The little park on the corner of 35th Street and Second Avenue holds two basketball courts, two handball courts and a couple of benches. On Wednesday afternoon, pick-up basketball games were played on both courts. Four men each were on the handball courts. Two older men sat on one of the benches. Joseph Leslie, 80, a World War II veteran, and his best friend, Jerome Goldman, 81, remarked on the talents of one of the young men who had just dunked a basketball.
“I’m a Knicks fan, all my life,” Leslie said. “He’s a Celtics fan, always has been. I tell him he should move to Boston.”
“I tell him to shut up,” Goldman said. “It’s a free country and I’m living in New York and I’m rooting for the Celtics.”
I came on this small park while walking to Bellevue Hospital. The day after terrorists crashed hijacked planes into the World Trade Center, my assignment had changed. On Monday there had been a Yankee-Red Sox game to cover. On Wednesday the story had changed.
At Bellevue were hundreds of men and women, young and old, standing in line so they could fill out missing person forms and maybe, always being hopeful, find the names of husbands or wives, fiances or girlfriends, sons, daughters, cousins, uncles, best friends, life partners, on a list of injured who had been identified at a hospital in Manhattan or Brooklyn or Staten Island or New Jersey.
In between the baseball game Monday night and the walk past the park to Bellevue Hospital is my little story.
First, an admission. An editor I very much respected told me many years ago that he hated nothing more than writers and columnists who start every sentence with the word “I.” Or any sentence, for that matter. “Nobody cares about what happens to you,” he said. And so I’m writing this understanding that my story is no more important than anyone else’s, and much less important than so many stories, but it is the only story I have to tell this week.
Sports is the reason for this story.
Sports and a realization that there are so many great people in our country, people we will never know, people who don’t think what they are doing is extraordinary. These people are firefighters and policemen, paramedics and ambulance drivers. They are the volunteers, thousands of them, who want to sweep the dust off the street or make coffee or bring steaming plates of pasta into Ground Zero, as it’s called, even though there is a chance that another building might collapse. They are the counselors who are listening, over and over, to the distraught people who are missing their loved ones. These New Yorkers I’ve met this week, the fans people love to hate, these are people to admire.
If ever we make our athletes out to be any more special or heroic than a fireman, somebody should make us shut up.
Tuesday morning I was still in New York because that’s how it is when you cover sports. Word of the trip came suddenly, late in the afternoon on Aug. 29. Leave Sept. 1 for a football game in State College, Pa., go on to New York for the second week of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
But this was a holiday weekend. Air fares were high, $2,500 to $2,800. Except for one flight, a red-eye from Los Angeles to Islip, N.Y., via Boston, on American Airlines. It was $1,500. I took it. And my route home, on Monday, Sept. 10, would be the same. American flight out of Islip, through Boston and back to Los Angeles.
On the final Saturday of the Open, I was asked to stay in New York an extra day and write from the Yankee-Red Sox game on Monday night. Roger Clemens would be trying to win his 20th game in 21 starts. History-making. The Red Sox were a mess too, a compelling story in itself. Of course, I’d stay.
When I called American to change my flight, I had the option of keeping the same 3:05 p.m. flight out of Islip to Logan Airport that I’d had Monday. Or I could take a 6 a.m. flight to Boston and connect to Flight 11 into LAX. I’d been gone for 10 days, was eager to be home, and decided to take the early flight so I’d be back in Los Angeles before noon. I asked if upgrades from coach to business class were available. Yes, there were. So I took that. I had a seat, 15B.
At the very last moment, just as the agent was giving me the new itinerary, I apologized and asked if I could change to the afternoon flight. I’m not a morning person and I knew that I’d end up staying awake all night to get a limo for Islip. Oh, and one last thing. I wanted to make sure I could upgrade on the later flight.
“No problem,” the agent said.
“Good,” I said. “Otherwise, I’ll keep the morning flight.”
The Yankee-Red Sox game was rained out Monday. I wrote a Red Sox column, went back to the hotel and packed. My phone rang shortly before 9 a.m. Tuesday.
“Are you awake?” my husband asked.
“No,” I said. “I told you the limo wasn’t coming until noon.”
Dan Weber is my husband and he told me to turn on the TV.
“Right now,” he said. “There’s been an explosion at the World Trade Center.”
As we talked, the second plane flew into the other tower. I saw that the New York airports were closed and told him I would call American to see if Islip was still open.
“Yes,” the American agent said. “Your flight is still scheduled.”
I called Dan back and at that moment, a crawl ran across the bottom of the TV screen saying that the FAA had closed all airports in the country. And another crawl said it was believed the first plane to hit the World Trade Center was American Flight 11.
“Dan,” I said, “that was my flight. I had a seat on that flight.”
My sister, Terri Pucin, was in a meeting in an office building on 15th and Ninth Avenue. She watched both planes hit the World Trade Center. She saw people jumping out of windows. “What if,” she said later, “you had been on that plane and I had watched it?”
There was no answer to that question.
After speaking to an editor, who told me to go out and see what I could see, I left the Grand Hyatt. Subways weren’t running. The street outside the Hyatt, 42nd Street, was strangely quiet. A limo was outside. The driver asked where I was going. I told him I wanted to see as much as I could see.
“For $400,” he said, “I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”
I ran across the street to a cash machine, got some money, gave it to him and we drove. We drove through Times Square, where people were standing around cars parked in the middle of the street with radios on. Men in business suits, women holding babies, three high school-age students with their backpacks who had been heading to school. Everybody was listening to car radios.
On top of a Toys ‘R Us building under construction, workers had made, out of sheets, two signs. One read “God Bless America.” The other said, “Pray for Victims and Families.” About a mile from the area where the World Trade Center had been, Fran Martin, a 46-year-old woman, stood covered in white soot. She had been walking on a street less than three blocks from the WTC when the first plane hit.
“It was an earthquake-like feeling,” she said. “And then there was eerie silence. There was paper falling from the sky. There were neckties landing on the street. I saw people jumping out of the building.” Martin broke down for a minute and then continued.
“People were amazingly under control,” she said. “We didn’t know if we should run or stay and help. People were kind of milling around and everybody was talking to each other or trying to make cell phone calls. I had walked about five blocks away and heard the second plane hit. Oh my God, people just stopped still. One man wondered if the world was ending. There was so much smoke and soot and I just started running. What kind of world do we live in?”
People, hundreds of them, were walking north, out of downtown, in neat rows, the way we did at St. Anastasia grade school during fire drills. They were walking through two or three inches of white soot, as if there had been a snowstorm. People covered their mouths with coats, ties, handkerchiefs. One man stopped to take off his socks to cover his mouth.
Another man, about 30, who didn’t want to be identified, said he and a few others had broken down the door to a locked apartment because they couldn’t breathe. Women were barefoot, having run right out of their slip-on shoes. This was about an hour after the two towers had collapsed.
At Chelsea Piers, where a triage unit had been set up, a firefighter, who didn’t want his name used, said he was inside the first tower when the second tower was hit.
“I had my gear on, on the way to a stairway and I heard a huge explosion,” he said. “There were literally hundreds of people around me screaming. I eventually saw a light and I just started screaming at everybody to go toward the light. I was dragging people behind me, just pulling them along.”
Andrea Frederick, a 35-year-old office worker who ran down 74 flights of stairs in the first tower, said she was “literally chased by a plume of dust and smoke” down the street when the first tower collapsed.
“I was afraid I’d die because I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I fell a couple of times and people helped me up. I can’t tell you how great people are. A stranger told me to get in his car. He took four of us who had been running here to the pier because he heard that’s where injuries were being treated.”
On Wednesday I was given the assignment--go to Bellevue Hospital, talk to the people who are trying to find missing loved ones. It was a 15-block walk from the hotel to Bellevue. It was a quiet walk. People were outside, walking dogs, buying newspapers. Some restaurants were open. “We will not surrender to terror,” a sign said. “Dinner will be served.”
I passed St. Vartan park and saw the games being played. It was comforting, not disrespectful.
It made me wonder where sports fit into this, the most horrible occurrence most of us had ever witnessed. At Bellevue, hundreds of family members of the missing stood quietly in a line hoping, many praying, for any scrap of information to end their agony.
Some brought framed pictures, others scribbled medical information, some distributed flyers made at neighborhood copying centers--anything that might help hospital personnel determine if their loved one is among the injured or the identified dead.
“I just have this feeling Michael is still alive,” said a tearful and sleepless Monica Iken, whose husband, Michael, 37, worked as a financial broker. “We’ve been trying to get pregnant and somehow I just know he’s alive.”
It was a scene of peace in a city gripped by chaos. There was little talking, little crying, no laughing. Mostly numbness and staring.
A young woman spoke softly into a cell phone: “What kind of surgery did Dad have? Was it his gallbladder or his appendix? They want that on this sheet. And how tall should I say he was, Mom? I always thought he was 5-10, but I want to be sure. They’re telling us the more exact the better.”
With much of the city’s transportation system shut down, some had walked miles to get to the hospital on the East Side, far removed from the scene of the tragedy on the southern tip of Manhattan. Many vowed not to return home until they received word, even if the word was that the worst had happened.
Although police had set up the familiar NYPD blue barricades to keep the media and curious onlookers away from those in line, the separation was not enforced, and many of those in line hunted for reporters to show their pictures and tell their stories. There was almost no talk of anger or retaliation against the terrorists.
A common theme among those waiting for information involved the last phone call, the last conversation. In some cases, that occurred after the first plane crashed into one of the towers.
“Michael called me after the first explosion,” Iken said. “He told me how he was watching the fire across the way and that he wasn’t worried. He said there had been an announcement to stay put and that he’d call me back. He said he’d call me back. He promised he’d call me back....”
Standing outside Bellevue, Javier Soto wore a Yankee jersey. His brother, Michael, worked in the first tower hit.
“I’m a Mets fan,” Soto said. “But Michael is a huge Yankees fans so I’m wearing Yankee pinstripes. If we can find Michael, I’m a Yankees fan forever. Do you hear that, Michael? A Yankees fan!”
On the walk back to the hotel, a basketball game was still going on in the park.
“I’m playing because I just have to get rid of some anger,” Billy Callahan, 25, said. “I called up some of my buddies and we came to play.”
Wednesday night my husband said my mom had called him. When she had seen a list of people killed on Flight 11, it had hit her that my name could have been on the TV. Dan and I talked about the cell phone calls that had been placed from the doomed planes to loved ones. Would he have wanted me to call or would that have made things worse? This, we decided, was not a good conversation.
On Thursday the Hyatt was evacuated. It is connected to Grand Central Station. That was my contribution to the news report of the day.
There were debates about whether to play sports this weekend. In the middle of a discussion about whether it was disrespectful or immensely helpful to play games, my husband talked about his dad. Dr. Mel Weber died last November, two days before Thanksgiving. He had been a Marine Corps flight surgeon during World War II and it wasn’t until the last year of his life that he talked much about what he had seen during his time in the Pacific.
“My dad loved telling me what it was like when their ship stopped in Hawaii and there were all-star baseball teams led by Stan Musial, Bob Feller and Ted Williams,” my husband said.
“His face would light up and he’d talk about some of the best baseball he’d ever seen in his life. Sports meant so much to him. It took him back home where he would share games he loved.”
On Friday I walked. In Central Park, Harrison Mitchell, a 37-year-old lawyer who worked in the Twin Towers, played catch with his 8-year-old son, Justin. Mitchell had taken this week off. He had taken Justin to the Yankee game Monday night.
“Justin really wanted to see Clemens pitch,” Mitchell said. “After the rainout, I promised him we’d go back Tuesday night because Clemens was supposed to pitch against the White Sox.
“Maybe this sounds wrong, but I can hardly wait for baseball games to start again. I mean, baseball is our national pastime, right? Baseball is part of America and we need to be Americans right now. So I want to hear somebody say ‘Let’s play ball.”’
What happened Tuesday has changed everything. And nothing. What happened Tuesday makes it imperative that we can be who we are. And Americans are sports fans. We love our games. That’s why our athletes are paid so well.
NCAA office pools, Super Bowl Sunday, the World Series, these events bring our country together. We gather around TVs to see Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chase a home-run record. We brag that we picked Hampton to beat Iowa State on our NCAA pool, even if we didn’t. Maybe what happened Tuesday will help us refocus on what is good about the games we play and watch, how they have the power to unite Americans of different races and religions.
Maybe we’ll find a team owner who won’t raise ticket prices next year, in honor of our country. Maybe a free agent will say that whatever raise he negotiates will go into a scholarship fund for a child who has been left fatherless or motherless, who might no longer have a dad to play catch with him in the park or a mother to take her to a tennis lesson.
Today, I hope, I’ll be back in California. Monday the games will start again. When they do, I’ll remember the guys playing basketball, just so they could get rid of anger, energy, tears. I’ll remember the father and son playing catch and all the men and women wearing Yankee caps or Giant jerseys as they dug through rubble or tried to find family members.
It won’t be easy to cheer for the Dodgers at first. It’s hard to imagine being excited over the USC-UCLA football game or getting goose bumps when the Lakers receive their championship rings. But we will and we should. It’s who we are. We’re Americans.
Diane Pucin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.