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Chalking one up for charity

A fundraiser for victims of Sept. 11 draws some of the world's top professional billiards players.

By FRANK PASTOR
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 20, 2002


SPRING HILL -- Sarah Ellerby couldn't have been happier.

The billiards player had just secured an extraordinary ability visa and was on her way from England to a tournament in Orlando the morning of Sept. 11.

Ellerby, 26, had been so successful in England that she was classified as a professional and banned from playing events in her country. The visa gave her a chance to chase her dream in America.

She was aboard a trans-Atlantic flight, reflecting on her good fortune when the captain's voice came over the intercom.

"We have a serious situation," he said.

There was no explanation. Passengers exchanged nervous glances. Ellerby, traveling alone, feared the plane was going to crash.

"I just felt, "That's it. I'm never going to see my family again,' " Ellerby said. " "If the plane goes down, that's it.' "

Ellerby's plane was nearing New York airspace as hijackers flew two other jets into the World Trade Center towers. She was diverted to Newfoundland.

Although the plane landed safely, Ellerby and the other passengers were asked to stay on the hot, cramped airliner without food, water or any idea why they were there.

After 6 hours, they were taken to a Salvation Army camp inside a church, where they were told about the attacks on New York and Washington. For three days, they watched around-the-clock reports on a blurry, big-screen TV.

"We would just sit there and watch TV all day," Ellerby said "We were waiting, because we were waiting to see what they were going to do."

Ellerby hoped to continue on to Orlando and put the experience behind her, but her flight was directed back to England.

"That was a pretty bad experience, but I feel I'm very lucky because it could have been worse," she said. "I could have been on one of those flights."

Ellerby has been back to America four times since September. Thursday, she had a chance to help the families victimized by the attacks.

She joined professionals Ewa Mataya Laurance, Belinda Campos, Tiffany Nelson, Melissa Little and Tracie Majors in a Challenge the Pros for Charity event at Capone's Billiard Lounge in Spring Hill.

For $15, local amateurs had the chance to play alongside some of the world's top women's shooters in scotch doubles or pro-am events. Proceeds went to the Disaster Relief Fund for New York City and Washington.

The event, organized by men's pro Charlie Williams and Capone's owner Rocky McElroy, was scheduled in conjunction with the Predator Women's Florida 9-Ball Open -- an independent tournament recognized by the Women's Professional Billiards Association.

Patriotic symbols were scattered about the lounge. Red, white and blue lights strung in the shape of the American flag bordered one wall. A black and white picture of the pre-Sept. 11 New York City skyline adorned another.

McElroy, a New York native, had an oil painting of the twin towers in his home. He and Williams were planning the tourney when the attacks occurred.

"Sept. 11 touched me and a lot of other people, and I understand that," Williams said. "People can come together, have a great event, have fun together, challenge the pros; these are all fun, positive things.

"Even though it's in remembrance of a terrible time, I think we're helping those people that have suffered," he said. "But at the same time, we're living our lives."

Wendy Breton had watched Mataya Laurance play on television for years. The 35-year-old Spring Hill resident marveled at the poise and control the "Striking Viking" exhibited while competing.

Breton had hoped to play against Mataya Laurance at the charity event but was disappointed to find that her favorite player was booked. When a spot opened up with her, Breton couldn't believe her luck.

"It was awesome," Breton said.

Breton, who has played nine ball for about a year and a half, managed to sink four balls before losing to Mataya Laurance, who's ranked among the world's top 10 female players. It was an experience Breton won't soon forget.

"This has got to be the best thing I've ever done with pool," she said.

While Breton didn't lose friends or family in the attacks, she struggled with the questions her two young children asked -- and still are asking.

Breton's 8-year-old daughter wanted to know if the "bad people" responsible for the terrorist attacks were behind the Cessna a student pilot flew into the Bank of America building in downtown Tampa earlier this month.

Mataya Laurance was born and raised in Sweden before moving to the United States about 20 years ago. A Swedish citizen, she says there are things she loves and hates about both countries.

Still, she purchased American flags and hung them in front of her house and from hers, her daughter's and her husband's cars the day after the attacks.

"I did it as a show of solidarity, to kind of let everybody around me that lives on my street or drives by know that I care," Mataya Laurance said.

She was at her home in Myrtle Beach, S.C., when her father called from Sweden with news of the attacks. Mataya Laurance immediately called her husband, Mitchell, who was in his car.

As they talked, Mataya Laurance saw the plane hit the second tower. She pleaded with her husband to come home.

He arrived in tears.

Mitchell Laurance's mother lives on Long Island, and he has friends in New York City. His twin brother, Matthew, was in the financial district for a meeting to raise money for Duke University's Leagacy Foundation at the time of the attacks.

Laurance's aunt called to say his mother was okay. But two hours passed before he heard from his brother.

Matthew had been in a building next to the World Trade Center. He had not heard the planes hit the towers or felt their impact. But he saw papers flying through the streets and people jumping out of windows after he evacuated.

"Luckily, they're not gawkers," Mataya Laurance said. "They didn't stick by, or they probably would have died. They were right there. They got out before the building collapsed, thank God."

The events of Sept. 11 affected the amateurs and pros at Capone's in different ways -- changing perspectives for some, redefining relationships for others, instilling fears in others.

Kimberley Caso, 45, lives near Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport and is reminded of the tragedy every time a low-flying plane passes. Pro Tiffany Nelson, a Maine resident, worries about flying out of Boston's Logan International Airport, where the planes were hijacked. Ray Martin, whose Hall of Fame career took him around the world, swears off flying altogether.

Ellerby might have undergone the biggest change. Her mother, Hazel, suffers from breast cancer. Her father, Michael, recently had a heart attack.

But rather than curse her family's luck, Ellerby counts her blessings. She devotes more time to charitable endeavors and works to keep kids off the streets. Someday, she plans to return to Newfoundland, where residents brought clothes, mattresses, sleeping bags, food and drink to stranded travelers.

"I'm lucky," Ellerby said. "I haven't lost loved ones. I'm still alive. But it could have been a lot worse. Now, I'm happier when I get up in the morning. Before, you'd moan on about some silly little thing that happened. But now, you get on with things. You just help as much as you can."

OTHER VOICES

Reflections on Sept. 11 from some of the amateurs and pros in the Challenge The Pros For Charity event:

* * *

"I don't think it's something we're ever going to forget.

I think it's going to be in our minds and our hearts forever, I really do. I don't even like thinking about it now."

-- WENDY BRETON, 35, OF SPRING HILL

* * *

"It kind of strips a piece of American society's dignity from them, and yet folks will remember that society as a whole, we have a stronger strength and courage that all of the other countries don't even know of."

-- KIMBERLEY CASO, 45, OF HOLLYWOOD

* * *

"Living in South Carolina, it was very interesting, because every Confederate flag came down. I have not seen one Confederate flag since Sept. 11. Maybe one or two that I've seen were next to a current American flag."

-- PRO EWA MATAYA LAURANCE

* * *

"It kind of makes you feel like you're vulnerable and, of course, now you don't care for flying. I'd rather drive where I'm going. Before, I would fly no matter where I'm going. Now, I just want to drive."

-- BILLIARD CONGRESS OF AMERICA HALL OF FAMER RAY MARTIN

'Yeah, you're a little scared, but you just kind of have to go back to your normal life. You're not going to change your life, because I think that's what (the terrorists) want, to threaten your lives.'

-- PRO TIFFANY NELSON

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