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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! Flashback to 9/11 in a Green Bay newsroom

Critic At Large

19 years ago

Front page of extra edition of 9/11 Green Bay Press-Gazette. (Warren Gerds copy)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – I saw it on sickly faces.

No, it was not the coronavirus, which crept on us.

It was 9/11, a sudden sledgehammer blow.

My co-workers stood watching flames and smoke engulf huge buildings live on television.

These colleagues knew that people died or were dying in front of them.

Mouths gaped.

Eyes glistened.

Faces were locked in shock.

I sensed that I was looking into the face of America.

This was the newsroom of the Green Bay Press-Gazette on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

I have the privilege of writing again today about that day.

Looking back, as it is happening again:

Before coming to work, my wife and I watch the news on a national network. The program opens with a panorama of New York City. The sky is clear and clean, and the skyline is beautiful. It’s picturesque.

“Wow, look at that,” I say. “No wonder why they showed that view today.”

Not more than an hour later, Press-Gazette newsroom secretary Mary Kay Hanamann takes a phone call and announces to the few of us in the office at the time, “My father says an airplane crashed into a building in New York.”

My first thought is the story of a B-25 bomber that got lost in fog and accidently crashed into the 47th floor of the Empire State Building in 1945.

One of the editors switches on a TV set.

The World Trade Center is afire.

This is no accident.

I phone my wife at the Pulaski News community newspaper and say, “Turn on your TV set.”

This is before 8 a.m.

At this point, the crash of a plane into a New York building is a weird, stunning curiosity.

At 8:03 our time, the glimpse of a jet airliner is seen on the screen speeding toward the World Trade Center.

A massive orange burst erupts from the building.

My mind numbs.

A living hell.

Sadness beyond sadness.

The news travels everywhere like lightning bolts.

And then at 8:37 a.m. comes word of a crash in Washington, D.C. The Pentagon is hit.

Crisis.

War?

Press-Gazette executive editor Carol Hunter is an early bird, and she has been in the office since shortly after the second crash. The latest news is her springboard to action.

Within an hour, a decision is made for the Press-Gazette to publish an extra edition.

An extra is published because of an extraordinary event that happens between regular daily press runs. The Tuesday edition of the Press-Gazette is fresh on doorsteps and in shops, and the next edition seems like an eon away in the wake of such momentous news.

Since the arrival of television news, newspaper extras have faded away. There is no way to compete in speed. There is only one end-reason to publish an extra now: History. The Press-Gazette wants to create something lasting that people can hold in their hands and read… forever.

So Carol Hunter, publisher Bill Nusbaum and department heads marshal forces for a late-morning deadline and an early afternoon street time.

Also, something unique happens within the two adjoining Press-Gazette buildings.

The newsroom is on the third floor of the building on the corner of Walnut and Madison streets. In a way, that floor is a sanctum sanctorum. People from the business, advertising, production, circulation and distribution centers have no need to be on that floor unless they are a boss. Most people in those departments spend their whole careers never seeing the newsroom.

On 9/11, they come.

The newsroom is the only place in the buildings where there are TV sets. Editors and reporters monitor news stations in the event of breaking news.

I walk past some of the TV sets when I see workers from other departments entering the newsroom for the first time.

First, their eyes scan the room like kids seeing a wonderland. It’s a big room with networks of work stations and computers and telephones and wall maps and windows and clutters of paper and books and a leftover sign high over a doorway that says “PRESS” that lit in the days when the printing press on the first floor started and shook the building. It is an “other” place.

Until this day, I do not realize how great and grand and exotic the newsroom must be to others who work for the newspaper. I know these first-time visitors from company meetings and from long associations – being to their departments – doing what I do in my specialty job that includes writing columns about television and radio.

Then, the curious visitors move to the TV sets.

They gather, stand and watch.

They are aghast.

After a few minutes, the first visitors drift away when their worst fears are confirmed.

Soon after they leave, more of their colleagues arrive.

They stand and watch.

They look like they just found out their mother died.

In all those eyes I believe I see how millions of Americans feel at that moment.

Everywhere must be shock, dismay and fear.

I go back to my desk in the southeast corner of the third floor of the Press-Gazette and begin typing a column on my computer.

Thoughts flow.

In perhaps 15 minutes, the column is done – reread, headline written, the whole shebang.

I give a printout to Carol Hunter. She has assigned staff to gather local reaction by telephone or on the street. Key in the extra edition will be dramatic wire service photographs and reports. My column is a wild card, but I expect it will fly because from experience I know it is really hard to turn down a finished product.

Carol Hunter reads the column rapidly.

It starts:

“Today, our companion in enjoyment brought us horror.

“In scene after incredible scene, television audiences throughout America and the world saw shocking and deadly events live.

“It was a shared experience of dread and disbelief…”

The column ends:

“Television wasn’t around for the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was when President Kennedy was assassinated. It was when President Reagan was shot. It was when the Challenger blew up. The nation stopped each time.

“Today was different. We’ve never seen such a scale of death and destruction, not live on TV.

“This was a common TV experience of searing images already ingrained in our psyche.”

 Carol Hunter finishes reading and says, “Okay.”

That’s all.

“Okay.”

9/11 column.

Carol Hunter sets in motion what is needed for the article to appear in print.

The extra is a phenomenal burst of energy and powerful information delivered at a motivated newspaper’s warp speed.

This extra edition is an instant historical record people can read as a perspective on Green Bay on Sept. 11, 2001.

I see faces in the newsroom.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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