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Slimantics: Seventeen years later, 9/11 memories endure

 

Slim Smith

 

 

By this date 17 years ago, my job began to bear some vague resemblance to what it had been three days earlier on Sept. 10, 2001. 

 

I was then sports editor of The East Valley Tribune in metropolitan Phoenix, Arizona. For a newspaper such as ours, based in a city that was home to all four major sports, along with Arizona State University athletics, September was always a busy month. 

 

On the morning of Sept. 11, as I helped get my kids ready for school, my mind was filled with the duties of the day ahead. The Diamondbacks, in just their third year, had become a real playoff contender, hanging on to a tenuous 1-1/2 game lead over San Francisco in the National League West. They had had an off day Monday and were opening a three-game series at Colorado that night. They were the talk of the town along with Arizona State football, which had just come off a 38-7 win over San Diego State in what was Dirk Koetter's first game as the Sun Devils coach. 

 

The Arizona Cardinals, had a bye the first week of the NFL season and would not open their season for another two weeks. 

 

The Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Coyotes were still in training camp. 

 

Until around 7 a.m. that sunny Arizona morning, these were the stories of the day and the masters of my thoughts as I dressed with the ambient noise of the TV in the background. 

 

I recall looking absently toward the TV as I dressed, seeing the surreal image of a plane flying into a tall building and initially assuming it was some sort of movie trailer. A few minutes later, having cranked up the volume and now fully focused on the scenes playing out on the screen, I realized it was something else, some horrible accident. I wondered how it was that a plane could veer so far off its course. The pilot must have lost control of the plane, I thought. 

 

Then there came the real-time horror of watching another plane plunge into the South Tower and I knew it was no movie trailer nor tragic accident. It was mass murder. It did not seem real. It did not seem possible. 

 

I finished dressing, saw the kids off to school, and headed into the office, listening to radio broadcasts of the events in New York, D.C., and Pennsylvania during my 45-minute commute to the city. 

 

By the time I had arrived, the newspaper staff was already in a state of manic activity. I met briefly with the newspaper editor and managing editor before meeting with my assistant sport editor to discuss how we planned to proceed with the day's work. 

 

In my mind, there was really just one decision that had to be made: Would we publish a Wednesday sports section? 

 

Already, my reporters were checking in. They wanted to know what they should do. No games were going to be played that day, obviously. There was some discussion about having our reporters contextualize the tragedy by talking with the coaches and athletes we covered. 

 

But it just didn't seem right to me. If there were ever a day when sports meant little to nothing and the opinions, views and attitudes of the coaches and athletes were of no more interest or value than any random person on the street corner, Sept. 11, 2001 was the day. 

 

I asked our sports columnist to write a story that explained that the Diamondbacks game was cancelled and included whatever other sports were cancelled that day. I also wrote a short piece explaining our decision not to produce a sports section in the day's edition. 

 

I told everyone else to go home and be with their families. 

 

The next day's paper was devoted almost exclusively to the attacks. My previous newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, ran a 96-point headline on its front page that read simply and somehow appropriately, "BASTARDS!" 

 

That week, our newspaper reported that some of the terrorists had received their flight training in the Phoenix area. The Saturday after the attack, a misguided fool shot and killed Balber Singh Sodhi, a Sikh-American gas station owner in Mesa whom the shooter mistook for a Muslim. 

 

By Wednesday, our sports department was back to what passed for normal. 

 

Eventually, the games resumed, all accompanied by a pall of national grief and a dim hunger for something to divert us from the horror. 

 

The D-Backs were indeed for real, winning the division, beating the Braves in the league championship and then winning a memorable Game 7 of the World Series against the Yankees, a series that will be best remembered for the soul-stirring images from the three games played in New York. 

 

The Suns didn't make the playoffs. The Coyotes bowed out in the first round. The Sun Devils went 4-7. The Cardinals were their usual mediocre selves -- finishing with a 7-9 record. That was also Pat Tillman's last season in the NFL. He abruptly abandoned his NFL career to join the Army, one of thousands of young Americans who enlisted as a personal response to 9-11. He died in Afghanistan in April 2004, a victim of friendly fire, something that had been kept from the public for what I suppose was public relations purposes. 

 

Aside from the absence of a sports section, there was one other addition to our Sept. 12, 2001 edition -- a full-page, full-color image of the American flag. 

 

For weeks, you could see them all over the city, taped to windows of homes, storefronts, cars and buses until the merciless Arizona sun had bleached them gray and yellow. They faded and frayed like memories. 

 

But some memories refuse to go away entirely. 

 

The memories of that September endure.

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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