Special Reports

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: A day like no other

We awoke to the horror. On television over breakfast, on the radio driving to work, from a terrorized voice over the telephone we heard the news. One plane hit the World Trade Center, then two, then the Pentagon and Pennsylvania.

Some of us went numb as the television networks played and replayed the fire, smoke and destruction. Rumors rose of other planes, other cities at risk. It was like a dream, like a movie, like a Tom Clancy novel. But it was real.

Some of us were there.

"Everybody is in shock right now," said Jerry Chaing of Lakewood, a student at New York University.

"I just want to be home right now," said Gig Harbor's Jen White, a student at Columbia University.

We reassured our children.

"We are very far away from where this happened, and we are not in any danger," kindergarten teacher Christine Regazzo told her students at Bryant Elementary School.

But still we had to act.

Judge John Coughenour ordered Tacoma's federal courthouse closed just after 6 a.m. Marshals and guards took position along Pacific Avenue.

The county's emergency operations center went to security Level 2 as Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor ordered increased vigilance at the County-City Building. Tacoma police officers and detectives alike were told to wear their uniforms.

The Washington State Patrol went to its higher security level of Green Alert and began inspecting bridges, from the Narrows to Hood Canal to the Tri-Cities.

Officials spoke.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell called the events of the morning "a horrific attack on our country."

U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks said the coordinated attack was "an act of war" and a "shocking indictment of security at our airports."

Across the country, the sky slowly fell eerily quiet.

Sea-Tac Airport, Boeing Field, the Tacoma Narrows Airport and Thun Field closed. Only military aircraft took off as all commercial airliners landed on government orders. By nightfall above Puget Sound, the only planes flying were F-15 and F-16 fighters on patrol.

Early in the day, local military installations went to Threat Condition Delta, the highest threat level.

The Navy dispatched two guided-missile frigates and one destroyer into Puget Sound from Naval Station Everett. In Bremerton, officials locked down the naval shipyard.

Maj. Gen. Roger Brautigan, deputy commander at Fort Lewis, said all artillery practice at the fort would be canceled "so that noise from training will not be misinterpreted."

The 62-member Puget Sound Urban Search and Rescue Task Force made ready to fly east to help.

With added security checks at Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base, Interstate 5 became clogged south of Tacoma.

Some drivers - fearing a gas shortage or hearing an untrue rumor that the price hereabouts had gone to $5 per gallon - formed lines at filling stations.

At the Portland Avenue Chevron near Highway 512, cashier Elizabeth Brown reported that a dozen cars were waiting for gas and that one customer had spent $700.

"He was stocking up," she said.

Most state ferries stayed tied to their docks until mid-afternoon. Amtrak trains stayed safely at their stations.

Flags slowly began falling to half-staff outside schools, government buildings, offices and homes. Other flags rose from car antennas, in windows, alongside the road.

Stranded travelers began calling travel agents. Sandy Mack of Carlson Wagonlit in Tacoma noted that by 2 p.m. few, if any, rental cars were left available anywhere in the country.

"It's chaos," she said.

By lunchtime at the bar at Ram Bighorn Brewery in Tacoma - where sports broadcasts typically would fill the 10 huge video screens on the walls and where diners usually would spend a loud, pleasant hour - the room was still, the diners grim, the screens alive with death and the constantly replayed debris of attack.

Stern talking heads and continuous news bulletins consumed nearly every TV network.

We had to do something. There had to be something we could do.

We called our friends and our family. According to AT&T spokeswoman Kieren Porter in Portland, the volume of long-distance phone calls leaving the Northwest doubled.

We gave blood.

On a normal day, Cascade Regional Blood Services would see 200 donors, but 1,058 came in over Tuesday and Wednesday. More than 400 of them had never given a donation. One man was 77 years old. On that first day, the center turned away 200 people.

"I needed to do something to help," said donor Sharon Fisher, who waited three hours in line.

"It is absolutely unbelievable," said Charlie Drummond, the blood center's executive vice president.

Unbelievable too, for Drummond, was the response of Tacoma merchants offering food and drinks for donors and workers. One donated a pallet of bottled water. A pizza maker delivered 54 pizzas. A bakery sent two vans of pastries and doughnuts. A grocery distributor sent "cream cheese, peanut butter, jelly, just cases of it," Drummond said.

"People waited five, six, seven hours and never complained. One man said he hadn't been able to give blood in years and asked if he could go out and buy hoagies."

All overtime parking tickets given to donors on Tuesday were later changed to warnings.

Along with blood, we gave money.

People gave cash at fire stations. They just walked up and left money - and flowers, and tears - with the firefighters on duty.

By Friday, the local office of the Red Cross had received $212,000 - where an average week would see donations of $6,000, said executive director Carrie Cirrito. People stopped by the Tacoma headquarters, people ranging from office workers who took up collections to children who gave away their allowances.

Seventy-five groups, formal and informal, began raising money for the local Red Cross - whether by going door to door or by hosting neighborhood events. Banks established accounts. Three hundred employees of one local company pooled their bonus checks for a total of $50,000. Coffee shop workers turned in their tip jars.

"I have never seen anything like it," Cirrito said.

People donated to the Salvation Army, United Way, World Vision. They gave cash, and they called in pledges and gave online.

It would be a day like none other, none ever.

The Tacoma Mall closed its doors early Tuesday, evacuating the 500 walkers who regularly gather before the stores open. The SeaTac Mall in Federal Way was closed, so too the SuperMall in Auburn. In Seattle, the Space Needle closed, as did the Experience Music Project, the Bank of America tower and Westlake Center.

"This is like a Sunday morning downtown," said Seattle mail carrier Margaret Yellowwolf. "Businesses are closed. It's just really quiet. It's strange."

The Puyallup Fair remained open, but the evening's headliner, R&B singer Mya, canceled her performance.

The Puyallup Fair remained open, yes, but Gloria Webster of Issaquah called the fair office to complain. "They shouldn't be open today ... everybody is in shock and mourning right now," she said.

"Closing the fair would be another victory for the terrorists," said Puyallup interim city manager Lee Walton.

The Mariners would not play the Angels that day, and no major league baseball teams would take the field for nearly a week. The Seahawks would not play the Chiefs. The Huskies would not challenge Miami.

The Tacoma Rainiers on Tuesday night would not confront the New Orleans Zephyrs in the first game leading to the Pacific Coast League Championship, and both teams would be named co-champions after the series was canceled.

Readerboards at businesses and churches throughout the South Sound suddenly carried a new message: "God Bless America."

One message alongside the freeway read: "But our Flag was still there."

At Curtis Junior High School, eighth-grade history instructor Clay Angle told his class, "You are living through history. When your kids ask you where you were when the trade towers were destroyed, you can tell them what happened."

The volume of calls to the Pierce County Crisis Line increased. Said supervisor David Whitwell: "Most of the time they just want some reassurance that it's not unusual to feel what they're feeling."

Along the waterfront at the Tacoma Fallen Firefighters Memorial - a site that would see gatherings throughout the week - caregiver Beverly Grace tried to explain to 3-year-old Brandon Mauss why there were so many flowers and so many tears.

"People put the flowers there because it's so sad," she said.

We felt alone, anxious, angry, afraid.

Sales of ammunition and guns rose at Gun&Bow on Pacific Avenue South. Gas masks and ready-to-eat meals were popular at the Duffel Bag in Lakewood.

There was barely a flag left on any store shelf by late afternoon.

By evening, we came together.

Six hundred people attended a service held by Associated Ministries of Tacoma-Pierce County at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church. Fifteen hundred met at St. James Cathedral in Seattle. There was a candlelight vigil at Unity Church in Edgewood and a service of prayer and intercession at University Place Presbyterian Church.

At the First Assembly of God Life Center in Tacoma, worshippers sang "Amazing Grace" and "It is Well with My Soul."

Friday would be a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance - marked in Tacoma by a gathering of 2,500 people, hands joined, who observed 10 minutes of silence at Theatre on the Square.

Fifteen thousand people met in Seattle, 7,000 in Bellingham, 1,000 in Olympia. Church bells rang and sirens wailed.

Nine thousand people gathered at the Puyallup Fairgrounds the day after the attacks to sing "God Bless America" and to hear Gov. Gary Locke say, "We resolve to apply ourselves in America to seek justice."

On Thursday, a man sat in a chair at the west end of the Narrows Bridge waving a flag at passing motorists.

Someone painted an American flag and the words "God Bless America" on a boulder alongside I-5 in South Tacoma.

And the night of Sept. 11 fell quietly over the South Sound. We gathered in churches, neighborhoods and along the waterfront. We held hands by candlelight, and we offered prayers and songs.

We did not want to be alone.

C. R. Roberts: 253-597-8535