Crew players and staff recall 9/11

On the 10th anniversary, players and staff recall events of 9/11

Robert Warzycha 2001

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

On Sept. 10, 2001, the Columbus Crew was still reveling in the exciting come-from-behind 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Mutiny in Florida. With only two games left in the season and the playoffs in sight, the Black & Gold was enjoying a little bit of rest and relaxation before catching a flight the next day to Colorado.

Former Crew midfielder and current TV analyst Duncan Oughton recalls: “We had training that morning, sort of a re-generation. I went on the trip to Tampa, even though I was suspended for card accumulation because the team was flying directly to Colorado. We had the afternoon off and Tom Presthus had arranged for us to rent a sail boat through a friend of his wife’s, so John Harkes, he and I went out on the harbor to relax for the afternoon. 

“I distinctly remember jumping off the back of the boat and seeing it drift away, and having heard of an increase in shark attacks in the area that summer, I quickly made my way back on the boat. We were having a great season, coming off a good win so we were relaxing before the last two games of the regular season and the playoffs.”

Little did they know that the next morning their lives, along with everyone else’s in the country, would change forever. On the morning of September 11, 2001, the terrorist group Al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon outside of Washington D.C., and a rural field near Shanksville, Pa.

The Crew was the only team in the air that morning, on its way from Tampa to Colorado to play the Rapids in their first match at Invesco Field at Mile High (now Sports Authority Field), when they heard the captain of their flight explain that they would have to make an emergency landing.

“We were on our way from Tampa to Denver to open the new football stadium,” remembers Crew head coach Robert Warzycha, who was in his final season as a full-time player. “The pilot told us there was a terrorist attack on the United States and that we were having an emergency landing in Alabama. I was the first one to call my wife because mine was the only phone that was working. She was the one to tell me that a plane hit the towers. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t imagine how a plane could hit the World Trade Center.  It was absolutely shocking. Everybody was calling their families and finding out what happened, but I could never, even just using one piece of imagination, think that something like this could happen.”

“It was an early morning flight and we had walked into the airport just an hour before our flight,” Oughton echoed. “Everyone was sleeping or listening to music. I was half asleep when I heard the captain announce there had been a terrorist attack on America, everyone was looking at each other wondering what was going on. Then someone said they saw the plane offloading fuel outside the window. So we landed in Birmingham and the next thing I know, everyone is trying to call their loved ones to see what had happened, and then we saw the carnage on the TVs in the airport. It was crazy!”

Crew director of team operations, Tucker Walther was the equipment manager/team administrator back then. “We were just taking off and they were serving breakfast,” Walther said. “I don’t think it was even 30 minutes into the flight when the captain came on the speaker and told us that there had been a terrorist attack on the United States and that we were making an emergency landing. We ended up in a dirt patch at the end of the runway because there were seven planes behind us. It took us a while to de-board the plane. I remember they had us disembark at the back of the aircraft onto the tarmac. At that point we didn’t know what was going on. We were trying to find a TV and once we were all moved to the baggage claim area, we stated hearing rumors about the White House, the Pentagon, the Twin Towers and other places being hit.”

Meanwhile, Crew Stadium was getting ready for the NIKE Cup international doubleheader with the U.S. Women’s National Team, China, Japan and Germany.

“I had arrived at work before 8 a.m. and we were scheduled to have a director’s meeting that morning at 9 a.m.,” said Scott DeBolt, the Crew’s VP of operations. “We were just getting ready to start the meeting when someone said there was an airplane crash in New York City. We turned on the TV to see the second plane hit the twin towers.

“The U.S. Soccer Federation was in town, as was Lamar Hunt. Shortly after the news broke, we met with U.S. Soccer and made the call to cancel the game that night.”

With the games at Crew Stadium canceled DeBolt turned his focus to the team.

“It was shortly after we turned on the TV we wondered where the team was on the trip from Tampa to Denver,” he recalled.  “I looked at the itinerary and noticed that they would have left 45 minutes before the first planes crashed. Once we heard that all planes were being grounded, I kept trying to call Tucker Walther to see where they were.”

“After we found out what had happened we started talking to the players and they told us they all wanted to go back to their families as soon as possible,” Walther said. 

“Tucker finally called and said they were in Birmingham, and did not know how long they would be,” DeBolt recalled. “[Operations assistant] Rob Crockett and I called our local bus company as asked about getting a hold of a bus down there to bring the players back. Within a couple of hours we had a bus at the Birmingham airport to pick up the team and bring them back that night.”

“We were lucky enough to be able to get back,” said Oughton. “We were lucky to have the bus trip set up for us. We had no luggage, all our bags stayed behind in Birmingham and by that time everyone was trying to let their families and loved ones that they were OK and try to comfort those who feared other attacks could happen. It was a weird bus ride.”

With the team on its way back to Ohio, DeBolt had four other teams in Columbus to worry about.

“The four international teams stayed in their hotels for most of the day,” he said. “In the afternoon, Japan wanted to get out of the hotel so we took them to the Crew training facility in Obetz and let them train. It was weird because you heard very little noise out that day, and there was no airplane noise which you normally heard being so close to the airport.

Shortly into their practice, we noticed Air Force One with two F-16 fighters on it wings heading eastbound. It was the President heading back from Nebraska. The next day, all three foreign teams were trying to figure out how to get back home, but with air service suspended they were stuck. Two teams end up driving to Chicago and got flights out five days later, and one drove to Toronto to get back home.”

[Note: President Bush was whisked from Sarasota, Fla., where he was visiting an elementary school, to a U.S. Strategic Command bunker located at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb., in the early afternoon.]

Later in the day, there were discussions throughout the league about what to do with the remainder of the MLS season.

“Shortly after Noon, the league had a call to discuss the upcoming games,” DeBolt said. “I was on the call with our GM, Jim Smith, and Lamar Hunt. There were many thoughts and ideas, and then Commissioner Garber asked Lamar what the NFL had discussed on their call, and he said that all games would be cancelled at least through the weekend.”

Following the conference call, the League came to a decision and on Sept. 13 decided to cancel the remaining games and resume with the playoffs as scheduled.

Commissioner Garber issued the following statement:

“Major League Soccer shares the grief of the nation at Tuesday’s appalling tragedy. As we all mourn, MLS believes it is appropriate to take some time to acknowledge the nation’s loss and honor the victims and heroes. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of those who have been affected. MLS has decided to cancel the six remaining games of the league’s regular season. In addition the previously postponed four regular season games will not be rescheduled.”

The league resumed play nine days after the attacks with the MLS Cup Quarterfinals.

On the Monday before the playoffs were set to begin, then Deputy MLS Commissioner Ivan Gazidis said: “I think that the best way we can serve the country now is by getting back on our feet. This is the first time that I can remember that being involved in soccer has felt like a duty to me. I do believe it is a sacred duty and it has never been more important than it is now. I want to speak for all of Major League Soccer when I promise that we will fulfill that duty to the utmost of our ability. It is the right time to return to work, and we will finish our season unbowed. That is the best way that we can help the nation right now and that is the thought that is driving us forward.”

“It was important to get back to normality,” Oughton said. “It seemed like it was never going to be the same again, just because a lot of things changed and a lot of people’s lives changed around the country. I felt it was important for us as a team and for our fans to get back to the normality of playing games and having a schedule and help forget the horror of what had happened.”

On Sept. 22, 2001, the Crew hosted the San Jose Earthquakes in the playoffs, losing Game 1 by a score of 3-1. The Black & Gold would lose the series four days later, as it dropped a 3-0 decision to the Earthquakes in San Jose, Calif.

The 2001 MLS season came to an end on Oct. 21. With the tragedies still fresh on many people’s minds, Los Angeles and San Jose took the field and gave fans a little bit of respite from everything. Canadian-born Dwayne De Rosario scored the game-winner in a 2-1 victory for San Jose in extra time while paying tribute in his own way.

“I started wearing a “One Love” shirt after the tragedies because of the chaos in the world,” De Rosario said. “I was trying to help unite people and bring people together rather than make [the world] more divided. That was the whole reason I wore the shirt, and I think it definitely helped bring a lot of people together – the soccer community, Americans and eventually the world.”