Valley family misses terrorist attacks by a meal


September 22, 2001|By KELLY GRANT, Staff Writer

While sitting in the comfortable kitchen of their sister's El Centro home, siblings Rosalie Lopez and Johnny Lopez Jr. are retelling a story they'll never forget, one they may never fully understand.

What began as a tourist trip to Manhattan turned into a series of chance delays and missed buses that may well have saved their lives.

Calexico resident Rosalie and Johnny, who lives in El Centro, journeyed to New York with their mother, Adela Lopez of Calexico.

The trip, which began Sept. 8, was going wonderfully. They saw two Broadway shows and were enjoying the busy excitement of New York.


The city was full of life.

The street in front of the Times Square hotel was home to an international food fair. The International Cultural parade was nearby and the Best of Broadway show was just a few blocks away.

"The energy was there in New York," Rosalie said.

The three decided to take a sightseeing tour of New York and its major attractions. They arrived at the World Trade Center late Monday, Sept. 10 on their tour bus, but the rain caused them to postpone their journey inside until early the next morning when they hoped the rain would stop and the lines would be short.

Monday's rain gave way to a glorious Tuesday morning in the city.

Rosalie, the director of Upward Bound at Imperial Valley College, was on her ninth trip to New York and recognized perfect conditions to see the city from the heights of the twin towers.

"It was fresh. The sun was shining. Beautiful," Rosalie said. "The day was perfect."

Johnny had planned to go ahead of his sister and mother to take photographs of the World Trade Center and wait for them there. Rosalie asked him not to go ahead because she thought she may need his help assisting their mother, who walks with a cane.

Originally, they planned to take the 8 a.m. bus for the two- and-a-half-mile ride to the World Trade Center, but the women were late getting ready. As they waited for the 8:30 a.m. bus, Adela said she wanted breakfast and didn't want to wait until they arrived at the World Trade Center.

"Johnny and I, of course, looked at each other, a brother-sister look," Rosalie said of the slight exasperation the pair felt at their mother's decision, but because she is a diabetic they agreed to go to breakfast.

It was a decision no one regrets.

During the meal, Rosalie and Adela heard a boom.

By the time the three left the deli where they ate, the beautiful, clear day had changed.

"When we walked outside, there was smoke. We thought it was clouds," Johnny said.

Still not knowing what had happened but sensing something was wrong, the three waited for the 9 a.m. bus. When it came, instead of picking up more tourists, it was dropping off people. The Lopezes were told the tours were canceled because of an accident.

In the meantime, the smoke was getting darker.

The three took a taxi ride to St. John the Divine Cathedral, during which the driver told them the city was under attack and that the towers had been hit by terrorists.

"My heart started just pounding," Johnny said.

The church was converted to a blood donation center. Johnny, who works for U.S. Gypsum, is a certified EMT and volunteered his assistance closer to the scene of destruction. Rosalie and Adela went back to their hotel, praying for Johnny's safety.

As he speaks, Johnny's eyes brim red and wet. He taps his hand on the tile countertop and fidgets with his watch as he recalls the team of volunteers he worked with, some from nearby places like Long Island, others from as far away as Turkey. He has their names, phone numbers, email addresses scribbled on a crumpled piece of paper he's brought home with him.

His team, Team 13, helped put injured firefighters and police officers on backboards as they were brought from ground zero and transported the victims to a makeshift triage station.

"What I really remember was seeing, not the fear, but the hurt in everybody," Johnny said.

He worked from about 10:30 a.m. to midnight, taking pictures of fellow volunteers and people cheering as rescue crews drove past toward the disaster scene.

Johnny didn't take pictures of the disaster site or the wounded.

"I only took pictures of the good they were doing," he said.

"New York was different from what they told me it was. There was a lot of love," Johnny said.

When Johnny arrived in New York on Saturday, he went running in Central Park. On his jog, he passed by a crime scene where someone had abandoned a dead baby in the park. It seemed to confirm the negative perception outsiders have of New York. Johnny's mind changed Tuesday.

The Lopezes were stranded in New York. With their Wednesday morning flight to San Diego canceled and no Amtrak reservations or rental cars available, the three waited for flights to resume.

The next few days, they experienced heightened security in their hotel, which had been converted to house FBI and K-9 operations. They could only enter through the back door and had to show their room key each time and prove they were on the registration list.

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