SANJAY BHOSALE, who was then the chief sub-editor of The National, recalls the earth-shaking events of that momentous day two decades ago and how the staff of the paper produced a special edition that became one for the ages.
SEPT 11, 2001 is seared into the memory of all those who witnessed the tragic events that unfolded on our television screens that autumn morning in New York, Washington DC and Pennsylvania 20 years ago.
It was the single biggest news event the world had ever seen, played live on television, until that point.
In PNG, we had never seen anything like it – ever. The National produced a special edition that night that became one for the ages – a collector’s item, a souvenir edition that told Papua New Guineans in graphic detail the story of a terrorist atrocity committed thousands of miles across the ocean.
I still vividly recall the events of that tumultuous night and how the editorial team put together the special edition in record time even as the horrific events were unfolding across our television screens.
It was just after 11pm on that Tuesday night at The National’s editorial offices on Waigani Drive. Tuesday is normally the less busy night of the week in newspaper land. The night desk crew and I were putting the finishing touches to the next day’s edition.
The building was buzzing with familiar sounds. One could hear the faint rumble of the presses in the building’s belly printing the paper’s earlier runs (sections of the paper that would be inserted into the final pages that included the front and back pages). Computers beeped, screens blinked and keyboards rattled as sub-editors edited the final stories, the air-conditioner humming in the humid Port Moresby night.
Veteran newsman Ian Boden was sipping his hundredth cup of coffee of the day, poring over printouts of pages from behind his glasses, proof-reading the day’s stories filed by reporters all over the country. Night news editor Daniel (DK) Korimbao was checking out the local pages and following the night action at Australian racing tracks on the newswires. Senior sub-editors Sam Vulum, Wally Hiambohn and Francis Uliau were finalising the ‘Nation’ pages while expat sub-editors Daniel Lam and Lena Lieu were almost ready to head home after finishing the ‘World’ and ‘Region’ pages. I was about to sign off on the front and back pages when the phone on my desk rang.
It was Eng Sim Low, editor of our Children’s section who was then away in Singapore. She asked me if I had seen the news on TV. When I replied in the negative, she asked me to hurry up and take a look. I hung up and rushed across to the television monitor to switch the CNN feed.
Just as the television came to life, the second plane slammed into the South Tower of the World Trade Centre. I stood there paralysed in shock for a few moments. By then it began to dawn on the CNN news anchors that this was no accident. The first plane that had ploughed into the North Tower 20 minutes earlier may have been, but two planes? Surely something more sinister was going on.
I yelled across to the night crew to come over. Everyone gathered around. There must have been around 20 of us with our eyes glued to the TV screen – reporters, sub-editors, graphic artists, pre-press and printing crew, even our night duty drivers. We all stood transfixed by the events that were unfolding. Adrenaline pumped through us as we tried to comprehend the gravity of the events. News soon came through that another plane had crashed into the Pentagon in Washington DC and another had come down in a field near Pennsylvania.
It soon became clear to us that this was no ordinary event. It was a momentous occasion whose repercussions would reverberate around the world for decades to come. I faced the question of how were we going to cover this story. It was already close to midnight. The senior management had long since left. In those days there were no mobile phones, and you didn’t ring the editor-in-chief or general manager at midnight.
As the day’s paper was almost ready to be printed, I made the decision to print a four-page wrap-around special edition that would go around the daily paper. This was a risky move. Newsprint was the single biggest cost in the newspaper’s expenses, paid for in US dollars. To print an extra four pages, with an extra print run of 5,000 copies, was far above my pay grade. What if the paper didn’t sell? Still, the news desk crew and I were in agreement that this was the right course of action.
I quickly called a meeting to brief all the key players. Aside from the night crew mentioned above, there was senior graphic designer Sibona Kwalimu who had finished his shift and was having a smoke in the car park before heading home; graphic artist Tom (TK) Kawiya; pre-press supervisor Soapa Luisiata; production manager the late Guba Vai and his assistant Fred Itaar.
Sibona and Tom had to design the special edition, Soapa had the task of producing the plates for the special edition. Guba had to prepare the press for an extra print run and inform all the production crew that there was an extra insert for the night. The assistant circulation manager, Sari Eovo, had to organise the delivery drivers and motorcycle delivery riders, one of whom was the enigmatic Babun.
Malot Kolma, was the man for all seasons in the printing and circulation department. The pilot of the charter plane on the tarmac at Jacksons Airport had to be informed that there would be a slight delay in the arrival of the newspaper consignment for Lae, Mt Hagen and Rabaul.
The news desk got busy over the next two hours or so, downloading stories from the wire services and photographs from the international photo agencies. There were graphic pictures of the flames billowing from the twin towers, a grim-faced President George W Bush who seemed shell-shocked by the events, people fleeing from the buildings and watching on in horror.
Our coverage had a total of six comprehensive stories and six photographs, and included reactions from world leaders. The front page headline ran in reverse typeface – white letters on a black border – reserved for the most serious news events. I asked Sibona to include the line Special Edition through The National’s masthead.
By 4.30am, the special edition began rolling on the presses and was soon on its way to homes and offices throughout PNG. It was sold out within hours. The K1 paper was selling for K5 on the streets, people were queuing up at The National’s offices begging for copies, Vendors were demanding more copies and if my memory serves me right, the press printed a few more thousand copies of the special edition later that morning because of the overwhelming demand.
I still remember the sense of accomplishment we all felt on producing such a terrific edition at such short notice.
Around 6am, when I reached my home on Boroko Drive, I woke up my neighbour, The National’s General Manager, S F Yong. He looked incredulously at the special edition. He had gone to bed the previous night oblivious to the events, and when he woke up a few hours later, the world had changed. He kept shaking his head in amazement as I narrated the events of the previous few hours.
The next day, an overjoyed Editor-in-Chief Yehiura Hriehwazi sent out an inter-office memo to all involved saying: “The Management congratulates all of you for a fantastic job on the special edition last night… I may be proven wrong, but I believe we may have been the first newspaper in the world to publish the special edition. CONGRATULATIONS to all who contributed. It was a fantastic response to a major world event – a job well done.”
It was indeed a fantastic effort. The special edition propelled The National (then the second largest daily) into the PNG’s newspaper reader’s consciousness. On a straightforward comparison, readers could compare our coverage and see that we were miles ahead of the competition.
The rival paper had just one photograph and a small story on the cover page. That was all.
The National’s coverage of the events of Sept 11, 2001 set the tone for the paper’s subsequent coverage of major global events – the US-led ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan later that November, the Bali bombings in October 2002, the Sars pandemic and the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 among others – bringing these earth-shaking happenings to readers all over PNG.
It contributed to The National’s well-deserved reputation as the No 1 ‘quality’ newspaper.
The Sept 12, 2012 special edition became the stuff of legend in PNG journalism. A large-sized framed poster of the special edition still occupies pride of place in The National’s foyer on Waigani Drive – a tribute to the highest quality coverage of a major global news event.