Former Longboat Observer City Editor Shay Sullivan produced the majority of the Observer’s 9/11 and post-9/11 coverage. His probing into several leads in the weeks that followed led the Secret Service to investigate The Observer Group — for the first and only time.
Since leaving The Observer, Sullivan attended graduate school and began his teaching career. He now lives in Massachusetts and teaches high school English at Whittier Regional Technical High School in Haverhill, Mass.
Describe your morning on Sept. 11. What was it like in the newsroom?
That morning, I went straight to a meeting of the planning board at Town Hall.
We were in the midst of a typically dry discussion when (Town Manager) Bruce St. Denis informed us that the first plane hit.
None of us knew what to think. It seemed like a horrible but random event. The meeting continued.
But shortly thereafter, Bruce informed us about the second plane crash, and the meeting quickly wrapped up. I rushed back to the office to see what was happening. Everybody was tense. When more crashes were reported, I was perhaps the most panicked.
In the weeks that followed, the Longboat Observer, and, specifically, your stories, became a focus of the Secret Service’s investigations locally.
I did not know what to make of (former Longboat Key Fire Marshal) Carroll (Mooneyhan)’s story about men in a van coming up to the Colony to interview the president. At the time, we had a couple of reports about “Middle Eastern-looking men” in vans. Moreover, Carroll didn’t see anything firsthand. He overheard an agent discussing the incident, so my info was third-hand.
I knew he told the story earnestly during a lull in a firefighters union meeting. I believed it more than usual, because he was not telling it to me directly. He was telling a colleague.
The day after we went to print, he went silent. I wasn’t sure what that meant. Maybe he had exaggerated. Or maybe he was ordered to stop talking about it. We seemed to get the same order when the Secret Service agents visited (Executive Editor) Lisa (Walsh) and me. They suggested we back off the story, which in my mind made it more real.
Things got even weirder as news about the hijackers came out and we learned some of them trained close by in Venice. Then, we got a report of Mohamed Atta being spotted in the Holiday Inn bar days before the presidential visit.
We also had a strange police report about the FBI being interested in some sort of sheik who owned a Longboat business in the northern plaza. The business quickly changed hands afterward.
I couldn’t believe that our little island seemed to be embroiled in international affairs. To this day, I don’t know what was real and what was falsehood produced by the “Crucible”-esque paranoia of post-9/11 America.
What was your goal as a reporter during this time? What was your responsibility as a Longboat Observer reporter?
Our boss, Matt (Walsh), made things simple. “Tell the truth,” or “Write the facts,” he would say when asked for advice. So, I did my best to write what happened, no more and no less.
What are your most memorable moments following this story?
As the story about men interviewing the president went to print, I went to Islands of Adventure with my parents for a couple of days. The trip had been planned months beforehand. The first night in my hotel, I remember watching the news and learning that a fake TV crew blew themselves up and assassinated a leader in Afghanistan.
I couldn’t sleep. It was like a plot twist in a movie. I was suddenly convinced our country had narrowly escaped a presidential assassination on 9/11. As horrendous as that day was, it is terrifying to think of how much worse things could have been.
How does the anniversary of 9/11 make you feel? Does it conjure up any specific feelings for you?
Every year, I view pictures and YouTube footage of the planes crashing, the smoke, the people jumping to their death to escape fire. I invariably cry.
Do you have any plans to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11?
Yes, I plan to teach more than 100 high school seniors about the day and have them write about it. This year’s students were in second grade when the planes hit. Soon I will be teaching students who don’t remember that day at all. Americans took an oath to never forget what happened on 9/11. By teaching students about the day, I am doing my part to uphold that oath.
Read more Longboat 9/11 coverage here.