The Gazette: probably first on the streets with news of 9/11

Many people ask what is the most memorable story I have worked on, and it has to be the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001.

This is due not only to the enormity (and enormousness) of the event but also the fact that the Colchester Evening Gazette was probably the first paper in the world to hit the streets with the news.

At the time the Gazette was a three-edition daily selling about 30,000 copies. We reckoned it was read by 90,000 people.

I was chief sub-editor that Tuesday and we had sent the final edition to the printers at 1.30pm.

Fifteen minutes later, the first plane hit the north tower and BBC Ceefax — a television text service — carried a newsflash. We assumed it was a light aircraft but the story developed quickly.

TV soon began carrying live images and a staff photographer took a picture from the screen of our tiny TV. We stopped the press and changed the front page: "US air crash - 6 dead". That headline never made it. The page had been gone for three minutes when the second plane hit the south tower. We stopped the press again and updated the story.

Our printing presses were only a mile up the road and by 2.55pm we had copies of the paper in our hands. 

The Gazette’s reporters knew that the next day’s paper would focus on the event (the UK/US time difference gave us an advantage). There was little for them to do so we sent them into the town centre with a bundle of papers each.  A few years later a friend said his memory of the day was seeing smartly dressed men and women shouting in the streets like old-fashioned newspaper sellers.

I finally got home at 4pm (I’d started at 6.30am) and my wife and her friend were in tears. I had been in work mode until then. Suddenly the horror of what I had witnessed hit me, too.

I didn’t realise it then but it was probably the last great newspaper scoop of a live event. When the 7/7 attacks occurred in London four years later, Facebook was live. Twitter started the following year and the iPhone the year after that — the news was in your pocket and the glory days of newspapers, which had survived the advent of radio and television, were over.