In December 2001, just two months before the opening ceremony and three short months after 9/11, we were finalizing our preparations to host the world. Thanks to a superb team, we were ready.
Two of my colleagues came to me and insisted I join the torch relay for a few days. I hadn’t even considered it given everything on my plate, but I had been advised by a wise friend to not only operate the Games, but also to experience them. I decided I would go for a few days just before Christmas if I could take with me a member of my family. My daughter, Sabrina, volunteered to join me. Going was one of the best decisions I have ever made — it was an incredible, moving experience.
The torch relay took on special meaning coming so soon after 9/11. It drew thousands of people everywhere it went. The flame brought a symbol of unity. It felt as though the torch relay was one of the ways in which people could find some healing and hope after the tragedy.
We joined the torch relay caravan in Washington, D.C. As we passed through the streets, thousands of people would come to see and cheer us on. Every evening we would hold a celebration in a public plaza with a mini cauldron. I had the opportunity to speak and lead several celebrations along the unique journey.
You may recall Liz Howell, who lost her husband, Brady, in the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon. Liz and Brady were from Utah. On the White House lawn, we assembled for a special celebration where Liz ran the torch to our assembled group. Waiting for her was President George W. Bush, who embraced her and received the torch. It was an incredibly emotional moment.
We traveled on to Philadelphia, and I can visualize passing by the firehouses where the firefighters would be recognized by their communities for the special heroes they were. That evening we had a celebration on Rocky’s plaza where I was given the opportunity to speak to a large crowd who wanted to experience the feeling of the Olympics up close.
We then traveled to New York, and I was invited to run the torch on Staten Island. I had no idea I would have the opportunity, but they had an open slot. They gave me a uniform and a special runner’s uniform to my daughter, Sabrina. They put us on a bus with about 15 other torch runners to give us instructions and drop us off at our locations.
They introduced us to each other and asked our connections to the torch relay. I will never forget one of the runners telling us he was a firefighter and the only one left from his crew — all his colleagues were lost in the towers. He could barely speak through his tears and emotions. We didn’t feel worthy to be on the bus with him.
During my leg of the torch run, Sabrina and I took turns holding the torch and soaked up every minute of the experience. I still have that torch from that special day — we each had the opportunity to purchase the torch we used.
Our torch relay caravan then embarked on a ferry — it was night — with the spouses of about 12 fallen firefighters. We made our way to the Statue of Liberty and paused to gaze upon it. While doing so, we passed the torch to each of the widows — a picture in my mind never to be forgotten. The tears flowed freely and we realized the deep sacrifices made by the spouses and families of the brave first responders.
The ferry landed at Manhattan Island, where we disembarked to the waiting caravan vehicles. I was astonished to see one of the main avenues in New York City blocked off with thousands of people lining the streets to experience the feeling of the torch relay, all it symbolizes and the unity of a people deeply impacted by 9/11.
We slowly made our way through the city and ended up at Rockefeller Center where we held a celebration on the skating rink and lit a mini cauldron. Thousands joined in the moving ceremony where we remembered those who had fallen, yet we looked to the future with a blazing cauldron representing the Games yet to come.
As Sabrina and I were leaving and I was still holding my torch from our run earlier in the day, a group of children came up to us and asked, “Is that THE torch?” I said that it was. Each child wanted a picture holding the torch while standing beside us. We spent the next hour taking pictures with each child that wanted a picture. The smiles never ceased, with beaming parents joining in the special moment. I did not want that photo session never to end — time stood still.
Sabrina and I flew home the next morning, Christmas Eve, having experienced the run of a lifetime — the torch relay run in New York.
Fraser Bullock worked as the chief operating officer of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. He is now president and CEO of Utah’s new bid committee as the state vies to host another Winter Olympics.