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The oral history of the first SmackDown after 9/11

The oral history of the first SmackDown after 9/11

Sept. 11, 2001. The day that changed everything — our perceptions, our priorities, even the way we travel our world.

In the chaotic and terrifying days following 9/11, WWE SmackDown was the first public assembly of its size, taking place live from Houston on Sept. 13, 2001. It proved to be not only a gathering in defiance of terrorism but also a reminder that the United States and its citizens remain resilient.

Here, WWE Superstars, producers and employees who helped create that landmark event reflect on what it was like to put together the most vital show in WWE history.

BILL DeMOTT: I was getting ready to go to the arena. I saw the first plane hit on TV when I woke up and thought it was a movie.

JIM ROSS: The WWE team was staying in a Houston hotel after Raw in San Antonio and preparing for the taping of SmackDown. We had a 7:45 a.m. production meeting scheduled in Vince McMahon’s suite to finalize our game plan. Vince, from his bedroom, yelled for us to turn on the television. Someone did and we all started witnessing the most tragic incident any of us could ever imagine. Honestly, it was much worse than I could ever fathom.

BOOKER T: I remember I was getting my cup of coffee. I sat down and flipped on the television and the second tower was just getting hit. It was a somber moment.

Watch emotional testimonies from Superstars, recorded days after 9/11

LILIAN GARCIA: I lived in New York City. The way that I found out was my friend called me and said, “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay.” Because of the time difference, I was still sleeping. I’m trying to figure if I’m dreaming this or what. He was supposed to have a meeting in the towers and he was late, so he saw the plane hit and ran off. I turned on the TV and that’s when I actually saw the tower go down. Now I’m telling him what’s going on, because he has no clue. He’s just running. I’m telling him the tower is falling and then I lose contact and I can’t get a hold of him. And I lost it. I lost it.

BRUNO LAUER: We were all nervous. We didn’t know what our future held. Were we ever going to be able to fly again?

DeMOTT: There were guys consoling other guys, making sure families were OK. The saving grace — it sounds corny — but the saving grace of the tragedy was we were with the people you spend most of your time and life with. That was your family, not your immediate family, but you were with family trying to figure it out together.

The oral history of the first SmackDown after 9/11

ROSS: Obviously, we all knew that there would be no SmackDown TV taping that night in Houston as the tragedy presented many more pressing issues, questions and concerns than producing a TV program.

BOOKER: SmackDown was actually canceled or postponed, and then the big decision was made to go on, and I think it was one of the best decisions WWE ever made. It gave not just us performers a chance to escape for a minute but also the fans.

DeMOTT: If I understand the story right, it was brought to Vince McMahon and WWE that [government officials] thought the best thing for the country was to take their mind off it.

MICHAEL HAYES: I think Vince made the decision later that Tuesday night. He got with Lee Brown, who was the mayor of Houston at the time. It was a huge decision for Vince — a lot of responsibility on that.

DeMOTT: I can’t speak for the McMahons, but I think it was a hard decision to look their people in the eyes and say, “We’re staying, and we’re gonna do what we came here to do.” And I don’t think anybody thought, “These guys are out of their minds.” If anybody can take the country’s mind off of what’s going on, it’s us. As a collective decision, it was awesome.

Watch video clips from the first SmackDown after 9/11, including Mr. McMahon's stirring speech

HAYES: Once he made that decision, certainly none of us had any regrets.

LILIAN: We were the only organization that decided to go live and didn’t cancel like the NFL and some of the other sporting events.

BOOKER: I don’t think the show getting canceled would’ve benefited us as a people.

DeMOTT: You know that old saying, “The show must go on.”

The oral history of the first SmackDown after 9/11

HAYES: Everything you were seeing on TV at the time was horrific. We were doing something right to hopefully lead other people to do something right, to see something good.

BROOKLYN BRAWLER: Having the show on just after 9/11 showed [the terrorists] that they could knock us down, but we’re going to get up again.

JBL: We were the first live gathering of any size after 9/11. We had no idea what was gonna happen. Security was astronomical. Took forever for them to scan the building to make sure there were no bombs or anything they suspected that was out of the ordinary.

HAYES: Did we have concerns and apprehensions? Yes, but by God, we were so mad, so angry, we were gonna get back to business. While everybody was nervous backstage, hoping nothing catastrophic would happen, the feeling of unity and patriotism was overwhelming.

See photos from this historic SmackDown event

JBL: We didn’t know what would happen. We didn’t even know if people would show up. And everybody showed up with an American flag. The place was sold out.

LILIAN: The energy that was radiating in that arena of people who needed to grieve together, but also stand up for America, was just amazing.

DeMOTT: As a group, when we got on that stage that night, it was emotional.

LILIAN: I got asked to do the national anthem and at first I was like, “Oh my gosh. How am I going to get through this?” No music, no nothing, because [Mr. McMahon] wanted it a cappella. I said to myself, “This is bigger than me. I have an obligation. I have to do this.”

JBL: Lilian sang such a beautiful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was just phenomenal. Wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

LILIAN: When you hear that recording, you can hear my voice quivering and how emotional I was. I ended up crying at the end because I was trying to keep everything together during the performance.

WWE Photo

Lilian Garcia sings a stirring rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" on the first SmackDown after September 11th.

DeMOTT: One of my favorite photos — it’s up in my den — is that group shot of everyone on stage holding up their American flags. We weren’t holding them up for the show — we were holding them up for the country.

HAYES: We didn’t have any matches that were based upon storyline. We just had people go out and do what they did best, which was entertaining our fans.

LILIAN: It wasn’t about competing. We needed to go out there and put on a show.

BOOKER: It was all about the U.S. that night. It let everybody know that we’re going to go on. America is still going to be strong, no matter what.

HAYES: I just remember how proud everyone was to be a part of this show, starting with the boss, Vince McMahon. It was time to give America back to America.

BRAWLER: All I can say is [the terrorists] didn’t accomplish what they wanted to accomplish. We’re still free.

DeMOTT: After that, when we got on a flight, people looked at us differently. You see a bunch of big men and goofy looking characters from TV, but if we were on their flight, they knew they were safe.

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