This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Utah's Olympic planners wanted a big stage to unveil the torchbearers for the 2002 Winter Games and could think of no better place to do it than New York City's Battery Park, where Lady Liberty would stand behind them holding the nation's most famous torch. Their plan was to hold the event on Sept. 11, 2001, less than a mile from the World Trade Center.
A budget snafu forced Romney to reschedule his travel plans, saving him from a traumatic and dangerous experience. Instead, he was in Washington, D.C., appearing on a Salt Lake City radio show by phone when the reporter cut him off to announce that a plane had crashed into the twin towers. Romney hung up. He turned on the TV in the office of Cindy Gillespie, the lobbyist for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, and called his wife, Ann. They said little to each other as they watched the buildings burn.
Romney's daze ended when a plane slammed into the Pentagon. Gillespie said if they didn't leave soon, they may get stuck in downtown Washington. They jumped in her BMW convertible and headed toward Virginia, a path that took them past the Pentagon and through a haze of black smoke from the wreckage.
"It didn't smell like burning jet fuel or a house fire," Romney said. "It smelled like nothing I had ever smelled before. Like war."
Gillespie drove him to a hotel in Alexandria, where Romney tried to process what was happening, the realization that the nation had come under attack, that thousands had been killed and, eventually, what that meant for the Olympics.
"Mitt wondered inwardly whether we could even hold the Games," Ann Romney said. "He wouldn't say it publicly, but that was his nagging fear."
Reporters started calling within a few hours, but Romney didn't want to make a statement. It didn't feel right talking about the Olympics only hours after the towers collapsed. By that night, he changed his mind, releasing a short statement that in part read: "As a testament to the courage of the human spirit, and as a world symbol of peace, the Olympics is needed even more today than yesterday."
When Romney returned, he gathered hundreds of Olympic staffers in an outdoor courtyard and gave an impassioned speech about the ability of the Games to transcend terrorism and display the strength of this wounded country. Attendees called it his most presidential moment. People cried and cheered and sang "God Bless America."
In the aftermath, Romney and his team completed a review of the Olympic security plan and received expanded federal support.
During the Opening Ceremony, Mike Eruzione and the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" gold-medal-winning U.S. hockey team lit the Olympic caldron as eight athletes carried an American flag salvaged from the World Trade Center, a moment Romney would often recall on the presidential campaign trail.