While stationed in Bucharest, Romania (1990)
With officers in the Romanian Army a short time after the December 1989 revolution
With my then girlfriend (now wife of 22 years), Marieta on one of our early dates (seriously)
Writer’s Note: This marks the first time I’ve written about the events of September 11, 2001. I resided at 1201 South Eads Street, located in the Crystal City section of Arlington, Virginia. My ninth-floor residence at The Bennington overlooked the Pentagon.
The memory that still haunts me to this day is of a man whose name I do not know.
The morning after that horrible day, the man stood in solitude a few hundred feet away from the smoldering southwest side of the Pentagon. He looked and he stared at the scene of horror. The man appeared to be struggling to make sense of it all. He seemed to be waiting for someone to return.
That man stood there all morning and all afternoon. His eyes gazed into an empty chamber, where the façade of a formidable building had once stood. Now, all that filled the void was a collapsed pile of rubble shielded by grey clouds of smoke rising ominously into the air.
The following day – 48 hours removed from the time of the tragedy – the man dutifully returned once again to the Pentagon. He stood in the same spot where he had waited in vain during the previous day. He continued to look and stare into the ashes.
The man was looking for his wife.
That shattered man waited and waited and waited for someone who would never return.
Still shocked by it all and in an utter state of disbelief, he held onto the only thing he had left –hope. Indeed, hope was all that sustained him — the hope that by some miracle his wife would somehow be found safe beneath it all and somehow leap from the ashes and rush toward into his open arms.
I remember seeing that man whose wife must have worked on one of the floors that was hit during the attack. He certainly wasn’t alone in suffering a loss far beyond human comprehension. His sad story was one of many sad stories – of good people who lost their husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and colleagues. All gone.
The image of that man staring into the smoke and waiting for his wife holding onto the faintest of hope is the memory I keep above all others from that terrible time in our history.
He’s unlikely to ever find the answer to the question he’s asked a thousand times. Namely — why?
That’s an answer no one knows.
The first thing I remember from that gorgeous Tuesday morning was the sound of an explosion.
Such a disturbance wasn’t unusual. After all, I lived in a congested city with several high rise apartment buildings surrounding the perch. There was always lots of heavy traffic and the usual ambient noise of horns and sirens. Washington National Airport was less than a mile away, emanating a steady hum of aircraft engines. There were always accidents happening along I-395, the main artery for suburban Northern Virginian commuters who were headed into the District of Columbia, many of them were civil servants.
Yes, I heard the loud crash. So what was my reaction? I promptly rolled over and went back to bed.
A few minutes later, the telephone rang. The alarm clock showed 8:55.
My worldview, indeed everyone’s worldview, was about to be jolted.
“Did you see what’s happening?” the voice said.
I recognized the voice instantly. It was my wife, Marieta. She was at work.
“What? What are you talking about? I asked — barely conscious from my peaceful slumber.
“Turn on the TV! Turn on the TV! Do it now!”
I located the remote, pressed a button, and for the first time saw an indelible image that remains seared into my mind.
Most of us probably remember our reactions upon first seeing the World Trade Center towers on fire. Disbelief. Panic. Terror. Horror. Sadness. Anguish.
“What in the hell happened?” I asked.
“I don’t know — but there’s a report that something just happened at the Pentagon,” Marieta said. “Can you glance outside and have a look?”
From the distance, the sky appeared to be clear. But as I moved towards our sliding glass doors I began to see a haze. Then, I caught sight of giant plumes of thick black smoke rising high into the air. Doors opened, next, I heard the wailing sounds of sirens. It seemed like hundreds of sirens. Fire trucks and police cars roared by, all headed to the spot where, off in the distance, there was a concentration of smoke and fire.
The next minute or two was a blur.
The World Trade Center was in flames. Not one tower, but both towers. The Pentagon too was now burning.
I had been awake for perhaps five minutes.
I returned to the television and stood in front of the screen. The image of New York’s burning towers was unchanged.
Then, it happened.
The announcer stopped what he was saying in mid-sentence. The first tower began to collapse.
I’m not sure why — but the distress of seeing the Pentagon in flames just outside my door was not nearly the shock of watching that tall tower crumble to the ground. My first reaction, quite frankly, was — the end of the world was here.
Perhaps in retrospect — that’s an absurd overreaction. But that’s honestly what I felt at the time. Our world was about to come to an end. Maybe that’s just how shocking it all was — seeing so many ghastly images within such a short time. Our ability to make sense of things shuts down. Logic abandons us. We all become susceptible to panic.
Marieta too, speaking on the other end of the phone, saw the tower fall — first one and then two. What was happening? Were we all under attack?
Since my wife worked on Pennsylvania Avenue, just two blocks from the White House, she had a different perspective on things. Word came that the White House and Old Executive Office Building were both being evacuated. Presidential advisors were actually running out into the streets. There was a rumor that another hijacked airplane was headed towards the White House. A similar thing reportedly happened over on Capitol Hill. All along Pennsylvania Avenue, people were flooding out of office buildings and spilling onto the busy boulevard.
Metro service abruptly stopped. This suspension of subway trains meant tens of thousands of government workers from outside the District had no way of getting home. Cell phone service also became a problem. Cars were not allowed into the District.
Marieta and I continued to discuss the events of the day and quickly hatched out a plan. We agreed that she should leave the building immediately and start walking from Pennsylvania Avenue towards the Lincoln Memorial, perhaps 20 blocks away. It was agreed that I’d come and meet her on the District side of the Memorial Bridge, which is the span which crosses from Virginia into Washington, D.C. I estimated that it would take us each about an hour walk the distance and meet.
I was about to get my first close-up look at the Pentagon.
I had no intention of bearing witness to what was going on at the Pentagon that day, terrible as those events were. But the five-sided symbol of the most powerful military force in the history of the world stood smack dab between my current location and the Memorial Bridge.
And so by foot, off I went.
The Pentagon is normally an ultra-high-security area. Aside from the mammoth-sized Pentagon bus depot and metro station, no one gets inside or anywhere near to the building unless they’re wearing a military uniform with lots of brass or have one of the government-issued IDs around their neck, festooned by a chain.
I had neither.
But that didn’t matter.
Once on the periphery of the Pentagon, skirting its northern corridor on foot, I was on the direct opposite side of the crash site. Hundreds of military personnel — from every branch of the armed forces — were running around in panic. Some were screaming orders to subordinates. Secretaries and support workers sat in the grass. The entire building of thousands of workers had been evacuated. Many seemed to be setting up some kind of triage. There were armed soldiers everywhere. Majors, Colonels, and even Generals were a dime a dozen. It was like a scene right out of a disaster movie.
I walked across the freshly-mowed green grass, over paved roads empty of traffic, stepping over curbs, until the muffled shouts of important men were far off in the distance. Minutes later, I could no longer see the Pentagon from my vantage point. But I could still see smoke in the air and smell its stench — a frightening reminder of death. It was a surreal experience, walking through Lady Bird Johnson Park so full of flowers along the George Washington Memorial Parkway on such a beautiful day. On any other say, this would have been a splendid experience. But here I was perhaps a quarter mile away from the spot where hundreds of people had just lost their lives, headed towards the nation’s capital on foot, which could very well be under attack.
I walked on. Further still.
Sometime later, I was standing on the east side of the Memorial Bridge, where I saw Marieta waiting faithfully.
The site of Marieta that day was something I will never forget. I think she looked more beautiful at that instant than any other day I had seen her.
I’m not sure what happened next. An embrace likely. A kiss to be sure. Another embrace, and then another. We held each other a little longer at that moment.
We walked home tearfully, once again passing by the fringes of the Pentagon.
In the days that followed, we visited the southwest side of the Pentagon — not out of morbid curiosity but to pay respects.
We didn’t know anyone by name. But they were still our neighbors. It took nearly a week for the smoke to go finally away. Day by day, the fire slowly went out and the smoke gradually dissipated.
But the shock and the pain and the outrage lingered.
I had been so very lucky to find my Marieta waiting for me on that day. The man who was standing next to the Pentagon off in the distance, all by himself — the man whom I saw standing, the man who I saw staring, the man who I saw waiting — was not so fortunate.
That man could have been me. And he could have been I. But by an odd twist of fate whereby his wife just so happened to be employed on one of the floors of the Pentagon and my wife worked a few blocks from the White House, we had much in common.
But at that instant, we had nothing in common. Nothing at all.
I had survived that day intact.
That man did not survive. Although there in body, he was no longer there in spirit.
I am so sorry for that man. I am so, so very sorry.
This is one of the more unusual columns I’ve ever written.
The spark of inpiration was more like a slow-burning fuse It came from something that’s been bothering me for 11 years.
Feelings of diappointment and anger have simmered inside me since 9-11-01. So, I chose today to confront those feelings and ultimately share what I learned and the peace I have come to about this affair with readers.
On the very day when our world changed in a way it would and could never be quite that same as before, I was astounded to learn that not just one, but two major poker tournaments were played on September 11, 2001.
In Los Angeles, an event at the Heavenly Hold’em tournament (No-Limit Hold’em) at the Commerce Casino attracted 122 entrants.
In Las Vegas, there were two major tournaments played that day as part of the Queens Poker Classic, held at the Four Queens Casino. A No-Limit Hold’em tournament at noon attracted a field of 89 players. A 7-Card Stud event played later that day had 65 entrants. So, that’s 276 poker players who seemed to think a poker tournament was more important than the nation and our way of life being under attack.
As I began to write about this and attempt to discover how and why anyone could be so insensitive to such an overwhelming emotional experience, I came to an entirely different conclusion about the ways people deal with tragedy and pain. In short, I learned not to judge.
II. AT HOME — THE BACKSTORY
First, here’s some background.
By September of 2001, I was technically unemployed. I left a comfortable job in the nation’s capital to pursue what I really wanted to do. I spent most of my weekends in Atlantic City playing poker. I spent my weekdays at home in Crystal City, VA — just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC — writing about poker and gambling, as well as betting on sports. Life was good.
At the time I followed the poker tournament circuit very closely. Six years earlier I had created CARD PLAYER MAGAZINE’S “Player of the Year” system. I tracked all the results from around the country myself and announced who had won the “Player of the Year” honor in my each of my year-end columns, which appeared in late December. Because I couldn’t miss a single day of results, I followed every major tournament held around the country — including Heavenly Hold’em and the Queens Poker Classic which were played in September.
Like everyone else, I was stunned by what took place on September 11th. Part of the tragedy occurred within sight of my apartment balcony, which overlooked the Pentagon. What was normally a magnificent ninth-floor view of the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery and all the famous monuments became an observation point of utter disbelief and unspeakable horror.
A few days after September 11th, I returned to my duties and began looking over recent poker tournament results again, which had to be entered into my “Player of the Year” database.
I was astounded to discover that none of the three tournaments scheduled that horrible day had been canceled. They went on just as planned. Even more baffling — well over 200 players had decided to enter. One of these tournaments was the Queens Poker Classic, which took place at the Four Queens in Downtown Las Vegas. At one time, the Four Queens was a big deal. It was spread over two weeks and even had a $10,000 buy-on championship. Stu Ungar won it one year. All the biggest names in poker used to enter and play.
III. POKER’S MOST SHAMEFUL DAY?
I could not imagine a more revolting decision by so many ill-mannered people. While our nation was under attack, while the entire nation’s air service was suspended and millions were stranded everywhere, while thousands of bodies were still buring beneath rubble of twisted metal, and while every sane person in the universe over the age of 6 was either in front of a television set or seeking comfort by connecting with others in a giant umbrella of solidarity, a few hundred utterly insensitive buffoons were joking it up at the poker table. At least, that’s what I thought.
Before continuing — there’s a historical precedent here worth mentioning. Poker most certainly did not learn from the mistakes of the past.
Perhaps the only similar event in modern history which had such a profound impact on our nation was the Kennedy Assassination. How did society react to that shocking event? More specifically, what happened to recreational activities that were scheduled that weekend back in November 1963?
Days after the president was murdered, the National Football League decided to go ahead and play its full schedule of games. Years later, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozell cited that decision to continue with the games — so soon in the shadow of a national tragedy — as one of his biggest regrets. In the NFL’s case, that turned out to be three days afterward. In short, everyone agreed — it was wrong to play those games.
But in the case of a few poker tournaments — and specifically, one event held in Las Vegas, the time lapse between the buildings collapsing and the start of the tournament was just under five hours.
Not a day or two. FIVE HOURS.
Question: What kind of moron would decide to go ahead and hold a poker tournament under such conditions? Couldn’t the competition be delayed a day? Isn’t there anything that deserves universal respect — at least temporarily? Moreover, who were these thoughtless players who chose to play, seemingly indifferent to the tragedy that had impacted millions of their fellow citizens?
I mean — what would it take for them to “get it?” Would they still choose to play poker a few hours after a presidential assassination? What about an earthquake? What about a nuclear attack? Would 276 people still show up expecting cards to be dealt if the missles were flying? Where does one draw the line?
My anger and disappointment were directed at what I knew and what I was connected to — the poker industry. It continued to bother me. My outrage percolated for 11 years.
IV. GETTING THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
This appeared to be one of our industry’s most shameful moments. Imagine trying to justify holding such a trivial pursuit to a non-poker player. You can’t. So, I had to try and learn more about why this all happened. I had to try and find out who would decide to spend the whole day playing poker under those extraordinary conditions.
I found the tournament results. Glancing over the payouts, I wondered if I knew any of the players that made the decision to play that day? I was stunned by what I discovered. Not only did I recognize several names — I also saw a close freind had finished in second place. Even more shocking, this player was from New York!
While his city was being attacked and while his family and freinds may have been in danger, the New Yorker decided to enter a poker tournament.
The only word I could think of to describe this would be — baffling.
So, I emailed him a few days ago.
And, this is where our story suddenly takes a twist.
The person from New York I am talking about is named Scott Byron.
My e-mail to Scott Byron follows:
This is going to come across and very rude and perhaps even accusatory.
Please forgive the tone of this in advance.
You and I have been good friends for a long time and none of this has anything to do with that friendship. Okay, disclaimer done. Here it goes.
I am going to write and post something I will call “POKER’S MOST SHAMEFUL DAY.” This refers to a tournament that was held at the Four Queens back Sept. 11, 2001. My position is the tournament should have been cancelled (at least the noon event). Moreover, those who entered are pretty much a disgrace to humanity.
I was astounded to go back and look at the results of that tournament and discover that you played, and happened to finish second. Some idiot playing — I might understand. You, knowing you and being from NYC, playing an event where those towers has just fallen a couple of hours earlier strikes me as absolutely baffling. Hopefully, you can understand how stunned I was to see that you played in that tournament.
If you care to, I would like to hear your explanation as to why you would chose to play something as trivial as a poker tournament on what was the most frightening day of our lifetimes? You may speak on or off the record. I am not sure I will use any of your quotes, and will not if you ask me not to. But this is something I simply cannot understand, both from a professional and personal perspective.
Thanks — one again, I hope you understand the spirit of the question.
Scott Byron replied a short time later. Here’s his very thoughtful perspective (which I was given permission to make public):
Sure, I understand. I’ll tell you what happened.
First, I signed up for the tournament the night before. So, it wasn’t an active choice I made that morning. I set my alarm and woke up with about an hour to go until the tournament started, and by that point the towers had already fallen.
I sat on the edge of the bed watching on TV for a while, but it was all very confusing at that time; the TV stations had not yet created a narrative out of the pictures. It was very disjointed. I remember at one point noticing that my head was tilted while I watched, which was an indication of my confusion about the whole thing.
Nobody knew where I was staying (which was the Lady Luck) except for my mom, who lived on Long Island. Nobody had called me — as it turns out nobody could get through. I tried calling my mom, but I couldn’t get through.
Nobody knew what or how to feel at that point. Certainly not me. I tried to think if I knew anyone who might be in danger, or if I knew anyone who worked in the towers. To the latter, no. To the former, the only thing I could think of was that it was possible that someone was in the subway passing under the WTC site when they fell, but that didn’t seem likely.
Just sitting there staring at the TV didn’t make much sense in that moment. I decided I needed to find out what was going on at the tournament area. I sort of assumed that they would cancel the event, and I would get my money back. I showered and headed over to the Four Queens.
The same vibe was in the room there. Nobody knew how they should act or what to do/not do. They made a decision to carry on with the tournament, but offered refunds to people who wanted them. They announced that they would let people keep their cell phones on the table, which was not allowed for the rest of the tournament. All of the TVs in the room were tuned to the news.
I had about 15 minutes to decide. The question was — do I go to my rather drab hotel room and stare at the TV all day, hoping for a call, or do I spend it with these people, watching the same footage, and hope for a call? Remember at that time the poker world was a lot smaller — these were my friends from the poker circuit, not a mass of strangers. We already knew at that point that nobody was going to be able to leave Las Vegas for a while, as the flights were already grounded.
So, I decided to play. It gave me something to do, rather than just sit alone and stare at the TV. Some people took the refunds, but not too many. It was a relatively small event — 89 players if I recall? They paused the tournament when President Bush addressed the nation. I actually didn’t hear from anyone for 5 or 6 hours — calls just weren’t getting in or out of New York at all. It wasn’t until dinner time that I was able to speak to anyone, which of course was well into the night in NY. Some people I couldn’t reach for days. Everyone was okay.
I don’t know anyone personally who died. As it turns out there was one regular from the Mayfair Club whose company had an office in the towers, and he lost a few employees, but he wasn’t there. Late that night watching a list scroll by of businesses which had offices in the towers, I saw his name scroll by (“Julian Studley Associates,” or similar) and my heart leapt. That’s as close as I came to knowing someone, which surprises me because there were a lot of “business people” among the Mayfair Club regulars.
I don’t regret my decision at all. Confusion was the primary emotion that first day — not anger or sorrow or even fright. All those emotions came later. Of course I felt the need to “do something,” like everyone did, but what could I do from where I was? It didn’t seem like sitting alone in a hotel room and moping/mourning was the best way to spend that day. I was scheduled to fly home a couple of days later, but I knew that I would be there for longer. I had no imperative to go home (no job, then) and I knew that other people would be desperate to get out sooner than I had to, so I wasn’t going to take a seat on the first flight, either.
Much to my amazement, I haven’t had my decision to play seriously questioned by anyone until now. I’ve told the story many many times, as people want to know my 9/11 story when they hear I’m from New York. It’s an unusual story, for sure, winning $12K or so (there was a deal heads-up). That day, it was a distraction, and a distraction was what I needed. I have other stories from when I was finally able to get home later. I got a few chances to “do something” and I did.
If you want to read an exceptional personal account of the time, my friend Nicole Blackman wrote a piece you can read here: NICOLE BLACKMAN BLOG
I’m in that piece a couple of times; I’m sure you’ll recognize me even though I’m not mentioned by name.
So that’s the bare-bones story. Was the tournament trivial? Of course. But I spent the day with friends and strangers, watching TV like everyone else, while playing a game. We talked about how we felt, we speculated on what was happening and why. We shared an experience. I think that was better than sitting alone in an ugly hotel room.
V. UPON FURTHER REFLECTION
There are more than a few lessons here, and I just learned one of them.
I suppose the most important thing is not to jump to conclusions without getting the facts. Moreover, people react to extreme situations in different ways and given there’s little or no previous example of what to do and how to react, we all respond differently.
In retrospect, September 11, 2001 was not poker’s most shameful day. Perhaps continuing with the tournaments gave people some measure of comfort. Perhaps playing in a poker tournament served as a much-needed distraction from the horrors of the day. And perhaps all people should be entitled to deal with tragedy in their own way.
COMING NEXT: AT THE PENTAGON — REMEMBERING SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
This is the story of a man I barely know and how that man changed my life.
It is the story of someone I rarely see. It is the story of a person I converse with perhaps no more than once or twice per year. It is the story of a man who is probably more of an acquaintance than a close freind.
Yet it’s also the story of how a seemingly insignificant encounter in our lives can inspire us to change ourselves and motivate us toward self-improvement. It’s also revealing that such inspiration has no expiration date — proving that something which truly impacts us can instigate changes which may manifest themselves many years later.
Yes, this really happened. It happened to me. I would like to tell you this story.Read More
Today is my one-month anniversay.
That’s right. This website has been live for exactly thirty days.
The time has come to give thanks where it’s due. I want to thank several people who have been instrumental in creating my personal website.
As you glance at this list of names, by no means complete, the prevailing message that should come to you is how important people are to other people, and especially how certain people are so vital to me and my own happiness. I would not be who I am without these extraordinary friends and colleagues.Read More