Etched in memory
Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001…it is a date no American will ever forget. On that day, terrorists hijacked four planes and attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon, killing thousands and toppling the two tall towers in New York City. Amidst the chaos that day, the Federal Aviation Administration shut down airspace over the entire United States, canceling all air travel for three days.
Air travel is a big part of the WWE Superstars' lives, and the events of Sept. 11 heavily affected WWE. On the night of the attacks, WWE was in Houston for a taping of SmackDown, but the event was postponed.
After hours of deliberation, WWE officials decided that SmackDown would air live two nights later on Sept. 13. The SmackDown event was the largest public assembly following the tragedy.
King Booker is a Houston native, and was set to perform in his hometown that night. Everything seemed normal when he awoke that fateful Tuesday morning, but it soon turned into a day he would never forget.
"I remember it like it was yesterday. People will say they will always remember where they were for it. I think I was making a cup of coffee," the World Heavyweight Champion remembered. "I just got up and flipped on the TV like normal, and I actually saw the second plane going into the Trade Center. Referee Nick Patrick was staying with me; I woke him up and told him we had something going on here. We sat there and watched the chaos, just trying to realize what we were watching."
Amidst the tragedy, the King's thoughts turned to that night's scheduled event.
"It was a touch and go thing; the show got postponed and no one knew if they were going to cancel it," he said. "We went live on Thursday, and people were still thinking about it (9/11), wondering if we should do the show. As far as entertainment goes, I've realized that the best form of relief is to go on. The people need that entertainment. You wonder if it's something we should do, but it was a totally different thing when we saw the turnout. The show was just about going out, working and giving the fans a good night of wrestling to get their minds off of it. I think it's one of the best decisions the company has ever made."
On Sept. 13, 2001, it was the team of Jim Ross and Paul Heyman calling the action for the live edition of SmackDown. For J.R., who has called thousands of sports-entertainment broadcasts in his career, this particular one was one of the hardest for him to do.
"Obviously it was very hard to stay focused. Going into the show, it was hard to keep your mind on anything with all the tragedy and trauma that New York City and the country was experiencing," J.R. said candidly. We had several people who had friends or relatives that were lost in the World Trade Center; I didn't know anyone personally that perished, but I felt for everyone as an American. Every hour that would go by, another phone call would come that someone's friend or relative had perished. All of a sudden, what we do became small in the big picture. We felt it was our obligation to give the world just a little bit of a break, some sort of entertainment. It was historic being part of the broadcast of the first public assembly after the tragedy; we even had a Medal of Honor winner who told us we should do the show, but it was very difficult to stay focused on everything."
Ross' broadcast partner that night had more on his mind as well; Heyman hails from Scarsdale, N.Y. (right outside New York City), and his thoughts were understandably elsewhere.
"I don't remember it (SmackDown) all that well, because the whole week really was just like a blur. I do remember when Lilian Garcia came out and sang the national anthem; it dropped me to my knees, and I was weeping at ringside. That's just usually not me," Heyman admitted. "I remember hearing the countdown from the production truck in my headset and trying to regain my composure. I had no idea what I was going to say, and I just started babbling about being a New Yorker and being happy to be there. The whole night, all I could hear in my head was Lilian singing and the emotion of it."
Heyman also admitted, however, that he does vividly remember how he felt once the show was finished.
"When it was over, J.R. turned to me and said ‘that was a tough one,' and it was at that point I realized we made it through," he recalled. "I don't know how we did it. There isn't one thing I can vividly remember, except the pride I felt that we had put the show on. The age old adage that ‘the show must go on' was lived up to and exemplified by WWE; I can't remember a time I was so proud to be a part of it."
Not all of the Superstars in action that night were Americans, but that didn't matter. A native of Toronto, Test was shaken by what occurred that day.
"I got woken up by A-Train, my partner at the time, who told me to turn on the TV; I just couldn't believe what was going on," he said. "Even two days later, it was probably the weirdest thing I've ever been a part of. Here we are, performing in front of a crowd who had just witnessed probably the most horrific event of their lifetime. It was hard to perform, there was so much emotion. We wanted to give the fans something to be happy about, but everyone was concerned because no one knew what could happen."
The tragedy hit home to several current (and then-future) Superstars and Extremists as well. John Cena was training at WWE's Ohio Valley facility at the time, but admitted that he would have loved to have been in Houston.
"I wasn't there, because I wasn't yet on the WWE roster," said Cena. "A lot of people didn't think we should do the show; there was a lot of heat from the media. But it was one of the better things that were done. You could tell it was a fantastic atmosphere, the energy of the people…leave it to WWE to be the first to stand up and say we're not taking any sh*t. Through good times or bad, we're going to stay together and do this thing."
Triple H also wanted to be there, but he had torn his quadriceps muscles earlier in 2001 and was in Alabama rehabilitating the injury on Sept. 11. Still, while he wasn't in Houston that night, The Game still felt a sense of pride being part of WWE.
"I was very proud to be involved with WWE because of that. That was a global event that changed the world, and to be the first public assembly of that kind…in a terrorist attack, what they want you to do is to change your lifestyle. That show was us, not as WWE or as wrestlers but as Americans, saying F you. You're not going to change the way we are, we're going to do what we do because that's who we are."
ECW's Matt Striker was closest of all. Striker is from the Bayside neighborhood of Queens, and was at home the day of the attacks; in fact, he can almost recall what he was doing down to the minute.
"I was sitting in the living room eating with my father, and I was going to head to the beach that day because it was nice for that time of year," Striker recalled. "We watched the first plane hit and thought maybe it was accidental. My father looked up from his newspaper and raised his eyebrow. He calls me Butch, and he said ‘Butch, I got a bad feeling about this.' Sure enough, as those words came out of his mouth, the next plane hit. I did end up going to the beach that day, and everywhere I went, strangers would acknowledge each other and shake their heads and share camaraderie. It was bizarre."
And while those WWE Superstars in Houston were still feeling fringe effects two days later, it was an even more uncertain time in New York City.
"My mother lives in a building on the water in Bayside, Queens, and on the roof of that building you can see the skyline. My friends and I would often go up there, and for days the smoke would billow into our neighborhood. Bayside is about 20 miles from Manhattan Island itself, and when you figure that the Twin Towers were in the lower end of Manhattan, that adds another few miles to that. Still, cars were covered with soot, houses were covered with ash, and we smelled smoke in our neighborhood for days. We watched those buildings smolder for days, and every night we'd go up on the roof. I have a very strong faith, and every night I would go up there and pray. I felt like maybe I was a little closer to God, and I prayed for everyone. And in the weeks following, every plane that flew over our neighborhood, we had to think something might happen."
Even five years later, the memory of 9/11 is etched into everyone's memory. Matt Hardy and Gregory Helms, who squared off against each other in the opening match of SmackDown on Sept. 13, both said they actually still reflect quite a bit on that moment and the SmackDown that followed quite a bit.
"That show was so different. I know we were the largest public assembly following the attack, and I remember walking into the building wondering ‘wow, what if something happens here?'" Hardy recalled. "It was a creepy feeling thinking we might be a target because of all the people there; no one knew what the situation would be long-term. We were the first match, but after going out and wrestling, I saw the country was as one. It was us taking a stand, saying nothing will stop us from doing our thing. It was amazing."
Helms added, "We travel so much in this business that I can't help but think about it all the time. Every time I fly into a major city, scenes from that day pop into my mind. A lot of us didn't want to cancel the event and let these jackasses win. During the show, I remember we were all on stage for the National Anthem, and it was real emotional; it finally sunk in what had happened. So we just went out there to try to make people happy and help them forget about it for a couple hours. It's not what you would call a highlight in your career, but it's a moment you'll never forget."
Striker summed it up perfectly.
"Unfortunately, every generation has an event that they will always remember where they were when it happened. If you ask your parents where they were when JFK was shot, they can probably tell you. I don't think anyone can forget where they were on 9/11."
We at WWE.com and the entire WWE family have our thoughts and prayers with the families of those who were lost on Sept. 11, 2001.
View photos from the live SmackDown on Sept. 13, 2001