America under attack.
The nation was stunned, frightened, watching as Americans died at the hands of terrorists in New York, Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania.
And in newsrooms across the country, journalists were faced with writing the first draft of one of the darkest days in America’s history.
The Deseret News was still an evening newspaper on Sept. 11, 2001, and the staff was readying for the day in the early morning hours when the first plane struck the World Trade Center in New York City. Ravell Call, who was the photo editor that day, remembers seeing on a grainy television at the business editor’s desk what they believed was a horrible accident.
“And then not that long after the second plane, it goes in and you know, we know that it’s then a terrorist act,” Call said.
On a normal day, the Deseret News would hit newsstands and front porches about 5 p.m., as Utahns were arriving home from work and looking to catch up on the day. But the paper’s editor, John Hughes, quickly decided the paper would publish a special edition and have it on the streets in time for the lunch rush.
In order to get the paper out quickly, Call remembers selecting the main image for the front page from a frame grab of TV footage: a smoking tower with a plane on a collision course in the background.
Together he and Hughes looked for “the best photo we could. Maybe if we would have waited 10 or 15 more minutes, we would have had a better quality photo, but this photo that’s on the front page really does tell the story,” Call said. “I mean it’s ‘America under attack’ and you see the one tower burning and the second plane going in, and then a slightly better quality picture of people running.”
Journalists around the nation had to wrap their minds around the unthinkable tragedy as it unfolded.
“We were shocked, we’re shellshocked, you know, just how can this be? What does this really mean? What’s happening? What’s going on? What’s going to be next? And then suddenly you get like the Pentagon, you know, and then there’s one that goes down in the field. And it’s like, oh my, this is world changing what’s going on,” Call said.
“But on the other hand, as I shoot photographs, or as I do my work ... it seems that there is a bit of a shield that comes up, that camera that I have is almost a bit of a barrier, and it causes me to just concentrate on those things that I need to do to accomplish the task to get the job done. And it takes a little bit of the pain away.”
Twenty years later, Heidi Perry, who was the director of the design department, remembers clearly an image of a shoe in the rubble, lost from its owner who was almost certainly dead. Careful discussion about the Deseret News’ front page focused on how large a photo should be, what the image should show, the tone of the headline, and whether other stories should be included.
“Honestly, everyone was really mindful of what we put out there, and what we didn’t, like the shoe picture, and then all the pictures. The one we chose, I went back and looked at all the fronts (of other newspapers), and ours were similar,” Perry said.
As they worked, the feeling in the newsroom was one of overwhelming sadness.
“Everyone was devastated, you couldn’t believe it, you were just in shock, and then things just kept happening,” Perry said.
Call still keeps a copy of that special edition, and the papers published in the days that followed — the beginning of the war, planes taking off to go fight, and mourners holding each other and weeping. He got them out this week by chance as the 20th anniversary of the attacks approached, as he was going through things he has in storage, to show them to his kids. It brings back some of the emotion, memories he had forgotten.
“I’m starting to really think about it now and, yeah, wow,” he said.
“John Hughes was good to ... push for that, good to say, ‘Hey, we’re putting out an extra, we’re putting out an extra, we’re doing it now.’”