HORROR AND HOPE

Country stars react to the terrorist attacks -- and pitch in to help the nation heal

Story by Chris Neal, Bob Paxman and David Scarlett

Some witnessed the terror unfolding ... Others came perilously close to danger, or even death ... Many more rallied to help victims' families.

But country stars everywhere knew their lives changed forever that crystal-blue New York City morning when kamikaze terrorists rammed two hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center.

Rosanne Cash had a direct view of the Sept. 11 catastrophe from the street outside her daughter's school. "The towers were burning," she recalls. "About 75 people were standing in the street in total silence. I began to weep, along with most of the other people there." (Read Rosanne's powerful eyewitness account.)

Driving into town from the airport, Mary Chapin Carpenter could also see the crumbling towers. Hours later, she would still be in shock, unable to speak of it.

Jamie O'Neal was in a hotel uptown. "We went downstairs, and everybody was running everywhere, people were crying, cellphones didn't work," she says. "There was a really scary feeling of not knowing if something else was going to happen. I don't remember ever feeling that scared and unsafe before."

Also mere blocks away from the devastation, Garth Brooks was winding his way through the city streets when everything screeched to a halt. "It's chaos," his publicist reported from the snarled traffic. "Nobody knows what's going on."

When a third plane hit the Pentagon minutes later, the members of Asleep At The Wheel were in a nearby hotel, preparing to play that evening at a White House barbecue for returning members of Congress. "All of a sudden I heard sirens and all this chaos," recalls Wheel leader Ray Benson. "We turned on the TV and saw there was an attack."

The horrifying news kept coming. Both World Trade Towers collapsed, a fourth plane crashed south of Pittsburgh and officials determined that all four planes had been hijacked by terrorists.

"My husband, John, had dropped our daughter Delaney off at school [in Nashville],'" says Martina McBride. "He called me on his cellphone and said, 'Turn on the TV -- you're not gonna believe this.' "

Kenny Chesney, watching CNN on his tour bus, was stunned -- he had planned to film a video at the World Trade Center on that very day, but the shoot had been canceled only the week before. "The news freaked me out," he says. "We would have been right in the middle of it. It makes you believe in guardian angels." His wasn't the only close call.

"I have a friend who worked on the 55th floor of one of the Trade Center buildings," says Bryan White. "He was running late that morning and didn't go to work at normal time, so his life was spared."

Chely Wright thought immediately of her fan club president, who works near the World Trade Center; as it turns out, he was okay. Among those who were killed was Carolyn Mayer Beug, who directed several Dwight Yoakam videos.

Stars began mobilizing to help. The members of Lonestar, longtime spokesmen for the American Red Cross, called on fans to donate blood, while Travis Tritt's "It's A Great Day To Be Alive" was designated the official song of the organization's disaster relief fund. Numerous concerts that weren't immediately weren't cancelled were turned into benefits.

New York country radio station WYNY was flooded with calls from stars like Clint Black and Phil Vassar offering support. "They were worried about our safety and well-being," says the station's Bob Tabaddor. WYNY and practically every other American radio station began spinning songs in tribute to those lost, including Lee Greenwood's patriotic anthem "God Bless The U.S.A." "It's being played everywhere," noted Lee just days after the attacks. "By the next day, we had 1,000 e-mails from people who wanted to let me know that my song gave them some spirit."

Another song receiving heavy airplay was Jo Dee Messina's "Bring On The Rain," into which many stations inserted sound bites from media reports about the attacks. "Now the song takes on a whole new meaning," says Jo Dee somberly.

The nation was also heartened by tales of heroism -- of the firefighters and police in New York who lost their lives rushing to rescue victims, and the passengers on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, whom investigators believe fought hijackers to take back the plane before it could reach its target. "That's pretty courageous," says Toby Keith. "In the past, hijackers landed airplanes and took hostages. If they're gonna fly 'em and turn 'em into war missiles, you've gotta do what they did in Pennsylvania."

In the aftermath of the attacks, American air traffic was shut down entirely. Stars who had attended the previous night's Canadian Country Music Association Awards were stranded in Calgary, Alberta.

"I had been ecstatic with my wins the night before," says Carolyn Dawn Johnson, who had taken home five CCMA trophies. "But watching TV and seeing what was happening, everything else seemed so mundane." With only a few hours' notice, Carolyn, The Wilkinsons and Paul Brandt performed at a Red Cross benefit show the next day, raising $50,000.

Back in Nashville, Diamond Rio was just cranking up its annual golf charity event when the news came. The band made the tough choice to go ahead with the game. "The last thing we ought to do," reasoned lead singer Marty Roe, "is stop a good thing from happening."

Nonetheless, other events were hastily called off. Garth was to have been honored in Washington and planned to unveil a new song in Nashville over the following week, but both events were scrubbed. George Jones called off plans for his gala 70th birthday party, while the planned Sept. 14 premiere of Reba McEntire's TV series, Reba, was pushed back. Stars like Clint and Trisha Yearwood canceled planned shows. "This is a time for us to show respect for the victims of this terrible tragedy," explained Clint, "and in our minds, performing doesn't do that." Lee Ann Womack had been scheduled to play in Boston on the night of the attacks -- the city from which two of the hijacked planes had originated. She swiftly announced she would not be doing the show, "out of respect for the loss of these families in Boston."

As days wore on, traveling stars began to make their way home from wherever they'd been stranded. Since airports were closed and they couldn't fly, Garth offered Jamie a ride home, which wasn't needed -- she rented a car to take her out of New York and meet her tour bus in Maryland. Billy Gilman, in Manhattan to sing at Michael Jackson's 30th anniversary concerts, made it out of New York City when his road manager and vocal coach talked a limo driver into taking them to Queens to get to their waiting ride. Lee Ann Womack gave Hank Williams Jr., a ride from Boston on her tour bus, then picked up Sons Of The Desert in Pennsylvania. "You look out for people out here," she says.

False rumors began flying that Hank and Doug Stone had been passengers on the hijacked planes. "I feel very blessed to have been at home with my wife and children when I heard the news," reports Doug. Frightened Tim McGraw lovers bombarded his fan club with calls and e-mails, knowing Tim was scheduled to travel to New York on Tuesday -- as it happened, Tim hadn't left for the city yet when the attacks took place.

Taking stock of the disaster, the nation's grief mixed with fury. "They've got to get after those people now and retaliate," says Waylon Jennings. "I can't even walk, but chase 'em by my wheelchair and I'll knock somebody in the head." One ugly side effect of the anger was the targeting of innocent Arab Americans. "It's so easy to become enraged at a certain group of people," says Bryan, "but I hate to see that."

In the end, one thing is certain: Life in the United States has been forever changed. "You have to have faith that life is going to go on," says Jamie, "but nothing's ever going to be the same again."

"Our country is reestablishing its priorities," figures Rascal Flatts' Gary LeVox. "We will become even stronger because of this."

"Some good will come out of this," predicts Charlie Daniels.

"I've talked to some people who think this is the beginning of a spiritual awakening in America -- to turn back to God, where we should've been to start with."

Some draw hope from the healing after 1995's bombing in Oklahoma city, which claimed 168 lives. "Speaking for my town, Oklahoma City, we've really rebounded well," says Toby Keith. "As big a tragedy as this is, it's real hard to break the American spirit, and the soul of this country. It'll be real bad for a while, and every day will slowly get better."

In Nashville, the healing began the day after the tragedy at a candlelight vigil attended by 5,000 people, including Kenny Chesney, Martina McBride, Jo Dee Messina and Phil Vassar. "This is America," Kenny told the crowd. "We've been through a lot before, and we'll get through this."

At the service, Martina sang a stirring, a cappella chorus of her hit "Independence Day." The anthem about domestic abuse took on new, chilling meaning as she sang:

Let freedom ring, let the white dove sing
Let the whole world know that today is a day of reckoning
Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong
Roll the stone away, let the guilty pay
It's Independence Day

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