Former Utah Olympic spokeswoman remembers being in New York City during 9/11 attacks

Published: Saturday, Sept. 10 2011 12:14 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — There were times in the hours after witnessing the collapse of one of the twin towers on 9/11 that then-Utah Olympic spokeswoman Caroline Shaw feared she might never make it home.

"I did think I was going to die. There was once or twice. You do, because of the uncertainty," an emotional Shaw said during her first public recounting of being in New York City during the terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center.

She first realized something terrible was happening while in the back of a cab, racing toward a park near the towers, the site of a press conference planned for the next day about the Olympic torch relay for the 2002 Winter Games.

"We saw all these people in shock and horror," she said. "Traffic had come to a standstill."

Ordered out of the cab by a panicked driver, Shaw stepped into the chaos and looked up the street toward the massive buildings that dominated the city's skyline.

"I saw the first tower fall," she said quietly, without elaborating.

It had been what Shaw called a "bright, blue, beautiful" day in Manhattan, nearly perfect. Now the skies were darkened by clouds of debris from the destruction.

"That is seared in my memory. The tower falling and the smoke," she said. "And the ash, a coating like in your fireplace after you make a fire. … It's hard to describe it."

Still not knowing what was going on and unable to get a signal on her cellphone, Shaw said she turned away and joined the crowds heading back uptown. "I guess my survival instinct was to go away from the disaster."

Just a day earlier, Shaw had made the decision not to stay in a hotel badly damaged in the attacks because she wanted to be closer to midtown media outlets.

But rather than return to her hotel room, Shaw chose another destination — St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, built in the 1800s.

"It was the only place I could think to go," she said. There she prayed, lit candles, cried and continued to try to get through to her family on her cellphone. Around her, rumors were swirling about more attacks to come.

Finally, Shaw reached her husband.

"I had one of those conversations you have with your loved ones when you think it might be the last time you talk with them," she said.

In the cathedral, Shaw said she felt secure. "It gave stability to an unstable day," she said. "If I was going to die, this was a place I wanted to die."

Shaw eventually made it home, thanks to a private plane secured by then-Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Mitt Romney. Romney had been in Washington, D.C., during the attack on the nation's capital.

It was Romney who gave her the copper bracelet she still wears every day to remind her of those who lost their lives on 9/11. The bracelet bears the name of Paul Tegtmeier, a 40-year-old firefighter from Engine 4, who left behind two children.

"I was a mother nearing 40, of two. It meant a lot to me," said Shaw, who now lives in Sonoma, Calif., where she is executive vice president and chief communications and marketing officer for Jackson Family Wines.

Although she can look out her office window at the company's vineyards, Shaw said she's often drawn to a photo of ground zero she keeps above her computer. And in recent weeks, she and her twins, now 11 years old, have been watching documentaries about 9/11.

"I can't look away. I can't not remember," Shaw said.

On Sunday, she'll be thinking of Tegtmeier and the family he left behind.

"I was scared and I was delayed and I was disconnected from my loved ones, but that's nothing compared to what Paul Tegtmeier and his loved ones went through," she said.

Shaw will also go to Catholic mass on Sunday, as she has on every Sept. 11 since that day in 2001. She'll send messages to Romney and other friends from the Olympics who shared similar experiences, "thanking them for being part of my life."

Every day since the attacks has been one to appreciate, Shaw said.

"You say that, but you don't forget it when you live through something like that."

Email: lisa@desnews.com

Twitter: dnewspolitics

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