Sunday, September 4, 2011

Remembering 9/11

In June, I received a phone call asking if I would take part in an A&E documentary on the entertainment industry’s response to 9/11.  Immediately, memories flooded my mind.  I flew to LA in July to participate in an interview with the production team, a group of warm and immensely kind people from New York.  The team had been working with a steady stream of entertainment personalities throughout the week and I was to follow Bob Goen (from Entertainment Tonight) and Rick Schroder.  Stepping from the makeup chair to the interview set, I was struck by the humility and humanity with which the crew pieced the production.  They yearned to show the human side of entertainment and how American citizens in all facets of life and work longed to help in the aftermath.  I was so deeply touched by their conduct and sincerely grateful to have been asked to participate.  We cried and we laughed, and most of all we recalled that fateful day and the ones that followed with the same grief, horror and hope we felt ten years ago.

The documentary, titled “When Pop Culture Saved America,” will air Monday, September 5 on the BIO Channel at 8 p.m. EST.

When asked, most people can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing on September 11, 2001, as if it were yesterday.

Ten years ago today, I was in Seaside, Oregon (where I had been crowned Miss Oregon 2001 just shy of two months prior) in the lovely home of Dana, Executive Director of the Miss Oregon Scholarship Program.  Alongside Nina, my traveling companion, I was packing for my upcoming participation in the Miss America Pageant.  Excitement coursed through my body and I kept surveying the scene of bags and accouterments in disbelief.  Is this really happening?  Am I really competing at Miss America?  On September 6, I departed for Philadelphia from Portland International Airport with my family and local media accompanying me to my departing gate.  From my small window inside the airplane, I watched them smile and wave through the large glass windows at the gate.  I never imagined things would change so drastically and dramatically after that day. 

On Friday, September 7 I met the 50 other young ladies competing for the opportunity to be crowned Miss America 2002.  A reception at the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia ushered in a whirlwind weekend filled with media activities and sightseeing.  We then traveled by train to Atlantic City, New Jersey on Monday September 10.  Each state delegate departed the train in alphabetical order, announced by loudspeaker and introduced to the Governor of New Jersey.  Stepping forth from the train and extending my hand to the Governor, I suddenly felt the thrill of it all…the magnitude of the experience.  We were then whisked away to a press conference, addressing the press corps one-by-one.  The remainder of the day was filled with introductions to Miss America Organization staff and ABC Network executives overseeing the televised production, as well as a tour of the stage, dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms, the "galley" (cafeteria) and media room.  That night, I collapsed onto my hotel bed eager for a night of sleep.  The next day was to be the first official day of rehearsals.

"Wigging out" with Miss Nebraska, Miss Colorado and Miss Michigan!

After an appearance with Miss New York and Miss Oklahoma.

Traveling by train to Atlantic City with Miss Virgina, Miss South Dakota and Miss Florida.

Addressing the press corps on Monday, September 10th.

Relaxing during rehearsal with Miss New Hampshire, Miss New Mexico 
and Miss Rhode Island while listening to instruction from the production staff.

At approximately 8:55 a.m. the morning of September 11, I am sitting beside Meranda, Miss Maine, at our dressing tables.  Seventeen of us had arrived at Boardwalk Hall around 7:30 a.m. for fittings, while the remainder of the contestants were scheduled to arrive at a later time.  We chat lightly while those around us do the same…we’re anxiously waiting to begin our first rehearsal.  With a loud whoosh, one of our female security personnel dashed into the room and announced that a plane had just flown into the side of one of the World Trade Center buildings.  Sensing the guard’s anxiousness about the situation, but not fully comprehending its weight, the seventeen of us look to one another for answers.  Without access to a television and forbidden to use cell phones, we search for another way to learn details.  Eugenia, Miss Alaska, pulls a small radio from her bag and we laugh about it being “contraband” material.  She tunes it in time to hear Peter Jennings announce the second tower had just been hit and that both crashes were now believed to be blatant terrorist attacks.  Within minutes, Miss America staff and the remainder of contestants trickle into the room.  A nervous buzz of conversation spreads and tears have stained the cheeks of contestants who saw footage in their hotel rooms before arriving.  A hostess calls my name and guides me to a phone in the back of the room where my parents anxiously hang on the other line.  Far earlier in Oregon, my mother sounds tired and very upset.  She gently asks if I fully understand what has just happened and I respond, “I don’t think so.”  She, my father and my sister send their love and I promise to call again later when permitted.  Indeed, I do not fully grasp the horrors that have just occurred.

Our group was promptly relocated to the galley – a secure facility – where we were addressed by Bob Renneisen, CEO of the Miss America Organization, and Bob Bain, our television producer.  Together they announced that the future of the pageant was unknown and our safety was paramount.  We learned that the Pentagon had also been attacked and Flight 93, bound for the White House, had crashed outside Pittsburg.  Like every American citizen, they were concerned about what the next target could be.  We were to remain under their care in the secure facility until further notice.  I huddled with Kaci, Miss Oklahoma, and other contestants grappling with the announcement.  We had so many questions and so many more concerns. 

A blood-curdling scream suddenly erupted from behind the walls of our room.  Marie, an MAO staff member, dropped her cell phone and slid to the floor in sobs.  Her cousin Victor Saracini was captain of United Airlines Flight 175 when it was hijacked and flown into the South Tower. Victor was 51 years old and a former Navy pilot who had been flying commercial jets since 1985.  He cared for Marie when she lost her husband years earlier and she revered him like a brother.  Composure among the group was now lost as tears flooded the room.  The awful truth of that day rang through Marie’s cries and it pierced my soul.  Quickly, staff members herded us out of the room and we filed past Marie in despair.  An adjacent ballroom was outfitted with metal folding chairs and large televisions, and we spent the next several hours watching and waiting.  We were no longer pageant contestants, but daughters, sisters and friends yearning to be with loved ones and make sense of the tragedy. 

During a group briefing the morning of Wednesday, September 12, our CEO informed us that ABC and the Miss America Organization felt the decision as to whether the pageant should continue rested with the 51 of us young women vying for the title of Miss America 2002.  It was an unprecedented move and an acknowledgement that the pageant’s presence during such a time was not to be taken lightly.  The Emmy’s had already been cancelled, David Letterman was off the air and other live broadcasts were turning off their cameras in fear of what may happen next.  In a private room, we sat in a circle and discussed our fates and that of the pageant.  Tears fell and fears were expressed, each of us highly sensitive to the severity of the attacks and the realities of the job of Miss America – a year spent traveling the nation approximately 20,000 miles each month and a lifetime as an American icon.  It is suggested that we take an individual vote, stating yes or no, as to whether we should continue with competition.  A notepad is then passed around with each of us drawing a thin mark under “yes” or “no.”  Erin, Miss Iowa, calmly and wisely advises that our votes will be most effective if we stand by the general consensus as a whole, regardless of how we voted individually, and it is agreed by all that we will stand by the results as a group.  We decided 2-1 to continue with competition.  The terrorists could not be allowed to rob Americans of the institutions we hold dear and the freedoms so many fought and died to uphold.  The decision was announced at a press conference the next day and life post-9/11 began to unfold.

CEO Bob Renneisen during the press conference.

The wonderful MAO staff I was so fortunate to work with during my year.  
We are gathered around a statue of Bert Parks in Atlantic City.

On September 22, 2001, I stood atop the runway of historic Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey with a newly polished crown wobbling on my head after the title of Miss America 2002 had been bestowed just minutes before.  I waved wildly to my family, thousands of onlookers in the audience and millions more watching on television.  A large bouquet of red roses nearly swallowed me in size as I strode down the runway in a fog of disbelief.  The 11 days that prefaced were filled with so much emotion, so much grief and so much hope.  I was inspired and humbled by the courage and wisdom of the 50 young women I stood beside during those days.  Each had become a dear sister and I saw the title as theirs rather than solely mine.  To this day, I still wholeheartedly believe we all won that night because we chose to stand united.  The 365 days that followed were filled with experiences that quickly matured my 21 years of age.  In the wake of 9/11, Americans held freedoms and uniquely American institutions closer to their hearts.  I soon learned just how much the Miss America Pageant, after 80 years in existence and nearly 50 on television, remained an American treasure. 

The instant Tony Danza announced the results, alongside Miss Massachusetts.

Walking the runway and trying to grasp what has just happened.

One of my first official visits as Miss America was to Ground Zero in New York City, where rescue workers were combing mounds of twisted steel and smoldering ground for remains of those lost on that horrible September day.  I stepped off a New York City harbor patrol boat onto a pier lined with workers preparing to board “respite” boats for a few minutes rest, warmth and cup of coffee before they returned to their respective posts.  They were covered with soot and wore heavy expressions of determination and despair.  I felt so small, so young and so insignificant in comparison to the weight of their responsibilities and heroic actions.  What could I offer with a circle of rhinestones and a pageant title that would provide any comfort?  My USO guides led me to a table of three rescue workers and after handshakes and an exchange of introductions they offered me a seat.  I offered them my sincere gratitude for their service.  The men had each worked 48-hour shifts and were clearly exhausted.  But with a sparkle in his eye, one gentleman shared how he and his wife sat with ardent pleasure watching the Miss America Pageant the night I was crowned because it was the one thing on television that gave him an escape from the rubble and instead a reminder of the fabric of America.  It was his one night off and he chose to watch the pageant.  “We were just so glad the pageant hadn’t been cancelled like so many other things,” he said.  The other gentlemen smiled and nodded, and then handed me their helmets to autograph.  I could not have been more floored by their request; genuinely humbled beyond what I could ever express.  And I was all the more shocked to receive the same response as I was guided from the respite boat through the outlining stations immediately surrounding Ground Zero.  But I knew the response wasn’t about me, a young Oregonian girl, but what my crown and title symbolized and represented: perpetual new hope.

The horror of Ground Zero.

The three amazing gentlemen I sat with and felt so blessed meet.

This September 11th, I encourage you to rediscover hope…that which exists in our everyday freedoms and the blessings of loved ones.  Nothing and no one can rob us of hope.