Rafferty, Fields relive Ground Zero experience
It was one of those flashbulb moments. Everyone remembers exactly where they were, what they were doing, how they felt. It doesn’t matter if they were in Houston or Honolulu, Pittsburgh or Park City; everyone remembers when the great towers fell.
Nathan Rafferty and Dave Fields remember. They were there. They saw the flames, heard the screams, smelled the ash and tasted the fear that made a nation feel.
"We were there for a media event," said Rafferty, Ski Utah’s current president. "Ski Utah goes back to New York every fall and we host a handful of media events with all our resort partners. At the time I was director of communications and Dave (Fields) was with Snowbird."
The pair arrived in the city Sept. 10 with a full slate of appointments and interviews scheduled for the next day.
The next morning, Rafferty went downtown to have a meeting over bacon and eggs with a journalist, while Fields was on his way to an appointment of his own.
"As we finished the interview, we were walking out and the maitre d’ said, ‘Hey, you’ll never believe what just happened, but a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center," Rafferty said.
Fields got a phone call from his wife at about the same time.
"She asked where I was and then she said a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. I couldn’t believe it."
Upon hearing that a plane had crashed into the towers, neither one suspected terrorists. Rafferty said he thought it was "just a messed-up pilot." Fields concurred, saying that it didn’t automatically register.
"The subway stop under the Trade Center was closed so when I finally got off I walked that way," Fields said. "People were gathering around cars to listen to the radio,so as I walked toward them, I overheard a broadcaster say a plane had hit the Pentagon."
"I didn’t want to miss my appointment, but I realized I was on the wrong side of Manhattan," said Fields. "I watched the towers burn for a while and then got on the subway, but it stopped about halfway. That was when the towers fell. That’s when it hit me."
Rafferty didn’t understand either, even after he saw the flames himself.
"When I came around the corner and looked up there was a gaping hole in the building and the second plane had just hit," Rafferty said. "There was a lot of confusion. I walked closer to see what happened. I didn’t get the terrorist thing, then the building fell.
"My first thought was that I had to get to my 11 a.m. meeting, then I thought about the fact that I had tickets to the Yankees’ game that night. All communications were down. I didn’t get that the entire country was basically going to shut down for a week, if not more. It was total chaos.
"As it kind of developed, I slowly began to realize the gravity of the situation. I realized I wouldn’t be having any of our meetings, and there definitely would be no Yankees game. I still have that unused ticket on my wall."
Fields, on his way to his appointment, tried to call his wife again, but couldn’t get service. She was having the same problem.
"When I finally got (to the appointment) all hell was breaking loose," Fields said. "People were crying. My wife had been trying to call me, but all cell phones were down so she couldn’t. She called the media people I was supposed to be meeting with and they told her I hadn’t arrived yet. When I got there I emailed her to let her know I was OK."
That’s when Fields realized no business was going to be done, so he started looking for Rafferty, who was sitting in a small park trying to stay away from their hotel near Times Square.
"I just stared at everybody else staring at everybody else, wondering what was going on," Rafferty said. "There were no taxi cabs, there was nothing. The entire city was shut down. It was just other-worldly in eeriness."
The pair eventually found each other, both finding comfort in the company of a friend.
"Nathan and I found one another and at that point everything had been clamped down — there were no more flights or anything," Fields said. "We went down to Ground Zero a couple times that day and it was just unbelievable. The smell. The smoke. By the end of the day the whole city had vaporized. You could walk right down the middle of Broadway and there were no cars. It was crazy. It felt like a state of war."
They started talking about how the attacks would affect the 2002 Olympics, which Utah was scheduled to host four months later.
"Right off the bat, I thought about how it would affect the Olympics," Rafferty said. "This was our media spree right before the big event, but rather than talk about how great it was going to be we just had to talk about security issues. I don’t know how seriously they talked about canceling the Games, but I know it was talked about."
They both also thought about their families back in Utah. Rafferty and Fields waited four days, hoping the airports would reopen. Both were newlyweds, and both wanted to be with their loved ones, so, finally, they rented "the last car in New York" a gold Jaguar and drove to Columbus, Ohio where they caught a plane home to Salt Lake City.
"In kind of a sick way it became kind of an adventure for the two of us," Fields said. "There were fighter jets overhead and alarms going off. We would see planes and would think, ‘Is this the next plane that’s going to attack?’"
"Ever since then he and I have been very close friends. We talk almost daily and I don’t think our friendship would be that tight if we hadn’t gone through that together."
Rafferty feels the same way.
"Dave was a good friend of mine then and a better friend now," he said. "It was perfect to have someone else there. It would have been a much trickier situation to be alone."
In the end, Rafferty said, much like New York, he changed.
"It took the hard edge off the city, and it is forever gone in my mind," he said. "There was a vulnerability that was exposed. But I was glad I was there to see it. It’s not every day you get to see history. It was like being on the set of a movie it just wasn’t quite real. Surely it will go down as one of the more memorable days of my life, to say the least."
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