Today, JimmyC is taking a break and turning over the controls to former Kansas City Star reporter Mike Rice. Mike worked at The Star from 1988 to 2008, when he was laid off. At the time of the World Trade Center disaster, one of Mike’s “beats” was Kansas City International Airport. Yesterday, he felt compelled to compile his recollections of that day. His story follows.
I woke up early on Sept. 11, 2001, because I had to walk from my house in Waldo to the Firestone store at 75th and Wornall to pick up my car. On the day before, one of the front tires blew out as I was parking at Calvary Lutheran School’s daycare center to drop off our son, Jeremy.
It was sunny out and walking the half-mile or so to the Firestone actually put me in a good mood for a change. 2001 had been a very rough year, particularly in my wife Catherine’s family. In January, her father died suddenly from a heart attack at age 60, and on the Fourth of July her brother’s 18-month-old daughter got extremely ill and died a few hours later in the emergency room of a Leavenworth hospital. Our 5-year-old son, Nathan, had just started kindergarten at St. Elizabeth School and was having a tough time adjusting. He had gone to pre-school and day care at Calvary and was now separated from friends who had been with him since infancy. But upon picking up our 1991 Chevy Lumina with its two new tires, I had a sense that life was looking up despite the tragedies and periods of adjustment that we were going through.
I got home, showered and got dressed for work. I was assigned to The Star’s Northland bureau. My beats were Kansas City International Airport and three municipalities — Gladstone, North Kansas City and the ever-growing northland portion of Kansas City, MO. It was Tuesday so I needed to spend the morning finishing a story for the paper’s weekly Neighborhood News edition, which came out every Wednesday.
I dropped the boys off. Jeremy was a few days away from turning a year old. It was 8 o’clock or so. I needed a soda fix so I stopped at our home on 72nd Terrace to get a Dr Pepper. I still felt a sense of life returning to normalcy. Then I got back in the car and turned on the radio.
Why I had KMBZ 980 AM on, I can’t remember. But I did, and reporter Noel Heckerson (now retired) was talking about breaking news from New York City: A second aircraft had hit the World Trade Center. Both towers had been hit. Holy shit!
My commute to work was long, as my office was at Barry Road and North Oak Trafficway. The Bruce R. Watkins Drive downtown link had not opened yet, which made the trip even longer. I listened to the reports of heavy smoke coming out of both towers and the speculation that there could be multiple casualties. As I passed downtown and crossed the Missouri River, speculation was growing that this could be some kind of attack. I was starting to get scared, and it seemed like it was taking forever to get to the office.
As I drove on U.S. 169 past Englewood Road, Heckerson announced that an aircraft had slammed into the Pentagon. There was absolutely no doubt now that, for the first time in 60 years, our country was under attack. I wanted to put the pedal to the metal but police constantly had speed traps on 169.
Finally, around 8:40, I got to the office. In the meeting room, the advertising folks hovered around the television. That was my first viewing of the burning towers. I went into the bureau chief’s office where there was another television. Several other people were in there already. We watched in absolute horror and disbelief. Then my pager went off. An editor in the downtown office had sent me a text instructing me to go up to the airport — pronto. Before I headed out, however, I caught another glimpse of the TV footage. One of our advertising execs told me that the World Trade Center had just collapsed. It was at that point where I said to everyone, “We’re going to war.” It turned out that I was right.
I headed off to KCI. I turned on the radio. A plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. Perhaps, I thought, someone had forced down the plane. Reports said all air traffic was being grounded. That meant that numerous transcontinental flights were probably being diverted to KCI. It was going to be a long day.
As I approached KCI, I saw a crescent-shaped contrail, a mark that planes were being diverted. I don’t remember which terminal I went to but believe it was the one where United was. I had never seen this airport so crowded. I began interviewing travelers, the few who weren’t on their cell phones trying to find out what the hell was going on.
I did not have a cell phone back then so I had to call my editors the old-fashioned way — the pay phone. I learned that The Star (which had become a morning paper about a decade earlier) was going to produce a special afternoon edition, so I had to interview people, call another reporter and dictate information to him.
Emotional scenes were playing out in the terminal: Passengers hugging airline employees, passengers trying to book hotel rooms, some speculating that another big city was coming under attack and others just completely bewildered. Some of the travelers that I spoke to said they were going to rent cars to drive home. One guy I talked to was from Babylon, NY. He had just gotten off the phone with his son, who lived in Cincinnati. The son told him that he was going to get in his car and drive to Kansas City to pick him up and drive him back to New York. That vignette was one of the few of mine that made the printed edition.
A KCI concourse
I went over to a press conference at the Kansas City Aviation Department around 11 a.m. One department official had a hand-held GPS device that showed a map of the United States and a handful of dots. The dots represented the number of planes in the air. Normally, the map was filled with those dots.
By noon, 89 planes were parked on the runway at KCI. Some were parked at the TWA overhaul base. I went back to the bureau where I typed up all the facts and quotes that I had gathered. I stepped into the bureau chief’s office to catch a peek at the ongoing news coverage. By now, the country had learned how Middle Eastern terrorists had overtaken the planes they were on by stabbing the crew with box cutters. It was getting more horrifying by the hour.
By mid-afternoon, rumors had started that gas prices were shooting up. At a Star-Mart across the street from us, cars were lining up. My God! People were panicking, and that is never good.
I went back to the airport around 5 p.m. And it was there that I saw what will stay with me until the day I die.
Five o’clock in the afternoon is typically a bustling time at the airport. But it was empty. All the stranded passengers had left. They went to hotels, got rental cars and headed home, or got picked up by good Samaritans.
Huge 767 jets — something you don’t see much at KCI — sat on the tarmac. The only vehicles on the circular drives outside the terminals were some police cars and a TV news truck. I went inside one of the terminals. The only person inside was a janitor who was waxing the floor with a buffing machine. I went back outside. It was downright spooky and, I dare say, apocalyptic.
Outside one of the terminals, I came across a man named Greg Simpson, of Ransom, KS. He was waiting for his father to pick him from Hays. He was to have flown to Cedar Rapids for a trade show in Illinois. “This shows what can (bring) this country to a halt,” he told me. That quote ended the article about the stranded passengers at KCI that appeared in The Star the next day.
After that, I drove to The Star newsroom downtown where management had bought barbecue for its staff because of the long day. Reporter Mike Mansur and I had our by-lines on the story in which Simpson’s quote appeared. I was proud to have been part of the news team that helped bring readers a local perspective to that tragic day. Needless to say, I was going to be very busy for the next few weeks. But, at that moment, I was drained and wanted to go home.
At home, Catherine and her sister were in the living room trying to get Jeremy to walk. He finally started walking eleven days later, which happened to be his first birthday. Nathan’s day at school was a little better. I’m not sure how much about that awful day was sinking into him. After putting the kids to bed, I went downstairs and watched the non-stop reports on TV. That was the first I had seen the horrifying images of the planes slamming into the towers, people jumping to their deaths and the towers coming down.
Ten years have passed. And, sadly, our nation has not recovered from the horrible events of that day. Sept. 11 gave a misguided presidential administration the opportunity to run amok. It allowed a right-wing propaganda network, along with a cadre of AM radio troglodytes, to spread their messages of fear and intolerance across the airwaves. We went to war in a country that a segment of our population wrongly believed was responsible for the attacks. The economy went into a tailspin, and many people, including myself, lost their jobs.
Today, many U.S. citizens of Middle Eastern descent are looked upon with suspicion. Others who express views about why we were attacked or differ about how we reacted are accused of being unpatriotic. Some say 9/11 united us. Maybe it did for a few weeks. But I believe that it divided us. Saddest of all is that the sense of normalcy I felt before I turned on the radio in my car that September morning 10 years ago is gone.
Mike Rice is working on his paralegal certification at Johnson County Community College and will finish in December. He works part-time at a bankruptcy law firm in Overland park, and on weekends he drives for a limo company, mostly taking people to and from KCI. He and his wife Catherine have three children.
Read Full Post »