I was in bed, listening to the radio.
For years, I’ve started the day listening to the morning news on National Public Radio, sometimes for an hour or so before getting up. And on that day, like many, my attention drifted in and out, in a sort of half-dream state. I remember hearing vague references to the World Trade Center and thinking that this must be some kind of retrospective on the 1993 bombing.
(On that occasion, I was in the last months of my hitch in the U.S. Navy. A buddy of mine, a native New Yorker, told me of how he had often stopped at the subway station at the center.)
But then the word “collapse” broke through the fog of my semi-subconsciousness. I bolted out of bed and turned on the television in my tiny garage apartment. When I saw the images, I remember, I screamed something, probably not very nice.
Then, I started getting ready. For all the shock I felt, I knew I had a job to do.
That fall, I was the news editor for The Daily Cougar, the student-run newspaper at the University of Houston, where I had returned a couple of years after leaving the Navy to study journalism. I’d been on the job since that summer, which itself had been pretty eventful for the newspaper staff.
Just as I was leaving my apartment, my phone rang. It was Nikie Johnson, the Cougar’s intrepid and usually unflappable editor-in-chief. “This is crazy,” she said.
In my car, I turned on the radio again. As someone long steeped in the full spectrum of the media culture, as well as a veteran, I felt during the short drive to campus that I knew already what kind of people were responsible. I also believed I could predict the tenor of the political discourse to come in the next days, weeks and months. Turns out, I was largely right.
I arrived at UH and made my way to the offices of the Cougar. Dick Cigler, the university’s longtime director of Student Publications (he retired last year), saw me approach. “You’ve got a long day ahead of you,” he said.
There was only one television in the newspaper offices, a small portable atop the refrigerator in the break room. A couple of students were glued to it. I watched for a few moments before telling them in the most authoritative voice I could muster that I was taking it into the newsroom.
I got to work. There were only a few people in the newsroom at that hour, and I was the first editor. But after a bit, the small but dedicated staff made their way inside, and we started fanning out.
As a veteran, and one of the oldest people on the staff (with the exception of Tom Carpenter, himself a Vietnam vet), I felt a special responsiblity that we not only get stories that described the events in the Northeast, but the ramifications for our own campus and our fellow students.
(By a strange circumstance, that day’s front page featured a story about Indian-British author Salman Rushdie, who had visited the campus on Sept. 10 to talk to literature students and made a public appearance downtown that night. Rushdie, who had spent years targeted by a fatwa from Iran’s clerical government for alleged blasphemy, was picketed outside the Alley Theatre by Islamic protestors.)
Houston is a diverse city, and the University of Houston — long thought of, unfairly, as a “mere” commuter school — is an extremely diverse campus. Then, as now, it had a large contingent of Muslim students. At some point during that day, I took a walk outside. I saw a friend of mine from the paper, a young Muslim woman, walk past me. I saw extreme apprehension in her eyes, and I felt sure I knew why it was there.
I assigned myself the wrap-up story describing the events and the immediate response. Looking at it now, I can see it as a long, somewhat rambling affair, borne of my effort to pack in as much information as I possibly could. It also suffers from my then-lack of familiarity of the closeness of states in the Northeast, when I seem to presume that the United 93 flight, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field, may have been directed toward Philadelphia instead of Washington D.C.
One of our reporters, Tim Williams (now an attorney) provided an excellent, and much tighter, look at the background of the attacks.
And two other reporters, Tom Carptenter and Icess Fernandez (who both have gone on to careers in teaching and journalism) took on perhaps the most senstive story that day: the impact of the events on Muslim students.
That story, in fact, became an object lesson for all of us both in the practice of newsgathering and the issues that would soon begin playing out. One of the students quoted in the story came in the next day with a friend to complain that his name had been used. He said he’d agreed to talk to Tom Carpenter only on condition of anonymity.
Looking back on the notes of the interview, Tom admitted that he’d made a mistake, and we both apologized profusely. The student, understandably angry, demanded that we print a “retraction.” It was left to me, as editor, to explain as best I could that we couldn’t retract something that was true.
That next day’s front page also featured a superb photo by Kusum Desai which captured the mood of the campus that day — students gathered around a small television in the University Center, watching the events unfold. [NOTE: Click on the link to read then-Photo Editor Pin Lim’s recollections of the day.]
Nikie Johnson, the editor-in-chief (now an editor at a California daily), penned the editorial board’s response to the attacks, and Ed De La Garza contributed a provocative cartoon. We also had strong opinion columns from Kristin Buchanan and Matthew E. Caster.
I don’t remember precisely when we put the paper to bed that night. I know it was one of the most intense days in my life in journalism, and I was not yet a professional. I imagine that like myself, my colleagues that day were so involved in the work that they didn’t give full vent to their emotions that day. That would come later.
In the weeks and months that followed, I tried as news editor to bring some sense of how the attacks, and the events that followed, impacted our campus. In Houston, that wasn’t hard. A wealth of events that fall spoke to the 9/11 events and their aftermath, from speeches by academics at UH and other universities to programs put on by the local chapters of the World Affairs Council and the Asia Society.
The fear and nervousness that permeated the country that day also found its way to UH. In one instance, a Quran had been left unattended on some steps outside the University Center. A bomb squad was called out, and it proved to be nothing.
Later, after the anthrax attacks occurred, a professor called authorities when he received a mysterious package in the mail. Again, it was a false alarm. But I remember the photo we ran of a student in tears while the investigation was underway.
It’s now been a decade, but I can remember vividly nearly every moment of that day.
Copyright © 2011 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.