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Buehrle, Konerko, Williams describe what it was like in New York 9/11

September 18 2001--The color guard marches past White Sox along third base line. Sun-Times phoby Tom Cruze

September 18, 2001--The color guard marches past the White Sox along the third base line. Sun-Times photo by Tom Cruze

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Updated: November 24, 2011 12:25AM

In the early hours of Sept.  11, 2001, on the day everything changed, the White Sox flew to New York from Cleveland, where they had beaten the Indians 7-1 in a rain-delayed game.

They arrived exhausted at 4  a.m. at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, which stands next to Grand Central Station. New York might never sleep, but the Sox did, hoping to get some rest before a night game against the Yankees.

Wake-up call

Mark Buehrle was excited. It was the 22-year-old’s first time in the city, and it would be the first time his eyes would rest upon Yankee Stadium, which was on the national register of mystical places for a kid with baseball coursing through his veins. Buehrle was excited, but not so excited that he appreciated his hotel phone ringing just after 9 a.m. Fellow pitcher Kip Wells was on the other end.

“He said, ‘Hey, turn the TV on,’ ’’ Buehrle said. “I was like, ‘Dude, it’s too early. Don’t be calling me this early in the morning.’ I laid there for a little bit. When I first turned the TV on, it didn’t really hit me at first.’’

He watched as smoke and flames spewed, volcano-like, from the two towers. And he watched the buildings collapse on themselves, taking with them the bodies of 2,753 people. Until that day, he had never even heard of the World Trade Center.

Like most everybody else in the United States, Buehrle was witnessing the aftermath of an al-Qaida terrorist attack. The difference was that he was three miles from Ground Zero, and he didn’t know what or who was next. He went down to the lobby to talk with other players and coaches.

A few hours later, two police officers walked in the front door of the hotel and announced a choice for anyone within earshot: Go back to your room immediately or get as far away from the building as possible. A passenger had gotten out of a taxi in front of the train station and run away, leaving a package inside the car. The jittery cabdriver had run away, too. Panic descended on 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue. Grand Central Station made perfect sense for the next terrorist act.

‘‘That’s the first time I really thought we were going to die, that it was going to happen to us, too,’’ Buehrle said. ‘‘I remember the exact spot we were standing in the lobby. We could see everybody on the street running like they did on TV when the towers were falling. The second floor of the hotel was glass. I looked up, and I was waiting to see another building falling. That’s when I thought, ‘We’re dying. We’re done.’ ’’

It turned out to be a false alarm, though in the grip of fear, what alarm could be considered truly false?

The first airplane hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m., and the second hit the South Tower at 9:03. Sox general manager Ken Williams could look out his hotel-room window and see smoke billowing into a brilliantly blue sky. When the taxi scare occurred, he led a group toward Central Park, figuring that if other buildings were being targeted, at least they would be in an open space. That’s how it was. The Sox had gone from slumber to survival mode in warp speed.

‘‘I had never been in a war zone,’’ Williams said. ‘‘I’ve seen it depicted in movies. I’ve seen actual raw footage of what the streets look like. Manhattan was closed down. Think about that for a second. Manhattan was closed down, and there was a fog. Just people, no cars, except for the patrol cars and the fire engines. Just people. I would hope that Manhattan never looks like that again.’’

Middle of a nightmare

First baseman Paul Konerko woke up to the sound of the hotel’s fire alarm blaring, followed by an automated message: ‘‘Please stay off the street. There’s a police investigation going on.’’ And Konerko thought, typical New York crime. He hadn’t gotten to bed until 6 a.m. and had slept through much of the morning commotion. He was about to roll over and try to get back to sleep when he noticed the light blinking on his room phone.

‘‘I called down to the front desk,’’ he said. ‘‘The girl says, ‘Yeah, your game is canceled tonight. The series is canceled, and your team is going to try to get you out of town as soon as they can.’ I knew there was talk of bad weather. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ She said, ‘You don’t know what happened? Turn your TV on.’ ’’

Turn your TV on. How many Americans picked up the phone that day and either heard or uttered those words? Konerko turned on his TV and saw devastation on a massive scale.

Within an hour, he was on the streets with teammates Sean Lowe, Bobby Howry and Keith Foulke. Konerko is an analytical person, the kind of guy who tends to look at things from every angle. It was why they were walking toward the World Trade Center, not away from it, as most people were.

‘‘With all the planes still in the air,’’ he said, ‘‘the thought was, ‘The towers have already been hit. So that’s safe. Let’s just walk that way. We’ll see what’s going on, but at the same time, we’ll be walking away from anything else being hit.’

‘‘It was kind of crazy to think about stuff like that. It’s not like you felt at any moment there was immediate danger, but then again, the places that got hit that day, who felt immediate danger?’ ’’

The Sox were in the middle of a garish nightmare. There was the reality of what had happened and the concern of what might happen next. Anything seemed possible.

‘‘I can remember walking down a hallway in the hotel and just feeling like somebody was going to jump out of a room and attack me,’’ Buehrle said. ‘‘It felt so uncomfortable just to get into your room. I went to another guy’s room to talk. Leaving his room to go to mine, I felt so threatened, like something was going to happen to me. Like somebody was going to jump out and kill me.’’

A nearby Irish pub stayed open that night, and some of the Sox ate dinner there. By then, Times Square was a ghost town, but its lights continued to blink on and off like some post-apocalyptic movie scene.

Major League Baseball called off all games for that day and would later cancel games for the rest of the week. There had been so much death and destruction that even thinking about sports seemed trite, insignificant, even disrespectful.

The goal for the Sox was to get out of Manhattan, which was on complete lockdown. Only official vehicles were allowed in or out.

Ed Cassin, the Sox’ director of team travel, spent much of the day and evening talking by phone with local and state police. They finally agreed to allow two buses in to pick up the Sox.

Escape from Manhattan

At 6 a.m., after a night of uncertainty and fear, the Sox began their journey west to Cleveland, where they planned to stay for the night before returning to Chicago.

But just before they got on the George Washington Bridge toward New Jersey, police stopped the buses. They asked the Sox if they would take two nurses across. The nurses had worked through the night, and the lockdown meant their families couldn’t pick them up.

‘‘They got on the bus, and the smell of death was on them,’’ Williams said. ‘‘They were covered in soot, covered in blood. One sat next to me, one sat next to [then-manager] Jerry Manuel. All I could say was, ‘Are you OK?’ And she just looked at me with the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen in my life. It melted my heart. God only knows what she saw that night.

“We dropped them off and watched them embrace their family members before we drove off.’’

Williams and Manuel decided that the Sox needed to be back with their families, so he arranged for fresh drivers and buses to take over when they arrived in Cleveland. They traveled on to Chicago.

‘‘All I can remember is how much freedom and how relaxed I felt once we got on the highway and started driving in the country,’’ Buehrle said. ‘‘I remember trees on each side of the road. It was the shortest, longest bus trip I’ve ever had. It was like 16 or 18 hours and, seriously, you snapped your fingers and you were back in Chicago. It was pretty much a day and a half of stress and worrying about what’s going to happen.’’

‘‘Believe me, nobody cared about the drive,’’ Konerko said. ‘‘It was, ‘Let’s just get home.’ Everybody was pretty shaken up. But like everybody in the country, that turned to anger. People were upset about what had happened.’’

When the buses arrived at Midway Airport, Cassin wanted to get on his hands and knees and kiss the ground.

‘‘When you were in New York, it felt like the end of the world,’’ he said. ‘‘I didn’t think I’d ever see Chicago again.’’

The sports world has changed since 9/11. Pro athletes used to be able to jump on chartered flights and not worry about having their bags checked. Some, like Konerko, can’t help but have their guards up whenever they’re at a ballpark. Any place with a crowd of people could be a target.

‘‘I don’t know how something like that cannot change you,’’ Williams said. ‘‘More than anything, I’m more empathetic to some of the regions in the world that don’t enjoy our freedom, that don’t expect to get in their car to go from their home to their work with relative ease, with no worry of something catastrophic happening. So I’m certainly more appreciative of our way of life. I’m more understanding of our efforts to put a stop to some of the oppression.’’

A week later

The Sox’ first game after the attacks came a week later. They faced the Yankees at the Cell. Before the first pitch, fans stood shoulder to shoulder in quiet reflection. There was vulnerability and there was resolve, but nobody could say which one held the upper hand.

The Sox went back to New York on Oct. 1 to make up the three games against the Yankees. They toured Ground Zero when they were there.

‘‘I can still smell it, but I can’t articulate it to you,’’ Williams said. ‘‘That was another sad day.’’

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