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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remembering that September morning in 2001

Most anyone will tell you where they were on September 11, 2001.

They know where they were the day our country came under attack from terrorists who caught our airport security off guard and ran two airplanes into the World Trade Center towers, ran another plane into the side of the Pentagon and a fourth plane headed for the Capitol building that got sidetracked and crashed in lower Pennsylvania.

We've seen the film. We remember the horror.

For me, I slept through most of it. I was still recovering from the buzz I got the night before in downtown Key West while off from work.

By early September 2001, I was beginning my slow burn at the Key West Citizen. I had come back from a long vacation (which was owed to me for working seven-day weeks to start the year, then down to six-day weeks until a third person was hired for our sports department).

On August 23, 2001 -- my two-year anniversary as the Citizen's sports editor -- I was called into my managing editor's office and she told me that I was getting a raise for the work I had done, mostly above and beyond the call of duty while we were short-handed. So I appreciated that.

But then she handed me bad news.

"We had to deep-six the recreational sports tab," she said of our Saturday 16-page section devoted to youth and non-prep sports news. We went from having a bunch of ads in the tab to having maybe three in it by the end. Someone in advertising dropped the ball, but that's another story, another time.

So she continued. With no more section to put together, it meant the man in charge of the weekly tab was without something to do. And, of course, me being on vacation, I was the last person to know anything. Then she hit me with the news.

"They decided to make him the executive sports editor," she said.

For about a minute I let what she said sink in. Then I hit her with, "So I'm not really running this department anymore? You just gave me a raise, but yet, I'm not running the department anymore?"

I can see the frustration on my immediate boss' face at that particular point. She agreed with me, but she had no leverage or pull on this horrible decision. And I can read the writing on the wall, too, that she couldn't wait to get the hell out of this soon-to-be insane asylum at the Citizen.

That's what this place was turning into -- a glorified hellhole. It became a clique in which being buddy-buddy with the publisher was a bigger deal than putting out a quality product and working hard.

I've always explained it like this: "I'm sorry. I don't own a pair of knee pads."

To put this man -- who once was the sports editor at this paper -- in a position to just sit behind a desk, do nothing more than read stories, go out for lunch, then come back, go to meetings and work maybe a seven-hour shift if you were lucky was freakin' absurd.

Trust me ... executive sports editor at the Key West Citizen was a great gig if you could get it and owned a great pair of knee pads.

Let's just say the publisher and I had a rocky relationship for the better part of the last 20 months I was at the Citizen and leave it at that.

The real work was being done by myself, my design guy and my writer. We put a lot of good stuff out there for the time we had together ... which was pretty short since the writer was heading over to a teaching gig in town in late September and my design guy was leaving to head back to Chicago in early October.

With that hanging over my head and knowing I was not going to get much design help from the clueless executive sports editor, I spent a lot of my off-nights drinking. Not heavily enough, though. Looking back, I should've been drinking more.

Our paper, in cooperation with a Duval Street bar called Durty Harry's and Rick's, sponsored a Monday Night football deal and it gave me a place to hang out during the season. The fine people at Rick's fed me well. Trust me. And the beer was constantly being poured. The only thing I had to worry about was finding my car at the end of the night and getting from the Old Town side back to my apartment on Duck Avenue.

On Monday night, September 10, 2001, I was there for the opening Monday night game at Rick's between the defending NFC champion New York Giants and Denver Broncos. I remember the Broncos won the game and that Broncos tight end Ed McCaffrey broke his leg and was done for the year.

That's about all I can remember. I remember getting back to my apartment by 2:15 a.m. and falling asleep around 2:45, leaving my radio on the Middle Keys country music station. I know, I know -- country music station? I was listening to quite a bit of country at that point. Not saying my life was turning into those tales of woe they sing about, but it was getting closer each day.

Went into la-la land. By almost 10 a.m., I was waking up from the fog I was still in the night before. The alcohol was slowly wearing off. This was not unusual for me on the morning after a day/night off from work at this point. I hated the situation at the Citizen and it was festering like a cancer.

Laid my head back on the pillow to get a little more sleep. And just as I was ready to fall asleep again, this announcement came over the radio station I still had on:

"A reminder that Marathon Airport (in the Middle Keys) is closed due to the attacks on the World Trade Center."

Huh?! What? He didn't just say what I think he just said?

My mind roamed back to that February day in 1993 when a terrorist group attacked the parking garage under the World Trade Center, blowing it up and killing a handful of people. For all I know, this was what happened again.

Nonetheless, I turned on my television and there was the drama playing out on it -- the Twin Towers literally on fire. But why? What happened? Then I heard a plane flew into one of the towers and thought maybe it was just a small plane that lost direction or control and flew into the side.

As the minutes passed by, I started realizing that wasn't the case. And suddenly the video became more and more real. It was a large airplane, a 747 actually, that flew into the tower.

Wow! And if I wasn't sure if we were under attack from some terrorist organization that hated us and our ways of life, there was a second airplane flying straight into the other Twin Tower on film.

As I had turned on the television, the one tower was crumbling to the ground. Bedlam was going on everywhere, yet where I was at that particular point in the Florida Keys in my apartment, it was eerily quiet.

Ten minutes later, the phone rang. Figured it may be my family.

Nope. This phone call had a 352 area code to it.

"Hello," I said.

"Is this Mark Blumenthal?" the young man on the other line asked.

"Yes," I said.

"It's Ran Carthon."

"Hey, how are you doing, Ran?"

For those who don't remember or didn't know, Carthon was one of Steve Spurrier's running backs on the University of Florida's football team in 2001. He had been recruited by one of Spurrier's assistant coaches out of Key West High School. And yes, if the last name sounded familiar, he's the son of former New York Giants fullback and Super Bowl ring holder Maurice Carthon.

I had called the university's sports information director to ask him if he could get Carthon available for an interview two weeks earlier. Now Carthon was calling me as chaos was breaking out in the northeastern part of the country.

So we start talking and I'm doing my best to keep my focus on what young Ran is saying to me, while keeping an eye on the television with the events and chaos taking place. He was doing his end of the interview in the sports information director's office in Gainesville and I'm here in Key West trying to hold the phone under my ear at one end, while trying to write everything he's saying and peaking in on the action.

By the time he was at UF, his mom, who he was close to, had already moved from the Southernmost City to Georgia, so if he were to come back to the Keys, it was mainly to visit friends at this point.

Then as we finished up the interview, I asked him if he was watching what was happening on television and he said he was.

"It's must be eerie to know a city's skyline well and watch a big part of it disappear," I said to him.

"I don't remember much of growing up in the New York area," he said. It dawned on me that he didn't spend a lot of time with his father, who was divorced from Ran's mother.

We said our goodbyes and I had enough to do a feature story on him.

By noon, I was in the office at the Citizen. At this point, I was boycotting being in that office before 4 p.m., but on an important day like this in our history, I had to be there to do a feature story on the impact this day had on the Keys.

Got in touch with Island Christian School volleyball coach Sheryl Yost. She was near tears, explaining that there were no words to describe what was happening. It was frightening to her and the kids she was around that day.

But the one thing I got out of the conversation with all the athletic directors was the show was going to go on as soon as possible. And high school football would be played on Friday night.

I remember talking to Marathon High football coach Jerry Jones. "Unless a plane hits our tallest building (which was about two stories tall), we're going Friday night," he said.

It was during a break outside that I was with my editor in chief and the executive sports editor. I was doing everything by then to hide my disdain of him and the position he was holding, but we wound up comparing tragedies -- this day compared to the afternoon Kennedy was assassinated and the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was there that I got my inspiration to write my Sunday column a few days later.

My lead read like this: "My grandparents had Pearl Harbor. My parents had JFK's assassination. Now my generation has something infamous to remember."

All professional sports in this country were postponed until the next week. Prep sports continued the very next day after the tragedies of 9/11, but were soon shut down when Hurricane Gabrielle threatened the Keys. People outside the Keys thought 9/11 shut high school football down that weekend.

No, a hurricane did, and that hurricane never got close to us. That left everything in chaos and forced Key West High to play three district football games in an eight-day period in October, all losses, that cost the Conchs a chance to go back to the state playoffs and ultimately led to the football coach resigning after three seasons.

By Monday, September 17, things were back to normal. And I was back to Rick's and drinking somewhat heavily and eating again, just like I had the week before.

I hope no one ever has to go through a day like that in their lives again. It was as surreal a day as we will ever remember. And on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I think of all the innocent lives lost and feel sad for all the families who had to move on after such a heinous crime was committed.

Never again would we see the world the way we had before.

Alan Jackson would ask in his song, "Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?" Everyone has a story they tell of where they were and what they were doing.

Like everyone else, I watched the events play out on television in shock.

And having to do my job interviewing a University of Florida running back from the area, the son of a former NFL fullback.

It's all vivid ... even if I was coming out of that buzzed fog.

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