The most touching moment involved a flag, a choir and an anthem

I was in a tiny office squinting at a tiny TV screen.

I was in our Olympic office in Washington, D.C., and a neighbor in our shared office space had shouted that I should turn on the TV. The World Trade Center building had been hit—smoke was billowing from the top floors. I called my wife back in Salt Lake. As we watched together, we saw the second tower hit. It was an attack. The horror of the senseless loss of human life drained our hearts. 

And it changed everything: The predictability of life in America, the confidence in an orderly future, the stability of the world order. In the hours that followed, I began to consider what the attack would mean for the Olympics in Salt Lake City, scheduled to begin in just a few short months. My responsibility to help organize the Games and lead our organizing team jarred me into action.

The following morning, I called Sen. Orrin Hatch and asked for his help in securing funding for the unprecedented level of security the Games would require to keep athletes and spectators safe. He took me across the Capitol to meet with John McCain, a noted opponent of federal funds for the Olympics. Given our new reality, Sen. McCain promised whatever help was needed.

Speedskater Derek Parra and other American athletes present a flag that had flown at the World Trade Center on 9/11 at the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City on Feb.. 8, 2002. Accompanying the athletes are members of the New York Police and New York Fire departments, while the Tabernacle Choir sings the national anthem. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When I returned home to Salt Lake, our entire team met in an open air memorial to honor the fallen whose lives were lost and to commit to produce a safe Olympic games. We created an Olympic pin, the proceeds of which would aid impacted families. When it went on sale, Utahns lined up for blocks — literally — to show their compassion and solidarity.

What struck me most in the days after the attacks was the unity we felt as Americans for our country and for our countrymen and women. The boundaries between us seemed to disappear — no rich and poor, no white and black, no Mormon and non-Mormon, no Democrat and Republican. We held more doors open for one another, offered more greetings to people we encountered. We mourned together. And we sought justice together. 

Mitt Romney speaks during the opening ceremonies of the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 8, 2002.
Mitt Romney, right, is pictured at the opening ceremony of the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympic Games at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Friday, Feb. 8, 2002. | Tom Smart, Deseret News

At the close of the Olympics, I asked Olympic medalist Derek Parra what had impressed him most about the Olympic Games. He did not mention his gold and silver medals. He said it was being one of the eight athletes honored to carry the American flag that had flown above the World Trade Center on 9/11 into the Opening Ceremonies.

He had expected that when it was announced that that flag was entering the stadium there would be cheers, but instead, it was met with total silence, complete reverence. As the Tabernacle Choir then sang the national anthem, it was hard, he said, for him to control his emotions.

In this version of the national anthem, the choir sang a reprise of the last line: “O Say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” As it did so, a gust of wind lifted the flag in the hands of the athletes. He said it was as if the spirits of all those who had fought and died for liberty, for America, had just blown into the flag. Tears began to flow from his eyes. This was Derek Parra’s most memorable Olympic moment. And his telling me his experience was my most memorable moment.

USA’s Derek Parra competes in the 1,500 meters, winning the gold medal in world record time, at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2002. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

America went on to punish the perpetrators of the horror of 9/11. The nations of the world, especially our NATO allies, came to our defense. The unity we felt in the many months that followed the attack inspired us. Such glorious power attended our love for one another.

This year, the 20th anniversary of that horrible day comes at a time of great challenges for our country. But today we come together to remember the innocent lives that were lost and those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect us, and all the loved ones they left behind. Today it is their memory that inspires us. And may recalling their spirit help heal our divisions and unite us on our path forward to meet the challenges ahead.