Lynn Lunsford

A day to remember

While most of the UT community was in shock as they saw the 9/11 attacks, one UT alumnus scrambled to write an article about aviation security that would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

At the time of the attacks, Lynn Lunsford worked as an aerospace reporter for The Wall Street Journal’s Los Angeles bureau. Lunsford contributed to one of the stories produced on 9/11 that won the paper a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in 2002. Lunsford’s bureau chief called to tell him to turn on the TV to see what he then thought was a small plane that had hit the World Trade Center.

“I could instantly tell that it wasn’t a small airplane. The hole was too big,” Lunsford said.

Lunsford reported on every major plane crash from 1986 to 2009, which gave him the insight to see that the first impact wasn’t an accident.

“It was a beautiful, clear day, so it made no sense that a big jetliner would slam into a building,” Lunsford said.

He said his coworkers in the Los Angeles office didn’t know what to think as they watched the news.

“Everyone saw it as an aviation disaster until the second plane hit,” Lunsford said.

He and the other reporters who contributed to his article made phone calls to the contacts they’d made throughout their careers as aviation journalists.

“We got the best information we could to explain the situation in the context of what was clearly a new reality,” Lunsford said.

Lunsford called the Federal Aviation Administration’s former associate administrator for aviation security. He said the administration’s retired official had been worried about security on jetliners.

Lunsford contributed foresights to the article about increases in passenger searches, weapon scanning improvements and tighter airport access.

“People who make decisions are going to be reading what you wrote, so what we tried to do was set the agenda and make sure the debate was focused in the right direction,” Lunsford said.

He said it was a thrill to receive the Pulitzer Prize, one of journalism’s top honors, but never forgets the approximately 3,000 people who died that day.

Before taking a job at The Wall Street Journal, Lunsford worked as a reporter at the Dallas Morning News, where a fellow aerospace reporter from the Washington Post took him under his wing. This friend and competitor, Don Phillips, covered Sept. 11 from Washington, D.C. that day.

“It was such a jumble,” Phillips said. “It was keeping ahead of the game as best you could.”

Phillips said at the time, Wall Street Journal reporters didn’t cover breaking news as much as they covered stories’ big pictures.

“The Journal was a newspaper that wanted to sit back and get the background,” Phillips said. “This was so big that they had to go full tilt and that’s where Lynn [Lunsford] would come in handy.”

Lunsford said his editors knew he could think on his feet and didn’t get rattled by breaking news stories.

“An experienced reporter sort of goes into an out-of-body experience,” Phillips said. “So the emotion just doesn’t hit you.”

Jonathan Friedland, the former LA bureau chief, said The Wall Street Journal bureau chiefs around the country had to divvy up the work for the next day’s issue because the New York headquarters were destroyed by debris from the towers. He said it was clear Lunsford and the other aviation journalists would be central to the reporting that day.

“He and the rest of the team pulled out all of the stops to provide Pulitzer-level reporting in a day marked by confusion, misinformation and in our case, the loss of our [headquarter] operation,” Friedland said. “I remain enormously proud of the work we collectively did that day. It was spot reporting at its very best.”

Printed on September 9, 2011 as: Tragedy leads to Pulitzer for journalist alumnus