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20 years after 9/11: Revisiting the Boston Globe’s coverage of a national tragedy

The front pages of the Boston Globe from Sept. 11 through Sept. 17, 2001.Globe Archives

The day began with clear blue skies, a typical New York City morning abuzz with its normal rush. It ended with the twin towers of the World Trade Center destroyed, the Pentagon ambushed, a plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania, thousands dead, and a country reeling.

Somewhere in between, when it was still unclear that both planes smoldering inside the remains of the World Trade Center had originated at Logan Airport, the Boston Globe rushed to produce a historical record of the terrorist attacks set in motion just a few miles away. The result was a special edition, printed at 2 p.m. that same day, on newsstands before dark.


As the extra edition signaled in the blaring headline — “Reign of terror” — it was a day that would be etched in history, a collective sense of security shattered.

A hijacked commercial plane crashed into the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.SETH MCALLISTER/AFP via Getty Images

A review of Globe coverage that first day and week illustrates a sense of normalcy turned on its head and a country brought, as then-Washington Bureau Chief David Shribman put it, “to a breathless, terrified standstill.”

The front pages, spanning from Tuesday to the following Monday, highlighted a sense of urgency as government officials attempted to untangle the mayhem before them, while families tried to comprehend the loss of loved ones they’d spoken to only hours earlier.

It was a national report, but also a deeply local one, and Boston was forced to grapple with its close connection to the tragedy. From the earliest moments, South Station was crammed with commuters desperate to leave downtown Boston, as nearby roads snarled with traffic. Governor Jane Swift tightened security around state buildings and law enforcement officials soon began searching the city for a local cell of the terrorist group believed to be linked to the attacks.

Front page coverage during the week of 9/11.Globe Archives

Throughout New England, the flights bound for Los Angeles left a trail of grief in their path. Those lost included the pilot of American Airlines Flight 11 from Dracut, a family of three from Groton, and a young mother of two from Worcester. They were doting parents, recreational sailors, businessmen, and math whizzes.


Jim Ogonowski, the younger brother of John Ogonowski, the pilot on Flight 11, told the Globe hours after the attacks that a loss that enormous was hard to absorb: “I keep looking at the cornfield behind me, hoping my brother comes walking out.”

A Wayland couple evaded the devastating fate of many in the region with a last-minute change of plans to their travel itinerary. Susan Yahn and Peter MacPherson, parents of three, had booked separate flights for their trip to Hawaii. MacPherson ended up leaving a day earlier, and Yahn switched to a later flight in order to see her children off at the school bus stop. She was on the Logan Express bus when cell phones around her began buzzing with calls sharing the news.

“There had been a crash. In New York. The flight she was supposed to take,” Globe reporter Michael Paulson wrote.

“I’ve had three glasses of scotch on the rocks, and I’m a wine drinker,” Yahn told Paulson that night. “I feel very fortunate to be here. As Dorothy says, there’s no place like home.”

Firefighters made their way through the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York.SHAWN BALDWIN/Associated Press

Almost immediately, the Globe highlighted a history of security violations and concerns at Logan International Airport, specifically those connected to the two companies — Burns International Services Corporation’s Global Aviation Services unit, and Huntleigh Corporation — that provided check-in security crews for American and United in Boston. Officials described the airport as a “natural target” due to the ease with which “transcontinental flights filled with jet fuel could be commandeered soon after takeoff.”


The investigation that followed spanned from Massachusetts to Florida to Maine. In one of the “most high-profile events” to headline that search, police led a dramatic tactical raid that Wednesday at the Westin Copley Hotel in Boston, the Globe reported. But initial reports that the three individuals taken into detention were associates of the terrorists were soon dismissed, with authorities privately sharing “it appeared to have been a case of mistaken identity.”

‘It marked the most lethal attack on the United States in history. It marked the end of a period of incomparably carefree American optimism and openness. It marked the beginning of a period of incomprehensible domestic fear and vulnerability.’

David Shribman, Boston Globe, Washington bureau chief, in a Sept. 12, 2001 commentary piece

Out of the disarray emerged deeper connections between the Al Qaeda members who waged the deadly assault under the direction of Osama bin Laden and flight schools nationwide. Though none of the suspects were known to have “any enduring connection to Boston,” several arrived in the city in early September, and the men who commandeered the two flights out of Logan had begun casing the airport “at least six months” in advance, the Globe reported.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts was further linked to the calamity, with reports disclosing that two armed fighter jets that streaked away from their base on Cape Cod to shield New York arrived too late to foil the second attack.

United Airlines flight monitors showed cancellations on Sept. 11, 2001.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

The reverberating grief was brought closer to home through tales of heroism and sorrow for locals lost, and testimonials of Muslim college students in the Boston area fearing retribution for crimes they did not commit.


‘We don’t want to be afraid, but we also don’t want to take any chances. A lot of students I know in the Northeast and New York are taking the semester off to wait for the tension to really die down.’

Muzammil Mustufa, a Tufts University sophomore who led the Muslim Students’ Association there in 2001

The Globe reported how only two days after the attacks, George W. Bush pledged to turn “the full force of his office toward winning a protracted worldwide battle against terrorism” in an emotional appearance from the White House.

A senator representing Delaware and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, said any such declaration of war “would make us look foolish,” the Globe reported, though he went on to vote in favor of the use of force authorization. He would later be responsible, as president, for seeing the occupation of Afghanistan through to its tumultuous, often heartbreaking close.

Cynthia Needham and Jeremiah Manion of the Globe Staff contributed to the reporting of this article.

Shannon Larson can be reached at shannon.larson@globe.com. Follow her @shannonlarson98.