From the archives: Sept. 11, 2001, was a press day for many of the nation’s alt-weeklies, and Willamette Week was no different. What follows is the feature story WW published on Sept. 12, which collected dispatches from friends and colleagues back east and gleaned impressions of those closer to home, from Mayor Vera Katz to street musician Alonzo Volcano.
We woke up Tuesday morning just like everyone else, to radio and television reports so terrifying as to be unbelievable. The morning paper was irrelevant, breakfast was tasteless and the coffee seemed unusually bitter. Along with its staggering implications for America, the catastrophe in New York, Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania field posed a special challenge for local journalists. On the one hand, we’re trained to gather information, place it in context and present it to readers. On the other hand, the scale of the morning’s events seemed impossible to take in.
In downtown Portland, we watched as the huge American flag was unfurled from the Meier & Frank building. We puzzled over why it was considered unsafe to sell coffee (Starbucks closed all its stores nationwide) yet appropriate to sell guns (Keith’s Sporting Goods in Gresham was open as usual).
In the end, we selected the stories that follow, monitoring a local press corps as it struggled with firm deadlines and squishy information and checking in with civil libertarians and Arab Americans preparing for a likely backlash. We also collected dispatches from friends and colleagues back east and gleaned impressions of those closer to home, from Mayor Vera Katz to street musician Alonzo Volcano. It’s our attempt to provide some insight into a tragedy physically far removed from us, yet emotionally and psychologically a heartbeat away.
Gov. John Kitzhaber got the call, from the Oregon State Police, at about 7 am. A briefing was hastily scheduled for 8:30 at Mahonia Hall to assess the situation on the East Coast and its potential effect on state operations. Those in attendance at the briefing included three Kitzhaber aides, a top state police official and Col. Mike Caldwell of the Oregon National Guard.
The first decision to be made was whether to close state government. After reviewing information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the governor determined that the risk in Oregon was minimal, and state buildings stayed open with heightened security.
“When we look at state office buildings, we have to ask, ‘What kind of national attention would be gained attacking the state motor pool?’” says David White, the administrator of the state facilities division.
“You have to factor in probability. The state of Oregon contains a small percentage of the country’s population, so there are few places anyone could attack here that would make a material difference.”
Still, it was not exactly business as usual in Salem. Barry Pack, a top Democratic Senate staffer, says most state workers spent the day with their eyes glued to one of the dozens of televisions in the building. “It was pretty grim,” he said, during a pre-lunch phone interview.
At about 12:20 pm, however, the uneasy calm that pervaded the state Capitol building was broken when an anonymous caller from a pay phone in downtown Salem dialed 911 with a bomb threat. A brief evacuation followed, but a sweep revealed nothing.
Clearly, someone just wanted to get in on the media hype, right?
Don’t be so sure, says Portland psychiatrist Ronald Turco. He says anyone who would make such a call is suffering from a larger pathology than just wanting 15 minutes of infamy.
“They tend to have difficulty in society,” says Turco, president-elect of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis. “They’re troublemakers. They take advantage of this, especially when the governor and the mayor say there is nothing to worry about. They say, ‘I’ll show you.” --Patty Wentz
Rock and Rap Radio Respond
While the city’s news reporters went after the kind of big story they’ve spent their careers training for, on Tuesday morning music radio stations had to ditch their scripts and wing it.
The rapier wit the morning DJ on KNRK usually unleashes to spar with co-host Gustav, guests and listeners was blunted. As the news unfolded about the attacks, both DJs on 94.7 FM talked openly about their family members in Manhattan, culminating with a live broadcast of the phone call from Daria’s mother letting her know that her brother in New York was safe.
Hard news with international consequence is not the usual fare for this morning drive-time program aimed at men and women draft age and younger. Yet Daria & Gustav made the switch with admirable aplomb.
While neither DJ has any journalism training, each was careful to avoid spreading unfounded rumors while updating news of the attacks. As the situation back East proved more and more serious, the station stepped up its coverage. At about 6:15 am, producer Nik Miles dropped all guests from the show. At 7 am, in an unprecedented move, the station cut all commercials and music.
The folks at KXJM, the hip-hop and R&B station at 95.5 FM, were also scrambling. The morning show “The Playhouse” switched gears from frivolity to focus. The station used a street team that usually passes out promos at curbside to report from various spots in Portland, including the Red Cross and Portland International Airport. A report about a pregnant woman at the airport feeling some contractions seemed a little over-the-top, but the station’s offer to pick up her hotel-room tab, when the airline refused, appeared genuine.
While the Jammin’ 95.5 jockeys should have cut commercials (a raucous ad for a wet T-shirt contest seemed particularly tasteless), overall they switched into news-station mode with ease. As one caller said, “You guys usually lampoon everything, but considering the gravity of the situation you’re really doing a good job. Big ups to the Playhouse.” --Caryn B. Brooks
The Disaster Will Be Televised
Mark Hendricks, an early-morning anchor for KOIN-TV, had just begun his morning broadcast Tuesday when it happened. At about 5:45 am, the powers that be at CBS broke into the middle of co-anchor Reed Coleman’s report on President Bush’s return to Washington and took control of the signal, a rare event indicating that the network’s national news program had a story of overwhelming importance.
As CBS morning news anchor Bryant Gumbel narrated the unfolding scene at the World Trade Center, Hendricks checked the monitors tuned to the other local stations, but they hadn’t yet picked up the story. Then, turning back to the CBS monitor, Hendricks saw the second plane crash into the tower--an experience he said compared only to the 1986 Challenger explosion broadcast live to a national audience.
The second plane crash meant the end of local morning news in Portland. Hendricks was pulled off the anchor desk and sent out to Portland International Airport.
At other TV news shops, the scene was repeated in the various hurry- up-and- wait missions that often mark national disasters. Here are a few observations:
* In general, restraint was the order of the local morning- news coverage. Little of the outrageous commentary and speculation flying through cyberspace made it to the airwaves. Sappy editorializing was kept to a minimum.
* Local news was well-covered. KGW was the most efficient in relaying Portland information (where to donate blood, news from PDX, etc.) in banners scrolling at the bottom of the screen during network coverage.
* Despite all the talk of the power of the Internet, television proved once again that it is the most compelling medium in times like these. -Byron Beck
Notes from New York
The following is an email dispatch from Lew Lieberman, a lawyer who works in the office of the Brooklyn District Attorney, to a friend at WW.
12 noon EST This is unbelievable. This is a state of war, very scary, very horrifying. People in the streets crying, wailing, hysterical. Very little, almost no traffic, and the constant wail of sirens. No one honking their horns, very un-NY. Most saw the second plane hit, as everyone was watching the WTC because of the first explosion, which shook my apartment, and was an incredibly loud boom.
Smoke is covering everything, although it is lifting a bit now. I cannot see anything across the river, although before the 1st collapse (using binoculars) could actually see fire coming out of the upper floors, and people hysterically waving their arms pleading for help. There were reportedly many jumpers, although TV only showed a couple.
1:11 pm I’ll tell you what I can tell you--witnessing this, and seeing the second plane hit, and being in the middle of a war zone, makes me think life will never be the same. We’re starting to hear about some of the dead being brought into local hospitals, including children.
War ships coming into the Harbor, but I don’t find that comforting. America has never been attacked like this. Radio says that tomorrow is the sentencing date for Bin-Laden’s colleague from the 1993 terrorist bombing, yet Bin-Laden is denying responsibility.
I spoke with a good friend at 10:15--his sister works in the WTC, was supposed to be at work at 8:30, but she was late because she was putting icing on her sister’s birthday cake for the surprise birthday party tonight. So she’s alive, although hysterical.
I’m fine, but then when I get through by phone to a loved one, I break into tears. I’m not in touch with exactly why yet, but it’s very emotional.
I’m going out to the street now to the blood bank, we’ll get back to you.
2:38 pm I just found out that Mike, a friend of mine works in the WTC, can’t be found, I left messages at work, home etc.
I can’t even get into the blood bank--Hundreds of caring, impotent NYers crowding in. A friend just walked 7 miles from his midtown trading desk back to Brooklyn and his family. He said Manhattan is all zombies--sounds like London in ‘39--nobody’s joking, no jostling, no arguing. People bursting into tears. An orderly line as he and thousands of others crossed over the East River on the new pedestrian walkway of the Manhattan Bridge--total evacuation below Canal Street; cannot get into Manhattan. I’m real, real scared about my friend Mike...hopefully he slept late.
I’m at work--no arrests coming in--even the bad guys are in a state of shock. I’m not even thinking about possible looting. Guess I’ll go walk around and feel a sense of community. Being with others is tough though, because then you’re forced to face reality. Watching CNN almost feels safer, because it’s on TV. Then you walk outside, and see the damage.
Two of our Detectives just walked into my office and said there are many, many police and fire personnel dead at the scene, and they’re saying that obviously they planned the second plane to hit when all the rescue personnel would already be on the scene. I also just heard that a friend’s sister made it out of the 84th floor, walking all the way down to safety. I don’t have any other details.
I just heard that Mike is OK. Thank you God.
If Pearl Harbor was a Day that Will Live in Infamy, what the hell does that make this day--what is the meaning of today?
Keeping to the Lesson Plan
Pat Burk says it was an easy call.
At 6:50 Tuesday morning, Portland Public Schools officials decided that despite the closure of federal buildings and PDX, schools would open as scheduled. The decision was an easy one, says Burk, the district’s deputy superintendent. “Our first concern was student safety,” says Burk, who is in charge of emergency response for the district. “When Portland police assured us that there were no indications that the events on the East Coast were a direct threat to Portland or the schools, we decided to remain open,” Burk explains. “Maintaining stability and normalcy are important to children. You want to communicate to children that the world is not falling apart.”
Throughout the morning, Superintendent Jim Scherzinger, Burk and district communications staffers sent a series of emails, voicemails and faxes to principals and teachers at the district’s nearly 100 buildings, offering help and suggesting ways to reassure students. Among the pieces of advice given to schools: Acknowledge the tragedy; share facts as they become known; watch for signs of stress and make counselors and school psychologists available for small-group and individual counseling; encourage students to express sympathy and concern through art and written work.
Burk says relatively few parents have called district headquarters; so have three cranks, one of whom suggested killing all foreigners. “One basic message for kids is that we don’t know who did this,” Burk says. “We want to defuse any racial or cultural overtones.” As for concerns about exposure to breaking news and website commentary, Burk says that students can only access the Internet under a teacher’s supervision.
While all other metro-area public districts, as well as Catlin Gabel and Central Catholic, remained open Tuesday, Jesuit and St. Mary’s high schools both closed.
St. Mary’s principal Pat Barr told WW that both global and practical concerns led her to send students home at 8:40 am after a brief assembly and prayer. “The decision was made because our nation is in a state of crisis,” Barr says. She adds that the proximity of federal office buildings to St. Mary’s campus, which is located at 1615 SW 5th Ave., also informed her decision. (Jesuit officials could not be reached for comment)
The big issue for parents and students all across the city will be how to comprehend the events that shook the nation on Tuesday. “I was at a complete loss as a parent,” says Portland School Board vice-chair Karla Wenzel, whose first-grade daughter Madeline peppered her with questions. “What do I say to her?” Wenzel asks rhetorically. “How much is too much?” Wenzel praised district officials’ handling of Tuesday’s events, but, like parents across the city, she faces the task of explaining the inexplicable. “I just told her that something really awful happened and that I couldn’t tell her any more,” Wenzel says. “I’m worried that she’ll go to school and hear things on the playground that she doesn’t understand.” --Nigel Jaquiss
There’s a sense of surrealism that sets in at news of catastrophe--even one 2,500 miles away. Downtown Portland was eerily quiet Tuesday. A lone patron snacked in the Anne Hughes Coffee Shop at Powell’s; MAX passengers sat in stunned silence. The clerks in the Men’s Wearhouse on Broadway played cards and watched television--not a customer in sight.
Yet, as the late-morning sun rose higher, routine took over for some. As office workers strode down the sidewalk nursing iced lattes, Joseph Garcia paused at a bench in Pioneer Square. “I thank the Lord we’ve been spared--so far!” he said.
A homeless man who identified himself as Orca said he learned about the disaster while breakfasting on hamburger and hash browns at the Portland Rescue Mission. “I was kind of shocked,” he said. “But some people cheered. Some of them, they don’t like the United States government.”
Street musician Alonzo Volcano, 52, caught the Amtrak up from L.A. two days ago. He heard reports about the bombings from another musician, but wasn’t certain they were true. Assured that an attack had taken place, his eyes narrowed. “I’m shocked,” he said. “I’d like to have something more profound to say. But I’m in shock.”
Wrapping burritos for hungry customers at Honkin’ Huge Burritos, Rachael Melcher and Kahlil Aisha kept the radio tuned to the latest news. Melcher leaned about the attack at 8 am, when a friend called her. “I thought she was just kidding around,” Melcher said. But the report was no joke.
By noon, the mood of the city began to shift. Earlier, the airport and federal buildings had been shut down, but now even malls--including Washington Square and Pioneer Place--shut their doors.
“What we’re seeing is buildings stepping up security--locking down loading bays, code access for elevators,” said Robin White, executive vice-president of the Portland Building Owners and Managers Association.
With air travel halted, the Portland Amtrak station bustled but maintained a somber tone as overnight train passengers belatedly learned of the tragedy on the East Coast. Robert and Vikki Campbell, traveling from Montana’s Glacier National Park back to their home in California, first heard the news from a fellow passenger listening to a Walkman.
“I didn’t believe it until I heard it from more people,” said Robert, scanning the afternoon edition of The Oregonian. “It’s so surreal, it’s such a huge event, it’s hard to believe it could ever happen.”
Multnomah Bible College student Brian Ingrahm, who commutes by train from his home in Seattle, was on his way to class when he walked by a room of people glued to a television screen. “I saw pictures of the building and the smoke. I got a feeling of this void, this emptiness, like someone has hit me in the stomach.”
—Chris Lydgate, Kim Nowacki, Joe Henkin, Colleen McGraw
A Terror Primer
After Tuesday’s events, the authors of a few recent books on America and terrorism have been thrust from the position of theorists to that of Cassandras.
Philip B. Heymann’s Terrorism and America, recognizes that the “New Terrorism” age began with the first bombing of the World Trade Center in February 1993. Though Heymann maps out some practical means to thwart such acts (better intelligence-gathering and beefed-up airport security), he remains certain that reason and thoughtfulness can win the day--an optimism that after Tuesday’s events may be in short supply. Heymann also draws an interesting parallel between one of the original World Trade bombers, Mahmud Abu Halima, and Timothy McVeigh: Both had the benefit of U.S. Army training, a recurring theme throughout these books.
Jessica Stern’s The Ultimate Terrorist (Harvard, 2000, $15.95) shares many of Heymann’s theories but is sharply critical of the traditional approach to combating terrorists: “Ballistic missiles are the least likely method of delivery (of destructive devices), and yet Congress regularly allocates more money to ballistic-missile defense than the Pentagon says it can use.” Stern finished her book before W.’s exhumation of the Star Wars boondoggle, so her analysis may be even more accurate today.
Laurie Mylroie’s Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War Against America makes a case for Hussein’s involvement with the first World Trade Center bombing and the subsequent actions tied to Osama bin Laden. Mylroie connects dots back through the Gulf War to the U.S. backing of the Afghani Mujahedin in their conflict with the Soviet Union. In other words, both Hussein and bin Laden were past clients of the U.S. military. We have seen the enemy, Mylroie says; they were armed and trained by us. --Steffen Silvis
Fear of Big Brother
Last November, the Portland City Council approved assigning eight police officers to the FBI’s Portland Joint Terrorism Task Force for one year. On Sept. 26, it is scheduled to consider whether to sign on for one more year.
In the past year, however, more than 20 labor unions, environmental organizations and other groups have gone on record opposing the Police Bureau’s participation in the force. As a result, the outcome of that vote has been hard to predict.
But no longer.
“I think the horrific events that we’ve seen today only underscore the need for it,” says Beth Anne Steele, spokesperson for the FBI. “These people committed incredibly violent acts--criminal acts--and that is exactly the kind of thing that we’re trying to stop with these task forces.... Only in Portland, I might add, has there been such an uproar about it.”
City Hall insiders agree that a vote in favor of the bureau’s involvement in the task force is now likely, given the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
A number of activists say their concerns are based less on the anti-terrorism task force than they are on the record of the Portland Police Bureau itself, which has in the past infiltrated peaceful political gatherings and filed reports on individuals who broke no laws but were engaged in simple activism. One example is Dan Handelman, a volunteer with Portland Copwatch, about whom the police concede having filed a report in 1999.
Though shocked by the atrocities of Sept. 11, David Fidanque, head of the Oregon ACLU, says his concerns about Portland’s anti-terrorism task force are only “heightened, because in this kind of atmosphere is often when the greatest civil-liberties abuses occur. If we allow acts of terrorism to be used to erode our core freedoms, the terrorists will have won.”
Muslims Wait for the Backlash
Bishara Costandi fears what’s coming.
By Tuesday afternoon, even though the architects of the morning’s terror had not yet been identified, America’s Muslims were girding themselves for a potential backlash.
Islamic cultural organizations across the country sent out warnings to their members. Email alerts urged strong security measures around mosques, schools and other Islamic institutions. Muslims who favor traditional dress were told to consider staying out of public places.
Meanwhile, far from the scene of the terror, unsubstantiated rumors of New York street attacks on Muslims circulated among reporters gathered for a press conference called by Portland Mayor Vera Katz.
All this served to underline fears that America’s fastest-growing religious minority, a diverse Islamic community that some estimate as eight million strong, might face misguided retaliation.
“One problem is that the public doesn’t know any differences in our community,” said Costandi, a member of Arabs Building Community, a Portland Palestinian volunteer organization and political advocacy group. “They think an Arab is a Muslim is an Arab, even though Arabs only make up 14 percent of the Muslim world.
“We don’t know who did this yet, so we have to be careful about the assumptions we make,” Costandi said in a post-press-conference interview. “Because of the political situation there, and because of the United States’ undeviating support for Israel, the assumption is that someone from that part of the world did this, but we don’t know that for sure yet.”
Costandi’s concerns were shared by other local Muslims. “Portland has many immigrants from Muslim countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen,” said Jaafar Sheikh Jama, a program coordinator at the International Refugee Center of Oregon. “After this tragedy, how will someone with a headscarf be viewed?”
Mariam Ali, a workforce specialist at IRCO, bristled at the assumptions about the perpetrators. “The suggestions about the Middle East are total conjecture at this point,” she said. Nonetheless, Ali said her Beaverton mosque had already received death threats. Ali, who wears a headscarf, intended to go straight home after work. “Personally, I’m not worried,” she said. “But my family is worried.”
Her daughter, Ariana Emery, 17, said she felt uncomfortable enough that she would deny her background. “I’d probably say I was Italian,” she said.
Costandi noted that in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, his group planted a memorial tree on Portland’s Park Blocks. “It looks like we should probably plant another one,” he said.
--Zach Dundas and Chris Lydgate
Other Sept. 11, 2001 Willamette Week stories from the archives: