On 9/11, N.R. Kleinfield was downtown. His story is a master class in deadline writing

N.R. “Sonny” Kleinfield, one of The New York Times’ most accomplished journalists, is leaving in November after spending four decades writing powerful, lyrical stories for the newspaper.

Kleinfield’s narrative projects have earned him a Polk Award and a Pulitzer Prize, but he’s probably best known for a story published on Sept. 12, 2001. It began like this:

It kept getting worse.

The horror arrived in episodic bursts of chilling disbelieve, signified first by trembling floors, sharp eruptions, cracked windows. There was the actual unfathomable realization of a gaping, flaming hole in first one of the tall towers, and then the same thing all over again in its twin. There was the merciless sight of bodies helplessly tumbling out, some of them in flames.

Finally, the mighty towers themselves were reduced to nothing. Dense plumes of smoke raced through the downtown avenues, coursing between the buildings, shaped like tornadoes on their sides.

Every sound was cause for alarm. A plane appeared overhead. Was another one coming? No, it was a fighter jet. But was it friend or enemy? People scrambled for their lives, but they didn’t know where to go. should they go north, south, east, west? Stay outside, go indoors? People hid beneath cars and each other. Some contemplated jumping into the river.

For those trying to flee the very epicenter of the collapsing World Trade Center towers, the most horrid thought of all finally dawn on them: nowhere was safe.

This and other work won for Kleinfield and The Times an ASNE Distinguished Writing Award under the category Deadline News Reporting. The winning work and an interview with the author was published by The Poynter Institute in the book “Best Newspaper Writing 2002.”

Related Training: Narrative Writing on Deadline

The interview with Kleinfield was conducted by Keith Woods, NPR’s vice president for newsroom training and diversity, formerly dean of faculty at The Poynter Institute.

In honor of Kleinfield’s departure from The Times, we are happy to reproduce it here.

How did your day begin on Sept. 11?

Part of my day was dictated by the fact that it was primary day in New York. Normally I don’t get involved much in politics or covering elections or anything like that, but it was an unusual primary day for New York because of the recent end of term limits here. Because it was such an unusual race, I got enlisted to do a story about how that mechanism of voting went — whether there were problems with voting machines breaking down and so forth.

I happen to live about four blocks north of the World Trade Center and so, normally, I would have been home when all this happened; but because of the election, I was in the office at 8 a.m. and happened to be looking at wires to see what was going on. On the wires, a plane had apparently collided into the World Trade Center, and I went over to a TV in the office and saw the picture of the smoking tower.

Like most people, I assumed it was a small plane that had accidentally hit it. I remember the famous case of the plane that hit the Empire State Building and thought it was something along those lines.

As I was sitting there watching it with a couple of other people, we saw the second plane go into the second tower, and, of course, like anyone else who saw it at that moment, it was immediately obvious that it was a deliberate terrorist attack. And then the desk here started to mobilize.

There weren’t very many editors in, and so people who normally would not be doing assigning hurriedly decided to call in people. I was immediately told to forget about the primary and to go down to the Trade Center and plan on writing a story about the scene from there. I decided I didn’t want to take a subway, in case it went down where I didn’t want it to go, so I took a cab.

I got out of the cab and just started running toward the Trade Center. I got to just below where I live — about three blocks from the Trade Center — when the first tower started to come down. I got caught up with all the other people who suddenly turned around and started running in the other direction.

Everything became pitch dark, and you had no idea whether it was smoke and dust and pulverized debris that was coming toward you or if the building itself was in the smoke. There wasn’t much time to think. The thought was going through my mind whether I was trying to outrun the building, which certainly in retrospect would have been impossible. If the tower had come down sideways and in that direction, it probably would have come down as far as Canal Street.

Which is where you were?

I was well below Canal Street. I was only three blocks away. Everybody just turned around, just stood there and watched as the smoke lifted, and then it was the horrifying and astounding sight of just emptiness in the sky. You saw it lift, and you kept expecting at some point to see part of the building. Maybe the top came off halfway down. There was just nothing there, and people just stood there awestruck, as I guess I was, too.

What were you thinking was happening while all of this was going on – everything from who was behind it to what was going to happen next?

There was very little thinking about what had happened before, what was going to happen next. One of the interesting things was that everyone knew the first tower had come down, and we knew a similar thing had happened to the other tower. It had to be plainly obvious in our minds that, if one tower came down, the other tower was going to come down, too. And yet everybody just stood there.

Nobody moved, Including me. People were so numbed by it, so in shock by it, that they weren’t even thinking, “The other one’s going to come down. Let’s get further away to safety.” We just stood there for the next 45 minutes until the second tower came down; and then everybody, in a similar way, turned around and started moving and watched the same thing happen all over again. It all did happen in distinct stages. There were these lulls between them, short ones at first and then longer ones.

During the lulls, I was talking to people and found out where they were and heard their thoughts, but it was almost impossible to try to put it all together in your mind and to make any larger sense of it because it was just too astonishing.

How do you switch from the citizen of New York, who is watching the World Trade Center fall, to the reporter for The New York Times, who has to ask people questions while they’ve got questions of their own?

Well, I guess two forces came into play. Part of it was just instinctual. It was what I was down there for. It was what I do, and it just became natural. Maybe it came even more natural in a totally numb state to just start talking to people and looking for people who had come out of the towers and everything. It hadn’t even begun to really penetrate my mind about how many people might have still been in there.

I was also thinking about my own personal situation. Before I went down there, I called my wife [Susan Saiter] to see if she had heard about it, and she hadn’t been home.

Once I was down there, once the towers came down, I was thinking about where she might be. She often works in a nearby area. My daughter, Samantha, just started school the day before. She was uptown, so I knew she was fine. And since we live there, the World Trade Center is basically our shopping mall. And my daughter and Susan had been shopping in the World Trade Center the night before for school clothes. As they often do, they had bought a lot of things and then made choices and things were going to be returned.

I remember when I left that morning, there were a bunch of bags next to the door of things that she was going to return to the stores at the World Trade Center that morning, and it was in my mind that she might have been inside the Trade Center at the time.

I had no cellphone or anything with me. One thing I was trying to do was use phones when I could. I was calling my voicemail at work because I knew that she would call to say she was OK as soon as she was able to. I did that in between talking to people. One thing I didn’t know was the amount of communications breakdown.

I knew a lot of cellphones weren’t working and some pay phones weren’t working. But I didn’t realize lines had just become over-extended. I only found out much later that the lines at the Times became overwhelmed and you couldn’t even make calls into them. But, anyhow, I was worried. I knew the best thing to do was to keep busy, and that’s why I tried to deflect my concern for my wife by interviewing people.

When did you reach your wife and find out that she was OK?

Much later. I stayed down there for hours talking to people. After a couple of hours had gone by and there was nothing from her, basically my mood shifted. I had no doubt that she might have been there. Then I was sure that she had been there. I mean, there was no rational explanation. I’m a very rational, logical person, and there was no rational explanation for why she wouldn’t have called after that amount of time. The only explanation was that she was unable to, and so I become convinced that she had been there and was possibly killed.

The logical questions would be how, then, could you go on?

I’d done a lot at this point. For a few hours I could operate on the assumption that there was a difficulty and all, and then it was getting to the point at which I felt I probably should get to the office. My concern had mounted tremendously, and I actually walked back to the office from down there.

All during that time there were still no messages, which increasingly convinced me what had been the outcome; and of course, if that had been what happened, I certainly wouldn’t have written a story that day or done anything beyond that. I can’t imagine who would. But when I got into the office a little after 1 p.m., there was a message from Susan that said she was OK and that she had been out jogging and had been caught in a mob of people who were just shoved uptown and onto ferries.

She ended up over in Hoboken, N.J., with no money. She didn’t have her phone. Nothing. And she had made some attempt to call and couldn’t get anyone on the line and then just never had any chance to.

How do you approach people in the middle of all of this in a way that gets them to turn their attention from either their immediate safety or their deep concern for what’s happening to having a conversation with a reporter?

Well, you know, with something of this magnitude, it’s almost that people are looking to talk to someone else. I say “this magnitude” as if there were many things to compare it to.

But when you have some disaster with a plane crash or earthquake or something like that, I generally find that people are looking to talk to someone else. It doesn’t take any effort or any urging or art to get people to talk in that sort of situation.

Everybody was grasping for some understanding of what had happened. Everybody needed to know so much more than what they saw.

As we were standing on the streets, there were these fighter jets going overhead, and no one had any idea if they were our fighter jets, if they were Iraqi fighter jets, or what. But everybody assumed they were additional enemy forces. People were listening to radios in cars that were parked on the street and they were hearing the reporter of the Pentagon and they heard about the Pennsylvania plane and also the rumors that there were several unaccounted-for airplanes in the air.

Nobody knew what was next. They had seen a number of stages of things that got worse and worse and worse, and there was obviously no conviction that that was the end. Nobody knew what direction to go — whether to go inside, to go outside, to go below ground, above ground. Nobody knew what was safe. People were looking for further information. So getting people to talk didn’t take anything.

Did you go back toward the Trade Center after the second tower collapsed?

I was staying in a fairly narrow range of streets. I didn’t go down to the site or anything like that, which very quickly became impossible to do. But there were quite a number of people who had been in the towers who’d come down many flights of stairs who were where I was. That was the lowest area where a lot of people had congregated, and so it seemed there was more than enough to do there.

Were you in communication with the editors as you were thinking through the focus of this story?

No, I talked to nobody at the paper until I physically got back to the office.

Did you make attempts to consult with people at the newspaper? And would that be a normal way of operating for you anyway?

You know, in some stories, yes, but not necessarily in something like this. I knew we probably had a tremendous amount of manpower dispatched all over the place. I imagine there probably was tremendous confusion at the office. I didn’t feel I needed any guidance down on the street.

As you recount the story to me, I hear the lead of your story develop over and over again; that sentence that says, “It kept getting worse.” When did you know that was going to be the lead and the focus of the writing?

I supposed when I came back into the office and I sat down with the metro editor and a couple of other editors. As I started to articulate what I’d seen, it naturally came out that what had happened had happened in these stages; that each stage was worse than the last. So at that point I thought it was clear that that’s how I would start the story.

To whom did you speak first among the editors there?

I spoke with the metropolitan editor, Jon Landman.

Was any part of that conversation especially helpful in getting you to the point at which you were ready to write?

I’m not normally a deadline writer, but I’ve done many of the big disasters that have happened to New York for whatever reason. I’d done plane crash scenes and I’ve done big crime scenes and thing like that. I think the editors knew that I knew the general outlines of how to go about doing a story like this.

The main focus of the consultation with them was to be clear about what the parameters were, or what my story was as opposed to what might be in the slew of additional stories that would be done. It was more clarifying the boundaries of my story that how to write it or how to structure it.

You’ve talked a lot about your own emotions and the emotions you saw on the street. It seemed that several feelings informed your writing. What were the emotions you tried to capture?

Probably the overarching emotion was disbelief, the horror of it and how unimaginable, how unthinkable it was, I mean, any one aspect of it might have been thinkable. But the combination of the various episodes that came together, one after the other, just put it beyond what was imaginable.

Hitting the building with one plane? Maybe you could have come to understand that and think that it was not too far-fetched. Maybe the second plane — that puts it on another order of magnitude. And one tower coming down. And the second. The death tolls. What everything looked like.

There are days when this feels like it happened two years ago, and there are many days when I’m still not sure it happened. It just still remains an unreal event to me in so many ways. And that was such a dominant thing for me, that it was obviously na dominant thing for everybody. People went to bed that night, woke up the next day, and say they just still couldn’t come to accept that it was at all possible.

You use some fairly powerful, descriptive words that carry a great deal of emotion: “trembling,” “unfathomable,” “gaping,” “flaming.” You convey very strongly in the story the sense of panic, disbelief, uncertainty. I wonder how free you have to be as a writer to put that amount of emotion into a story, since we’re generally asked to be more separate from the event than you are in this story.

Right. There are certainly borders we are accustomed to being within. One doesn’t want to overstate something. One doesn’t want to, let’s say, personalize something. You go out the first time you’ve been to a plane crash and you see the scene, and I think you have a tendency to overstate it because you’ve never seen anything like it and you have no context.

In so many ways it’s going to seem so much more horrible that it was. I mean, you go to your first car accident and somebody died in it, and it can be brought into an emotional event beyond the true context that it should presented.

The Sept. 11 attack was something where it would be pretty hard to overdo it, and I had had grounding in these other things. I covered other things that were pretty awful, and I’ve seen pretty awful scenes.

But people voluntarily jumping out of the building, knowing they would die by jumping out of the building? People making a conscious decision with someone else that they’re going to hold hands and they’re going to jump together? There’s almost no language that could seem too purple or too overwrought in this case, and I think the real challenge was to not understate it.

If one were going to err in writing about this, it would have been to play down the emotions and to some extent play down the horror and the disbelief of it all. I’m not sure how you could have gone that way.

You use commercial landmarks to help the reader know where you are as you’re describing things: Burger King, Borders Books. What role did the landmarks play in the writing of this story?

I think I gave readers grounding. The Trade Center is obviously a well-known institution through the country and the world. Within the city, the actual details of the Trade Center and what is where are so well known, you don’t meet me at Tower 2, it’s “Meet me in front of Borders,” “Meet me at Express,” “Meet me at Starbucks,” and so forth. People are even hard-pressed to know which is the North Tower, which is the South Tower, and you never hear the addresses spoken.

One North? People weren’t sure what was 7 World Trade Center when that building came down, but they knew it in the way that people know directions in a small town. You know, “turn at the windmill” and things like that. People escaped through Borders. They saw that the books were still standing, and they came through that.

It allowed people to immediately visualize what had happened where, whereas more generic descriptions wouldn’t have done it. Even streets. People don’t even know the streets so much. They thought of what places were at these various boundaries. It was logical for me because that’s how I thought. As I said, the Trade Center was my neighborhood, it was my shopping mall. In a way, it was a way of personalizing the building itself.

You build tension and drama with foreshadowing in “A Creeping Horror,” even though everyone who’s reading it knows what has happened, at least at the most basic level. And you begin that with the lead paragraph and come back to it again later in the story when you say that the calm had set in again. How much of this is intention and how much of it is just the way the story flowed from your pen?

I supposed some combination of those two things. As I mentioned before, I tend to think in very logical terms, and I tend to organize in my mind, do outlines or things like that, or put down paragraphs and then rearrange them many times. To one extent, I’d seen that this sequence was already organized, but in my mind I had organized how it would unfold. As I went through what information I had, it became pretty straightforward to me — what went where and how it would happen. I suppose it was more natural than it was consciously throughout. But it was probably a little bit of both.

How much did you leave out?

I remember that when I came in, I was thinking, “This is going to be the scene story of all scene stories, so it’s going to go very much longer than normal.” But I wondered what was enough. I mean, shouldn’t it have been 5,000 words? Should it have been 10,000? I’m not sure I felt that I had left out something that really missed capturing some sense of what happened. There was a very good interview that happened to be with the daughter of [editor] Jon Landman, and she was able to express very vividly, with fascinating detail, the attempt by the teachers to have the students continue to go about their day while they’re probably quietly panicking. I never was able to get that in. That’s one thing that still sticks in my mind; that with another 200 words I ought to put that in.

How much time did it take you from the moment you walking in the office until the time you hit the send button for the last time?

Well, the funny thing is we have pretty late deadlines. But because there were all sort of new production issues with this paper — because there was so much copy and everything else, so much demand on the editing side – the deadlines were actually earlier than normal. So I had to finish this, at least to make the earliest editions, somewhere around 6:30 or 7 p.m.

And when did you start writing?

I probably started writing at 3 o’clock, and it was done in stages. I wrote part of it; I did more reporting; I looked at other feeds that came in — of which there was an unbelievable quantity. I did very little looking at anything else, like wires. I just never got around to doing that.

You said that you don’t do an outline, you kind of put down random paragraphs and then reassemble them. What’s your style?

I mostly operate in my head. I don’t write down outlines, but I guess I do mental outlines. I almost always write the top of the story at once. If I don’t, I know I will struggle for many hours on it. I either know it, or I never know it. Once I’ve written that top of the story, I usually start out writing somewhat from memory, even putting in details and people and quotes. And then I will go through my notes and confirm them. I have a pretty sharp memory on remembering things fairly verbatim. Generally, the first time through I will write the skeleton – everything I can remember and the order I want to put it in, often just marking spaces for things that I don’t entirely remember but I know I have something that I want to go there.

How does that process serve you?

It’s always been the most efficient way of doing things. I don’t really know a lot about the various techniques of how people work because I don’t really talk to them much about it. But I know some people go through their notebook and they just write page after page.

Whatever they’re going to use from their notebook, they start putting it down on paper and the reorganizing and all. I just find it more efficient to start writing from what I remember and then going to my notebook and finding the things that I had put down and want to use. As good as my memory is, I will often find surprises; things that I didn’t know I had or didn’t think were as good as they seemed to be once I looked at them again, and I’ll insert them. But it’s always worked. I can write more quickly in this process than any other. I guess early on I had tried other ways of doing things. I’m a very efficiency-minded person, and that’s proven to be the most efficient for me.

There’s a measure of trust that you had to have in your own instincts here and your own experience that would give you the confidence to write from it. Were you conscious that you had to listen to yourself in this case?

Yes. If you were somebody who was new to New York or somebody who didn’t understand the city or the ordinary day-to-day flow of the city or hadn’t seen the city in reaction to major events, you would probably have had to fall back on things and people that could give you context. I mean, I’ve lived in this city for a long time.

I’d seen it through so many different things. I couldn’t help but think that what struck me as odd about this city that day is what was odd about the city that day. If you were a tourist, you couldn’t tell everything that was odd. But it was so striking. The feel of the city was so striking that day, that for someone who’s been there for a long time, it was just obvious.