Saturday, September 11, 2010
Today is the ninth anniversary of the tragic day terrorists attacked our nation, a day that innocent plane passengers became contents of aircraft turned into bombs, a day too many people lost loved ones for no comprehensible reason.
I've told some of you in private emails how that day related in a sense to GNGS, and today I feel compelled to post about it. I had included a little of this account in GNGS but editors thought it distracting, and I agreed, but because of the Natalie story, I almost perished with many other innocent people on Tuesday 9/11/2001.
Not only was I a near miss once, but twice. Suzanne Finstad's book Natasha had just been released in Sept. 2001. Although she and Lana were doing the standard publicity tour, many producers and reporters started contacting Dennis and myself, and Inside Edition (IE) had located the Splendour in Hawaii. The owner had restored the boat to the way the Wagner family kept it, and had also restored the name to Splendour as a tribute to Natalie. The owner had agree to allow IE to conduct an interview on the yacht. Ironically, IE preferred interviewing Dennis and me over Suzanne and Lana. Dennis and I decided to not participate. I was ready to get back to work to finish GNGS and Suzanne had inspired me to do so. I thought interviewing would be premature, but I also felt it would help Suzanne's research to be known. I was torn.
After numerous calls from producer Josh Paris of IE, he convinced us to participate. I was looking forward to actually being on the yacht, too. All arrangements went through our agent (same one we have today) and IE was going to pay all expenses. Like many reporters before him, Josh started to act like IE was doing us a favor, sending us to Hawaii. Yes, not a bad to place to visit, but we really resented that kind of attitude, as it wasn't something we had initiated. To begin with, the thoughts of returning to Splendour haunted Dennis still and I had already been to Hawaii years before, and to be honest, the loss of time for such a long trip was not convenient to either of our everyday work schedules. But, we wanted Suzanne's book to succeed, too. We wanted the truth about Natalie's death known, and the media is the most helpful way for that to be accomplished.
Flight arrangements were being made Thursday, Sept. 6th. My husband worked in North Jersey at the time, so I asked for the first flight out of Newark in North Jersey so he could easily drop me off at the airport on his way to work at 7 AM. Dennis was flying from Florida and we were to fly Tuesday morning, the 11th, pre-interview on the 12th in Hawaii, then film the interview on the 13th aboard Splendour.
I worked for a magazine at the time and had taken the week off for the interview. I remember thinking I wanted to visit Pearl Harbor again if I had time in Hawaii.
Thursday night, when producer Josh was booking the flights, he called and we got into a little argument over what they expected from the interview. He, like most reporters, was interested in the word murder. I refused to use the word and told him Dennis would not use it either. That word, like always, we wanted reserved for authorities to decide upon. Josh kept pushing and I said that we would cancel if the attitude continued and then he made a snide remark to the effect of yeah, right, like the two of you would cancel a free trip to Hawaii.
I asked him, "Josh, why would you even want to interview us if you feel that way?"
He apologized, but then I said, "Josh, we won't be doing your show. We agreed to this trip for Natalie, not for the sensationalism you want, so goodbye."
He said, "Yeah, right, like Dennis will cancel."
I said. "Watch and see."
I hung up, called Dennis, and Dennis said, "I didn't want to go anyway, Marti."
Josh called us over a hundred times, apolgizing, pleading, and groveling, but I went to work the next day in Howell, NJ, about an hour south of NY City and said I wouldn't be taking off for Hawaii the next week. The editor, Alicia Ellis, asked me to go to NY with her Tuesday morning for a Hewlett Packard presentation. We went to NY often, so I said no problem. A car was being sent for us early Tuesday morning at work and we talked about possibly having breakfast at the top of the tower while we waited for the presentation on 10th and Broadway at 10:30 AM. Dennis and I did not answer any of Josh's calls.
That Tuesday morning, I got in my van, thinking how strange it was that I would've been flying to Hawaii that morning. My van's gas pedal started acting up ... it had no pick-up. I turned around and took the van to my auto mechanic and called and left a message for Alicia that I had to cancel NY. I waited for the mechanic to arrive and couldn't reach anyone by cell for a ride home. My husband Bob was working in New Brunswick, as usual on a Tuesday. So I walked a mile home, in heels, and saw the McGuire Air Force Base jets soaring overhead, nothing unusual in our area, but rarely on a Tuesday morning. Cars were speeding by...there was an eerie quality in the "air." Sound wasn't "right."
When I got home, my daughter-in-law, who lived across the street, called and told me to put on the TV. She said, "America is being attacked."
That's when I saw the second plane crash into the second tower hit. I was freaking out because I couldn't get in touch with Alicia. All phone circuits were busy.
Turned out, my van was checked every which way and they could find nothing wrong with it. It's still in their computer system that I was there that morning and that no mechanical problem existed. (wow, that still blows me away.)
Finally, around 2 PM that terrible day, I got hold of Alicia and she had decided to not go when she got my message because she wasn't feeling well. We experienced "survivor guilt" and we cried our eyes out for those who were in that tower. But, we were spared, and glad our families weren't suffering having lost us.
It later hit me that I could've been on a plane this very morning on my way to Hawaii on the first available flight out of Newark. Turns out, that flight was Flight 93, the one that went down in Shanksville, PA with all the heroes aboard, the first to actually fight back on terrorism, the first to die for it. Flight 93 was the connecting Hawaii flight that morning, on its way to California. One of its empty seats would have been mine! If Alicia and I had made it to NY, we might've been on the top floor eating a bagel and having coffee when the pane hit.
Being a near-miss once was hard enough to handle emotionally, but being a near-miss twice was doubly upsetting. It was devastating to think about. It really affected me. It's almost, well, almost unbelievable. But everyone around me knows about it, everyone was so glad I hadn't made either trip...to Hawaii or NY.
Although I had been in the middle of trying to finish GNGS at that time, I quit my magazine job and interviewed other near-misses of the 9/11 tragedy. I met the most wonderful people during the year I took to talk with them and record their stories. We all got through the first year after together, leaning on one another, and many have remained my friends. I always thought about trying to get the journal published for the 10th anniversary of the tragedy which would be next year, but I've worked so hard on GNGS in-between that I've allowed the 9/11 manuscript to sit in a file, too. Today I am going to look at it. I am going to never forget.
It feels like we are so far removed from that tragic day now, but I know it is and will remain a day none of us will ever forget. In my journal of all the stories I collected, I know I will be reminded of the beauty of life. I guess that's why I am still so obsessed with what happened to Natalie. She was robbed of the beauty of life, and her life was beautiful in so many ways.
I know how my family, my friends, my work, my life, all became more meaningful to me after 9/11. Things took on new meaning, fuller meaning, and I've since appreciated like never before. Although I neglected Natalie for a while because of 9/11 (one of the other reasons GNGS took longer than hoped for), I always felt like I was spared to make sure GNGS made it to publication, too. That's just one of those things we all sometimes "think" -- that things happen for a reason. Sometimes, maybe they don't. Those are elusive things, abstract thinking if you will, but I know when I think about Flight 93, I still shudder, and I am always grateful for life.
I'm sorry if this post is a little long, but it does relate to all of us. My computer wall still shows a picture of the standing towers, with our American flag waving over them -- it represents our culture for all the good and bad it entails, but that day still comes down to all the empty seats at dinner tables because of the mindless acts of terror we collectively experienced. Terror is terror whether we experience it together or all alone, as poor Natalie endured. Thanks for reading this. It's personal but not without sincere meaning, and I really am glad to be here.