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Chet Diestel In the News-Sentinel newsroom, it was a day like no other

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Chet Diestel

Posted: Saturday, September 10, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 9:05 am, Sat Sep 10, 2011.

On the morning of 9/11 (as the date has been popularly christened) I was the News-Sentinel's city editor and was unhurriedly going through the routine motions of getting ready for work — not imagining that it would end up being my "day of days" in three decades as a journalist.

The big local story that Tuesday to be written for the front page of Wednesday's edition was the traditional preview of the Lodi Grape Festival, which was slated to kick off its four-day run on Thursday, Sept. 13. A reporter and photographer had been assigned to tour the Grape Festival grounds for a feature story with pictures on the variety of final preparations being done prior to the opening of the community's biggest annual event.

It was a story that had been done for as many years as anyone at the newspaper could remember.

It was all so very routine.

Indeed, in the still-dark early morning, that Sept. 11 seemed destined to be hallmarked only by just how impossibly routine it was going to be.

However, all that was about to change ...

6 a.m. I was just about to wheel my mountain bike out the front door for the ride to work when I grabbed the remote and powered on my television for one last look at the news before leaving. Not something I usually did.

John Scott of Fox News Channel came on with the alert that less than an hour before, a plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. There was speculation about what type of plane had hit the towering landmark, ranging from a small private plane to a commercial jet. There was also a lot of confusion as to how a plane could have crashed into one of the towers on a day in which New York was covered by an umbrella of postcard-clear blue skies.

6:03 a.m. Scott switched over to a camera crew that had just arrived near the WTC buildings — just in time to see United Airlines Flight 175 crash into the South Tower.

From that moment on, there could be no more speculation as to the types of planes that had now crashed into both towers — they were commercial jets.

And no longer could any confusion exist as to how the planes had crashed into each of the towers on such a beautiful late summer morning — they had been deliberately flown into them.

It was an act of terrorism.

It was an attack upon this nation.

For the fourth time in my life, my country was at war.

I just stood there for the longest of moments — remote in one hand, bike handlebars in the other — watching the flames and smoke rise up while pieces of the South Tower seemed to fly in every direction.

When capable of rational thought, my first was, "Well, I've got my front page for tomorrow morning."

There would be time later for shock, anger, sorrow, patriotism … and there would be all those and so many other emotions to come. But at that moment, standing in my living room, I had gone into my editor's mode, much like the soldier who, when the first shot is fired in anger, becomes what he is trained to be — a warrior.

As I clicked off the TV, wheeled the bike outside, locked my door and set off for the News-Sentinel, all I knew was that of all the editions I would ever be a part of, the one for Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001 would be the most historical — in many ways, one for the ages.

***

6:25 a.m. I walked into the darkened newsoom and switched on the lights, not knowing that it would be almost 21 hours later when I would turn those lights off.

Ironically, my first acts on that most extraordinary of work days was to once again do that which was the most routine — click on the radio, turn on my computer and make the first of several huge pots of coffee that would be consumed by the staff throughout that day and night.

Then it was down to work, with one question in mind: How to localize a monumental event happening a continent away that would be full of world repercussions in a way that will grab and hold the attention of the News-Sentinel's readers, yet not make the stories seem provencal in nature or scope.

It was one of those moments when desire and output meshed seamlessly, so that by the time Editor Richard Hanner arrived a few minutes after 8 a.m. I had a baker's dozen local story ideas to hand him for discussion during our morning story budget meeting.

Rich liked the suggestions, gently tweaked a couple, and threw in a few well thought-out ideas of his own. By the time the staff assembled some 30 minutes later, the stories were ready to be assigned and the reporters briefed, including the fact that no one should expect to get out of the office early that night.

While I was handling the reporters and photographers in an impromptu stand-up, Rich was working with Publisher Marty Weybret to clear ads off pages and to expand the front section with six additional pages (a real financial sacrifice for a community newspaper) so that we could devote the space necessary to tell our readers the full story of what had happened on every level — in New York City, at the Pentagon and in a meadow in Pennsylvania, as well as internationally, nationally and throughout California.

But most importantly, we wanted to give readers a timely and accurate portrait of how those four planes and a deadly act of terrorism directly affected the lives of the citizens of "Livable, Loveable Lodi" — perhaps in ways still unimaginable on the morning of Sept. 11, including that in a few short years we would be publishing front-page stories of military funerals for young local people who had fought and died in such faraway lands as Iraq and Afghanistan.

***

Local stories covered that day attempted to capture a detailed look at a city whose citizens readily voiced shock and anger, but above all patriotism and a profound belief that the nation would survive the most "dastardly attack" since Pearl Harbor.

That is what Lodians told their hometown paper as they lined up to give blood, hung flags from their front porches, walked into places of worship, gathered around television sets in diners and bars, or just went about the ordinary, everyday business of living on a day that was anything but ordinary.

One action that made me especially proud was the paper's reaching out to Lodi's large Muslim community for their thoughts, reactions and reflections at the terrible events which were unfolding before all our eyes. The story, written by Scott Howell, revealed a community within a community that was full of shock, sadness and love of this country.

Throughout what was an emotionally stressful day, the paper's staff worked tirelessly, with nary a complaint, as they chased down stories and pictures while putting aside their own feelings to adopt a level of professionalism any newspaper world would have been proud to achieve. Lunches were skipped, lots of coffee — hot, warm and cold — consumed, and dinner... well, it was a few pieces of hastily grabbed pizza that had been brought into the newsroom.

Somehow, all the "baker's dozen" local stories — plus more — ended up getting covered, so that next day those who picked up a copy of the News-Sentinel got to read:

  • How area teachers were handling the horrific events and the inevitable questions coming from their students.
  • How locals felt about the attack and what it meant for the nation's future. (The paper provided a place for them to air those feelings both in a lengthy story and in a page-long column of quotes by Lodians that ranged from then-mayor Alan Nakanishi, who as a youth was interned with his family during World War II because of his Japanese ancestry; to Armando Casillas, a 15-year-old junior at Lodi High School.
  • How local hospitals were prepared to handle an act of terrorism with the sure-to-be accompanying massed casualties.
  • What local law enforcement and public safety organizations were doing in light of the attacks.
  • And many, many more.

And as the day progressed, new stories kept popping up.

One was reporters who kept returning to the office saying how flags and red-white-and-blue bunting had begun appearing on seemingly every house and business. A quick round of calls to local big-box stores and mom-and-pop party and event businesses proved that there was not an American flag of any size or patriotic bunting of any length to be had. The stores had been flooded by shoppers who stripped the shelves bare, and when reserve supplies were brought out they were snatched up just as quickly. Thus, another story was hatched.

***

But as great as those localized stories were, none seemed to really hammer home how the well-planned terrorist attack affected readers on a personal level. How could the News-Sentinel manage that? As the streets outside the office began to be crowded with the long, creeping shadows of a fast-approaching dusk, the answer came with a phone call — just one phone call that led to several others and gave the paper just the punch that had been searched for all day.

The call was a tip — Corey Daniel, who lived in Woodbridge and worked for the investment firm of Morgan-Stanley, had been on the 61st floor of the South Tower when the attacks occurred, but had escape unharmed.

Adding to the pathos of the situation, Daniel's wife, Kim, had spent the most agonizing hours of her life at her home not knowing if she was a widow, or if her two young children were fatherless, or if their third child, due in three months, would ever know his or her father.

Looking around, it was obvious the reporter who would get the story — our former Business Editor Brian Ross. Ross, ex-Marine and possessing a wicked sense of humor, was a superb writer with the type of heart, charm and journalistic skills that was essential for such a story. Brian talked with Kim, and managed to reach Corey in Manhattan.

He ended his story with a quote from Kim, which really brought the terrorist attacks home to the paper's readers in a very personal way: "I feel like one of the luckiest people in the world. But I am also praying for all of the families who weren't as lucky."

The News-Sentinel finally had the local story that had seemingly been eluding us all day.

***

At last, the final story had been written and edited and handed over to the newspaper's excellent copy desk, which would write the headlines and place the stories and photos on the various pages.

Routinely, it was a time when the editors, reporters and photographers would have all headed home. But like everything else that day, even leaving was anything but routine.

No one wanted to go. We hung around talking in small groups about what had happened — it was as if we had been so busy covering the events as they unfolded that only then were we able to take stalk of our own feelings.

Eventually, the newsroom emptied until there was only Rich Hanner, myself, and the copy desk left, proofing and double-checking pages before sending them down to the pressroom for the printing of Wednesday's edition.

At last, a bit after 3 a.m. on Sept, 12, with the hum of the News-Sentinel's presses in our ears, the newsroom finally went dark and the last of us headed home.

Walking through the mailroom, where I had stored my bike early the previous morning, I grabbed a newspaper from the conveyor belt where they were coming up from the pressroom to be bundled for delivery to the paper's subscribers or placed in one of the many area news stands. I quickly checked out the front page, liked what I saw and stuffed the paper into my backpack to read once I got home. As I mounted my bike — once more in the dark — I took a moment to try at last get in touch with my own feelings, and it was a quote from Nakanishi the paper had used that came to mind and best reflected my feelings: "All of us have felt a great loss, and none of us will ever be the same after today."

Chet G. Diestel is the former city editor of the Lodi News-Sentinel.

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