Coaches hear of attack mid-flight
By Matt Vautour, The Daily Hampshire Gazette Staff Writer, 9/13/2001

Steve Lappas knew his plane was landing early, but he wasn't sure why.

The new University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach and his assistant Chris Walker were en route from Bradley Airport to Houston on a recruiting trip, when their plane began its descent into Birmingham, Ala.

"They came on over the loud speaker and told us that the FAA was landing all planes due to something that happened in the World Trade Center," Lappas said by phone Wednesday.

That was all the information the passengers were given.

"We were nervous," Lappas said.

One passenger called his wife from one of the plane's air phones and delivered the basic news to the others. Lappas called his wife, Harriet, from the ground to get more details.

Lappas' other recruiting assistant, Andrew Theokas, was at his parents' house in New Brunswick, N.J., Tuesday morning after recruiting Monday. He was about to leave when the shocking scenes from across the Hudson River came on the television.

"I knew they were flying that morning, so I was scared for them," Theokas said of Lappas and Walker.

With all the bridges to New York City closed, Theokas stayed where he was.

"It was a long depressing day," Theokas said. "I didn't want to do anything but sit in front of the TV."

Lappas, who grew up in Washington Heights, N.Y., felt the shock shared by most Americans.

"It's incredible to think of the skyline and to think it's just not there," Lappas said of the twin World Trade towers, which were destroyed by terrorist attacks. "It's just unbelievable."

Lappas said all of his family members and close friends were accounted for.

"I'm sure I'll know somebody (among the casualties), but nobody close, thank God," he said.

Lappas and Walker rented a car and drove to Charlotte, N.C.

"We wanted to be near a bigger airport (Charlotte is a U.S. Air hub) in case flights started going again, or if they didn't, we'd be five hours closer to home," Lappas said.

When noon passed Wednesday and the airports showed no signs of reopening the two coaches got back in the car and headed home. By late afternoon, Lappas and Walker were heading through the mountains in Virginia.

"I just want to get back to see my family," said Lappas, who has a son and a daughter.

The reality is that in order to stay competitive in recruiting, Lappas will have to be back out on the road quickly.

"I have to be back on a plane Monday," he said. "We almost can't be scared. It's part of the job."

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