Beyond The Cold War
By Greg Niemann
(St. Petersburg, Russia – September 11, 2001)
The terrorist attacks of 9-11-01 were so horrible and mind-numbing that time seemed to freeze on that infamous day. Not since President Kennedy’s assassination did an entire population remember exactly where they were. While the U.S. experienced the unbelievable assault, I was halfway around the world – in St. Petersburg, Russia.
We had just returned to the hotel from a long, tiring day at the Hermitage and Winter Palace and headed straight for the informal lobby restaurant. While ordering dinner (EST plus 8 hours), we noticed everyone entranced by news displayed on the television anchored to a high corner of the room.
“What happened,” I asked as the screen was filled with a smoking skyscraper that looked a lot like one of New York’s World Trade Center towers. “An airplane hit the World Trade Center,” one of the three Dutch businessmen in the adjacent booth calmly answered, none taking their eyes off the set. Their apparent nonchalance belied the horror overhead.
I remember my immediate reaction was that it was probably one of those pesky news helicopters that buzz around crime scenes like mosquitoes looking for blood. I’d been surprised that they hadn’t hit each other, or buildings,
No! This was not the case. The evident panic and scope of the attack soon engulfed me. The second plane hit. About then my meal arrived. My stomach flip-flopped so much at the terrible scene, I was unable to even pick up my fork.
Mesmerized by the now-historic turn of events, I got mad at the seemingly flippant attitude of the Dutchmen.
This attack galvanized and strengthened Americans. I wanted to go to the guys and start swinging, but knew it was best to leave. I threw my napkin on the untouched meal, paid, and went upstairs to the lounge. There an awestruck handful of us watched the events unfold. It was interesting to see it all from a European perspective, primarily BBC, and the foreign version of CNN.
I felt like I was on the outside of my own home, looking in. Shock and caring was widespread.
I learned that outside of a few people like those particular Dutchmen, the rest of the world, especially Russians, displayed incredible empathy.
We often book a hotel for the first night or two, and then generally change lodging to something less expensive, or in a better location, or both. That next morning we entered a different hotel. Behind the counter was a stout, middle-aged Russian woman with flaming red-orange hair and a stern, morose countenance. Her furrowed face softened immediately when she learned from our passports that we were American. A sad smile appeared.
Instantly her eyes began watering, and she blurted out, “Americain. Americain. Oh, I’m so sorry.” She ran sobbing around the counter and embraced my wife in a big hug. She was able to express her sorrow and outrage in a tangible manner – hugging an American.
That caring attitude was displayed several times over the next few days, as it appeared every television set in Russia was tuned to the events.
The one incident that really got to me, and still has me tremble when I think about it occurred that Saturday.
We went to Peterhof Palace, an ornate gilt-trimmed castle with acres and acres of gorgeous gardens and elaborate fountains. It had been home to Peter the Great who founded the northern Russian seaport city.
There was a huge event planned for the day, celebrating 300 years. Busses and taxi boats from the city constantly dropped people off and the grounds were swelling with locals as well as tourists from around the world.
Outside, in front of the main palace entrance, a stage had been erected at the base of the grand staircase next to the largest fountain. A band was getting settled in the stage seats, while groups of dancers individually practiced pirouettes in their pastel tutus, and players in period costumes and powdered wigs gathered at the top of the stairs awaiting their cues. It was to be an elaborate and memorable show.
Most of the tourists and visitors had to stand on the lawn. Their chatter in numerous different languages began to subside to a low murmur as everyone seemed to be in place and the conductor waved his baton at the band.
It was my turn for damp eyes and a lump in my throat as the opening number they chose that day was “God Bless America.”
(Palm Springs resident Greg Niemann is the author of several books including Palm Springs Legends and Las Vegas Legends. www.gregniemann.com.)