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Reporter Peter Wong says John Adams biography helped him realize America would heal after Sept. 11.

Peter Wong has covered Oregon politics for decades and currently writes about the Oregon legislature for the Portland Tribune.Despite the presence of bomb-sniffing dogs and National Guard soldiers, the Continental Airlines take-off from Portland International Airport was largely uneventful.

The onboard conversations were unusually hushed as I read David McCullough's biography of John Adams, published a few months earlier. I have found there's nothing like a book (audio or actual) during a long flight, even though in-flight entertainment options are vastly expanded today.

But it was in the final 30 minutes of the six-hour flight that the passengers in the cabin began to stir.

The pilot flew south along the Hudson River, which separates Manhattan from New Jersey, on his final approach to Newark Airport as passengers gathered on the left side of the jet. I was already seated next to a window.

All of us looked down at the bright spotlights on the ground in the fading daylight — it was about half an hour before sunset — for what we knew weren't there anymore: The twin towers that were the World Trade Center.

No one said a word. No one had to.

I'd seen the towers on a previous visit, but found it hard to believe they were gone.

As the jet banked to the right and landed at Newark — it became Liberty International Airport the following year — the passengers (including me) did something I have never witnessed before or since in my numerous air flights: We applauded. I doubted that the pilot could hear us, given that the doors were locked shut, but most of the flight crew could.

It was 10 days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked two West Coast-bound jets, crashed them into the towers and killed 2,753 people. The New York death toll could have been higher; between 16,400 and 18,000 people were in the seven buildings that constituted the World Trade Center complex and all were destroyed. (More than 200 others died when two others planes crashed into the Pentagon and in southwest Pennsylvania.)

Nearby St. Paul's Chapel and Trinity Church, which I visited three years later, survived the day. George Washington prayed at the chapel, when New York was briefly the nation's capital, and Alexander Hamilton is buried at the church.

It was the start of the saddest vacation I have ever taken.

While I did not see Ground Zero itself on that visit — I did so three years later, on the same visit that I watched Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" not far from the site — I saw the remnants of many makeshift memorials throughout the city. Parks, public squares and subway entrances were strewn with candle wax, faded photographs, fliers with desperate pleas asking whether passers-by had seen this or that missing person since the day.

But life was slowly returning to the city.

Rudy Giuliani, still "America's mayor" following the attacks as his term was winding down, was present on Sept. 26 when the New York Yankees played their second game at home after a short road trip. Unlike the first game, which turned into a public memorial service, the pre-game ceremony was less elaborate. (The Yankees beat Tampa Bay, 5-1, en route to winning the American League championship, but lost the World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks.)

But despite the unusual friendliness of New Yorkers after Sept. 11 — my room was upgraded and people went out of their way to talk — I cut short my visit by a couple of days.

About a month later, David McCullough visited Portland for a talk about his biography. He had been scheduled by the Oregon Historical Society on Sept. 13, but was delayed six weeks. I told him afterward that reading about the travails of John and Abigail Adams during the Revolution and its aftermath gave me confidence that the nation could withstand what happened.

McCullough's quotation of a 1774 letter from John to Abigail Adams summarizes not only what was going on back then, but also in the aftermath of the attacks — and even today.

"We live, my dear soul, in an age of trial," Adams wrote. "What will be the consequence, I know not."


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