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Despite the distance, attack hits home for many in Tampa Bay area

Tampa columnisthooper
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© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 12, 2001

The 37th floor of Tampa's SunTrust building was an unnerving place to be when two jets collided with the World Trade Center in New York.

Yet that was exactly where Salomon Smith Barney's Doug Draper found himself on Tuesday morning. The emotional impact of Tuesday's terror resonated downtown, where anyone in a skyscraper had to wonder if their building was next.

The uncertainty of the future was trumped only by the torrent of emotions in all of us. The sentiments ranged from anger to shock to sadness to disbelief, but Draper said one word best captured how he felt.


"It scared the heck out of me," Draper said. "It left you speechless. Good God."

Draper was among the lunchtime crowd at Champions in the Marriott Waterside, and it was undoubtedly the most solemn group ever to gather in the sports bar. Every television broadcast the news of the day. Each was on a different channel, but with even ESPN and Fox Sports Net simulcasting national coverage, there was no news of Michael Jordan or Barry Bonds to be found.

Sports was not an escape for people Tuesday. Will it be today, or Thursday? Will it ever truly be an escape again?

Another sports bar had been converted into a wake at Friends on Morgan Street. Reford Ramhoff and Mike Johnson, colleagues in the county's public works department, often went to Friends on Tuesday for the chicken wing special. This Tuesday was special for all the wrong reasons.

"My wife called four times wanting me to come home," said Ramhoff, who works at County Center. "I'm in a 28-story building close to MacDill, and you don't know what some crazy person is going to do next."

There was uncertainty, but there was also anger. Johnson said if he was the president, he would be hard-pressed not to nuke someone by the end of the day.

Down at the Bread & Butter Deli on Franklin Street, owner Theo Abbas was serving only about a fourth of the customers he normally gets during lunchtime. Most employees had cleared the downtown high rises before noon and gone home. But Abbas was angry about the loss of life, not the loss of business.

"This is sick, very sick," Abbas said.

Only the targets of the anger varied. Is it the fault of the intelligence agencies responsible for national security, the government's failure to take pre-emptive measures or simply the radical terrorists allegedly responsible for this incident?

One patron at Friends said he could understand the anger of people who have had their homeland taken away.

"If the Germans had won World War II and taken over America, we would be doing the same thing. Americans sat around in a bar like this and plotted the revolution."

But another piped up, "This isn't war, this is murder."

At Champions, patron Larry Taub and I wondered how someone could penetrate security and hijack not one, not two, but four airplanes. Yet upon further reflection, we knew the breach of security was not that shocking. Anyone who has traveled on a fairly frequent basis knows security varies from airport to airport, from security guard to security guard.

I told Taub there were times when my laptop computer would be removed from the case and I would have to turn it on to show it was actually a computer. And then there were times when it would pass through the metal detectors without delay.

Taub, a businessman who lives in the Washington area, was on his way to Tampa International on Tuesday morning when he got word from a friend to turn on the television. He sat at Champions not knowing when he would ever get home.

If there was a unifying sentiment among the workers still milling about downtown, it was "What's next?" The sight of two 110-story towers collapsing into a pile of rubble made anything possible. New York today, Tampa tomorrow?

"What's going to happen later?" Abbas asked. "This is a very critical situation for us. God help us."

Taub, who fought in Vietnam and can vividly recall when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, has seen America bounce back from tragic days before. So has anyone who remembers Dec. 7, 1941.

But for me and an entire generation born any day after 1964, we have no day to compare to this one. Our degree of confidence cannot be bolstered by past experiences. I sat in my home Tuesday morning and thought this is the end of the world as we know it.

Taub was certain, however, the relatively petty debates that have divided us along racial, political, religious and philosophical lines would give way to a unity that always arises from tragedy. He was sure America would persevere.

I hope he's right.

- Ernest Hooper can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or

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