Friday, July 26, 2013

Sunday, September 11, 2011

That day 10 years ago

With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 plus the Russian plane crash Wednesday that killed nearly everyone on the Lokomotiv hockey team, I thought I'd share this story about traveling with a professional team as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch.

The Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer had defeated the Tampa Bay Mutiny on Sun. Sept. 9, 2001, in Florida. With another match scheduled Wednesday in Denver vs. the Colorado Rapids, the team stayed on the road in between games, spending Monday in Tampa.

I boarded a commercial plane Tuesday morning looking forward to writing my preview story (see my The Other Side blog: so I could spend a little free time in Denver after the Crew's afternoon practice there.

The following piece was filed to The Dispatch on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001.

By Craig Merz

This was written on a bus to Columbus from Birmingham.
This wasn't supposed to happen. Then again, neither are terrorist attacks on the United States.
As I boarded United flight 1087 at Tampa International Airport bound for Denver at 8:40 a.m. yesterday with members of the Columbus Crew and more than 100 other passengers, I jokingly tapped the side of the plane and remarked to goalkeeper Tom Presthus, ``It sounds solid.''
Presthus replied, ``At least that panel.''
Actually, there was just a bit of trepidation getting aboard since my flight from San Jose one month earlier had to return to the airport because of a malfunction in one engine.
The plane left Tampa without incident at approximately 9:15 - it was likely one of the last to get airborne in the United States for many hours.
An hour into the flight, as breakfast was being served, I felt the plane start to descend. This was unusual considering we were only one-third of the way to our destination.
A moment later, the pilot informed us that there had been a ``terrorist threat to the U.S.'' and we were being diverted to Birmingham. He emphasized there was no danger to our aircraft but that precautions were necessary.
A buzz went up and down the aisles as people conjectured as to the severity of the situation.
The man seated next to me was headed for a vacation in Vail, Colo., with his wife.
I remember him saying, ``I've been flying 55 years and have never had anything like this happen.''
Having flown since 1983, I had never come across such a ``precaution'' on a flight.
I remarked that it had to be something serious, maybe even targeted at Denver, to pull us out of sky.
My instinct, like that of many aboard, was to use my cell phone to call someone on the ground. Of course, that was not permitted, but it didn't stop me from pulling it from my bag in the overhead bin and putting it in my breast pocket to turn it on the moment we stopped. As a journalist, there's nothing more frustrating than being left out of the news loop.
A few moments later, the pilot once again got on the intercom and informed us of a terrorist attack but he did not give further details.
There was no panic among the passengers and one woman commented on the jet fuel that was being dumped to lighten the load before landing. She asked if the pilot had calculated the right amount to jettison.
The flight attendant said with a smile, ``I hope so.'' 
Just before touch down, another attendant passed word that there was a bombing in New York. There was no mention of hijacked planes, the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.
The only deviation from a normal arrival was that we had to exit the stairs at the back of the plane because a skywalk was not available. Being the sixth person off the plane, my first thought once I reached the tarmac was to phone The Dispatch to get an update. I got a message telling me all circuits were busy. It would continue that way for more than 30 minutes.
But some did get through as we stood on the runway waiting to get into the terminal. Until that moment, no one imagined the severity of the attacks. Then word spread quickly in bits -``World Trade Center'', ``planes'', ``buildings collapsed.''
My first source was Crew midfielder Robert Warzycha. It would have been comical if not for the tragic circumstances. Warzycha was talking in Polish to his wife in Columbus and then relaying information to me. I picked up ``World Trade Center'' as he repeated the words.
``I can't believe something like this happened,'' said Warzycha, who came to the U.S. in 1996.
The fact that it was a terrorist attack using planes was disturbing but will not deter Warzycha from flying again.
``If you have a certain job, you don't have a choice. You have to take a plane to go somewhere,'' he said.
After spending approximately five minutes we were ushered into a terminal gate where there was a rush to a bar that had the only two televisions in the area.
One was showing CNN, the other Fox News. About 20 of us stood in silence, getting the first glimpses of what most of the world already knew. Both screens had images of the remnants of the World Trade Center.
Curiously, my thoughts turned to Miami Fusion defender Carlos Llamosa. He was as a maintenance worker in the World Trade Center at the time of the 1993 bombing and would have been near the epicenter except he left the building to cash a check.
We were in the bar two or three minutes before security officials told us to go to the baggage claim on the lower level. Unfortunately, there were no TVs in the claim area and Birmingham's finest made sure I didn't try to sneak upstairs.
No matter, the pay phones were the target of travelers as they phoned families and friends for more information. Many had stunned looks.
``It's all a bit surreal,'' Presthus said.
The attacks in Washington were of particular interest to Presthus, who played for D.C. United for four seasons until being traded to Columbus in February.
``You really get a feeling for the amount of security when you live there,'' he said. ``I can't put my mind around what happened.''
The Crew is international group with players from seven countries.
``I'm amazed,'' defender Daniel Torres said.
Teammate John Wilmar Perez, a Colombian, said his first words to Torres when he heard of the attacks were, ``Welcome, to America.''
Torres came to the U.S. on Thursday from Costa Rica.
``I'm very sorry for the people who are suffering because of this,'' Torres said.
Assistant coach Oscar Pisano is from Argentina and has traveled the world.
``It's kind of scary. It could happen to your plane,'' he said.
New Zealand midfielder Duncan Oughton echoed those thoughts.
``We could have been flying to New York, it could have been totally different for us,'' he said. ``Things like this don't happen in New Zealand, that's for sure.''
Once it was determined that no flights would leave Birmingham, coach Greg Andrulis called the Columbus office to arrange a 10-hour bus ride home.
There was no need to go to Denver anymore because the match was cancelled.
``I'm devastated (by the bombing),'' Andrulis said. ``Canceling games is a minor inconvenience for us.''
The Crew climbed aboard a bus at 12:30 p.m. for the 10-hour trip but its luggage stayed behind. Bomb-sniffing dogs checked every bag on the tarmac. Then, each was x-rayed or searched.
``Two of the planes were United, their people are a little skittish right now,'' athletic trainer Amy Baer said.
Once on the bus, a radio delivered the grim news as the team settled in for the afternoon. The usual banter you would find when a group of guys gather was absent.
This was no time for joking.