A former New York Times editor and current communications consultant for Kansas State University says she heard the impact of the first plane as it struck the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Susan Edgerley was the deputy metro editor for The New York Times on 9-11. She said she oversaw a staff of about 150 reporters and editors covering a tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. She said she was at home in Brooklyn when she heard a “loud noise like a truck going over a steel plate in the road.”
“My neighbor called me to say they had seen what they thought was a small plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center,” Edgerley said. “People at first thought it was pilot error. I got off the phone with her and started to call my reporters, but I couldn’t raise anyone.”
Edgerley said more experienced NY Times reporters — and journalists in general — know to go to the scene of an emergency and not necessarily check in with the news desk before going. She said she jumped on the “F” subway train and crossed over into Manhattan just before the subway system was shut down.
“I got off at Times Square, of course,” Edgerley said. “By the time I got into the newsroom, both towers had been hit but none had fallen.”
Edgerley said it was election season at the time, and the command center she had set up for area election coverage ended up being used for World Trade Center updates. She said reporters were calling in and dictating their stories to editors and other journalists in the newsroom.
“We worked from that morning until about 3 a.m. the next day, because this was still before the web,” Edgerley said. “When the presses stopped running you could go home. We worked every day for the next 30 days.”
Edgerley, who retired from the Times in 2016 after 27 years with the newspaper, lives on the west coast now and consults on communication strategies for K-State remotely. A 1976 K-State graduate, Edgerley was most recently the professional-in-residence in the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism. She said she was asked to deliver a Huck Boyd Series lecture for the university several years after the events of 9-11.
“It was easy for me to talk about it in the perspective of the lecture,” Edgerley said. “For the metro desk, it was a local story, for us it was local news. New Yorkers went missing in those towers, there was a disaster downtown to cover, and we had the staff to do it.”
Edgerley said there was only one reporter who was not pulled from their investigative assignment on adult care facilities to cover the events of 9/11.
“We won seven Pulitzers for our coverage that year, including one for the reporter who was covering adult homes,” Edgerley said.
Edgerley said the Times became renowned for its series of 150-word profiles on the victims of the 9-11 terror attacks called “Portraits of Grief.” The series is now an archived feature on the Times website.
“We decided early on that we wouldn’t write them as obituaries, but more as the defining characteristics that identifies the person,” Edgerley said. “Maybe he was a Yankees fan, or she sewed baby blankets for the neighborhood. You really learned the essence of how people leave their mark in life.”
Edgerley said the “victim” story stayed in the idea phase for three days without being written “because we didn’t know who these people were.”
“There was no list of dead coming from police or hospitals,” Edgerley said. “A reporter came to me and said, ‘There’s a victims list, but some of these missing posters… that’s the list of victims, those are the names we have to get.’”
Edgerley said the task of sharing victims’ stories came “from a place of empathy.”
“We weren’t asking people how devastated they were, which sometimes can offend family members,” Edgerley said. “We were asking them to tell us about the person they lost.”
Edgerley said it was a “very brilliant, blue, gorgeous morning” on September 11, 2001. The vibrancy of an early fall day was later clouded by dust and smoke from the Twin Towers collapsing and burning. She said it was her son’s first day of middle school, and her babysitter tried to take her then four-year old daughter to a park but came home “because there was so much soot and smoke in the air.”
“We had soot on the steps of our little brownstone house just from the wind picking up debris and soot from ground zero,” Edgerley said.
Edgerley said people “couldn’t get anywhere” because of the attacks on the World Trade Center, as well as on the Pentagon and the United Flight 93 plane crash in rural Pennsylvania that same morning. She said one NY Times editor lost his brother in the Pentagon attack but refused to go home until that day’s coverage was finished. She said one detail that sticks out to her was all the full sheets of paper that fell from the towers and littered the city.
“One reporter called me and said, ‘There’s paper everywhere,’ because they were offices,” Edgerley said. “So, we did a story on the papers that were everywhere. The scene was something that no one had ever experienced before.”
Edgerley said, even 20 years later, she has never been to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum where the Twin Towers once stood.
“It’s very beautiful and was executed very well I think, and I’ve thought of going down there… but I’m still not comfortable with it,” Edgerley said.
“I’m not a police officer or a firefighter, I’m an editor who spent most of that time directing others from the office. I’m certainly not in a position like the heroes of 9-11, for sure, but I’m just not quite ready to do that.”
Edgerley said covering the tragedy as a journalist taught her a lot “about the individual heroism of everyday people.”
“The way families came together and handled an extreme tragedy was humbling and inspiring to be sure,” Edgerley said.