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COVERING THE CARNAGE, ON OVERDRIVE AND SOMETIMES THROUGH TEARS

On his third day in New York City, Buffalo News photographer Derek Gee -- who had been calm and workmanlike as he chronicled the devastation of the Sept. 11 terror attacks -- noticed that his camera was damp.

"I couldn't figure out why," said Gee, who is only 23 years old. "Then I realized I had tears streaming down my face."

The emotions he had been holding back finally broke through when he watched a New York City police officer post a snapshot of his missing partner on one of those walls of desperation.

The events of Sept. 11 are still raw, and the loss of lives still almost impossible to believe, let alone bear.

Still, in the midst of the darkness came flashes of inspiration: a mayor's leadership, a firefighter's courage, a stranger's kindness.

I saw some of that same spirit here in this newsroom, where our staff -- editors, columnists, page designers, photographers, reporters -- went into overdrive to bring the historic story to our readers. Their reaction was like a power surge.

Just after 9 a.m. Tuesday, as I watched the TV image of the plane hitting the second tower in that bloom of black smoke and orange fire, it began to dawn on me that this was terrorism, not a terrible accident. And I struggled to compare what I was seeing to other big news stories of recent years -- a president's impeachment, Hurricane Andrew, the Oklahoma City bombing.

What amazed me then was that none of those events came close. I had no context for the enormity of what I was seeing. Only when the mental file cards flipped back before my lifetime, to the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, could I find a fitting comparison.

"This is going to be the biggest story of our careers," Managing Editor Ed Cuddihy said within the first hour. For Cuddihy, who started as a reporter in 1962, only the Kennedy assassination came close.

Within minutes, we were throwing away the front page of our Tuesday Sunrise edition and substituting the attack story.

We gave it emphasis in the way that newspapers know how to do: With a lot of front-page space and a big headline. By 11 a.m., we were producing a front page with a 3-inch-deep headline that read: "Terrorists Attack U.S."

By early afternoon, we had turned our attention to putting out the next day's special section, "Day of Terror." And four News staffers were soon on their way to New York City -- writers Donn Esmonde, Charity Vogel and T.J. Pignataro, and photographer Gee.

Meanwhile, we knew very well that most people were getting their news from TV. With the dramatic images and interviews, it was easy to see why.

But the journalists here believed that there is a crucial role for the newspaper, too. And that role was not limited to the stories of local victims, local rescue workers and local effects.

There may be nothing faster than the Internet, nothing more immediate than television, but there's still something special -- something irreplaceable -- about holding the newspaper in your hands. You can dwell on a striking photograph, study a map and consider an opinion piece. You can appreciate a particular kind of order imposed on the chaos of events.

You might even decide to save the paper for your children or grandchildren.

Tuesday, John Oakley of The News' circulation department carried stacks of the paper into a local supermarket.

"People were literally snatching them out of my hands," Oakley said.

The News printed many thousands of extra copies that week and found a ready audience. Meanwhile, readers talked back to us: The volume of letters to Everybody's Column has doubled. Normally, we're able to print only a fraction of our letters; now the fraction is smaller.

Newspeople thrive on the challenge of getting a big story out. It's a responsibility -- and, as one editor told me last week, it's a privilege.

Maybe that's why some staffers cut short their vacations and others volunteered to work extra hours or do unfamiliar jobs. We were all shaken by the events; we grieved -- and cried -- with the rest of the nation. But we had a job to do.

You may respond to editor@buffnews.com or to One News Plaza, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

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