Reflecting on what 9/11 means to me 20 years later, “death” most comes to mind.

I’m not writing that to be dramatic. The people I remember most from that Tuesday, when the Toronto Star dispatched me from Baltimore to the Pentagon after American Airlines Flight 77 had barreled into it, are nearly all gone. And of course, 2,977 people were killed that day at the Pentagon, the World Trade Center in New York and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, plus an additional 2,475 service members died in a just-completed 20-year war in Afghanistan resulting directly from the terror attacks. 

Some have tried to find deeper meaning and symbolism in 9/11, but it’s getting more difficult with time, and with recent events straining this country to its psychological brink. Beyond death, I’ve written previously about “perspective” being something we can gain from Sept. 11, 2001.

Within the sports world, the obvious perspective lesson is that games on a field, court or ice rink have little bearing on life and death. But once the initial 9/11 shock faded, those of us that didn’t lose anyone eventually reverted to our everyday lives and effectively eschewed meaningful perspective.

As is human nature, it often takes a death in the family or friendship circle to remind us things we fret about daily, such as money, sports and politics, can’t be taken with us.

So viewing 9/11 as a day of “death” works for me as a yearly reminder of what’s important.

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***

I had been awaiting the start of a Major League Baseball series between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles that morning when the planes hit.

Arriving downstairs at my Baltimore hotel’s breakfast buffet, I saw Blue Jays pitcher Roy Halladay staring at a television newscast. Though Halladay and I came to have a good relationship, back then I wasn’t impressed with a 24-year-old who barely spoke to anybody — his overwhelming shyness easily mistaken for arrogance and stubbornness — and whose pitching was so bad he had been demoted to Class A that year.

My initial reaction was: Wow, if even Halladay is watching the TV news, something really big must be going on. Turns out the towers had just been hit, and the Pentagon was about to be before my breakfast was done. Returning quickly to my room, Blue Jays radio announcer Tom Cheek, a U.S. military veteran, was exiting the elevator as I entered and told me stone-faced in his gravel voice: “This is war.”

He moved on without another word.

Being a Canadian, I hadn’t arrived at that conclusion. In fact, it would take most of the day ahead for the gravity of events to sink in. By the time I reached my room, the telephone message light — we didn’t travel with cellphones back then — was blinking, and my editors had instructions: Our paper’s D.C. bureau chief had tried heading to New York after the towers attack, only to get stuck on a grounded plane, leaving us with nobody to cover the Pentagon after it got hit.

So forget about baseball, and go cover real life.

***

I’ll skip the detailed part about securing possibly the last remaining rental car in panic-stricken Baltimore, where people poured out of office buildings into the streets, fearful of being hit next. But checking out of the hotel ahead of the 45-mile drive to D.C., I bumped into Blue Jays trainer George Poulis, who wondered where I was headed with suitcases as all flights were indeed grounded.

When I told him, he looked at me wide-eyed. “Be careful,” he said.

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In latter years, crossing paths with Poulis whenever the Mariners played the Blue Jays, his first words were always: “I’ll never forget that day you drove to D.C. when everybody else was trying to leave.”

And he had a point. That morning, mine seemed the only vehicle headed into D.C. On the opposite side of the interstate was endless miles of gridlocked vehicles trying to flee.

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Poulis is the only person I remember in detail from the day who is still alive. He’s now the head athletic trainer for the Atlanta Braves. 

For me, 9/11 is a blur of completing work-related tasks, my first-ever D.C. visit spent navigating a terrified capital (without a map and before GPS existed for cars), conducting interviews and following the smoke plumes into neighboring Arlington, Virginia, to find the burning Pentagon building.

In those days, I kept a stash of quarters in my computer bag to feed parking meters — credit-card options another decade away — and they came in handy, though it today seems ridiculous to have worried about being ticketed on 9/11.

After parking one last time in a suburban neighborhood, I’d set out walking toward the Pentagon. I encountered makeshift police checkpoints, at which I’d pull out my orange Baseball Writers’ Association of America card — which lacked a photo back then — and explained why my lone media credential was sports-related.

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Security in this country is now quite different. But at that point, my photo-less BBWAA card got me within feet of the Pentagon’s steps, where smoke billowing from the crash would seep into my skin and clothes for days to come. That night, exhausted, with my story filed by pay phone and later combined into our New York coverage, I checked into a hotel only a mile or so across from the Pentagon’s smoldering crash site. There, over multiple beers in the lobby bar, I finally got to see TV news footage that brought the day’s events into broader perspective.

***

Just more than two weeks prior, I had gone to New York with a buddy, Star editor Donovan Vincent, for a weekend spent mainly watching jazz and eating good food. We had stayed at the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel, checking out on Aug. 26, 2001.

One morning we ignored a fire alarm to keep snoozing after a long night out, figuring, correctly, that the incessant beeping and intercom announcements were just a drill. I’ve often thought about what we’d have done had our stay happened two weeks or so later.

Our final night, we went up to the Windows on the World restaurant, where I leaned into the glass walls and wondered what it would be like to fall from that height.

Now, sitting in my hotel on 9/11, smoke from the Pentagon wafting into the lobby bar, everything took on new meaning.

I’d later speak at length with Blue Jays broadcaster Cheek about that day. And with Halladay as well, who remembered staring at the TV in disbelief. 

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Cheek developed brain cancer in 2004 and died from it at age 66 in October 2005.

Halladay was killed at age 40 in November 2017 when a private plane he was flying crashed off Florida’s coast in the Gulf of Mexico, some 20 miles from where Cheek had died. Both gained posthumous entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Halladay in 2019 and Cheek into the broadcast wing in 2013 as winner of the Ford C. Frick award.

The only other people from 9/11 that I can remember vividly were my divorced parents, who had separately besieged The Star’s beloved switchboard operators — famous in Canada for tracking down anybody, anyplace — with frantic phone calls wondering where I was. Those operators tracked me down as well, forwarded the messages, and I’d gotten earfuls from Mom and Dad for neglecting to mention I’d be off the grid during a day of historical tragedy.

They’re now gone as well, both passing away unexpectedly after surgeries: My mother in 2013 and my father just last October.

***

My most vivid memory covering the 9/11 aftermath was actually from Sept. 12, 2001, which I spent with Arthur Carver, the brother of a civilian Pentagon employee who had gone missing after the jet crashed into the wing where she worked. I had seen him briefly on the TV news, found him at his Manassas, Virginia, home, and he allowed me to follow him around as he sought answers about recovery efforts and whether his sister, Sharon, might be alive. 

She wasn’t, of course. I didn’t find that out until I was back in Toronto and read about her body being recovered. But I’ve always been impressed by the composure her brother showed, bounced around by bureaucrats devoid of answers during the immediate post-9/11 chaos.

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I tried making contact again for this piece 20 years later but was unsuccessful. Perhaps it’s best. 

Sharon Carver was only 38 when she died. She was a 16-year federal employee, including a decade as a U.S. Army accountant, and had just completed a master’s degree in business administration. 

Before her death she attended her family’s annual reunion at Walt Disney World in Florida, which her brother mentioned several times.

***

On a personal level, the next month in New York covering the Mariners and Yankees in the American League Championship Series for The Star, and then the Yanks and Arizona Diamondbacks in the World Series, felt more harrowing.

Perhaps it was because the magnitude of 9/11 by then had sunk in. Riding the New York subway amid anthrax threats and attending Game 3 of the Fall Classic with President George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium as a seeming target for every terrorist on the planet is not an experience I’d want to repeat. 

Though 9/11 wasn’t as immediately impactful to me while covering it, it forever lingers. I’ve thought about it often the past 18 months of this pandemic. It has been impossible not to notice several days of U.S. death tolls from COVID-19 that exceeded the 9/11 fatalities.

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And I’ll admit that frustrated me about 9/11. That some in this country were capable of having solemn reverence for that lone day two decades ago while at the same time seemingly shrugging off the thousands of Americans dying daily from COVID-19. What makes 9/11 more deserving of empathy?

Even the most patriotic among us had no means to save 9/11 victims, and yet today, faced with simple measures to prevent thousands of future COVID-19 deaths, so many refuse the minimal sacrifices.

But that’s why we need this 20-year reminder. We need the perspective. Nowadays, with silly fights over easy stuff like masks and vaccinations, we need a wake-up call about what’s real and important.

When Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman left the NFL months after 9/11 to join the U.S. Army and later fight in Afghanistan, nobody cared what political party he supported. And I still don’t know or care, years after his death overseas in 2004 from friendly fire ended his brave and noble journey.

Tillman mattered. Sharon Carver mattered. Everybody I remember from my 9/11 experience mattered. 

Nobody is just a statistic. And on this 20th anniversary of a day of death, that’s what I’ll stick with. And hope that others can join me in finding perspective that remains elusive long after one of the darkest moments in this nation’s history.