A dream fight turned nightmare reality

At 7 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, I thought I already had the biggest news of the day for my newspaper, El Vocero, in Puerto Rico.

Just four days before he was scheduled to fight Bernard Hopkins, Puerto Rico's three-time champion, Felix "Tito" Trinidad, had spoken for the first time about his recent affair and the state of his marriage. In addition to asking forgiveness from his wife and his fans, Trinidad had also said he would dedicate the fight to her and to the couple's daughters.

I had arrived in New York from San Juan the night before and Trinidad had picked my first day of work to tell all. Our photographer, Willin Rodriguez, and I had been up since 4:30 a.m. to follow Trinidad during his morning workout. Knowing that we had time before we needed to send our stories and photos, I headed back to the hotel to take a nap. After all, it was only 8:30 a.m. I knew we had the whole rest of the day to transmit our work back to San Juan, and even the morning coffee hadn't really woken us up.

A phone call from Ranier Rentas, our paper's director of photography, changed all that.

"Listen, a plane just hit the Twin Towers," Rentas said. "Head over there right now." I wrestled the phone from Rodriguez to tell Rentas that we were already awake and that he could stop making jokes. But then I remembered, Rentas never joked around.

"Listen, a plane just hit the Twin Towers," Rentas said. "Head over there right now."

I wrestled the phone from Rodriguez to tell Rentas that we were already awake and that he could stop making jokes. But then I remembered, Rentas never joked around.

Any semblance of fatigue was now gone, replaced by panic as we immediately turned to our TV screens. "It has to be on the news," Rodriguez said.

The televised images not only confirmed what our photo chief had told us, but also let us know that our nightmare was just beginning. Just as we were saying that it couldn't be a small plane, we watched in horror as another plane hit the second tower. That's the TV replay, I remember thinking.

But Rodriguez was quick to point out that now both of the towers were on fire.

Our first reaction was, We need to get there. We were on the street in seconds, and it didn't take long for us to realize that in New York, the world's capital for public transportation, there was no way to move about except on foot. No taxis were stopping and there were no subways or buses.

From 34th Street to ground zero

We began what proved to be a long walk to ground zero. The New Yorker Hotel was at 34th and Eighth Avenue. We walked to Sixth Avenue, where we had a live look at the images the rest of the world could see only on their TV screens.

It took us several hours to make our way there. Rodriguez was shooting pictures the entire time as we took it all in. We saw people stop to listen to car radios for news broadcasts in all different languages, experienced the hysteria of the folks on the street, and even had one unbelievable encounter with a woman who was walking her dog amid all the confusion of sirens, ambulances, police cars and fire trucks. At the store where we stopped to get some water, one customer asked at the checkout, "What is going on today in Manhattan that everyone is out on the street and running all over the place?"

The woman at the register looked him over. "Mister, we've been attacked. New York has been attacked and they've knocked down the World Trade Center towers."

On that same street in lower Manhattan, I first heard the rumors that the attack had been carried out by a group called Al Qaida. Before that, I had been imagining in my mind a new Timothy McVeigh, calmly seated on the roof of another building admiring his work.

Sequel to a disaster

Rodriguez, like thousands of other photographers, took pictures from different spots in the city as the towers fell. To this day, when I close my eyes, I can still see them falling. But the hardest part for me came later, in the days that followed. There were parents looking for their children, children looking for their uncles, co-workers looking for other colleagues, tales of encounters, searches, vigils for those who had perished. This was all part of my daily work routine in the aftermath of that fateful day. (I'd immediately transitioned from covering a fight to covering a tragedy.)

The streets of New York were filled with photocopied pictures, pasted on every corner, on every wall. Photos of women on the day of their graduations, men on the day of their weddings, firefighters and cops on the day they took their oaths to protect the city. There were pictures of people at the happiest moments of their lives, all posted by their loved ones in hopes of finding them again. The photos might as well have been a sprawling scrapbook of best moments.

Even as I was filing my stories, it wasn't until several days later that I realized just how difficult my job was.

One of my assignments was to visit a help center at 106th and Lexington, an area where many Puerto Rican families live. The husband of one of the supervisors on the support team, Benito Valentin, had been found dead on Sept. 11. So even though the woman was in need of consoling, it was she who was helping others.

I remember another moment: I was with a rescue group that traveled from Puerto Rico to help search for victims. Upon its arrival at Jacob Javits Convention Center, which was being used as temporary housing, the group was informed that one of the first victims reported had been Dennis Mojica, a lieutenant in the NYFD who had trained Puerto Rican firefighters in his spare time.

Mojica specialized in rescues from buildings that were on the verge of collapse. The chief of Rescue Company No. 1, he had spent several days in Puerto Rico in 1996 when a building exploded in Rio Piedras. That's how he met and made friends with these Puerto Rican colleagues. I saw first-hand how firefighters and rescue personnel handled grief.

"For a fireman, dying on the job is a matter of honor," Hay Leddy told me.

"So what's up with the fight?"

The fight. Whatever happened with the Trinidad bout I had traveled to New York to cover?

Well, the news of Trinidad's affair passed unnoticed. The fight was rescheduled for Sept. 29 and there wasn't much to write in the days leading up to it, especially after everything that had happened. Trinidad and his camp remained at the Doubletree Hotel in Times Square, one of the places people were gathering as they looked for lost family members. Hopkins drove back to Philadelphia as soon as the fight was postponed.

Trinidad wound up losing by TKO in the 12th round. I returned home a few days before the fight and watched it on TV. Before 9/11, I would have felt Trinidad's loss as a sad moment for Puerto Rico. But from my new perspective, knowing that hundreds of Puerto Ricans (and so many others) had died or were injured in such an awful tragedy, it instantly became just a boxing match.

When I returned home to my family, I spent several weeks nagged by a feeling of mourning, as though someone in my family had passed away. When the U.S. announced it would enter Afghanistan, I thought about all the people who had died in the attacks, but I also thought about all of the innocents abroad who would die as an indirect consequence of the World Trade Center bombing.

New York will never be the same for me. Every corner I visit reminds me of that September day in 2001. Each open space takes me back to the stories I wrote and the sadness I witnessed during those 11 days following the attack.

Hiram Martinez has covered sports for 25 years for various newspapers in Puerto Rico. He is currently the sports editor at El Vocero newspaper in San Juan.