In the decade since terrorists turned four airliners into missiles that extinguished more than 3,000 lives, a Napa man has steadily collected newspapers that preserve the first, shocked reactions to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. 

Michael Perry’s collection has grown to 790 newspapers, all printed on Sept. 11 or the following day, from nearly every state and more than 20 nations.

Photo after photo shows the hijacked jetliners plowing into the World Trade Center, the angry columns of orange fire billowing from the mortally wounded twin towers, the smoke rising from the Pentagon, the ruins of a crashed airliner in Pennsylvania.

“ATTACK,” “OH MY GOD!”, “APOCALYPSE,” even a vengeful “BLOOD FOR BLOOD” shout their headlines.

Ten years later, the hundreds of papers preserve the fear, disbelief and rage of that day, still raw like a wound.

The keeper of 9/11’s newspaper memories was an unlikely candidate for the job.

As the sun rose that late-summer Tuesday morning, the solidly built Perry was asleep in his parents’ Vallejo home after working the night shift in a local gas station. Then, shortly after 5:45 a.m., the phone rang and his father Ormond picked up. It was Perry’s brother breathlessly urging them to switch the TV on immediately.

“He said to turn on the news; he heard on the radio we were being attacked,” Perry, now 39, recalled last week at Napa Valley Expo.

Perry had taken over Merlot Hall for a day so he could spread out his entire newspaper collection. The issues formed two dozen tightly bunched rows, covering two-thirds of the concrete floor.

By the time the family tuned into CNN, American Airlines Flight 11 already had plowed into the trade center’s north tower. What followed were two hours of head-spinning news flashes, each more dire than the last — the second plane striking the south tower, the trade center’s thunderous fall, the burning Pentagon, the blackened crater in Shanksville, Pa.

Perry was unable to tear himself away from the screen, no matter the horrors on display.

“I was saying to myself, ‘Wait, this is a movie, it’s gotta be; this isn’t really happening,’” he said. “Then I flipped to another channel and another, and I said ‘My God, this is real.’ I watched it nonstop, hours upon hours, 12, 15 straight hours.”

Still dazed, Perry made his way to a local 7-Eleven the next morning to buy copies of every paper on the racks. He came home with the Napa Valley Register, Vallejo Times-Herald, San Francisco Chronicle and Sacramento Bee. 

Also in the bundle was the San Francisco Examiner, whose front page immediately branded the hijackers “BASTARDS!”, exactly the epithet it had hurled at the Japanese attackers of Pearl Harbor six decades before.

“At first I thought I’d hang ’em on the wall, keep them for mementos, show them to my kids later,” Perry said. “And then it grew into this massive, massive obsession. I did the research to find every paper I can, and to this day it hasn’t stopped. It only took maybe a month to turn this into a mission.”

Perry’s spare time soon became a constant hunt down the byways of eBay and Craigslist. Auction bids for 9/11 editions reached $10 each, then $20 or $50, and as much as $80 for a copy of the Arab Times’ “Beyond words, beyond belief” headline. 

He became persistent enough to track down papers from France, Chile, Turkey and Japan, even spending years scrabbling for a broadsheet from Mexico before finally scoring one this May. Hundreds of dollars spent on online auctions for choice issues became thousands.

“I told him, ‘It’s your thing, and do what you want,’ but I was thinking, ‘Why is he doing this?’” Ormond Perry remembered. “But I think he made a good investment.”

The investment in 9/11’s first-day history has been a costly one for Perry, who moved to Napa two years ago. 

He estimates the newspaper collection would cost between $150,000 and $200,000 to replace. The papers’ apparent value, and the difficulty of storing the individually plastic-sleeved issues (which he keeps in Vallejo), have led him to search for a buyer — preferably one who also will share the 9/11 editions with the public for the first time.

“A lot of people know of it, but they’ve never viewed it,” he said. “If I could open a museum here in Napa, I imagine we’d get people from New York, from all over the world.”

In February, he offered the collection to the Newseum, an interactive museum of journalism in Washington, D.C. that includes a gallery devoted to the 2001 attacks. The display includes reproductions of 127 newspaper front pages from Sept. 11.

Newseum curator Carrie Christoffersen admired Perry’s labors in pulling so many headlines together into one place, but decided his asking price of up to $250,000 was too much for the museum. 

The very size of Perry’s collection makes it unwieldy and expensive to display, but the papers could gain even more historic value as the emotional punch of the attacks fades with time, Christoffersen said Wednesday.

“When we get to the 20th, the 30th or the 50th anniversaries, there could be universities clamoring to know how things played out on the front pages,” she said. 

“It’s just an impressive size and an incredible effort to make it happen. It’s not like you can go down to any newsstand and garner this many titles. He’s done an amazing job gathering so much.”

Meanwhile, the 9/11 newspaper collection may yet change hands. Lacking a buyer or a gallery in Napa County, Perry plans to put his hundreds of issues up for auction on eBay.

As welcome as the money would be, that isn’t his main dream, Perry said. He wants his papers to have an audience.“I’d be ecstatic just to display these locally,” he said wistfully.

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