Just after dawn, September 11, 2001. The tide was on its way out. Things were still quiet in Narragansett, R.I., and across the world.
Here men swam head-on into God’s rage smiling. For a few hours, they would be the only ones in the country with any reason for high spirits.
Some had parked their cars outside the locked gate of the old Coast Guard observatory at Point Judith Light, the western tip of Narragansett Bay. Then they made their way in the near-dark through the tall cattail marsh. The narrow path was one known by heart; it had been floored here and there with scrap two-by-fours. The sound of breakers through the reeds confirmed what the forecasts had promised.
Others saw it from bluffs in Newport, looking out over a spot called “Ruggles” that is fronted by that town’s signature mansions. Clean waves rolled away from the jagged rocks into white water.
They were the only Americans who had any indication that morning it would be a day of unparalleled fury. And they were the only ones ready and waiting.
Less than 24 hours before four doomed airliners forked from their westbound flight paths, Hurricane Erin made a westward run of her own. She surged straight toward the quiet seaside towns of Rhode Island with gusts up to 86 mph before peeling off again out to sea. On the Tuesday morning that no one will soon forget, her storm surge reeked havoc perfectly on boulder-strewn beaches from Point Judith to Cape Cod.
Several local surfers met that swell there, paddling on their boards out into waves up to six feet tall. The mammoth black rocks that jutted from the surface did not faze them. The high seas were what they came for.
In those early morning hours, while the rest of the world witnessed human calamity of the apocalyptic order, these men met nature, too, at its grandest. But they went willingly and all were allowed to survive. On a morning when man passed judgements blindly and mercilessly, nature at its most superhuman was instead charitable.
Before they were even to their vehicles, Rhode Island’s surfers learned that it was a day others, too, wouldn’t forget. Someone was yelling crazily in the parking lot in Newport. Radios were on at Point Judith. Everyone felt numb. Many of them just went back in the water; it was the only place that seemed safe.
All were reminded that there are other forces at work besides one’s own will and nature’s fury.
“It was shock,” said Tom Hogan, 50, owner of Warmwinds Surf Shop in Narragansett. “No one realized the gravity of it until we saw the images that evening on TV.”
By Wednesday, there were reports of fellow surfers at Long Beach on Long Island seeing a great plume of smoke out over the sea to the west. According to swell.com, one of them was even rumored to have been skipping work in the city to surf Erin. His office was in the World Trade Center.
But among Rhode Island’s regulars, the tragedy was less immediate. Few knew anyone, even indirectly, that worked in the towers or at the Pentagon. Someone’s cousin was said to be a passenger on one of the flights out of Logan.
So for the most part, the rest of the week unfolded as normal. Things were much quieter, though, as people surfed the fizzling remnants of Erin. A banner was unfolded, too, on the chain-link fence at Narragansett’s town beach. Painted in red on this shred of bed-sheet were the words “God Bless America.”