GeekBlog September, 10th 2011 by Todd Bristow

Remembering 9/11 at Star Trek: The Experience

I remember waking for work ten years ago. The radio alarm clock went off and the station’s DJs were talking about terrorism. I blearily thought, “You guys have nothing else to talk about?” Then they mentioned burning buildings, collapses. I shut off my radio. And turned on CNN for the first time since the First Gulf War.

As a New Yorker, seeing the smoking towers brought a mix of reactions. First was the image I remember seeing of the burning Kuwait Ministry of Electricity and Water building from the Iraqi invasion. The apartment complex my family resided in early 80’s Kuwait included that ministry. I woke up to the sight of those buildings for years; footage of them burning had a simultaneous disconnect and bring-it-home feel. So did the burning Twin Towers.Second, how was my aunt? She had lived in Manhattan her whole life. I started the day’s series of futile calls, as overworked lines were jammed for hours. She told us later she had been out when the first plane hit. Deciding to go home, she changed buses, only to leave the bus and walk when traffic got bad. Things took long enough that she saw the first collapse before she got home. She had nightmares for months after that.

I called work to tell them I would be late while my family tried to get in touch with my aunt.

My mother always hated the Towers. She felt they were monstrosities of steel and glass. When she took me to the City (as we called New York) we’d visit the Empire State Building. As a result, I have never been to the Twin Towers. Heresy, I know. The closest I’d ever come was the De Laurentis’ King Kong movie starring Jeff Bridges and some unknown actress named Jessica Lange.

I heard my mother waking up and went to her and told her what happened. She thought I was joking. In those days talking about terrorists flying planes into landmarks could actually be a joke, and not even in particular bad taste. Not so any more. My mother was a native Floridian, adopted New Yorker. She loved the City, even if not the Towers. She turned on CNN too.

My father called from work to say he would keep trying to get my aunt, and I should get to work myself. Work first, that’s my dad.

Star Trek: The Experience’s two highest ranked managers were not American; one favored being open, the other didn’t. The Experience opened. It was naturally our worst day ever to that point. Vegas had been trending down for that year, we had already made cut backs, so strangely enough we were ready for the financial hit. Further, we had a windfall with a convention weeks before. Huge business. All of that was wiped out. But we wouldn’t face closing like so many businesses later that year.

I got to work late, but was not penalized for it. I got into costume as quickly as possible and made my way upstairs to the subdued decks of the Enterprise-D. Groups of guests were small and infrequent. I went through the Starfleet rotation without much thought, somewhat numb. Until I got to the Simulator Loader position.

The Sim Loader was an operations heavy position. So much so that when Landmark Entertainment and Paramount delivered the script to us in the attraction’s testing phase, the show hiccupped around that portion. April Hebert, one of the smartest and most reliable performers The Experience ever had, was tasked with integrating the operational aspects of modern day simulator safety protocols with a Star Trek script. Years of theatre and teaching experience made her a natural. In all ten years of the show’s existence, if you’ve been through the show, as you board the shuttle Goddard you’ve seen some version of her work.

My first sim show of the day was surreal. I had a small group of fifteen or so. Playing the safety video, discussing safe and proper loading, I was walking through the routine barely thinking about it, until the guests stepped onto the shuttle. They sat. I directed them to buckle their safety restraints. I watched a ten year old boy fasten himself in. And all the thoughts, all the jokes over the years, of being a glorified flight attendant came to me. I stared at the boy, wondering if hours before one just like him had dutifully buckled himself in, not knowing what was to come.

Now beyond somewhat-numb, I closed the simulator and launched it. While the shuttle “flew” I turned the show over to the performer playing the Janitor, who would then monitor the shuttle and passengers until it “landed” and then unload it. Today my Janitor was Mike McCorkle, another very reliable crewmember, who came to work, did his job, and worked with everyone to make it an always pleasant day.

I went back to the Transit corridor where the crew gathered to await the next show. We discussed the day, speculating on who was responsible, reflecting on what would happen next. Then Mike appeared, his show done. He asked our opinion on calling management to discuss the final moment of the show. The shuttle crash lands into the Las Vegas Hilton and a janitor discovers the guests in the basement, amazed at how they got there. The janitor then leads them out, past a television that plays a newscast of a strange UFO incident over the strip. The Air Force claims it’s weather balloons. Then the guests are placed on the exit elevator.

Strange how something becomes so common, so banal, you don’t even think about it, having thoroughly lost sight of what it is. When all was said and done, we were a show about a crash landing . A crash landing into a building. We poked fun at the mystery of it. We entertained with it. Mike was really uncomfortable playing that faux newscast after the show. That was the closest thing to a complaint I had ever heard Mike McCorkle make in all the years I worked with him.

We talked to management and turned off the newscast.

Everyone was closed. Across the country, businesses, schools, offices saw fit to remain home while we didn’t. Broadway. Disney, Universal Studios, attractions all around stayed closed. At first we thought we were showing strength opening as usual, but with so many other entertainments closed our strength veered dangerously close to callousness. What were we saying about those who were suffering while we played make believe?

Fate took a strange hand. We eventually developed a technical problem that closed the show for a few hours. We went to the break room and watched CNN footage of the attacks. The smoke. The fire. The fear. The attraction was up again as our shift ended. Time to go home.

We eventually heard from my aunt. She was safe and ok. The nightmares hadn’t started yet.

My best friend from college lived in New York. She had close ties to the community of first responders and worked in a law office that was connected to the financial community. She lost many, many friends that day. September 10th is her birthday. A New Jersey native, her brother lived in Hoboken for years before he decided to “take the plunge” and move into the City. A week before 9/11.

A few years ago, my high school class talked about a reunion. It was the first time in decades I had spoken to so many. Old connections were remade. All who had gone so far, done so much. It was then I found out Waleed Iskandar, our high school class salutatorian and a friend, was aboard Flight 11 when it was crashed into the North Tower. A Lebanese Christian who lived in London, he had been in the States on business when hijacked. I hadn’t spoken to him since graduation.

Ten years, two wars and an economic collapse later, I wonder at what has been lost by so many. To say what I have experienced as suffering would be an insult to those whose pain has not yet ended.

But I have learned. Keep in touch.

Kerstan Szczepanski

3 Comments

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  • The Famous Paul says

    I remember I was off that day, did not even wake till 2 in the afternoon to find the world changed. I remember the silence of no air traffic in Vegas. That week I took off my disruptor from my Klingon costume. Just could not bring myself to walk around with a fake gun strapped to my hip while emotions ran so high. I feel like we got a lot further away from Gene Roddenberry’s hopefull future in that one day than we can calculate.

  • Bleeg says

    After a morning of dealing with surreal nature of the tragedy I came into work at Star Trek for my normal swing shift, expecting to be sent home. When I found the attraction was up and running like any other day, I was furious. I don’t know why but I yelled at the wardrobe person, incredulous that anybody could be expected to go out there and “pretend” on a day like this. Joy, the operations manager, said we could go home if we wanted to. So I did. I was just really mad that whole day, mad that horrible people could cause so much pain, mad because I knew our country was at war, and mad that we all couldn’t just stop for a day and mourn.

  • dr vlarg says

    I remember that day well. I was dead tired in the morning when I heard the TV in the other room say a plane had hit the tower. I was groggy and it didn’t register until they started talking about a 2nd plane. That got me out of bed.

    My first reaction was homeostasis: find my bug-out bag and go over a mental checklist of shit-hitting-the-fan emergency plans (prepared in jest for zombies, but also effective vs. aliens, demons, contagions and terrorists). It didn’t look like Vegas was going to be hit (we’re pretty far down the chain of valuable targets), so I decided to just go to work.

    And why not? The best thing you can do in a crisis is keep calm and carry on. Everyone who was visiting Vegas was there to enjoy themselves. Some people saved up for a long time to come there with their families, so I put on the show like I always did.

    Our job was to entertain and to make people suspend their disbelief in aliens and sci-fi, if just for a little while. I don’t know what all our guests’ situations were. Hell, maybe some of them had family in the towers and they didn’t want to deal with it yet. Point is, the few people that were in the Experience that day were there to be entertained, so I kept calm and carried on.

    I don’t think it’s insensitive for Klingons to carry guns or for us to play pretend on that day. If it’s at all insensitive, then why ever have Klingons carry guns or why ever play pretend? Slippery slope. There’s never a “good time” to have fun. There’s always someone suffering somewhere.

    I think it’s right that we stayed open. I’d be disappointed if we didn’t. It says, you can’t break Vegas.