to the work lives of teachers. Meanwhile, I set to work moving those stories that had started out front and jumped inside to make them exist fully inside, cutting and pruning to fit.

The press had started at around 12:30 for the Star-Banner, and I had helped with that paper, then stayed to help get The Sun out. The press room said they planned to end the Star-Banner run at 1:50 a.m., and begin replating the press for The Sun. Keri, Rob – who was doing the website – and I worked on our jobs and, at 1:50 a.m., Keri sent the last page to platemaking.

We had done it. Our readers would see the world as it had existed at 1:50 a.m., though of course the latest news would be on the website. I will keep that Gainesville Sun “A” section forever, though.

The bigger picture
The killing of Osama bin Laden didn’t cause me to cheer or punch the air. Mostly, I feel relief, not joy. I know others feel good that he’s dead, and I feel good, too, but 9/11 didn’t directly affect me. Others have the right to feel triumphant that their losses have been avenged.

In the larger sense, the president showed resolve and determination. For a brief moment, politics ended at the water’s edge. Don’t worry, things will get back to normal soon enough.

But Obama did something that’s right out of the Henry Kissinger school of realpolitik. Conducting a secret military operation using special forces inside the borders of a supposed, alleged ally takes cojones of steel. Our actions in Pakistan may have made us a lot of enemies there, but then again, Pakistan has a lot to answer for.

If the country’s leaders were knowingly harboring Osama bin Laden and tried to keep it secret from the U.S., they may pay dearly. On the other hand, for us, having an angry enemy that feels it has been violated on the border with occupied Afghanistan cannot be a good thing for us.

Still, on this Monday in May, we can rejoice that bin Laden is dead and gone, but the symbolic death of one evil man isn’t the solution to everything. It binds up some terrible wounds, though, and that’s enough for me.


May 2, 2011 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, Politics, The news business | , , , , , , , , , ,

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