September 9, 2011

Most of us can recall exactly where we were and what we were doing when we learned 10 years ago that a plane had crashed into a tall building in New York City. I was one of The Post’s two deputy editorial page editors and had just entered my office when a shocked editorial assistant, Terri Sapienza, now a Post staff writer, told me the news.

I turned on the television in my office and we watched together as the horror unfolded. By mid-morning, the fifth floor of The Post, where the newsroom and the editorial department are housed, was humming. For a while, we did what Americans across the country were doing: All eyes were glued to the TV, with occasional breaks to place calls to check on family and friends. Busy signals and rumors of impending attacks fed the anxiety taking hold in the building and across the city.

Soon, downtown Washington started to empty as workers abandoned the federal enclave, heading for home.

At The Post, however, our calling kicked in. We had a newspaper to get out, and we had to double down: publish a special Sept. 11 edition for immediate distribution and a paper for the morning after.

Editorial writing, as with news reporting, means writing on deadline. There’s nothing quite like witnessing a sea of people, phones at their ears, eyes fixed on computer screens, typing away, even as the world around them heads for the hills. That was the scene on the fifth floor.

To this day, I can’t recall how editorial page editor Fred Hiatt went about assigning writing duties. I know we produced an editorial for the special edition, headlined simply “War.” We published two editorials for Sept. 12, headlined “September 11, 2001” and “Washington’s Response.” I wrote the latter.

Images were fixed in our heads: the twin towers at the World Trade Center collapsing; smoke rising from the gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon. Strolling toward Lafayette Square shortly after noon, I was struck by how quiet the District had become. It was eerie. We had the look of a city under siege. The sight of a heavily armed soldier, stationed at Vermont Avenue and H Street NW to defend a cordoned-off White House, made its own statement on the day.

But it was the acts of heroism by rescue and relief workers at the Pentagon, the quick swing into action by fire and ambulance services, and the mass flight from a sudden and frightful act of terrorism that inspired “Washington’s Response.”

We had digested the horrible fact that the attacks had done far more than wreak destruction on planes and buildings. Men, women and children by the thousands had paid a terrible price for the murderous acts of the morning.

So you sit at a computer screen and think about all you have seen in the past few hours. You know that, at the very moment you are thinking of words and composing sentences, people are streaming out of town by car and on foot, airports and train stations are closing, and important people like the ones seen in the House chamber during State of the Union addresses are being spirited away to undisclosed locations.

And you are uncertain what the world will look like when The Post hits the street the next day.

But the screen is empty and the keyboard is waiting, and so you do what you were hired to do: write. It seemed important to say something about the physical destruction just witnessed.

The editorial said: “True, important structures, symbols and icons of American military and financial power were damaged and lost in yesterday’s attacks in Washington, New York City and in the skies over America. In time, those buildings will be restored or replaced.”

Indeed, the damaged wing of the Pentagon has been rebuilt, and a memorial and new World Trade Center tower are coming out of the ground. The editorial also took stock of the human damage in Washington, New York and the crash site in Pennsylvania.

And something needed to be said to mass murderers lurking overseas.

“But despite the cruelty of the hour, the explosions, smoke and fire, and the hastily arranged veil of security over Washington’s senior officials, the capital region,” the editorial said, “was not brought to its knees.”

It ended on a note of confidence and determination: “Yes, there was confusion and emotional trauma — how could there not have been? — but people in the area did not give in to full-scale panic. That alone denied the terrorists the victory they sought. And it revealed a core of strength in our region that will prepare us for whatever may come next.”

Ten years later, that strength, I believe, is still here.

kingc@washpost.com