Sunday, September 11, 2011

My 9/11 experience

On my Craig's Corner blog I posted my story of being a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch covering the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer on the day the team and I were scheduled to fly from Tampa to Denver.
The flight never reached its destination as the United Airlines plane was diverted to Birmingham, Ala.

It was Sept. 11, 2001.

Ten years later, here are a few thoughts on that day :

THE STORY behind my story sent to The Dispatch -

I don't know how the Crew staff in Columbus did it but shortly after the plane was ordered to land in Birmingham, Ala., and it was apparent the match the next day in Denver was not going to be played, they came up with a chartered bus to get us back to Columbus that night.

Once settled into my seat I knew I had to right something but with the battery supply of running low because I had been writing on the plane and no Internet access on the bus, my time was limited.

(Records show I created the story slug at 11:47 a.m. Eastern Standard Time - Birmingham was an hour behind - but only wrote the first three paragraphs. I then started a new slug at 1:50 p.m. and continued writing).

Also, it was very hard to concentrate on anything other than the horrific reports coming from the radio. We had traveled for awhile before we stopped at a KFC.

Not knowing when I would get a chance to eat again (always a priority with me) I tried balancing lunch with trying to write - I fortunately found an outlet - and digesting what was happening in the world.

I finished most of the story, got the batteries recharged a bit and we headed north with a promise from coach Greg Andrulis that we would make another stop somewhere, sometime for dinner at which point I could find a place to file my story.

A little before 6 p.m. we did take a break just outside Louisville. The team scattered to some of the fast food places while I headed to a nearby a YMCA.

For some reason I couldn't get an Internet connection (no wireless in those days, either). I tried a dial-up connection. No luck. Everything seemed to go wrong and I contemplated dictating to someone at the newspaper. I tried getting the story to print out so I could fax it. No go. Transferring the story from my computer to another via disk was a chore but it finally worked.

(I made a copy of the story on my computer at 6:12 p.m. just in case the original somehow got lost).

Unfortunately, the whole process had taken the better part of an hour and the players were starting to wander back to the bus and I still hadn't filed. You couldn't blame them for wanting to get back to their loved ones as soon as possible.

As I rushed from one office with a possible connection to another where the fax machine was located and back again I remember going through the lobby just as NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw was starting. 

At last, I was able to get the story sent through a YMCA computer but I also had it faxed as a backup (I still have the printed copy). I must have spent 75 minutes there.

I am forever grateful for Coach Andrulis for his patience. He had an an antsy group of men who wanted desperately to get back on the road but he knew how important it was for me to do my job. Thanks, Greg.

EARLIER IN THE DAY, of course, everyone was listening intently to the radio as we pulled out of the Birmingham airport but as the news got grimmer and, yes, the talking heads starting pointing fingers at who in this country were responsible for letting the attacks happen, it was decided a break was needed.

So for the rest of the trip we alternated between playing a movie on the VCR and listening to reports. We did take time to listen to President Bush's address and the mood on the bus was a mixture of shock, sadness and anger at what had been done to our nation.

I don't remember all the movies we watched but they included Jim Carrey's Liar, Liar and Scent of a Woman.

The climatic scene from the latter when Al Pacino is before the student inquiry was just starting when we pulled into the Crew Stadium parking lot around 10:30 p.m. Having never seen the film even though it had been out nine years (I was  busy), I missed the conclusion.

I didn't see the ending for about six years until it was shown on HBO or something. Ironically, it was just days before the anniversary of the attacks.

COSTA RICAN defender Daniel Torres had just moved to the U.S. a week earlier to join the Crew and was on his first road trip to Tampa and Denver.

Once the bus parked in Columbus he was going to go back to his Downtown hotel but Andrulis was concerned about him being alone in a strange city in a country that was under siege.

I offered to let him stay in my spare bedroom and I remember Torres, 23, staying up late using my desktop to e-mail or instant message friends back home that he was safe.

LASTING IMAGES: After departing the plane in Birmingham without a sky walk, I walked from the tarmac, up a flight of stairs to the concourse. A TV was on in the closed bar and from behind the gated entrance I got my first glimpse from what we had only heard - the entire New York skyline was obscured by bellowing smoke.

I could never have imagined such a picture.

- National Guard with Uzis were in the baggage claim and and bomb-sniffing dogs around our luggage on the tarmac. For some reason the luggage, including a lot of Crew gear, was later sent to Denver before being returned to Columbus. I didn't get my checked bag back for nine days. 

- I hadn't seen video of the second plane hitting the WTC until about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday and it was a shot from behind showing a direct hit. I actually lost my breath while sitting on the couch.

THE UNFINISHED PRODUCT: Here's the unvarnished story I was writing on the plane that I never finished once we were told of the terrorist attacks and that we were being diverted to Alabama because all passenger planes were ordered out of the skies.

I created a story slug at 9:01 a.m. and worked for a few minutes until the flight attendants said to store the computer for takeoff. I remember resuming my work about 15 minutes after being in the air.

DENVER - The Crew's first and only look at the new Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium before tonight's game came via Monday Night Football.
Players and coaches tuned in to Al, Dan and Dennis not to root for the Denver Broncos or New York Giants - other than rookie and New York native Edson Buddle - but to get a glimpse of what to expect in an unfamiliar surrounding.
``It looks huge,'' forward Dante Washington.
He was less concerned about the luxury boxes and sightlines than the condition of the turf and its impact when the Crew and the Colorado Rapids play the first soccer game in the stadium.
``It will be interesting to see how it holds up,'' Washington said.
Invesco Field is the first in the NFL to use DD GrassMaster, a mixture of real and synthetic grass - for every 100 blades of natural turf, three plastic ones are inserted.
Columbus was refused permission to train on the field yesterday and instead worked out at the Rapids' practice facility in suburban Westminster.
``Personally, I like to get in there (Invesco) beforehand since we've never been here,'' coach Greg Andrulis said. ``If you ask the guys they don't care one way or another.''
OK, midfielder Ansil Elcock, what do you think?
``As long as we get five minutes on the field before the game, it will be all right. Grass is grass,'' he said.
Forward Jeff Cunningham agreed, ``The most important thing is getting three points.''
A victory would clinch fourth in the overall standings and secure home field in the first round. The Crew could finish as low as sixth if it stumbles tonight and at home Saturday vs. Tampa Bay in the regular season finale.
``We're a great team under pressure,'' Elcock said. ``We know we need to give a good 90 minutes going into the playoffs.''
It has been a long haul to reach this point. Columbus languished in 11th six games into the season

NOTE: I stopped right there without finishing the sentence. I then had a series of two- or three-word outline notes -  some of which now I can't even decipher - in my haste,  I think, to help me remember once I restarted the computer.
By the way, because the story was to be published in the Wed. Sept. 12 edition I had already put in that the team had trained yesterday afternoon (Tuesday) and would have filed the story after that practice. At least that was the plan.
Apparently, I had already written the graphs below and were about to link them with the ones above. I guess.

``I don't know if I can talk enough about how important home field is, especially with the travel,'' Andrulis said.
The Crew will likely play San Jose or Los Angeles. One of them will win the Western Division and automatically receive the No. 3.
Here's what lies ahead for the Crew if it faces either team without home field: The Crew left Saturday for the Tampa/Denver trip and returns Thursday afternoon. It hosts Tampa Bay two days later then might have to wait until after the San Jose-LA match on Sunday afternoon before knowing who it will face in Game 1 one from today.
Because the Crew likes to get to the West Coast two days before a match, it possibly could have less than 24 hours to prepare for a road trip.
The second game would be in Columbus on Sept. 22 and a third game if necessary would be on the West Coast Sept. 26.

IT'S EERIE how a phrase casually used pre-terrorist attacks took on a whole new meaning afterward.

The headline in the Tampa Tribune on Sept. 9, 2001, for a Q and A with Tampa Bay Mutiny president/GM Bill Manning discussing the rebuilding of a team on pace to be the worst in MLS history:

Mutiny Back to 'Ground Zero'