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Author remembers vividly the roughly 1,000 Oregonians who went to New York to offer solace barely a month after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks

COURTESY PHOTO - George Haight of Woodburn seen at the Waldorf-Astoria during his stay in New York City as part of the Flight for Freedom, a contingent of Oregonians who traveled to the city barely a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to show support.The late George Haight of Woodburn remains an integral figure in the heart and writings of author Sally Ruth Bourrie, and it all stems from developments that arose during the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Both were among the hundreds of Oregonians (reports estimated anywhere from 625 to 1,000) who took part in the Flight for Freedom, flying across the United States to visit New York City in early October 2001 to show support to the city's residents as they dealt with the shock and grief wrought by the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings that claimed the lives of thousands.

It was a unique gesture of support — and very well-received one.COURTESY PHOTO - Cover of "Oregon Loves New York."

At that time Bourrie lived in Portland, and as part of her FFF trip she wrote freelance articles for the Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune about the experience. Haight, who died in 2013, was a Woodburn real estate broker. Both were deeply moved by the terrorist attacks.

Currently a Washington, D.C.-area resident, Bourrie is scheduled to return to Oregon for the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. The Oregon Historical Society in Portland originally planned a book event with the author on the afternoon of Sept. 11 where she could discuss her book "Oregon Loves New York: A Story of American Unity After 9/11." That has since been changed to a virtual event, taking place from 12 to 1 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9.

"George Haight … was one of the most eloquent Freedom Fliers. He participated in the 2001 trip and went back on an anniversary trip in 2002, and the Woodburn Independent covered both efforts," Bourrie said recently. "He brought letters from the Woodburn Chamber of Commerce and the mayor and City Council — because he contacted them and got them involved. He is quoted multiple times in the book. He was a remarkable person and the Independent called him a 'hero.'"

An Oct. 3, 2001, a Woodburn Independent article described how Haight felt driven to do something for the victims of the attacks, but he didn't know what. Then he saw a TV segment about the Flight for Freedom, and he was on board.

"We all wanted to do something, and this is the only thing that I could come up with that would really mean something besides donating blood," Haight told the Independent.

The article continued: Now Americans will know Oregonians as the first to make a mass trip to the East, bringing with them a sense of emotional support and financial help. And Haight will be a part of it.

"I've contacted Kathy Figley and she's going to get the City Council to write a letter to New York City," Haight said. "The chamber is doing it also, so I'll hand-deliver those to the appropriate folks when I get there.

"The main idea is to tell New York City that Oregon cares and invite them down for a hug, and give a hug back," Haight added.

Moving experience

Bourrie was 42 when she boarded the plane for New York in 2001, joining the hundreds of other Oregonians who took flight Columbus Day on 62 separate flights. "Oregon Loves New York" is based on more than 100 interviews, memoirs and hundreds of news articles as well as personal experience.

There also are thoughts from public figures.

"The symbolic commitment to be a part of the recovery of New York from these horrible attacks meant a great deal to all New Yorkers and sent a very positive message to the entire nation," said former New York Gov. George Pataki. "The Flight for Freedom demonstrated that people from 3,000 miles across the continent felt comfortable and safe in the streets, and that message got out in the rest of the country."

Bourrie also shared reflections from Haight about his experiences, a varied mix that ranged from meeting people of Mideast descent on his 2002 anniversary trip who were listening to reports of the first U.S. rocket attacks in Afghanistan, where they had relatives living, to meeting a street sweeper who thanked him during the first trip.

"The street sweeper, an almost elderly fellow with a broom that worked for the city, stopped me and said, 'May I shake your hand and thank you for being here?' And I lost it," Haight recalled. "I just stood there — that's the other nice thing about the trip. Grown men can cry in public. Watching some of the police and firemen in the parade with tears just streaming down their faces; Oregon cops hugging New York cops. … But that street sweeper got me. Just a guy, you know. 

"The parade, that was something I'll take to the grave with me," Haight added. "We were definitely the hit of the parade. It was just thrilling."

Haight also described visiting ground zero by himself, a decision he described as "overwhelming" and "a mistake."

"I was walking through canyons of skyscrapers that are blackened by soot 16 stories high, office paper is still flying around on the streetsl it's very eerie and spooky. I needed to get out of there," Haight said. "I hadn't expected to be quite so overwhelmed by it. In fact, a woman came jogging by me, she just lived a couple blocks from the towers and she said, 'Are you OK?' 'Actually not. We're supposed to be here to give you folks a hug from Oregon and say we're in the same boat here, but by golly, I'm the one who needs a hug.'"

Return trip

When many of the Oregonians who took the Flight for Freedom returned a year later, Haight told the Woodburn Independent that he needed to be a part of it.

The ground-zero visit left what he described as an emptiness in the pit of his stomach. Every reference or video clip he saw of the attacks reminded him of the "acrid smell and twisted metal he experienced from the viewing platform," the Independent story said. "Haight is hoping to lay down some new, more pleasant memories of New York City."

Hundreds went on the reunion trip, and Haight brought his wife, Toni, with him.

"Every time I see that image, whether seeing the twin towers in an old movie or somewhere else, since I was there I get a pit in my stomach, a sensation of eeriness," he told the Independent.

"Frankly, one reason I'm looking forward to going back after a year is to kind of layer a memory and emotion over the top of that — something a little more positive and uplifting. I wasn't prepared for how emotionally distraught the city was, or how my reaction to smelling the smoke and tasting the grit would influence me."

Those are the reflections, experiences and reactions that Bourrie hopes to impart in "Oregon Loves New York." Among the scores of interactions and reflections, Haight's experiences and his descriptions of them stood out to her — just as they engaged readers at home a couple decades ago.

Haight said he and others, to a one, who took part in the FFF outreach found it nearly impossible to explain the experience.

"When I talk with (FFF participants), I always ask, 'Have you been able to explain this to the people back home?' And to a person, they say no," Haight told the Independent before his return 2002 trip.

"I've always been a proud native Oregonian, but I don't think I've ever been more proud of this state than when we went back there to help them. I feel like an ambassador for Oregon. The reason for our going was a horrendous event, but I think because of the support and camaraderie of this group, we have some real positive, rather uplifting feelings about the experience."

The book

In observance of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, "Oregon Loves New York: A Story of American Unity After 9/11" captures the stories of Oregonians who took part in the Flight for Freedom. Based on more than 100 interviews, memoirs and hundreds of news articles as well as personal experience, "Oregon Loves New York" documents previously untold 9/11 history, a moment when the United States came together. The book includes nearly 200 color photos from this historic trip.

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