Matt Surtel was alone the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, working in the Warsaw bureau of The Daily News.
It had been a routine morning, making phone calls to local police agencies when suddenly the phone rang.
It was an advertising rep for the News.
“I can remember the entire day,” said Surtel, a staff writer and editor for The Daily News. “Every little bit of it. I started as usual, heading to the state police barracks. They had arrested a hobo in a boxcar. It was an odd story. I sat down and started typing when I got a call from Judy who said a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
“I knew it was terrorism right away.”
Unlike the main office, the Warsaw bureau had no television and no radio.
Surtel recalled driving seven miles to his parents’ house to watch the news before returning to a surreal scene, as he returned from an unsuccessful attempt to interview people downtown.
“There was no traffic on the streets of Warsaw whatsoever,” he said. “It was like a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode. I literally walked down the middle of the street in bright blue skies and sunshine back to the office.”
At the main office in Batavia, stunned silence, tears and disbelief.
“I remember Mark (Graczyk, managing editor at the time) saying ‘This is it. We’re under attack,’” said former staff writer Roger DuPuis, now news editor at the Times-Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.. “Despite all this, there was a calmness in the newsroom. Mark’s feeling was that we had to get a paper out.”
The Daily News was then a paper with a mid-morning deadline.
“The most dramatic moment for me,” DuPuis recalled, was when the television was on and the towers fell and Dirk (Hoffman, editor) came over and turned off the television and said we had work to do.”
Later, at a morning news meeting, Hoffman would tell staff that “I think we all know what we are going to be doing for the next months or years of our lives.”
Graczyk, who recently began a semi-retirement at the Watertown Daily Times, was at his desk working on the day’s edition when a former reporter called to say a plane hit one of the Twin Towers.
“My first thought was that it was a tragic accident,” Graczyk said. “I had remembered reading about an incident during World War II when a large plane hit the Empire State Building. But that had been on a dark, foggy day. I then checked the news wire and we turned on the newsroom TV. The first reports were coming in. I remember seeing the initial shocking video showing massive plumes of dark smoke rising from the tower.
“Then another plane hit the second tower. For a moment, my mind still refused to accept that this was anything but a series of unfortunate accidents. Then one of our editors (Dirk) said it had to be a terrorist attack. My disbelieving mind was finally jolted to reality.
“The rest of the morning was a blur.”
Graczk’s wife, Meg, called to share in the sorrow and disbelief. Then, it was back to work as “both towers disintegrated and crashed to the ground,” Graczyk said.
“Then the Pentagon attack and reports of a plane going down in a Pennsylvania field,” he recalled. “A mind-numbing acceptance set in.
“Then there was the small matter of putting together a paper. We reworked our front page and managed to get the main stories and photos in. We might have missed deadline by a few minutes but that was the least of our concerns.”
The lead story on the front page – which was originally a report from a meeting about the future of the city police department – changed two or three times as updates about the attacks came in, each one gaining more prominence on the front page until about 30 minutes after the usual deadline and the page was finally sent to the press.
While papers across the country with early morning deadlines would issue special editions in the afternoon, the Sept. 11, 2001, front page of The Daily News included news of the morning’s attacks. But the work was just beginning.
“After deadline, we had an editorial board meeting and began planning for the next day’s edition, including a special section,” Graczyk said. “And that’s how it was for days after that.”
Tom Turnbull was assistant publisher at the time. He was in his office listening to WBFO radio and NPR when reports of a plane hitting the tower filtered in.
“This was big,” he said. “More reports were coming in. One thing I remember was, the calmness and professionalism in our office. Everybody was focused on what we were doing. There was crying but it was quiet. Everyone did their work. It was impressive.”
The Daily News increased the amount of papers it printed for that day and for many more days to come as people gobbled up any news they could. It was, as Turnbull said, “The last Golden Age of newspapers,” before the internet and online news sites.
For the rest of the day, reporters hit the streets, talking to anyone they could in an effort to fill the next day’s edition.
“Traffic was remarkably light,” DuPuis recalled. “There weren’t many people out. Everyone was just stunned. It was hard to separate emotion from out job. It was hard not to feel very much one with everyone. There is a certain amount of detachment that you build over the years. You have to when it comes to covering stories. Covering Melissa Vincent’s funeral Mass, that was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever dealt with. Everyone, including myself, was crying. It was a gut-wrenching moment.”
At day’s end, reporters returned home and began to digest what had happened that sunny, late-summer morning.
Surtel bought a tuna sub from Subway, went home and turned on the television.
“I woke up and the news stories (from the beginning of the day) were just trivial,” he said. “The big story, I think, was Michael Jordan returning to the Washington Wizards. After a long day like that, it was 7 p.m. and I turned on the TV and the shopping networks were showing funeral images and saying ‘due to the tragedy of today’s events, we are off the air,’ I turned on BBC to see what foreign news was showing and they were talking about combat air patrols over the United States, and you’re sitting there alone and you think, from what the day began as, and what it ended as, we are in an entirely new paradigm. And we were.”
Ben Beagle, then the lifestyles editor, recalled the frequent changes to the front page – something that seldom happened as deadline approached – and how staff stepped in where needed and worked into the evening. But getting home, the story didn’t ease into the background.
“At the end of the day, it was still on TV, images were being replayed and you start to decompress,” recalled Beagle, now managing editor. “But you can’t because you have a hard time fathoming what you just saw, what you’ve read. It’s not something you thought possible, not something you thought would be reality. Yet, it became reality for months and, for some, for the last 20 years.”