It was 12 years ago today that the mostÂ devastatingÂ and tragic event ever to happen on U.S. soil took place. I just want to make sure everyone takes a few minutes to remember and give thanks to the many men and women that lost their lives on that day. There are a lot of stories that recap experiences of that infamous day, but there is one that really stuck out in my mind that was on Surfline.com a week or so after 9/11 and I thought I’d share it.
On a day of terror and destruction, Hurricane Erin validates the surfing life
September 24, 2001 Fortunately for Frank Walczak, Tuesday, September 11 was to be a slow day on the currency market. From his desk on the 105th floor of World Trade Center Tower One, the foreign exchange broker checked the swell models on Monday afternoon and knew what he must do. “I’m gonna take a vacation,” the Monmouth Beach surfer announced to his superiors. “Does anybody mind?” His Cantor Fitzgerald co-workers didn’t quite understand why a 40-year-old man wanted to spend his off-time bobbing around in the ocean, but they had no problem with it. Little did anyone know it would save his life.
Despite predictions by every hurricane specialist around, the season had thus far been a dud. By the time Erin graduated from mere tropical storm-hood on September 8, it was the second latest start in 50 years. There had been plenty of fun, ridable surf over the summer, but nothing all-time, and nothing tropical. There’s something special about a hurricane swell on the East Coast — the anticipation, the planning, and the realization — that make it a coveted occasion.
Erin had toyed with the Southeast for days, fading in and out of named status as she battled the elements. She was christened September 1st, showing heaps of promise from the minute she skirted off Africa. Approaching the Lesser Antilles, she was beat down by upper level winds, barely retaining her circulation as she was herded north. But a week into her life, she beefed up to hurricane standing and was projected to bear down on the Northeast before taking a last minute tack into the North Atlantic. She would attain Category Three status by Sunday, and every surfer around scurried to free up the week.
For most of America, there were no signs that Tuesday would be any different. But for us, the warning was clear. On Monday the 10th, Surfline emailed alerts to thousands along the East Coast, announcing exactly where to seek refuge on that fateful day. Hurricane Erin was swirling winds as high as 120 mph just a few hundred miles away, well within the window of most spots along the coast. “At present it appears Tuesday will bring the strongest swell to many East Coast and Florida locations,” announced the computerized caveat. “Top locations will likely see overhead set waves.” In no uncertain terms, we were ordered to the beach.
“I was in the water at Sandy Hook at 6:00 a.m.,” remembered Walczak of the day everything changed. The waves at the righthand pointbreak were good — overhead and reeling, with the water still a balmy 70-plus degrees. Aside from being the only legit point in New Jersey, the spot offers an unobstructed view of the Mahattan skyline from across the Lower Bay. With several lengthy rides in his pocket, Walczak knew he had made the right call. Feeling satiated on his way up the beach, his gaze drifted toward his office atop the World Trade Center. “I looked over at quarter-to-nine and saw the smoke,” he recalled. “I immediately tried to call my co-workers and couldn’t get though.”
The plane had ripped through the building somewhere around the 90th floor, effectively cutting his company off from the ground. He never got in touch with anyone from his office; the lines were all jammed.
Meanwhile, news of the attacks on New York and Washington were spreading through lineups up and down the coast, casting a massive shadow over what seemed an impenetrable stoke. Photographer Chris Wilson had corralled a disparate team of East Coasters — Peter Mendia, Gabe Kling, Cam Powell, and Sam Hammer — for a run through New England. After an all-night flight and drive to reach Rhode Island, the crew was directly in the water. “It was a good six feet,” said Peter, who enjoyed a few hours in a lineup that was oblivious to the attacks. Back on dry land, they quickly heard what had happened. “It seemed like a movie. My mind definitely wasn’t on surfing after that.”
Hammer spent the rest of the morning in a semi-panic, trying to call home to New Jersey. “It was really scary,” he recounted. “It (the war zone) was just 60 miles from my house and I couldn’t get through to my parents.”
Another team was also zeroing in on Rhode Island, consisting of Todd Holland, Bryan Hewitson, Matt Kechele, and Kevin Welsh. Holland had booked their tickets the night before, and they were en route when the attacks occurred. “We landed in Baltimore around 9:00 a.m.,” recalled Todd, “and the flight was continuing on to Providence. They reloaded and were about to close the doors when the captain said the flight was cancelled, that there had been an apparent terrorist attack on New York. Everybody was standing around the airport looking dumbfounded. We were lucky to get a rental car, but we heard all the roads in and out of New York were closed. The swell would have passed by the time we drove around to Rhode Island, so we got on 95 and went back home.”
Their plight, however, paled compared to that of Walczak. “Right now I’m just trying to find out who’s alive and deal with my own anguish and anxiety,” admitted the lucky truant. Of the 1000 employees at his company, over 700 are presumed dead. “Everyone who went in that day didn’t make it.”
All East Coasters were grateful for the outbreak of surf, but none more so than Walczak and a few others like him who worked in the line of fire and took the day off to go surfing. “If it wasn’t for Hurricane Erin, I would have been in that office,” he acknowledged. “Those waves saved my life.” Since the attack, the ocean has provided his only sanctuary from the loss. And while his wife and three children are infinitely thankful to still have him around, they realize he won’t become a landlubber anytime soon. “My wife was always cool it, but I always got a little bit of crap. There were other things I could have been doing besides surfing. But even she says it now. Surfing saved my life.”