Backstage with Ron Onesti:

9/11 seems like it happened yesterday

Fifteen years later, and 9/11 still seems like it happened yesterday. I realize the anniversary of this tragic series of events was more than a week ago, but my recollections just won’t leave my mind. Maybe sharing them with you will help me put them aside a bit.

My weekly column, “Backstage with Ron Onesti,” is usually about my behind-the-scenes experiences with entertainers, musicians and bands over the span of my 25-plus year career in the biz. I try to talk about my unique exposure to the “personal” side of legends, and the words of wisdom and once-in-a-lifetime experiences that make what I do so cool (and really strange, in some cases). From James Brown to Kevin Costner, Joan Rivers to Frank Sinatra Jr., and Vince Neil of Motley Crue to Bret Michaels of Poison, I have let you into my secret world of “backstage,” by way of what I have seen, and what was said to me.

This being the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, I would like to ask your permission to stray from the stories about rock superstars and the street-corner legends, just for a moment. If you would allow, I would like to take you on a different “behind the scenes” journey, and share with you my Sept. 11 perspective, and my personal connections to it all.

I was there just hours before it happened.

You see, I have been involved with producing the Hoboken Italian Festival for about 20 years. Hoboken is a 1.1-square-mile city in New Jersey where Frank Sinatra was born. It is also located right on the Hudson River, immediately across from the Manhattan skyline. Each year, for the past 90, this tradition has occurred the weekend after Labor Day in September. Sept. 11, 2001, was right after its closing night that year.

Our responsibility with the festival centers on providing the stage, sound, lights and acts who perform there. We get there earlier in the week, then we would work until the early hours of the morning after Sunday evening’s closing ceremonies. That particular year, we brought our stage all the way from Chicago, so take-down was an all-night proposition.

As I was introducing the final acts that night, I had the Twin Towers over my left shoulder. It was a beautiful night as I was just marveling at the classic New York skyline just 15 minutes away, across the Hudson, as I waited for the show to end.

Our flights the next day were early, so by the time we were done taking it all down, it did not make sense for me, my brother Rich and our crew, to go to bed. So we drove around the streets of New York City to kill time. We drove by Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Empire State Building, eventually having breakfast right across the street from the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

The day was beginning and the New York hustle-and-bustle was engulfing us. As I went to pay the breakfast bill, I noticed a girl sitting in a booth who looked incredibly familiar. I stared at her for a minute, and I just had to ask if it was her. “Chris?” I asked timidly. “Hi!” she said. It was her! I had not seen her in about 20 years!

Her name was Christine Olender, and she was a pompon girl for my high school in Chicago. She was a student at Resurrection High School, an all-girls school, and I went to Weber High, an all-boys school on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Her brother also went to Weber, and her parents had a retail store in the neighborhood. I was very involved with sports and student council in high school, so I got to spend a great deal of time with the cheerleaders and pompon girls (my younger sister Vickie also made the squad).

Christine was absolutely beautiful with very long, straight, sandy-brown hair — truly one of the sweetest people I had ever met, and we spent a great deal of time together in our “inner circle” of friends. At 39 years old, she was still as stunning as ever. She was working at a restaurant in the World Trade Center, also pursuing a fashion design career. We chatted a bit, exchanged contact info, and I was on my way to the airport.

Less than 20 hours later, the tragedy struck. The restaurant where we had breakfast hours before was leveled. The street we were sightseeing on was now a war zone with white dust-covered people running for their lives. The scariest, most devastating day in American history was unfolding before our very eyes.

I had just woken up after a long day of travel, and a long weekend on the East coast. As I was watching this all unfold like the rest of the world on TV, it was chilling to realize I was there a mere few hours earlier. My dad frantically called me as he thought I was still there. A frightful day, indeed.

By doing that festival for so many years, I was able to create many friendships with New Yorkers and “Jersey Boys.” Each year we would hold a charity grape stomp contest between firefighters and police officers from Jersey and New York. One of the guys I became friendly with was Yonkers, New York, firefighter Anthony Favarro.

It turns out that Anthony emerged as a true hero, personally rescuing 29 people from Tower II just before its collapse. I was able to reach him the following week, and my wife and I went to visit him a few days later.

He took us to “Ground Zero” and escorted us into the actual danger zone. We wore hard hats and he told us what it was like during the mayhem. Although he literally climbed hundreds of stairs many times, carrying victims over his shoulder to safety, he was very humble, saying: “The real heroes are the men and women we lost that day.”

It was eerie, to say the least. There was still smoke coming from smoldering embers all around the grounds. That famous piece of steel that formed a cross and was the only part of the buildings left standing was still hot. And one thing he said to me still makes me shudder to this day.

“To put the intensity of this thing into perspective,” Anthony said, “just think about the amount of toilet bowls, doorknobs and telephones that were in this building. We haven’t found one still intact that wasn’t pulverized.” Yes, eerie.

The names of the victims were still being tallied. It was as much and more of a tragedy as we all remember. As the news unfolded, I found out two things that really hit home for me personally.

First, besides being at Ground Zero hours before it became that, I found out that United Airlines Flight 93 out of Newark, the one that was hijacked but did not reach its intended crash destination of Washington, D.C., actually left from the same gate my flight left from. It was the plane after mine, just the next day, as we flew out of Newark, as well.

And the other, well, was quite difficult. As the photos of the victims were broadcast on TV, Christine’s picture flashed on the screen. It was her high school picture; the picture of her the way I remember her most. I couldn’t believe it. The world was certainly cheated out of beautiful people that day.

I still do that festival in Hoboken every year, on that same spot. This year, on the 15th anniversary to the day, I was there, and we held a memorial on stage with the mayor and some first responders. We had that grape stomp contest, but the police officers and firefighters hosted it rather than competed in it, out of respect of that day. Kids were selected from the audience to stomp instead, with the brave protectors of safety towering over them. The prize money went to the families of the victims of 9/11.

After the contest was over, I directed everyone’s attention beyond the stage, across the Hudson River, to the two light beams emitting from where the Twin Towers once stood. The “Tribute in Light” shined brightly, against a clear night’s sky, with hundreds of people reflecting within a sea of brief silence. It was moving, poignant and powerful.

Then, the music began again, and a celebration of life ensued, evoking the message that terrorists can’t keep us Americans down, even in times of tragedy and remembrance.

As those events that happened 15 years ago have officially become included in history books, the memory of those lost and the heartfelt support to their families is a strong as ever.

Here’s to the heroes, and God bless America.

• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email