It was one of those events you’ll always remember where you were when it happened. My memories are further engrained because I was in New York City at the time. I was working as a subcontractor for the company that managed the on-site merchandising at the tennis US Open at what is now the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
I was among several that handled merchandise at venues across the country that came together for certain major events to handle sales. We saw each other a few times a year for weeks at a time and came to know each other very well. In New York, we supplemented our management staff with hundreds of local part-time workers, many of whom returned year after year. The US Open, a two-week long event, ended two days earlier on September 9th. Over 30,000 people were on the grounds during the finals and I used to wonder if where I’d been might have been a better target? On September 10th we had a day-long half price sale. On September 11th, we began the drudgery of tearing down, packing up and cleaning up.
I was walking from the Octagon, a store in the middle of the grounds to an office when Terry O’Connor the General Manager stopped me and said, “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.” I followed him to his office where there was a television. No pictures were available yet but witnesses were being interviewed who described an “Airbus” flying into the North Tower. I discounted the eyewitness report, thinking of the well-documented unreliability of the same. I assumed it was really a small private plane that must have hit the tower. About a minute later, television now had images of the tower and we could see the smoke pouring from the hole. Terry and I were speechless as we acknowledged the extent of the damage. A few others gathered and watched in silence. Suddenly a second plane flew into the South Tower and I heard groans and cries from among our number. I thought of the passengers and crews, of the workers on the affected floors of the towers. Reports came of other planes that had been hijacked. Reports of a plane flying into the Pentagon, another crashing in Pennsylvania. We stared at the screen, awaiting every update when suddenly the North Tower collapsed, over a hundred floors crumbling at once creating a huge cloud of dust. It took a while to comprehend the horror and then ultimately, the South Tower collapsed as well.
Every commercial flight still in the air was a potential terrorist weapon. Flights were grounded nationwide. What we didn’t know far exceeded what we did. Cell phone towers were overloaded and we could neither make or receive calls. I walked back to the Octagon which had a landline and called back to Orlando to let my family know I was okay. They weren’t even aware of the calamity yet so they were at least spared that worry. Out of caution, the USTA asked everyone to leave the grounds so those of us that could, returned to the rented homes we were staying in.
That year I was staying in Queens off Parsons Blvd. There were six of us in a home and our housing was unaffected by the attack. Others in our group were staying in Manhattan and couldn’t get back to their housing, clothing, and things. Those who were housed in Queens and Long Island absorbed the stranded in their housing and our group of six became twelve. People were sleeping on the beds, couches, and the floor. This was now Tuesday night, most of us were scheduled to depart on Thursday. No flights were scheduled and we had people going to Miami, Boston, Ohio, and California.
I had driven to New York from Orlando. I was going to be there for six weeks and didn’t want to have to rely on shared vans for transportation. “Miss Charlie” who worked with me in Orlando and had flown, arranged to ride back with me because all flights were still grounded. Her mother in Orlando had Charlie put me on the phone and she made me promise to “get my baby home.”
There were endless rumors about upcoming secondary attacks. Police stations were barricaded. There were alleged bombs planted on the George Washington Bridge which I had to cross when leaving New York. When we began our drive. We had to cross the Triborough Bridge with the Manhattan Skyline directly on the left. I couldn’t bring myself to look, even when stopped and paying the toll when crossing the bridge. A few minutes later I was most nervous when crossing the GWB, remembering the rumors. Finally, we made it across and began the long drive home.
I’m leaving things out. A month before, two of my children were visiting me in New York during my stay. I naturally took Alan and Lauren to the top of the World Trade Center where we ate in the top floor restaurant and took pictures. Had the attack been scheduled a month earlier. It could have been us. That wasn’t God’s plan.
Also, I had no idea or way to find out if any of the hundreds of local workers from the US Open, had been in the World Trade Center on 9/11. A year later, I returned to New York, stood at the hole where the towers had been, considering the incongruity of the vendors selling T-shirts. I eventually learned that one of our local workers was employed as a messenger and lost his life in the towers a year before. It’s been fifteen years today since the attack occurred. Seems more like yesterday