Fifteen years ago today, The Times Herald in Olean, N.Y. put out an extra edition.
We were an afternoon paper. When I worked there, the presses started anywhere between 10 and 10:30 a.m. The paper hit the streets around noon.
That day 15 years ago, of course, news was happening when the presses were running. Between the time the front page was sent to the press and the papers started to come off, the first tower fell. Then the second.
Faced with the magnitude of the day, the paper published an extra edition. We printed the paper a second time with the most updated news we had at the time.
Lede from the story in the first edition: "In a horrific sequence of destruction, terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trace Center and the twin 110-story towers collapsed Tuesday morning. Explosions also rocked the Pentagon and spread fear across the nation."
Lede from the story in the second edition: "In one of the most audacious attacks ever against the United States, terrorists hijacked two airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center in a coordinated series of blows Tuesday that brought down the 110-story towers. A plane also slammed into the Pentagon, brining the seat of government itself under attack."
For those of you of a certain age, this is like something out of a black-and-white movie, literally something from Newsies. Yes, this is an extra as in "Extra, extra, read all about it!"
It's one of the most anachronistic things about the day. We weren't updating our website because almost nobody was. This was six years before the iPhone, way before ubiquitous wifi and broadband. Twitter and Facebook weren't even ideas yet. In 2001, online news was a bonus, an extra, something that complemented our print edition. The main source of news that day was TV The extra edition of our print newspaper was the most up-to-date print news source on 9/11 in the Olean area (the Buffalo News was a morning paper, published long before the terror started).
At the time, we only put a selected number of stories on our website. Five news stories, three sports stories, a business story, a local feature, local columns. That's it.
The next day, our paper did more than 30 stories related to the attacks. For the first time, I put every single story online.
I found out about the attacks by mistake.
I was working nights at the time, so I didn't wake up until nearly 10 a.m. I stumbled into the living room of my tiny apartment on North Fourth Street, near Olean High School. Out of habit, I put on ESPN. They were rerunning the SportsCenter that I had seen when I got home from work (in those days, SportsCenter wasn't a 24/7 thing. In the morning, they just replayed the previous night's episode over and over again), so I tried to switch to MVT (I was young). My finger slipped on the remote, so I hit the button for the local ABC affiliate.
On screen was the Pentagon. Smoking. I thought it must be a car bomb or something.
Then they switched to New York.
Wait, why is there only one World Trade Center tower?
It's weird to look back at that, but there was no other way to get news then. I couldn't check Twitter, scroll on my phone. I had to watch and learn on the fly.
Then, the top of the tower started to shake. Then it fell.
Sitting on the couch, I muttered a small prayer. Then the quote from The Godfather came to my mind: "I want no inquiries made. I want no acts of vengeance. This war stops now."
Afterward, I went to the newsroom. That's what you do when you're a journalist and news breaks. You go to the newsroom. Truth be told, there wasn't much to do. I went to St. Bonaventure to see what reaction, if any, was happening, but there wasn't much. I had a high-school sports shift that night. Exactly one volleyball game was played.
I remember the paper's editor, who ran the editorial page, coming to me at some point during the day and saying he hoped that my next weekly column (being pushed back a day) would be a strong, kick-ass column. A war-hawk column. I looked at him and said I didn't think I had a kick-ass column in me about this.
Looking back, it's amazing how much the day felt normal.
I woke up. I watched TV. I went to work. I ate a Quarter Pounder with Cheese meal from McDonald's. It was a beautiful September day. Sunny and warm.
It's very easy to ascribe meaning to every aspect of that story. That's our natural tendency as humans, as storytellers.
I tell my story not because it's unique or special or to jump on the bandwagon of the day. I tell it, in part, to capture the odd juxtaposition of the day. Living hundreds of miles from the site of the attacks, the day felt absolutely normal. If you didn't know the news, you wouldn't have known there was anything different about the day.
Now, of course, the day has become suffused with meaning. As with everything, memory is malleable. You can make 9/11 fit whatever story you want to tell. It can be about the first responders. It can be about the military. It can be about the victims. It can be about the war that followed. It can be about immigration. It can be about Colin Kaepernick. It can be about journalism. It can be about the internet.
At some point, the meanings blend together and the stories get combined. We vow to never forget, but what is it that we're not forgetting? The story becomes about everything, which means it can be about nothing.
My 9/11 story is nothing special. It was a day that felt incredibly small and quiet and was also one of history's defining days. The world changed, but at the same time, it would be grandstanding to try to claim that my world changed that day.
In the end, all I have is my story. All we have are our stories of that day.