Writing September 11th: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Effort to Closed Caption the 9/11 Newscasts

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On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, VITAC employees reflect on the efforts to make heartbreaking coverage accessible to viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, VITAC employees reflect on the efforts to make heartbreaking coverage accessible to viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing.

VITAC employees joined a nation glued to their television sets on September 11, 20011. We also captioned much of what was on the air. On this tenth anniversary, current and former employees think back to a day they will never forget.

The day began as any other, with captioners on the air with the various morning news reports. When the first plane hit the towers, many thought it was an accident, but when the second plane hit… "All the captioners in the area instantly understood that one plane could be an accident, but two planes meant a coordinated, terrorist attack," remembers Jeff Hutchins, a founder and, at the time, Executive VP, Planning & Development. "There was hubbub and grief in the online area, but no panic or chaos. Everyone had a job to do, and they continued to do it despite each person's powerful emotional reaction to the events unfolding. We knew right away that there would be many hours of live coverage ahead, and that we would need all hands on deck."

Sayward Elliot was in charge of scheduling captioners at the time. "Yes, we get frustrated with the media at times, but thankfully they were on duty, and stayed on duty, to let the world know what was going on. But what about all the people who were deaf, couldn't hear what was going on? Thank the Lord for VITAC. I had people working around the clock. Think of typing, nonstop, for two hours, no commercials. Your hands would hurt, your fingers would hurt. Your wrists would hurt. The writers were exhausted. Still they volunteered. I was so proud to have the relationships with those folks that they would be willing to give up two hour time slots to write and write and write."

Caption companies use standard modem connections to send their data to network, where captions are added to the video signal and broadcast to the nation. On September 11th, it was nearly impossible to connect to any phone line in New York City. "As the coverage progressed, we were informed that we were the only captioning company who had a direct feed into the various networks," remembers Joe Karlovits, founder and President at the time. "[Other caption companies] were supposed to pick up programming during the morning, but couldn't get through to the networks. Since VITAC was the only company that somehow stayed connected to all three networks, we were able to have the other companies dial through VITAC. Through the brilliance of our engineering staff, we were able to keep a hot connection into New York so that all of the captioning companies could provide coverage of the 9/11 events. I still, to this day, don't understand why our com lines into New York held. Thank God they did or the major networks would not have had captioned coverage."

Gale Meuhlbauer was a captioner living in San Francisco at the time. "The very first thing I did that morning was run into the office and turn on my captioning equipment. Then I picked up the phone and called the schedulers to let them know when and for how long I would be able to work that day and for the immediate future.    It had been my experience that during a crisis, when long stints of special news reports were called for, you would have writing sessions upwards of four hours or so at a time. It quickly became clear that this situation was far more emotionally draining, and a schedule of two-hour writing blocks for each captioner was instituted. I can only imagine the amount of work it took to put something like that together!

We worked all hours of the day and night. I remember not leaving the house for three days, and walking through the grocery store in a fog. People acted as if everything was normal. I wanted to grab people and shake them and scream, ‘How can you act like nothing has happened?' It was the most surreal feeling I’ve ever experienced."

Captioner Jane Proud was working at VITAC's Canonsburg headquarters. "Everyone was busy. Coordinators would arrange the switches of different networks and shows and feed them into the control rooms. We'd try to give someone a break when they needed one. I honestly don't remember how long I wrote or how many hours I spent at work until the next team came in to take over. The days afterward were a blur. But it doesn't really matter. What I do remember is the shock and emotion of what I was seeing and knowing that people were relying on our captions."

Having something to do other than watch TV helped some captioners. Joanne Riley remembers never crying while she captioned. “Until... It was the first NASCAR race back and I was captioning the opening to it. They zeroed in on a HUGE mechanic while the planes flew in the missing man formation. He was breaking down and the announcer said that he had a brother who was a firefighter in NYC and he hadn't been found yet. That's when I lost it. Two weeks' worth of shock had to be taken care of in the two-minute commercial before the race began."

Mark Paluso managed the production coordinators who set up the realtime captioners and monitored connections. "It was a terrible day in the world, but that day and several to follow were some of the proudest days of my career here at VITAC. Every member of VITAC, from the owners, to the Managers, to the Captioners, Schedulers, Coordinators, Engineers and Systems people worked together in every way possible and necessary to make sure that we were on the air with captions for as many networks and stations as possible. And we also worked with all of the other captioning companies to stay on air with such vital information. Competition melted away, and whoever could get through to encoders and stay connected did so regardless of coverage times and contracts. It was one of the pivotal moments for me that solidified concretely that I had made the right choice in taking a job at this company and stay for so many years." Mark has been with the company for 25 years.

Read more at http://www.vitac.com/remembering-911/.

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