Remembering 9/11

A bugler plays taps at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa. (Laurence Kesterson/Staff Photographer)

About 40 professionals from my hometown were asked to share their memories of 9/11 with high school students, some who barely remember the attacks of that day. I was honored to be asked. Below is what I said.

Good afternoon. My name is Sam Donnellon and I am a sports columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and I am also a Haddonfield parent of three children, all of whom have passed through these halls, at least one of whom had Mr. Coughlin as their teacher at one point or another. Patrick Donnellon, my youngest, graduated HMHS last year and is now at the University of Dayton, and loving it.

By now I hope that what I am about to share with you is merely a garnish to the day’s events. I hope at some point today, if not all of it, you tried to imagine what it would have been like to be a high school senior on that day 10 years ago, what it would have been like to have a family member, a working father or working mother, traveling somewhere on that day. And finally, and most of all, what it would have been like to have someone you know, or love, working in or even near those two buildings that day.

Anyway, where was I 10 years ago Sunday? I was in a car,  on Crystal Lake Avenue, on my way to the airport, when I found out. I was headed to a big first-place showdown series between the Phillies and the Atlanta Braves, bigger than the one that just took place here earlier this week. Larry Bowa was the manager.  Current Milwaukee pitcher Randy Wolf – whom the Phillies face tomorrow – was their best-known pitcher.

A few minutes before, I was in my usual scramble to pack and get out the door when the house phone rung. I let it ring, let the answering machine pick up, and heard my mother’s voice on the other line. Usually, she will conjure up some reason that she needed to talk to me, but that day it was just something like, `Just calling to see what you’re doing. Call me back. Please.’

The `Please’ was definitely not normal protocol. Especially the sad way she said it. Anyway for whatever reason, because I hardly did it in those days, I flipped on 1050 as I turned off Haddon Avenue. It was a gorgeous day of course, so I had no concern about the flight. About 20 seconds into listening though I heard that the Philadelphia Airport was closed. My first thought was that something had crashed there.  Even when I first heard it was a plane that hit the towers in New York, I thought of one of those small craft mishaps.

 But the gaps in my understanding filled. Quickly. By the time I hit the Crystal Lake shopping center, I was pulling into the lot to call my mother. All of it was a rush of realization: She knew I was flying, she knew more about the attack than I did, knew there was concern that dozens of planes were involved in this plot at that point. Indeed for the next two hours there was that sort of speculation, especially after the Pentagon was hit and the crash in western Pennsylvania.

Anyway, I told her I was OK, that I was headed home, and she told me as much as she knew about the crash. And then I went home, consoled my wife, turned on the television in the sun room… And watched for the rest of the day.

I couldn’t move. Literally. I know that sounds dramatic, but it isn’t. My brother worked in one of those towers for a few years. My father, my father-in-law, both commuted into midtown for most of their professional lives. I worked there as well, first for something called The National Sports Daily, and later as a correspondent for the New York Times and New York Post. I sat on that couch and watched for hours. People called to make sure I wasn’t in a plane. I can’t tell you who.

My daughter was in middle school at the time, and she knew I was flying that day. I never even thought to call her and tell her I was fine. I can’t tell you why. She had broken her foot playing soccer and when I went to pick her up that afternoon, she cried hysterically when she saw me, told me she thought I was dead. Other fathers had called to tell their daughters they were safe she said.

I’d like to have that one back.

 I offered to go up there for the paper but was told the city was in a lockdown mode, that we were only allowed a certain number. So I watched and watched and watched. I just could not fathom a tragedy of this, special-effects proportion magnitude.

 Growing up in North Jersey, I could never imagine coming over that hill on Route 3 heading into the city and not seeing those two towers amid that landscape. It is still an eery feeling when a movie about New York from the ‘90s or before shows up on television and those landmarks – which were more prevalent than even the statue of liberty – appear. It is still eery for me when I get to that part of the Jersey turnpike where they should be, and instead, see nothing but space.

My brother lost a few friends in Tower 2. One awful story he tells involves a meeting for bids on a project. When the first tower was hit, those in the second tower were  told to evacuate. Again, everything thought the first hit was just a bad accident. The woman running the bid meeting said that anyone who left could forget about winning the bid. We know this because a couple people did leave. But most did not.

Air travel was changed forever that day. We now enter most stadiums as if getting on a plane. Our computer bags are searched and scanned. Sometimes there are bomb dogs around. I remember taking my two young boys to Yankee Stadium for the World Series in 2001 and we were sitting way up top behind home plate. A few minutes before the start, these snipers emerged from one of the portals, ran single file up the concrete steps, climbed up a ladder that led to the famous façade. We watched as they fanned around the stadium and situated themselves, and their rifles in each opening. And Tim and Pat didn’t watch a lick of the game I think.

The first game after 9/11 was right here in Philadelphia, between the Braves and the Phillies at the old Veterans Stadium, and it was one of the most emotional events I’ve ever had to cover. Larry Bowa, old-school tough guy manager, wept when the anthem played. Players teared up during and afterwards, fans too, and most of the scribes in the press box.

It’s hard to remember too many of the details immediately afterwards. Except how immensely proud I was of the people in this country. They drove from Kansas and Texas and North Dakota to help. We went to the docks in Hoboken to load supplies and food. People wanted so badly to help. Every sports story I wrote felt silly for awhile, like I was dishonoring something by bothering with such matters.

 I assume most of you have seen the pictures, the footage, the pink sky, people covered with dust as if this was Hiroshima. If you are anything like I was at your age, it probably even gets categorized with all those other recent chapters of history in which photography and motion pictures exist, the A-bomb, Pearl Harbor, D-day, Vietnam and the awful carnage in Africa that continue through today. But none of those attacks occurred on this continent. And as you have probably learned through this course, that’s a game-changing difference.

My wife’s college roommate lives in Stratford. She’s one of those people who can get paralyzed by her fears, and I remember she blew off a reunion with other college friends two summers before because they were meeting at the top one of the Twin towers. We thought that was so funny. Sure, there had already been a bomb driven into the parking lot underneath the building but all it did was shake the building a bit. We thought she and her fears were silly.

We became her for awhile after 9/11. We feared everything and everyone. Anthrax was mailed to the offices of two senators and several media outlets, including NBC, and five people died as a result. Those with Middle Eastern looks or name were treated suspiciously or worse. Sarge, who runs the friendly 7-11 on Haddon Ave and who is from India, had his front window smashed. As I recall, speculation was that it  was done by a kid about your age.

But here’s what also happened after 9/11, something I wish we could somehow rediscover  as we honor those who perished that day. We actually stopped operating via fear. We stopped looking at each other as the enemy in our day to day dealings. People said hi more, slowed down for each other, made eye contact, hugged and – this one was a biggy – discussed their differences respectfully and rationally. At least for awhile.

For me, what 9/11 is all about, 10 years later, is that: Not succumbing to fear, any fear. Fear of lost wealth… status… jobs… friends ……. and, above all, death or injury.

It is about the pursuit of selflessness, of being part of something bigger than your own little world and of treating each other not as intruders but as allies, regardless of how different we look or how different our politics and predispositions.

Liberal, conservative, the irony of that awful event was how close it made us all feel to each other. I naively thought it would last the rest of my life, certainly longer than 10 years. It hasn’t. But then again, I could never have imagined what would occur in those 10 years – the divisive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that renewed our distrust in government, the health care debate and banking misdeeds that fueled extremist opinions on both sides of the spectrum and prodded us to treat each other as enemies. It’s disappointing to say the least. I hope you guys work to change it.