How the Telegraph reported 9/11 when it happened
Οn the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the worst in America’s history, the Telegraph looks back at its coverage of the tragedy.
Peter Foster, The Telegraph’s Europe Editor, describes his memories of the day:
«It was apparent that the world had changed, even then»
My September 11, 2001 began with a request from the Foreign Editor, asking if I could “mind the shop” over lunchtime while the entire Foreign Desk went out for a farewell lunch with another colleague who was about to take up an overseas posting. “Don’t worry,” he breezed, “nothing will happen, just keep an eye on things and let us know if the sky falls in.”
In between taking down a message from the Moscow correspondent, I glanced up at CNN to see smoke emerging from one of the Twin Towers. The ticker said it was a plane crash, but at that very early stage there were no pictures of the impact. I assumed it was a traffic spotter plane or a police chopper.
Keen to appear on-the-ball I dialled the boss’s mobile (no smartphones then) as a precaution, slightly nervous about interrupting his lunch. I was slightly relieved when it went to voicemail. “Probably not a biggee,” I said, “No need to interrupt your beouf en croute or anything, but just to warn you that a plane has crashed in New York. I’m watching for ‘devs’ now, but should be all fine ‘til you get back.”
Even by the time I had put the receiver back on its cradle, it was clear that this was a wild under-estimate of the situation. I cursed my over-eagerness as I imagined the boss happily ordering another bottle of Burgundy as the story of the century unfolded without him.
I phoned the foreign editor. Voicemail. Then the deputy foreign editor. Voicemail. The assistant foreign editor, the deputy assistant foreign editor and the diplomatic editor – voicemail, voicemail, voicemail. Panic until the restaurant itself picked up and agreed to summon my boss to the phone.
As the editors came charging back, instantly sobered by the images now filling the office TV screens, I took the opportunity to wave my passport at the Foreign Editor and offered to go to Heathrow airport to get on the next available plane to New York. Amazingly, he agreed.
It was only when I emerged off the tube at Heathrow to see images of the Pentagon in flames and reports that another aircraft was still in the air – heading, we instantly presumed, to the US Capitol or the White House – that the absolute enormity of what was happening fully hit me.
It felt like a Tom Clancy novel come to life. It was apparent that the world had changed, even then. As other journalists arrived at the airport, we discussed in fearful terms how the America of George W Bush might react. Someone cracked a cynical journalists’ black joke about “the start of the Third World War” but there wasn’t much laughter.
That was the start of a journey that still hasn’t really ended. In between trying to book seats on every available flight into the US and Canada – cancelled one by one until it became obvious nothing was leaving – I phoned my Mum and told her I wouldn’t be coming to visit that weekend.
In the end it took several days to get to New York – via Canada – by hitching a ride on a privately-hired Boeing 747 that the BBC and ITN jointly chartered out of Stansted Airport. Some of the biggest names in British TV journalism slept on the concourse waiting for the plane to be cleared for take-off, not daring to go home lest they «missed the bus» to the biggest story of everyone’s lifetimes.
One TV correspondent, who must remain nameless, took great pleasure in tricking a professional rival into believing that another plane was about to leave from Gatwick. The hapless colleague sped off down the M23 only to discover she had been sold a dummy. She returned hours later to Stansted, smouldering.
But the plane – call sign “Ego One”, as someone joked – was duly filled with its cargo of squabbling hacks and took off for Canada some 48 hours later. It was supposedly the first civilian airplane cleared into continental US airspace.
By the time we drove into Manhattan some two days after the attack, the Towers were still smoking. With the Taliban refusing to give up Bin Laden, I joked to a colleague on the drive into New York that I was “looking forward to spending Christmas in Kabul”. I shouldn’t have joked. That is was exactly what happened.