For my friend, 9/11 hits close to home
As a sports writer, I get paid to write about games. Win or lose, everyone goes home at the end of the day.
I love my job and think it's the greatest job in the world, but one of those not so great times was 10 years ago today.
Like many Americans living on the West Coast, I woke up to the news of planes hitting the World Trade Center buildings, and like many, I was horrified at the images displayed on my television.
At the time I was going to school at Pima Community College in Tucson and working on the student paper there. We were a weekly paper and on that Tuesday we were on deadline, trying to get the paper out for that week.
But all I could think about was the sight of the twin towers collapsing and the thousands of people who died.
The idea of writing a story about volleyball just didn't seem right.
At the time I didn't know anybody from New York, but since then, I've become good friends with many people from there.
One of my friends from New York is Wally Odinokow. His father, Walter, was a captain with the New York City Fire Department and was blocks away when the towers fell. Wally was 19 at the time and was working in Long Island.
He recalls 9/11 like it was yesterday.
"It was just one of those New York days that you can't beat," he said. "It was one of those summer days that everyone looks forward to all year. I just couldn't wait to get outside and start working."
But while Wally was outside loading up fence panels, his coworkers were inside, glued to their televisions after finding out a plane had hit the North Tower.
"I noticed that I was the only guy loading up fences for the day and all of I sudden I go, 'Where is everybody?' I see everyone sitting on the couch, and somebody said that someone just flew a plane into the twin towers. Then all of sudden you see the second plane," Wally said.
As soon as the second plane hit, Wally's boss gave them the option of either working or watching the news coverage. They opted to watch. Wally started making calls to family who worked in the area. One of his cousins worked in the towers.
Wally said his cousin only drank coffee maybe once every six months.
"For some reason, she decided to stop for a cup of coffee," he said. "She got all the way to the building and put her hand on the door handle and felt the entire building shake. She was smart to just walk away. She took a couple steps back and was like, 'what the hell?'"
In the weeks after the attack, Wally's father would work six days, come home, sleep all day, then grab another week's worth of uniforms and go back to Ground Zero. There he would catch a few hours of sleep here and there on a cot in a school where the windows had been blown out.
About 10 days after Sept. 11, Wally's father took him to Ground Zero. The dust cloud still hung over the city, and construction workers from all trades were side-by-side with the FDNY, digging and trying to find people.
"He took me around in a FDNY golf cart and just kind of drove through. Every 50- to a 100-feet you would see guys with hazmat suits on who would be standing around with power washers in their hands," Wally said. "You would pull up in the golf cart and they would spray down the tires. They didn't want certain debris going from one end to the other.
"It was just really weird with the look on everyone's faces. You could tell that everybody was just exhausted and emotionally spent. At that point, everyone was still doing non-stop digging, but pretty much all hope was gone that they would find anybody alive," Wally said. "At that point it was finding body parts to identity for the family members. I saw one guy pull out half an arm from the elbow down to the fingers. He put it in a bucket and handed it off to somebody."
To fight the smell of burning flesh that still hovered over Ground Zero, Wally's father and others had to grow out their mustaches and smear Vicks on them.
Wally's father spent 25 years with the FDNY, mostly with the EMS portion of the department, and was even on site in 1993 during the bombing of the World Trade Center.
"My father was one who never wanted any recognition for his job," Wally said. "You talk to a lot of firefighters and at the end of the day they will tell you, 'just doing my job.' They're not heroes, they are just there doing their job."
Because of his work at Ground Zero, Wally's father got what is called the "9/11 cough" after breathing in all the debris. He retired from the FDNY a few years after 9/11. Today he lives in Lincoln, Neb. As for Wally, he lives in Tucson with his wife Valerie, a native New Yorker herself.
Sept. 11, 2001, changed a generation. It is the single defining moment in my generation, just as President Kennedy's assassination was for my mother's generation, and the attack on Pearl Harbor was for my grandmother's generation.
In the 10 years that have followed, this country has changed. The idea of meeting family and friends at the airport gate is gone. That sense of innocence and security that we had before 9/11 is gone, and may never come back.
In New York, the piles of debris that so many people worked so hard to clear, are giving way to the new World Trade Center.
Today a National Memorial, which consist of two pools where the towers once stood, plus a cascading waterfall, will be dedicated to those who lost their lives.
Along the edges of the pools will be the names of the victims of the World Trade Center as well as the victims of the Pentagon attack and United Flight 93.
On 9/11, New York and the country took a shot to the gut, but we picked ourselves up and got back to normal.
Sports returned and the idea of writing about a volleyball match didn't seem wrong anymore.
But while 9/11 was a like a sucker punch to the back, we also banded together as a country and fought back and stood up for what we as a nation believe in.
As Wally says, "As a New Yorker, that is something that you're brought up to do from day one, because if you don't you will get eaten alive. I was told that at a very young age.
"That's what the new (towers) are going to show. That New Yorkers stand up for what they believe in. We always pick ourselves back up and we always make it back."