Remembering 9/11: A newsroom view was close enough

Every journalist has an editor they curse — and then thank — for pushing them to write a story they don't want to tackle.

On Sept. 11, 2001, my then editor at the Laurel Leader, Joe Murchison, forced my hand to write a first-person account of what it was like to witness the events of the day while my husband was in the Pentagon when the plane hit.

I cursed, then thanked, my editor because from our readers' response to my story, "With husband at the Pentagon, waiting frantically for a call," I know I helped connect them locally to a national, and global, news event.

We tore the week's paper apart that Tuesday morning as the events unfolded before our unbelieving eyes, eyes that were frozen on the newsroom TV. Our emotions were at first directed inward, as our staff immediately began to check on the safety of their family members. But soon, we went to work as journalists — hoping to chronicle an event that we knew was of historic proportions.

Luckily, we had a photographer, already in Washington, who was on a rooftop and turned in an image of smoke plumes billowing above the Pentagon for our Page 1 photo.

My husband joined the masses fleeing the Pentagon moments after American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the building just short of his office with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. None of his co-workers lost their lives, but their office was destroyed by the water that firefighters directed on the building's roof for nearly three days.

It turned out my personal account of my husband's escape from harm wasn't the only Laurel connection. As the government released the list of those who had died on airplanes or in the Pentagon and World Trade Center buildings, we found out a North Laurel resident was among those dead at the Pentagon. Retired Army Master Sgt. Max Beilke worked as the civilian deputy chief of the Retirement Service Division and was in a meeting with other retirement officials when the building was hit.

Within days, our readers found out that the FBI was looking into connections between Laurel and the terrorists, including determining that some of the terrorists had stayed in two Laurel hotels, had possibly frequented a local pizza shop and likely used computers at the Laurel Library.

Through near numbness, our staff somehow pulled together more papers that month with the terrifying details, as we covered the news angle — especially the connections to Laurel — and also the community response, a reaction shared by nearly all communities across the nation.

First up were the prayer services at Laurel's religious congregations. The Leader covered a joint prayer service held Sept. 13 that brought members of various Christian, Jewish and Islamic congregations to Oseh Shalom as they sought spiritual solace.

Donaldson Funeral Home invited Laurel residents to sign memorial register books as an expression of their condolences. The books were sent to the mayor's offices in New York and Pittsburgh, to the Pentagon, and to New York firefighters.

Then the American flags started appearing: in front yards, attached to makeshift poles on overpasses, fluttering from perches on car windows, and pinned to shirt and jacket lapels.

Soon, there was a new icon — the red, white and blue ribbon folded into a loop to mimic the ribbon that was known as the symbol for cancer support. We ran notices telling readers where they could purchase these homemade lapel pins, which were sold as fundraisers in Laurel schools and churches.

As the U.S. began sending soldiers to Afghanistan as part of the War on Terror, I began a weekly column, "Home front," which kept tabs on soldiers who had families in Laurel.

In the days following the attack, my husband told me that next time, he would be one of the responders running toward the Pentagon, not one of those fleeing from the disaster. Since that day, he has trained with and taken leadership roles in several city preparedness groups, and helps coordinate a yearly Boy Scout search and rescue mock event to help the next generation learn to be prepared.

Our stories in this 10th anniversary issue show how Laurel's government and its residents have changed since that blue-skyed, cloudless day in September 2001; how the city government embarked on fine-tuning homeland security to be prepared for disasters; and how our collective innocent notion of what we should fear was shifted from the boogie man to terrorists living in a hotel on Route 1.

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