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Thoughts on the most dreadful week of a lifetime

At 8:45 a.m. Tuesday, I lugged my laptop into the living room and kicked
off my normal morning routine — reading about eight to 10 sports sections online,
sifting through reader e-mails, hitting the relevant sports sites and so on
— with the television blaring (as always) in the background. Usually, I
watch SportsCenter until 10, followed by “Beverly Hills 90210” (FX), the
“White Shadow” (ESPN Classic) or the BCMA (Best Cheesy Movie Available).

bill simmons
For whatever reason, I flipped to “Regis and Kelly” around 9:25, where they
were showing video footage of President Bush talking (or so I thought).
Thinking nothing of it, I went right back to work, ignoring the TV for a few
more seconds until I heard the words “plane crash” uttered.

Sixteen hours passed … and I was still sitting there at 1:30 a.m.,
alternately slack-jawed, horrified, devastated and just plain scared. You
want to talk about a TV marathon? This was like nothing we’ve ever seen. Like
everyone else, I was flipping channels searching for information, answers,
videotapes, explanations — anything — and the hours zoomed by at warp
speed. Looking back, the day feels like an unhappy, restless blur.

Three days later, my stomach still aches, an ulcer of grief. I keep waiting
for that feeling to fade away … and it just keeps gnawing at me. I can’t
imagine how the friends and family of the victims must feel.

Anyway, I felt like I needed to write something — especially when I received
so many absorbing, heartfelt e-mails over the past few days — so I’m posting
this the same way I would send a group e-mail along to my friends. Hope it makes sense.

What follows is a collection of random thoughts, comments, reactions and some
of the reader e-mails I received during the most dreadful week of my lifetime …

About a month ago, my girlfriend and I rented “13 Days,” a well-done movie
about the Cuban Missile Crisis that came out last year. We went out for ice
cream after the movie and ended up talking about life back in the 1960s — how
people were living on the edge, how different things were in America with the
constant threat of the Cold War — and I wondered if that absence of fear was
the reason that our society de-emphasized the importance of religion over the
years. Back in the ’60s, everybody went to church. As for me, I couldn’t even
remember the last time I had attended a Mass.

Anyway, I remember wondering during that conversation if some of those people
in the ’50s and ’60s embraced religion because they were afraid of dying.
Nowadays, I said, Americans didn’t have anything to worry about … the world
was a much safer place for us. Maybe that was why some people felt like they
don’t need religion as much, I said.

Little did I know.

    From reader K. Deiboldt:

    “I work down about three blocks from the Trade Center. I was right underneath
    Tower 2 at the World Trade Center when the second plane crashed into it. I don’t think I
    could really describe what the experience was like. I just keep saying it was
    the worst Jerry Bruckheimer movie ever imaginable, and I was actually in it.

    “Small unbelievable things stick out. Like the flaming pieces of debris in
    the street as I ran. Taxi cabs speeding past me toward the towers,
    commandeered by cops. Me just saying ‘It’s not happening … it can’t be
    happening’ as I ran away. Me not starting to run away until I realized that I
    was still alive.

    “And every time I turned around to look, it got worse. People jumping. One
    tower falling. Then the other. Unimaginable. Terrible. Oh, for the days when my greatest fear was Derek Lowe …

    “Take care, Bill. I look forward to when we can read your columns again, if not just to get those images out of my mind for a few minutes.”

Obviously, my own experience from Tuesday couldn’t match the one you just
read, but still … I mean, that was the first time I’ve ever been speechless
(as in “no words could come out of my mouth” speechless) in my entire life.
Watching those Twin Towers crumble on Tuesday made me feel like I was living
in an alternate universe or something. It was simply impossible, wasn’t it?

People are saying now that it was one of those defining moments where “you
knew you were watching history unfold right before your eyes” and all that
crap, but I wasn’t thinking of anything like that. I was just sitting there
with my mouth open.

You can’t overstate how important the Twin Towers were to the Big Apple. When
you were driving into the city, they were one of the first things you could
see. When you were in the harbor coming by boat from Connecticut or Long
Island, the Towers extended into the air like welcoming arms. They were like
the Boardwalk and Park Place of the NYC skyline. Hell, everybody who lived on
the East Coast or attended college around here has at least one good friend
or family member who worked at one of the Trade Center buildings at some
point over the past few years.

Seeing those buildings on fire, with the imprints of disintegrated jets on
their sides, with people jumping from various floors and plummeting to their
deaths, with debris falling, with panicked people bursting out of the lobby
in waves… and finally, seeing them crumble like a house of cards… I mean,
there were just no words.

A few other things have been haunting me:

  • One of those bastard TV networks showed video of somebody plummeting to
    their death, almost to the point of impact (and they showed it more than
    once). Another network showed video of people trapped on the top floors of
    one of the WTC building, leaning out of windows and frantically waving for
    help. I know the networks were basically ad-libbing things as they went
    along, but some things just don’t need to be shown. Period.

  • Hearing an answering machine message left by someone on one of the top
    floors — a man calling to say goodbye to his wife. Heart-wrenching.

  • I keep thinking about those guys on the plane that crashed in Pittsburgh,
    the ones who found out through the cell-phone grapevine that two planes had
    already crashed into the World Trade Center. And they knew they were next, so
    they took a straw poll and decided to rush the cockpit. I can’t even imagine.

  • Just thinking about the dilemma of A) being burned alive or B) jumping to
    your 100-story death, with no choice “C.” Chilling.

  • That one video CNN had of the second plane crashing into the Trade Center
    — in slow motion, it ripped through like a knife going through butter, so
    you could actually see the shadowy imprint of the plane leaving a
    plane-shaped hole in the building before it exploded. I keep seeing it. It
    won’t go away.

  • The face of the terrorist whose mug shot appeared on just about every major
    newspaper yesterday — grim expression, black eyes, the face of pure evil. I
    hate that picture.

  • The fact that everything happened on 9-11-01. 9-11. You couldn’t have made that up.

      From reader J. Armbrecht:

        “My building is 1 Liberty Plaza, the building that was rumored to be
        collapsing yesterday — right across the street from the WTCs. I got to my
        building after the first plane hit and was in the lobby when the second one
        hit. I saw men and women jumping out of the 80th floor of Tower One. It was
        either jump and not feel anything or be burned alive. I can’t fully describe
        what it is like to see that (I’m tearing up just thinking about it). It’s one
        thing to watch people jump from buildings on ‘Fox’s Scariest Police Videos’
        (those people all miraculously survive), but it’s different when you actually
        see it and know they’re gone.

        “I go — I’m sorry, went — into the Trade Centers every day. I can remember
        the faces of people who worked on the 104th and 76th floors, where I’d drop
        off documents. Those could be the people that had to jump or were caught in
        the flames or were crushed in the collapse. If the building was hit a couple
        of hours later, it could have been me that had to decide between burning or
        jumping. Every time I close my eyes I picture the guy I saw jump out of the
        flames and cartwheel 80 stories, not to mention the screams of people around
        me watching the same thing. My mom asked me last night if I feel any guilt
        for being alive — if I felt should have been in there. No. No one should
        have been there. No one deserves to die like that.”

      had a meeting in San Francisco on Tuesday that I
      needed to attend, but because of my newborn son’s illness, I
      decided to do the meeting via conference call
      instead. As my son improved over the
      weekend, I considered flying out first
      thing Tuesday morning, taking the first flight out
      from Newark Airport. My son’s
      condition worsened Sunday night, and I
      changed my mind for good Monday morning,
      deciding to stay home Tuesday and participate
      via phone instead. The flight that I would have
      been on? United No. 93, the one that crashed in
      western Pennsylvania.
      J. Becker, in an e-mail to
      Bill Simmons

      Like just about everyone else, I know the names of a few people (friends of
      friends) who worked high up in the WTC buildings and haven’t been heard from
      yet. One of those guys went to school at Colgate with some of my high school
      buddies and actually had an expansion franchise in my Roto football league
      this season (I didn’t know him very well, but he seemed like a good guy). His
      team name was “The Second Coming,” due to the fact that he dropped out of the
      league a few years ago but made a triumphant return this season.

      I looked at our league standings Wednesday and noticed that Second Coming was
      tied for first place. Just eerie.

        From reader D. Chiossi:

        “I’m a school teacher during the year and work at a summer camp in July and
        August. During the day yesterday, I decided to call the summer camp I work at
        and inquire about everyone and see if everything was ‘OK.’ Upon calling
        camp, I learned that one of the brothers of a person I work with was on
        Flight 93. It was discouraging to hear that news.

        “Later that day, driving home from school, I was listening to the radio when
        they cut to a simulcast of a MSNBC report about the passengers’ actions on
        Flight 93. Upon listening to this report, they spoke of a ‘Jeremy Glick.’
        After a few seconds, I realized it was the brother of Jared, the person I
        work with at camp. From all accounts and conversations I had, he called his
        wife, inquired about the Trade Center planes, and then said, ‘We’re not gonna
        let this happen here.’

        “From there, I’m sure everyone has heard the story. It seems that they were
        able to take the plane down, die in the process, but save America from
        another crash into another landmark and further denting our already fragile

        “Earlier Tuesday morning, I was making preparations for our fantasy football
        league and completing stats from Monday night. Included in our stat update
        was the invite to come over to the house to watch the games on DirecTV. I
        learned this afternoon that at 2 p.m. Sunday, I will be at a memorial
        service for a true American Hero.”

      So maybe that’s what comes out of this thing: airports beef up their security
      and spend more money for competent employees, every flight gets its own air
      marshal, we pay a few more bucks with our airfares, we sacrifice an extra
      hour or so of our time before every flight … and something like what happened this
      week never happens again.

      I’ll take that package in a heartbeat.

      As for Logan Airport in Boston, I live about 15 minutes away. On Tuesday afternoon, a
      fighter plane (coming from Logan and heading West) roared above my apartment
      house at 1:30 — one of those F-16’s that sound like they’re about to land in
      your living room even though they’re about 25,000 feet above in the sky. For
      about 2.3 seconds, before I realized what it was, I honestly thought the
      world was ending. I’ve never felt that way before. And I hope I never feel
      that way again.

      Later that same day, I headed outside for a quick Store-24 stop and found
      myself glancing around the neighborhood where I live — checking out the
      houses, the sky, the parked cars, how the sun bounced off the trees.

      Everything looked the same … but it wasn’t the same. Nothing felt the same.

        From reader J. Becker:

        “I work(ed) at One Liberty Plaza in NYC, the big office building across from
        the South Tower that has been rumored to be collapsing for the last two days.
        My desk in my fourth floor office is (was) pressed up right against the window,
        facing the South Tower. Each day I take the PATH train into the basement of
        the WTC and arrive there around 8:35-8:40, then take about five to seven minutes to
        walk through the WTC concourse, and then walk in front of the building,
        across the street to my office. This plan would put me in or near the WTC
        right as the first plane hit, and who knows what would have happened next.

        “As it turns out, my new baby son was born two weeks ago. I had planned to go
        back to work last Monday — the day before the attack — but my son developed
        complications last week and has been in the hospital since (we think he’ll
        wind up OK soon). Because of his condition, I have continued to stay home
        in northern New Jersey and was not anywhere near the WTC that morning.

        “Additionally, I had a meeting in San Francisco on Tuesday that I needed to
        attend, but because of my son, I decided to do the meeting via conference
        call instead. However, as my son improved over the weekend, I seriously
        considered flying out first thing Tuesday morning, taking the first flight
        out from Newark Airport (as I have done many times previously). Unfortunately
        (at the time), my son’s condition worsened Sunday night, and I changed my
        mind for good Monday morning, deciding to stay home Tuesday and
        participate via phone instead. The flight that I would have been on? United
        No. 93, the one that crashed in western Pennsylvania.

        “Assuming my son makes a complete recovery through this, one day I will let
        him know how happy I was that he was very ill in the first few weeks of his
        life. Either way, I would have been in harm’s way in New York or on that
        plane. You just never know.”

      During the midafternoon on Tuesday, I realized that a friend of mine named
      Dan McLaughlin worked at the WTC — we went to college together (Holy Cross),
      and he wrote a column for me called “The Baseball Crank” on my old “Boston
      Sports Guy” website. After some frantic web-surfing, I found out that Dan’s
      office was located on the 57th floor of Building One; I e-mailed some of his
      college buddies, and they hadn’t heard anything from him.

      So I spent the next hour or so thinking about him, wondering about the odds
      and everything. The 57th floor seemed pretty reasonable; some of the
      survivors interviewed on TV made it out of the building from floors 20-30
      floors higher than that. Then again, you never know.

      Around 4:30, we heard from him — he sent out a group e-mail explaining that
      he was late to work because he had stopped to vote in the New York primary.
      Needless to say, he never made it to the office and he was safe and sound.
      Still, opening my e-mail box and seeing his name in the subject heading …
      that might have been my most exciting e-mail moment of all-time.

        From reader P. Curtis:

        “I just wanted to drop you a line about this week’s horrific events. I was
        fortunate to know the pilot of AA flight 11, John Ogonowski. John used to be
        a regular customer at a deli I managed not far from his home. He would come
        in sometimes reeking of the manure that he had been spreading at his farm. He
        would just smile or laugh when people would tease him about it. From time to
        time he would come in dressed in his uniform just heading off to a flight or
        returning from one. I used to tell him that he must drive one hell of a tractor.

        “Every year, I would make my annual trip to Saratoga for the running of the
        Travers Stakes. It is always a big family gathering for us. Every year John
        would bring me a huge sack of his just picked sugar & butter corn. Never had
        to ask, and never got charged. He was proud to be a pilot. He was proud to be
        a farmer. I would still see him around town or in a pub that we both
        frequent, and he never forgot a friend. He was a decent man and I can only
        hope he didn’t suffer long at the hands of those murderous bastards.

        “What does this have to do with sports? Nothing. But what the hell do sports
        have to do with anything anymore? Thanks for letting me write.”

      Right now I have one of those ghastly Vitaly Potapenko-type beards going …
      and I don’t care. I’m not shaving until Team Bush pulls a Maximus and we have
      our vengeance on somebody. I’ve never felt emotions quite like this before —
      rage, vengeance, it’s all there. And it doesn’t ever let up. I almost feel
      irrational right now, and I’m probably one of the most rational people you’ll
      ever meet. I feel like a few cowardly people changed our lives — forever —
      and somebody needs to pay for it. I can’t stop thinking about it.

      Still, there were a few things that made me feel good this week, even if it
      was the worst week of all-time:

      The way our government and the American people rallied around the President
      … the you-can’t-even-quantify-it courage that New York City firefighters
      and policemen have shown over the past three days … hearing the stories of
      heroism that trickled out over the past day or so … hearing those random
      stories from people who were supposed to have been at the World Trade Center
      on Tuesday morning but ended up not being there for one reason or another …

      Getting e-mails from 30-40 readers Thursday who were just making sure I
      was OK (because I hadn’t written a column in a few days) … President Bush
      getting choked up Thursday morning (say what you want about the guy, but he
      seems genuine enough) … walking around and noticing that people seemed
      friendlier in general (strange phenomenon) … waking up Wednesday
      morning and knowing that it wasn’t Tuesday anymore.

        From reader D. Carabello:

        “The tragedies of Tuesday were numbing, and right now nothing to me really
        matters except knowing my friends and family are OK. Our rights as
        Americans were totally violated Tuesday, and our lives really will never
        be the same. And if you’ve ever heard this song, it’s been playing over and
        over in my head for the last few days …”

        And the rivers shall open for the righteous (2x)
        And the rivers shall open for the righteous, someday

        I went walking, with my brother
        And he wondered, oh, how I am
        Said what I believe with my soul
        Ain’t what I see with my eyes
        And there’s no turning back this time
        I am a patriot, and I love my country
        Because my country is all I know
        I wanna be with my family
        People who understand me
        I got no place else to go … I am a patriot …

        I went walking, with my girlfriend
        She looked so fine, I said baby what’s on your mind
        She said I wanna run like the lions
        Released from their cages
        Released from the rages burning in my soul tonight … I am a patriot …

        And I ain’t no communist, and I ain’t no socialist
        And I ain’t no capitalist, and I ain’t no imperialist
        And I ain’t no democrat, I sure ain’t no republican either
        I only know one party, and that is freedom, I am, I am, I am
        I am a patriot, and I love my country
        Because my country is all I know

        And the rivers shall open for the righteous (2x)
        And the rivers shall open for the righteous, someday
        Someday, someday, someday…

        — Steven Van Zandt’s “I am a Patriot”

      At my local Dunkin’ Donuts on Wednesday morning, I couldn’t help but notice
      that the people working behind the counter were undoubtedly of Mid-Eastern
      descent. They looked edgy and grim, like customers had been sneaking them
      dirty looks all morning. I couldn’t help but feel badly for them. Just one of
      those things that gets an already crappy morning off to an even worse start.

      Remember what it was like for Iranians living in this country during the
      late-’70s? You just get the feeling that it’s going to be 10 times worse for
      anyone of Arabian descent in this country. That’s going to be one of the
      running subplots from this whole mess over the next few weeks. Ugh. Just one
      of the things that will change about our lives, irrevocably, after this week.

      As my dad said on the phone today, “The world your kids will enter will be
      totally different from the one you lived in.”

      I’m not sure if this is a good thing.

        From reader J. Villani:

        “A friend of mine who is very close to me worked on the 78th floor of Tower
        2. He started his day like the rest of us, except at 8:45 he looked out his
        window to see the sister tower across from him suddenly explode. Instantly
        thinking bomb, they started to leave by elevator.

        “He got down to the 44th floor where conference rooms are located and was met
        by a guard who assured them that Tower 2 was OK, and if they wanted, could
        return to the office. Upon thinking, and quite wisely, he and two female
        co-workers returned to the elevator and started to head down.

        “As the doors were closing, the second airplane struck just 11 floors above
        them. The elevator jarred and stuck and as the door closed, he wedged himself
        into it to help the others. He accidentally slipped and the elevator door
        closed, trapping one of the women. The shriek of horror was indescribable.
        Instead of selfishly running for the stairwell, my friend, with burning
        debris falling around him, pried the door open by hand, and got the woman
        out. He ran down the stairs with her, made it out, and 10 minutes later, the
        building collapsed.

        “I spoke with him today. He is suffering immense ‘survivor’s guilt,’ because
        some very close to him did not make it out. The woman he stayed back for
        called him to thank him, and he broke down into tears. I have never been
        prouder of someone in my life. I had a good friend become a great one.

        “I hope he realizes some day that his acts are truly heroic, and he has
        nothing to feel guilty for.”

      There was a reason you didn’t hear from me this week — those “These are the
      moments that remind us that sports is just a game” columns make me nauseous.
      I hate reading them almost as much as I would have hated writing one this
      week. Every few years, no matter what tragedy is involved, those same columns
      start getting pumped out — whether it’s the San Fran Earthquake, Oklahoma
      City, this week or whatever. Enough already.

      First of all, we don’t need to be reminded that sports are trivial in the big
      scheme of things. We’re not morons. And if we do need to be reminded
      of it, there are better ways than four hijacked planes crashing into various
      targets, causing $20 billion worth of damage and killing thousands of people.

      Second of all, it’s insulting for someone to say that sports isn’t important;
      I can’t speak for you, but some of the happiest and saddest moments of my
      life have been directly related to sports. And lastly, those kinds of columns
      carry a hidden message — they’re basically saying, “I know I’m irrelevant, I
      know I don’t matter at all.” Who asked you? If you really feel that way,
      don’t waste my time in the first place.

      As for the running “Should the NFL and MLB play this weekend?” story, I
      couldn’t even understand the argument, to be honest. We just suffered the
      worst American catastrophe of all-time. What’s wrong with taking a few days
      to mourn, pray, commiserate and regroup? That’s not a sign of weakness, it’s
      a sign of compassion.

      I mean, what happened this week affected me. I’m not ready for life to go on
      yet. I’m not ready to bounce back, make football picks, make my Roto football
      moves, check out my Roto baseball team and head down to Fenway for a few beers. Thanks, but no thanks.

        From reader J. Thomson:

        “It has been very difficult to drive past the Pentagon to and from work these
        last few days. Every time I drive by that charred side of the Pentagon I
        have a sick feeling in my stomach, and wish that I had given my life in the
        place of our nation’s soldiers, sailors and airmen who died for their
        country. I feel lucky, but the hurt is overwhelming, and I know some heroes
        in the air over Pennsylvania perhaps let me cheat death a second time in the
        same day, when they knew from relatives on the phone describing the events in
        NYC that were simply going to be used as a flying bomb, and cheated the
        terrorists themselves.

        “These people are heroes. If children in this nation feel they need athletes
        as role models, I would tell them think again, and hang a picture of one of
        those passengers killed in a nameless field in Pennsylvania or a picture of a broken
        and battered FDNY survivor leading blinded civilians from the collapses on
        their bedroom wall … true heroes like these won’t have Nike printing
        posters of them, but they should.”

      One last thought before I let you go…

      There’s something about 60,000 people gathering for a sporting event and
      belting out “The Star Spangled Banner” that seems so … American. It’s
      probably the only thing that makes me wish that the NFL had returned this
      weekend. And I’ve always been somebody who couldn’t stand hearing the
      national anthem during run-of-the-mill sporting events; too frequently, it
      seemed as if fans were going through the motions during the song, as if the
      whole process was more of a nuisance than anything. The entire process seemed
      to cheapen the effect of the song, leading me to (mistakenly) believe that
      the anthem should only be brought out for certain sporting events.

      Now? It all makes sense.

      And just thinking about people belting out those lyrics at games all over the
      nation next week … well, somebody needs to turn on the heat in here, because I just got the chills.

      Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.

  • Filed Under: Lifetime, Simmons, TV

    Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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