On September 11, 2001, I was preparing to fly to New York for a television performance with country superstar Tim McGraw and his band, the Dancehall Doctors; that appearance was cancelled as a result of the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers – what we now have come to refer to simply as “9/11.”
In 2002, I did travel to New York City for that postponed performance with McGraw. While there, a collection of his band and crew went to “Ground Zero,” the site of the tragedy, to gain some personal perspective on the events that had changed the nation so dramatically just one year earlier.
In recognition of the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, I share my personal account of that experience as it was originally published in the “From the Road” column of Tim McGraw’s official website in 2002.
With so many looking back on the past year and the effects of the events in New York City, I thought it perhaps appropriate to include some of our experiences as we visited Ground Zero earlier this year. At the time of the attack, the DHDs (Dancehall Doctors) were preparing to leave for New York for a television appearance which was subsequently cancelled. All of the DHDs were in Nashville at the time, with the exception of Denny Hemingson, who was in Boston.
“I was on vacation in Boston with my wife,” said Denny. “We were supposed to fly home to Nashville from Boston on September 11. We were packing in the hotel, watching the news, preparing for our flight on American Airlines. We were ready to head to the airport, and we saw the planes fly into the towers on television. I knew when the second plane hit that this was some kind terrorist thing or something. At that point, everyone was calling my cell phone to see if we were still alive. We stayed an extra day, scrambled around and found a rental car, and drove home to Nashville from there. Everyone around us was trying to get home, but it wasn’t like they were headed home to take care of business.”
Denny continued. “That day…how quiet. Boston was so…quiet. We went to a store and they had grounded all the planes…just military jets in the air. Nothing else. Cops checking buildings out everywhere…but other than that, the streets were empty.”
Tim and the DHDs did later make a trip to New York for a rescheduled performance months later. While in the city, the DHDs made the journey to Ground Zero. We wanted to see for ourselves the impact on the geographical and emotional landscapes of New York City and the world.
Taking the subway, we were immediately struck by the amount of people that were NOT on our train. Only a few locals shared our train with us; instead of being caught up in the bustle of New York City life, we essentially had the car to ourselves. In the past, the trains running to the financial district were always busy.
But not this time. Now things were much quieter. We could not help but reflect upon what had caused this shift in the lives of so many.
We arrived at our stop and made our way to Ground Zero. Much of the area was barricaded and zoned to protect citizens from intruding upon the cleanup efforts. We were led along wooden walkways toward a viewing platform, and we could not help but notice the messages and drawings that others had left along the walls, chronicling their love and support for those lost.
From the platform, the cleanup and construction was in full view. We could better understand the expansive nature of the event, seeing for ourselves how big the void was. It also became much clearer how this could affect so much in the surrounding area.
“Man, we could have been there,” said DHD Dave Dunkley. ” We were flying in for ‘The Rosie O’Donnell Show’ the next day. We would have been only a few blocks away.”
“When you looked across the area where the buildings had been, the reality was so much bigger than I expected,” shared DHD Denny Hemingson. “But even more amazing to me was the impact some blocks away. There was a clothing store that, months later, still had clothes in it covered with a thick layer of dust. They had just put a sheet of plexiglass over them and left them. As much as I had seen on television, I understood even more how immense this really was.”
Some of our boys had visited the Trade Center towers in earlier years, long before the attacks. “In 1977, I participated in a ‘Battle of the Bands’ on the roof of the Trade Towers,” said DHD John Marcus. “Our rock band at the time performed on the helipad overlooking the city…and now it looks like a parking lot. I was particularly saddened as I remembered looking over New York City from the roof…and now it’s gone.”
Adjacent to the cleanup site was St. Paul’s Chapel. Built in 1766, this church miraculously escaped damage on September 11, while many of the surrounding buildings suffered significantly. For the following eight months, this church would be instrumental in supporting the crews and workers of the relief efforts.
The fence and surrounding walls of the chapel had become a home for the tributes and memories for all of those left to suffer as a result of this tragedy. In contrast to the actual clearing and construction, the gifts and notes left here brought home the passion and love inspired by this event. Photographs, banners, flowers, a child’s doll…all of these decorated the sidewalks. Messages and poetry adorned the walls from all different countries and in all different languages.
“What really got me was realizing the magnitude of how many people were really involved in what happened,” said DHD Darran Smith. “When I looked at the site, I saw the trucks, the machinery, the construction. I didn’t think about the people. But when you look at the wall…it was…wow.”
For everything we witnessed on that day, one moment stood out for many of us. While we filed along the walkway of the viewing platform, we saw two local firefighters standing along the barricade. Just watching. They had their backs to us, and we couldn’t even see their faces. We didn’t have to.
Our drum tech, Joey Supak, caught this poignant moment on camera and told us the story. “I didn’t know who they were. I just grabbed the shot. I just thought it was so amazing to see how intent they were on what had happened.”
Later in the day, Joey spoke with the two men. “They told me that they came there every day. A lot of guys they knew had gone into those buildings. They came every day to just watch and remember…kind of a tribute to their friends that had perished when the towers came down.”
DHD Darran Smith also took notice. “Those two firefighters looking over the site…by themselves…that really got me…gave me chills,” he remembered. “It makes you realize that all that stuff you hear about ‘the brotherhood’…I mean, who knows how personally they were involved in the tragedy? But you could see the loss…just watching them.”
As we approach the anniversary of last September’s tragic attacks, we recall those happenings and how they have affected each of us. In some ways, we have moved on from the tragedy of that day. In other ways, we should never let go of what those events have taught us to treasure.
I am glad that we have come to celebrate our firefighters, policemen, and emergency workers. American flags are still flying, not because of a holiday, but because of the inspiration to express our patriotism. There is a greater respect for the military that serve this country. We have a greater appreciation for those we love and a greater understanding of what is important.
These are things to celebrate, and as we remember those that still suffer from the events of that day, my hope is that we continue to celebrate them.
Nobody ever said that life was gonna be fair
You’re never gonna get nowhere by running scared
If you look down deep inside you’ll find the faith to make you strong
(From the song “Carry On,” written by Mark Collie, Even Stevens, and Hillary Kanter, and recorded by Tim McGraw)