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September 11, 2007 at 10:48 AM

Grim anniversary

Around this time of year, talk tends to turn to where people were on Sept. 11, 2001 and what they were doing. I usually stop them cold by saying:
“I was at the Pentagon.”
Not when the plane hit, mind you. But two hours later, standing directly in front of it watching flames and smoke pour out of the enormous hole blasted into its side. I had woken up in Baltimore that morning preparing for a Toronto Blue Jays-Baltimore Orioles series, having flown in the day before. People ask me what I remember most about 9-11 and I tell them it was more about what I did on Sept. 10. Everything after that is a huge blur. I spent two hours chatting with Toronto’s third base coach at the time, Terry Bevington, after bumping into him in Baltimore’s harborfront area. Spent another hour chatting with relief pitcher Scott Eyre as we both worked out in our hotel’s otherwise empty gym. The Blue Jays were going through turmoil at the time and the front office and most coaches — including Bevington — were about to be swept aside to launch the J.P. Ricciardi era. So, everyone wanted to talk.
A day later, none of that seemed important.
I was up rather early, for me, and had just arrived at the hotel restaurant for breakfast when I noticed some people staring at a TV set in the lobby. At that point, it was only thought to have been a small plane that had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Before I’d finished my first plate of buffet fruit, a second plane had hit. Before long, another plane had hit the Pentagon and I realized (not having a cellphone in those days — don’t ask) that I’d better get upstairs to my room. I passed the team’s trainer, George Poulis, along the way. He was at a table eating with an assistant and we chatted for a couple of moments about what was goiing on.
My telephone light was flashing up in the room. It was my office back at the Toronto Star and they wanted me to get to Washington any way I could. Our Washingon bureau chief had left for New York right after the first tower was hit and was stuck en route someplace in a grounded plane. I’d covered news for years in Montreal and they wanted me to cover the Washington part of what was going on.
My first thought, funny enough, after hanging up, was about my feet. I’d bought new shoes a few days earlier and they were killing me. So, knowing it could be a long day, I threw on a pair of running shoes, along with my slacks, and headed out. On my way out of the elevator, the late Tom Cheek, the team’s great play-by-play man, was heading in.
“This is war,” he told me.
I passed team trainer Poulis as well. When I told him where I was going, he seemed shocked. “Be careful,” he said.
I had to pay the hotel concierge a wad of bills to call around the city to find the one rental car left in Baltimore.
Within moments of planes being grounded across the country, rental cars were at a premium. He found one in a neighborhood that could best be described as “The Hood.” In Baltimore, that’s a nasty place. It took nearly 45 minutes for my cab to get there. All of the office buildings in Baltimore had been evacuated and people sent home, fearing another terrorist strike. At the rental car place, a couple of guys sweating in undershirts tried telling me there were no cars left. I got firm with them, told them we’d just called and where I was headed.
Surprisingly, they became very friendly upon learning my destination. “Well, we have that one out back, if you don’t mind a Tempo,” he said.
I didn’t mind. But they didn’t have any maps left. Another challenge, since I’d never been to Washington and had no clue where I was going. I crossed my fingers and figured I’d be smart enough to find what I needed. Traffic was non-existent heading from Baltimore to the capitol. The other side of the highway was a parking lot. Everyone was leaving Washington. Nobody was going in.
The first week that I worked in Seattle last year, when the Blue Jays came to town, I went over to chat with trainer Poulis. His first words to me were: “You know, I’ll never forget how on 9-11, you were the only one heading into Washington while everyone else was getting as far away as they possibly could.”
I’d never thought of things that way. The magnitude of the day’s events didn’t really hit me until much later on. At the time, my biggest concern was getting to Washington, finding the Canadian Embassy, talking to folks in charge there and on the street, then getting to the Pentagon. I was worried about where to park my car, knowing all the public garages would likely be shut (they were) and that there are some very bad streets in DC. Fortunately, I had bagged all my extra quarters throughout the year, making it easy to feed parking meters (yes, like a good Canadian, I was worried about paying for my street parking on 9-11).
The hours that went by were, as I said, a blur. I spotted the domed capitol building from the highway and some smoke off in the distance that I figured to be the Pentagon. Found everybody I needed to talk to. Looked for the “color” that newspapers always ask for in big events.
Used my Baseball Writers Association of America card to talk my way past police and national guardsmen to get right up to within feet of the Pentagon. That in itself is pretty amazing, since our cards did not have photographs on them like they do now. Different time, different level of security. In spite of what was going on, the police and guardsmen often tried to talk baseball when I showed them my ID and told them why I’d been sent.
My memories of that day are of the smell of smoke, which was always around. It drifted over to the small Sheraton Four Points where I’d booked a room for the night and could see the Pentagon out my window. That night, my story filed, was the first time I was able to see any television coverage from New York. It hit hard. Two weeks earlier, a buddy and I had flown to New York to take in some jazz for the weekend. We had stayed at the World Trade Center Marriott, checking out on Aug. 28. The hotel was destroyed, obviously. I thought of all our 4 a.m. bedtimes and noon wakeups and kept wondering if we’d have ignored all the alarms going off before the towers collapsed. I wondered about the hotel employees, and the surrounding neighborhood, having spent much of the summer at that hotel while the Blue Jays played the Yankees and Mets.
I thought about all this that night as I sat in the small Sheraton’s tiny restaurant lounge, eating cold food, drinking my bottles of beer a little too quickly and trying to ignore the smell of smoke wafting off my clothes.
The next day, at 7 a.m., I got a call from Toronto. Our Washington bureau chief, now back in the capitol, had seen a television interview the night before with the brother of a woman missing from the Pentagon. He’d only caught the tail end of it and remembered the guy’s first name and that he lived in Manassas, Va. The office knew I’d done investigative reporting and had ways of tracking people down. Within a few hours, I was in Manassas, the famed Civil War locale for the Battle of the Bull Run (which I’d read up on as a little Canadian kid) and had tracked down the home of Arthur Carver, whose sister, Sharon, had been working at the Pentagon when the plane hit.
Families of dead or missing people react two ways when a reporter knocks at their door. They are either furious for the intrusion, or, more often than you think, very talkative, as if the interest being shown provides a type of catharsis for their grief. Arthur Carver invited me into his home. He was rushing around, trying to arrange a babysitter, as he prepared for the drive to Washington — back to the emergency resource center for the family of Pentagon victims he’d been interviewed at the night before. We talked about his sister as he got dressed and packed an overnight bag. Talked about her recent family reunion trip to Walt Disney World and how nice it had been for her, even though he’d missed it. He showed me her photo and gave me one to use in the paper. “She’s still missing, you know?” he said, as if showing her picture around might provide a way to locate her.
I followed Carver around that day as he pressed authorities for information about his sister’s whereabouts. Ran into other families, grieving and seeking information just like him. The last I saw of him, he gave me his number and told me to call him later to see if there was any updated information.
And that was about it. My third day was spent at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, trying to get a ticket (at any cost, the paper had said) on to one of the first planes being allowed to fly back out. No deal, I was told. Only existing tickets were being honored on a limited basis. I never thought about the whole thing until afterward. About why I’d want to get on the first plane so soon after such a devastating terror strike. Just for the sake of doing a story. The office had told me it was strictly voluntary. Would I do it today? No, I would not.
I’d had enough. The next day, exhausted and tired of smelling the smoke across the street, I called Toronto and told them I was headed home. There was no way to get a flight home, so we booked a one-way rental car that I, after collecting my things at my Baltimore hotel, drove all the way to the border crossing at Buffalo, NY. I chose the route through Williamsport, Pa., having covered the Little League World Series a couple of times. The greenery and peacefulness of the mountainous area were welcome. My Boz Scaggs CD played in the car. No radio. I was done with 9-11. At least for that day. Dropped the car off in Buffalo and paid a cabbie $200 to drive me over the border to Toronto.
It took 12 hours, Washington to Toronto. I arrived home at midnight and was out having breakfast at my favorite Bloor Street diner the next morning, as usual. Washington seemed a world away. A couple of days later, our paper printed a list of victims from New York and Washington. I scanned the Pentagon’s list. Sharon Carver’s body had been found.
I visited the WTC site in New York while covering the Mariners in the playoffs that year and wrote a piece on the mood of New York for our paper. I was at Yankee Stadium the night George Bush threw out the first pitch in Game 3 of the World Series. Have never been more nervous covering an event in my life. I visited the WTC site one more time in 2003, finally able to glance around the neighborhood I’d frequented so often in 2001 without smelling the smoke or seeing charred debris at every turn. Was amazed at what a souvenir-hawking, tourist gawking circus it had turned into. Didn’t like it.
My only other time back came this past June. My girlfriend and her family were with me in New York and had not been down to the site since 9-11. So, we went. The area around it is a lot more tasteful now. Less gawking, more respectful tourists. Less tacky souvenirs of miniature towers on keychains. They’ve built something of an information center/museum down there, offering up a fitting tribute to those who have died. They have a memorial wall with the names of all those who perished in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. I scanned it quickly and found Sharon Carver’s name. I said a silent prayer for a woman I’d never met and quickly moved on.
So many lives were changed on that day six years ago. So many continue to be impacted by it daily, both here and overseas. Some of us are lucky enough to cover baseball for a living. We all talk about perspective when something bad happens, but, as with human nature, that lesson is quickly forgotten when things like a Mariners losing streak we describe as “devastating” comes up. That’s OK, I guess. It’s what humans do to forget something awful.
Life goes on. For better or for worse.



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