I spent much of the year after 9/11 writing about the impact of that terrorist attack. I was a national correspondent for the Omaha World-Herald. The nation’s only academic center for Afghanistan studies was at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and I wrote dozens of stories about our city’s involvement with Afghanistan before and after the attack.
A story that stands out in my memory was part of our first anniversary package. I wrote about the day before the attack, 10 years ago today. Today, I’ll review that story, published Sept. 10, 2002, discussing the storytelling techniques involved.
A cliché about reporting (and many aspects of life: I got 57,000 hits when I Googled to see where to attribute the phrase) is that you zig when others zag. On the first anniversary of 9/11, everyone was writing stories about that day a year earlier, just as journalists this week have been writing and broadcasting stories about that day 10 years ago. That was zagging. I wanted to zig, to write about something else. So I wrote about the day before:
The big change for many in the Omaha area that day was the closing of the westbound lanes on the Interstate 480 bridge across the Missouri River.
The next day everything changed.
For the generations that will never forget the day that has become known as 9/11, Sept. 10, 2001, was just another day. The day before.
As the 19 terrorists prepared their deadly attack, people in the Midlands pursued the mundane and profound activities of everyday life.
People worked that Monday. Roberts Dairy bottled 110,000 gallons of milk. Carlson Hospitality Worldwide fielded 14,932 calls and made 4,798 hotel reservations at its Omaha reservation center. Workers prepared exhibits for the next day’s opening of Husker Harvest Days in Grand Island and the Omaha Products Show at the Civic Auditorium.
I decided early in the story that I wanted to gather as many measures as I could of mundane everyday life in and around Omaha. Someone whose name I’ve forgotten discussed at a workshop sometime the cinematic technique of mixing the long shot with the close-up. The italic passages in the story became the long shots, the daily routine. Between long shots, I would get up close with people who had interesting things going on that day.
Gary Schwendiman decided to attend a meeting in Washington that Monday, rather than spend the first few days of the week at his firm’s new office in the World Trade Center.
Schwendiman and his son, Todd, run Schwendiman Partners, a Lincoln investment firm. They had opened a new international office in June 2001 on the 78th floor of the north tower.
Rather than working in New York that week, Gary Schwendiman decided to attend the board meeting in Washington of Everest Funds Management, a mutual fund led by Omaha businessman Vin Gupta. After the meeting, Schwendiman played golf at Burning Tree Club in Bethesda, Md. He flew home late that evening on Gupta’s jet.
Todd Schwendiman worked past midnight in his tower office. “Todd locked the office up in New York about the time my head hit the pillow in Lincoln,” Gary recalled.
I don’t recall how I learned about the Schwendimans, probably from a story a colleague had written in the weeks after 9/11. I decided early in the process of doing this story that the close-ups here would largely be accounts of 9/10 of people with close connections to 9/11.
People played that Monday. Papillion-La Vista beat Omaha Burke, 20-13, in football.
Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, was the morning speaker at the Loveland Golden K Kiwanis. He told the club of the threat of al-Qaida. Not that Gouttierre foresaw the next day’s attack. But he had followed the group’s activities as a U.N. senior political affairs officer in 1996 and 1997.
In Gouttierre’s Sept. 10 speech, Golden K Kiwanis members heard a preview of hundreds of interviews Gouttierre would grant in the weeks ahead. He told about the “unholy alliance” among Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban regime, al-Qaida, Pakistan’s intelligence service and Muslim extremists in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Gouttierre also received disturbing news that day, that Ahmed Shah Massood, leader of the Northern Alliance forces that were fighting the Taliban, had been attacked. Gouttierre immediately saw the hand of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in the attack. Initial news reports did not say whether Massood survived.
Gouttierre assumed correctly that this meant he was dead.
Also that day, Gouttierre prepared for the weekly three-hour lecture in his Tuesday international studies class. His scheduled lecture topic for Sept. 11 was international terrorism.
I had conducted dozens of Gouttierre’s hundreds of interviews after 9/11 (and he continued to be a key source until I left Omaha in 2005). I learned in my 9/11 interview with Gouttierre, or possibly the next day, about the assassination of Massood. I had written about that before, and as soon as I decided to write about 9/10, I knew I would need to work him into the story (he appears again later). I also learned sometime during the year that Gouttierre had scheduled a lecture on international terrorism for 9/11.
As I recall, I had some nice details about his prep for the lecture and/or the Kiwanis speech that I cut for space. This section probably would have worked better with another detail or two.
People spent money that Monday. The Omaha data center of First Data Resources processed 21,852,530 credit card transactions. Almost 700 people visited Borsheims. First National Bank processed 2.1 million merchant transactions.
I made a point of including lots of leading Omaha businesses and institutions and lots of statistics in these italic long shots. I’m not sure why I didn’t include the Nebraska Furniture Mart, which is Omaha’s best-known store, if Borsheims isn’t. Might have been an oversight on my part, or perhaps I tried and Nebraska Furniture Mart couldn’t or wouldn’t provide figures for its business that day.
Fire Capt. Rick Klein spent Sept. 10 making last-minute preparations for a class that members of Lincoln’s urban search and rescue team would take the next day. Klein is logistics manager of the team, which specializes in working in the unstable debris of fallen buildings.
The team’s class scheduled for the next day was the “Structural Collapse Technician Course.” Before the end of the month, the Lincoln crew would be sifting the wreckage of the largest structural collapse ever.
Again, I think I learned about the search and rescue team’s course from a colleague’s story. This was one of many examples of the leading challenge of this story: 9/11 was such an overwhelming experience that it wiped out specific memories of the day before. Think about it: 10 years later, you can still recall specific details of Sept. 11, 2001. But how much do you remember about Sept. 10 last year? I was able to get the basic and interesting detail that Klein was preparing for this class the next day. But his recollections of Sept. 10 were not as detailed as his accounts of helping with search and rescue at the World Trade Center, which we had already reported.
People got in trouble that Monday. Omaha police filed 337 incident reports.
Creighton University economist Ernie Goss was attending the annual meeting of the National Association for Business Economics, at the Marriott Hotel in the World Trade Center.
Friday evening, Goss had dined with his wife, Jackie, at the Windows on the World restaurant atop the north tower. He remembers the spectacular view of Manhattan.
On Sunday, Goss had read a research paper at the conference. His paper on the Internet’s impact on productivity won a competition, for which Goss received a plaque at Monday night’s awards dinner.
Goss drank too much coffee and didn’t sleep well that night. He changed plans to catch an early flight out of town. He left the Marriott less than six hours before it would collapse under the debris of the towers.
Before Goss would make it back to Creighton Wednesday night, the association sent out another plaque, assuming the original was lost in the catastrophe.
I think this was a 9/11 near miss that we hadn’t reported before (it’s been a long time; I could be wrong). My wife, Mimi, worked at Creighton and I may have learned of his 9/10 story through her.
People ailed and healed that Monday. Seventy patients underwent surgery at Nebraska Health System hospitals in Omaha, and 144 patients visited the emergency room.
Gov. Mike Johanns visited the College of St. Mary in the morning and held a press conference on health-care grants. After returning to Lincoln, he hosted a delegation of visitors from Peru.
At the governor’s mansion that evening, Johanns dined with visiting California officials, interested in expanded use of ethanol to help cut air pollution.
I thought I should include the governor (who later became agriculture secretary and is now a senator) in the story, but Johanns didn’t recall 9/10 in any notable detail. I probably should have cut this section.
People flew that Monday. Thirty airplanes took off and landed at Offutt Air Force Base.
I presume I also tried to get the number of flights into and out of Eppley Airfield, Omaha’s airport, that day, but they wouldn’t release them. If I just didn’t try, that was a huge oversight, given the importance of commercial flight to the 9/11 story.
Tomsen, a retired ambassador and UNO’s ambassador-in-residence, worked unofficially to bring together various Afghan exiles, hoping to lay the groundwork for a post-Taliban government.
While they were meeting, the king was stunned to receive word that Massood, the Northern Alliance leader whom Tomsen had met in June, had been attacked in Tajikistan.
Tomsen won the king’s support for an office to promote a loya jirga, Afghanistan’s traditional national assembly. That evening, Tomsen worked on winning similar support from royal relatives he thought were undermining the unity effort. He took six of them to dinner at an Italian seafood restaurant.
The bill came to about $300.
I had also interviewed Tomsen many times since 9/11, both in his office and in his home (I later interviewed him after he left UNO at his home in McLean, Va.). I knew that he had been visiting the king the day before 9/11, so I knew all along he would be in this story. The only question was where to put him and how much to use. He actually was flying back to Omaha on 9/11 and his plane had to land in Canada when U.S. flights were grounded. Tomsen was featured recently on The Daily Show, discussing his new book, The Wars of Afghanistan.
People governed that Monday. The Council Bluffs City Council approved an $8,000 pay raise for Mayor Tom Hanafan. The Bellevue school board approved a $7,200 pay raise for Superintendent John Deegan. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials in Omaha interviewed about 40 immigrants applying for naturalization or seeking a change in status.
Steve Beumler, an Omaha account executive with ACI Worldwide, was originally supposed to fly into New York’s LaGuardia Airport, but a connection mix-up sent him to Newark International Airport.
He needed to be in downtown New York for a business meeting at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
A downpour as he walked to a Manhattan restaurant soaked Beumler’s pants to his knees. He sat through a steak dinner at Harry’s of Hanover Square with soggy socks and shoes.
After dinner, he went back to the hotel and hung up his wet clothes in the bathroom. He made notes for his business meeting and went to bed.
Again, I think I learned of Beumler from a colleague. As I recall, he and some others in this story (perhaps the Schwendimans) were featured in stories the next day, detailing their 9/11 experiences.
People learned that Monday. Attendance at Omaha Public Schools was 46,065. Parents attended open houses at magnet schools in the evening.
Kerrey, who trimmed the umbilical cord, remembers thinking, “he’s alive and he’s healthy and he’s beautiful.”
Kerrey was perhaps the most prominent former Nebraskan, a former governor, senator and presidential candidate. He later served on the 9/11 Commission. I would have called him for his recollections, even if we didn’t know about the nice coincidence of his wife giving birth.
People built that Monday. Construction crews at the First National Tower installed the gas main to the 37th level and water lines from the 24th to 34th level.
At the West Center Chapel in Omaha, family and friends of Luella Stebbins gathered to remember and mourn. Her funeral would be Sept. 11 at 10:30 a.m. A native of Center, Neb., she had died Sept. 6 in Des Moines of Wegener’s granulomatosis.
That night, her 13-year-old grandson, Kyle Stebbins of Lincoln, posted a Web site paying tribute to his grandmother.
From the first, I wanted to work birth and death into the story, because people are born and die every day. Kerrey gave me a prominent birth to use. I wanted to use a more routine death (or maybe I just liked the contrast and didn’t have someone prominent locally who died that day). With so much focus — rightly — on the tragedies of 9/11, I knew the 9/10 story needed to note a more private tragedy. I wish I’d included more details here. Might have trimmed it too severely, or maybe I didn’t do a good enough job of reporting.
People toured that Monday. The Henry Doorly Zoo had 1,780 visitors.
Again, I’m not sure why I separated the italicized routine paragraph about Offutt from the upcoming passage. In retrospect, I think juxtaposition would have been better.
At Strategic Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, Adm. Richard Mies directed an annual training exercise. Bombers, missile crews and submarines around the country and off U.S. shores followed orders from StratCom’s command bunker as the Global Guardian exercise began its second scheduled week.
The exercise would end abruptly the next morning. By afternoon, President Bush was in the bunker.
Of course, we needed to include Offutt in this story. And, of course, they wouldn’t give me much.
People were born and died that Monday. The Nebraska Health and Human Services System recorded 87 births and 39 deaths.
Why didn’t I place this between the vignettes about birth and death? Clearly a mistake.
At the Joslyn Art Museum, a noteworthy group of visitors gathered for a dinner in the fountain court and entertainment in the Witherspoon Auditorium by pianist-composer Marvin Hamlisch and tenor Stephen Lehew.
Warren Buffett‘s golf-and-tennis fund-raiser was scheduled for Sept. 11, bringing to Omaha celebrities from sports, entertainment and business. About 70 to 80 of the guests gathered at the Joslyn the evening of Sept. 10.
Susie Buffett, coordinator of her father’s Omaha Classic, recalls people commenting the next day about the final song the musicians performed, Hamlisch’s “One Song.”
The lyrics, uplifting on Monday evening, would echo eerily on Tuesday: “If we all sing one song, one song of love, one song of peace, one song to make all our troubles cease. One hope, one dream, imagine what tomorrow would bring if we all sing one song.”
Of course, I needed to include Warren Buffett, Omaha’s most famous resident, in the story. And I did recall that 9/11 had disrupted his golf tournament. When I learned about the Hamlisch event at the Joslyn the night before, I talked to Susie Buffett. As soon as I heard about this song, and people a year later remembering the lyrics and how haunting they felt the next day, I had to track down the lyrics. I knew this would make the right ending for the story.
Sources: This story is based on interviews with Gary Schwendiman, Todd Schwendiman, Ernie Goss, Thomas Gouttierre, Rick Klein, Mike Johanns, Peter Tomsen, Jim Kanter, Steve Beumler, Bob Kerrey, Wes Stebbins of Lincoln, Strategic Command spokesman Capt. James Taylor and Susie Buffett. Figures were provided by the agencies and businesses cited or came from World-Herald files.
I used this technique frequently in narrative journalism: Rather than clutter up the story with lots of attribution, I would try to narrate in third person and handle the attribution in an umbrella list of sources, either at the end of the story or in an accompanying box.
I added links to this story for this blog post.
As often happens when you analyze a story you loved at the time, I found some things I should have made better. It’s not as good a story as I thought it was. But I think it was a good story idea and reflected some good thought and reporting. I’m still pleased with the result, but wish I had taken another rewriting pass through. Wouldn’t every story improve with nine years’ perspective and growth as a writer?
I’ve read a lot of 9/11 remembrances the past few days, best among them Jeff Jarvis’ and this Steve Hendrix story on Heather Penney, an F-16 pilot who took off on 9/11, ready to take down Flight 93 by colliding with it.
My own reflections of that day probably aren’t worth a separate post, so I will just add them here, because we feel compelled to share our memories of that horrible experience the whole nation shared.
I got to work at the Omaha World-Herald shortly before the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I wrote three stories that day: the lead local impact story for the evening edition; an interview with Dave Rimington, a former Nebraska football player who usually worked in one of the towers but was back in Nebraska that week (can’t recall which edition that one made) and a morning story about airport security.
Our oldest son, Mike, was working in Washington at the time, a young press aide to Sen. Chuck Hagel. Outside the Russell Building after being evacuated, Mike tried to call Mimi on his cell phone but couldn’t get through, Washington’s cell circuits overloaded with calls. He looked up to see several senators and staffers all trying unsuccessfully to use their cell phones. Matt Kelley of the World-Herald’s Washington bureau interviewed Mike in person for our story. After Matt returned to the bureau, he called Omaha on a landline to pass along his contributions to our story. Matt told his editor Mike wanted him to pass along the word to me that Mike was safe.
A few years later, going through family photos, I found some shots we had taken in a 1989 visit to the Statue of Liberty. Usually, I’m struck in such pictures at how much the boys have changed. This time, it was the change in the skyline that brought a lump to my throat.