Bill Buell’s Electric City Archives: 9/11 column from 2001

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PHOTOGRAPHER:

On Sept. 21, 2001, I wrote a tennis column about how two of the Capital Region’s top players, Bob Schmitz and Trevor MacArthur, experienced the terrorists attacks on 9/11. Tommy Brennan, a former Mont Pleasant tennis standout known more for his days as a basketball referee, also added his reaction to the events of that day as well as his recollection of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Here is that column as it appeared that day.

When two hijacked airliners hit the World Trade Center 10 days ago, Bob Schmitz and Trevor MacArthur were riveted to their TV sets, seeing with their eyes what their hearts and minds told them couldn’t possibly be happening.

For Schmitz, watching from a players’ lounge at a tennis facility in Vienna, Austria, the image seemed eerie, incredibly surreal. It was the same for MacArthur, but with another stronger emotion: Fear.

“After the third plane hit the Pentagon, they said there might be other targets, and here we are, right next to the Empire State Building,” said MacArthur, a 1994 Shenendehowa graduate and Section II doubles champion who works for Disney On.Line on 34th St., between Madison and Fifth Avenue, in New York City. “So they evacuated our building and everybody just started walking north. The streets were jammed with people walking north from Midtown to the Upper West Side. It was weird, and it was incredibly quiet. Nobody was saying anything. People had blank stares, or they were crying.”

Schmitz, a Scotia resident and long one of the Capital Region’s top tennis players, was serving as U.S. team captain in the Dubler Cup, an international event which brings together the world’s best 45-and-over players from 18 nations.

Around 4 p.m., Vienna time, Schmitz was watching a match being played when he noticed a crowd gathering around the television in the lounge.

“I didn’t know what the hell was going on, and at first, it was hard to put all the pieces together,” he said. “We got all the news from one English-speaking station, which was CNN, so we stayed glued to that. I went back to watch a match, and when I came back to the TV, a plane had hit the Pentagon. I couldn’t believe what was going on.”

At that point, Schmitz contacted his family in New York to make sure everyone was OK.

“Once I knew everybody was OK in my family, I kind of kept on going with the tennis,” said Schmitz. “I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t go anywhere. I think being so far away, we had a little cushion effect. We couldn’t do anything, and the tennis was kind of a distraction for us.”

The next goal for Schmitz was to get out of the country and fly back home. He was told by airline officials he couldn’t get a flight out until Sept. 19. But at the last minute, he got a phone call informing him that he could still make his scheduled flight for Sunday, the 16th.

“We flew out of Vienna to Frankfort, where the security was heavy-duty,” said Schmitz. “They double-searched us, and then put us into a couple of rooms before we finally boarded the plane. Then we flew into JFK and it was like a tomb. There was nobody there because we were on one of the first flights coming back into JFK.”

Schmitz had left on Sept. 7, and was back home in Albany late Sunday night. It was 10 days he’ll never forget.

Show of support

“All the players from the other nations were very supportive of us,” said Schmitz. “At one point, they stopped everybody from playing and an official said a few words. They had three minutes of silence, and then every church bell in Vienna went off. The people had real empathy for us.”

Schmitz’s recollection of the terrorist attacks will forever be framed by the fact that he was thousands of miles away in a foreign land. For MacArthur, the experience was much more real.

“I think people are trying to get back to normal, but it’s very difficult,” said MacArthur, who was also a standout hockey player at Shenendehowa and played both sports while pursuing a degree in economics at Hamilton College. “I don’t think I knew anybody directly that got killed, but one woman I work with was on the ferry and saw both planes hit, and she knew four people that worked there. Then, there are the posters with the missing people. They’re on every telephone poll, and they’re a constant reminder of what happened.”

MacArthur lives just a few blocks away from the Empire State Building, and usually walks to work each day.

“I get on Fifth Avenue and when I look to the left, I used to see the two towers,” said MacArthur. “Now, I look to the left and they’re not there. All you could see was billowing smoke, and it stayed there for a whole week. It’s hard not to look over there and see nothing, and not get scared.”

Tuesday, Sept. 11, will be a day “that will live in infamy,” to borrow the terminology used by President Franklin Roosevelt when he asked Congress for a Declaration of War after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

On that day, Schenectady’s Tommy Brennan, another member of the Capital Region tennis community, was walking his girlfriend home from a show at Proctor’s when they heard the news. As bad as it was, his initial reaction couldn’t compare to what he felt last week.

“I was 22, and Pearl Harbor was a long ways away,” said Brennan, who played on two unbeaten tennis teams at Mont Pleasant before graduating in 1938. “I was shocked, but it wasn’t like what happened [last Tuesday]. That was worse. I had to turn away a few times. I stopped watching it.”

Brennan spent three years in Europe during World War II, serving our country. Hopefully, the sacrifices Americans will make in the near future to regain some degree of normalcy won’t be as great as those made by Brennan and others of his generation.

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