We were at our desks in the Marketing Department of The Record newspaper in Hackensack, New Jersey, when my co-worker Wendy started to panic. She had just heard about an airliner crashing into the World Trade Center. Her husband Kevin was due to fly out of New York that morning. Desperate for information, she needed my help turning on the TV in our conference room. She could barely hold it together, and I did my lame best to reassure even though I didn’t know anymore than she did about what had happened.
She finally heard from Kevin, whose plane was still on the ground. Our relief and jubilation was short-lived as it became apparent that what had happened at the World Trade Center was no accident.
The South Tower. The Pentagon. Pennsylvania.
Before the towers collapsed, I was able to see them burning from the third floor of our building. A manager came through and admonished us for looking. I understood his respect for the victims and the first responders, but I also felt like I needed to bear witness.
I only ventured into the Editorial Department on the fourth floor a couple of times that day. I witnessed — I felt — the hum of solemn purpose that marks a newsroom at its finest. It spread to the rest of building; newspapers have a sacred duty to the public, especially in times of crisis. We all had a job to do.
What was my job? I had to design a rack card, a seventeen-by-eleven inch cardboard sign that is mounted on the front of newspaper coin boxes. They usually scream some special offer or section or something else to entice you to buy the paper. Obviously this would be different. I simply couldn’t bear the thought of another sales piece with color bursts and heavy type hyping our coverage — the paper equivalent of those obnoxious tragedy teasers for which cable news has become infamous. My manager and VP agreed. I needed to find a way to acknowledge what had happened, to express solidarity with our community. And I had to have it done that day.
I found a stock image of the World Trade Center, gleaming in late afternoon light. I photoshopped and image of the American flag over this. In my mind, it was like a parent pulling a cover up around a frightened child. It was the country putting its arms around New York City. There was no need for words. In the lower margin, I placed the small logos of our two daily newspapers, The Record and the Herald News. In the top margin: September 11, 2001.
As soon as those signs were placed in the coin boxes throughout the Bergen and Passaic counties, they began to disappear. I started seeing them in people’s windows, even in offices I visited in the weeks that followed. I was glad to have made that connection.
It was but a small prelude to what came next.
When The Record published Tom Franklin’s photo of three firemen raising the American flag at Ground Zero, it became the defining image of that tragic day. Everyone knows that photo; there’s nothing else to say about it. I will never understand how it failed to win a Pulitzer. The gifted photographer is now a professor at Montclair State University. Lucky students!
The Record was inundated with requests for that photo. It became my department’s job to help manage those requests. We heard from fire departments, police departments, and EMTs from all over the country and even overseas. We heard from celebrities and politicians. Then the thank you letters started coming, and our collection of fire and police uniform patches began to grow. I have two mementos from that time that I cherish. One is my copy of the famous photo autographed by Tom. The other in an NYPD baseball cap.
The most moving requests came from people who had lost a relative or a friend. Sometimes these requests were made by phone, and sometimes those conversations seemed as important as the thing they were requesting. Many others, myself included, did not personally lose a loved one that day, but they wanted a copy of the photo to help them process their shock and grief; it was a symbol of hope and resolve. The most sobering phone call I received was from a forensic specialist whose job it was to identify victims from bone fragments.
Every year on the anniversary, Wendy and I exchange single word messages on Facebook. I can never forget how scared she was that morning, and it makes me so happy to see how happy she is now, to see her family pictures and how her boys have grown. It’s the sort of thing to be celebrated as we remember what we lost.
Like so many of us, I will always remember where I was on 9-11: Working at a newspaper in Hackensack, New Jersey. On that day and the days that followed, it was the best possible place for me to be.