Even after twenty years, Géza Keller has never forgotten that day.
It was just after 6 A.M. and he was just out of the shower, drinking coffee, and getting dressed for work at QSP, his thin film optical coating company. Watching TV in the bedroom, he saw a news alert: a plane had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center (WTC) in Manhattan.
What the hell is going on? he wondered, just like everyone else who saw those first images of black smoke bellowing from the upper portion of the 110-story skyscraper. Was this an accident?
Glued to the TV for the next eighteen minutes, he watched—in real time—as a United Airlines Boeing 767 flew awfully low in the sky toward the south tower. But the pilot didn’t veer away. He crashed directly into the side of it.
As the plane exploded into a red and orange ball of flames, a mix of gray and black clouds spewed from the side of the building, darkening the entire skyline. Now that both towers were burning, their occupants tried to escape, but many remained trapped in the upper floors. Sticking their heads out of windows, some jumped or fell to their death on the streets below, choosing to die quickly than to burn to death.
By now, it seemed that this couldn’t be an accident. Not two planes in a row. Yet we all waited to find out from the powers that be what had actually caused this horrible tragedy that cost nearly 3,000 people their lives that day—in the towers, on four planes, and ultimately many more from injuries or illnesses related to inhaling the toxic smoke.
After Géza returned home that night from a crazy long day at work, he and his wife stood watching TV in the kitchen of their new home in Carlsbad, which was under an unwelcomed renovation due to a sewage backup.
There was nowhere to sit in the living room, which was under construction, so the choice was to stand in the kitchen or go upstairs to watch TV in bed. But they, like the rest of the nation, were watching the news. On edge. Waiting to find out more.
All day, the media had been repeatedly showing footage of the planes hitting the twin towers. First responders trying to get people out of the burning buildings. People who had escaped, walking, disoriented, in the street coated head to toe with white ash.
Then, in breaking news around 10:30 P.M., the authorities identified the pilot of United Flight 175, the hijacked plane that had flown into the second tower. Terrorists had stabbed a flight attendant and burst into the cockpit, where they killed the pilot and first officer, then took over the controls. All sixty-five people aboard died.
As if that wasn’t enough, Géza felt a gut-punch when he saw the name of his college roommate flash across the screen: The pilot was 51-year-old Captain Victor J. Saracini, a husband and the father of two daughters, from Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
“Oh, shit,” Géza said.
One of us, he thought.
Géza’s mind immediately flashed back to the last time he’d talked to Vic. It was late 1991 Vic had called to say he was in San Diego, about fifteen years since he’d last seen Vic at graduation from New Mexico Tech (NMT) in Socorro.
Géza recalled feeling a little overwhelmed that day.
“How are you doing?” Vic asked.
Géza shared what was going on in his life. He'd just gotten QSP off the ground and was living with his wife and their 13-month-old son in an apartment in Mission Viejo, an hour or more from San Diego.
He apologized, but said he was too distracted and overwhelmed to get together with Vic. “Next time you’re here let me know what’s going on,” he said.
Standing in his kitchen that night on September 11, 2001, he thought back to that last conversation. "I didn’t feel regret," he recalled later. "I felt the loss of a good friend.”
In the days after the towers collapsed and burned to the ground, Géza felt compelled to write a song about what that loss meant—to him, Vic’s family, his friends from NMT, and the rest of the nation. As an homage to Vic, he titled it “That Day.”
The first and third verses came easily. The rest came later.
"What can you say? It took two hours for the world to change.
You won’t be here tonight, to try and make it all seem right."
"Feeling alive, thinking back to ’75.
How did we know, where all the time would go."
Back at New Mexico Tech, a small school where a senior math class might have only four students, Géza and his dorm-mates--and predominantly male classmates--grew close by proximity and isolation in the tiny burb of Socorro.
A whiz-kid who had skipped a couple of grades in elementary school, Géza started college when he was only sixteen. Although the other students at NMT were at least a year or two older than Géza, Vic was four years his senior when they met in 1974, making him one of Géza’s older friends.
“He was a guy I really looked up to,” Géza recalled.
A fan of Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, Vic enjoyed playing Géza’s nylon-stringed classical guitar, circled by his music-loving friends as he sang his set of go-to songs with a voice like Frankie Valley. Knowing that Géza was still learning to play, Vic was only too happy to teach him the fingering for his favorite tunes.
“Hey, show me that Zeppelin song,” Géza pleaded. “Blackbird,” by the Beatles, was next.
Géza liked Vic so much that he invited him to move into the weathered adobe three-bedroom house that he shared with their friend Sean. When it was Vic’s turn to cook dinner, he made them a hearty meal: spaghetti with his mama’s special Sicilian sauce, with tomatoes he peeled and crushed himself, oregano, and crushed bay leaves.
Vic could have acted like the adult in the room, but he was too fun-loving for that. A Jersey guy from Atlantic City, Vic always wore a moustache, and he loved Marx Brothers movies.
Vic kept his friends amused with constant pranks that grew into legends, like the day he streaked across the cafeteria with Sean (Géza chickened out at the last minute), wearing just one adornment: a Groucho moustache, nose, and glasses on his penis.
Vic, Géza, and their friend Tom Dillon were the most “domestic” of the wild bunch, always having a girlfriend by their side. In another prank, Vic and his then-girlfriend Michelle drove the hour-long trip on the interstate from Albuquerque to Socorro—both of them completely naked in a friend’s GM convertible.
Over spring break, Géza, Vic and another friend took an adventurous road trip from Socorro to California, stopping to see Géza’s mom in Sacramento, friends at Humboldt State, Coit Tower in San Francisco, down to Disneyland, and back to New Mexico.
“We had so many good times, studying, hanging out together,” Géza recalled. “Vic was always ‘on.’ He was funny as hell. He was a good cook. He was a good roommate.”
In their last year together, before Vic graduated and ventured off into the world in 1975, he told Géza, “I’m going to go fly jets.”
“He left a wake behind him, because you just liked him so much,” Géza said. “He wasn’t political. He just had a way of being fun, because he liked comedy and he liked music.”
Géza stayed in touch with a few of his former classmates, including Tom Dillon, forming bands and playing music with a few others, but over time, most of this once close circle of friends went their separate ways.
Vic headed off to follow his dream at the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate School, received his flight officer wings, and went on to become a pilot for United Airlines. He married his wife Ellen, and they had two daughters Kirsten and Brielle, who later married another child of a WTC victim.
Ellen described Vic as “The Forrest Gump Captain,” because he knew the whole movie by heart, and he enjoyed entertaining his passengers. Sometimes he’d stand outside the cockpit wearing joke glasses that made his eyes look huge, other times he’d go down the rows and crack jokes with them during delays until he had all the passengers laughing.
“Not that he wasn’t a serious guy,” Ellen said. “Other than his family, nobody was more important to Victor than the safety of his crew and his passengers.”
"You've got nothing to lose
But to live every day
It's the new life you choose
You'll still remember that day
We've got something to prove
We make the rules
Can't we find a new way?
You've got nothing to lose,
But to live every day
It's the life that we choose
Why do we delay?"
A few years before 9/11, Géza and some of his classmates had started getting together again in Socorro for NMT’s annual reunion known as “49ers,” where another former roommate, Randy Hanson, would play a widely beloved three-day set of songs every year with his college band, the Vigilantes.
The first year Géza went back for the event, he played “That Day” for his friends in the parking lot of the Econolodge, where they were all staying. The reaction was mostly somber. One friend exclaimed, “Wow.”
Back in San Diego, Géza and Randy were also in a band together, breakingthecode, which played original songs and got a record deal. But he didn’t perform “That Day” until after he formed the cover band FakeBook. He also played it with a new acoustic iteration of breakingthecode.
The song was catchy—one of Géza’s personal top five favorites of his dozens of originals—but most people who heard it in San Diego had no idea who it was about unless Géza mentioned it. Nonetheless, the tune got listeners out of their seats. “They liked it. They danced to it.”
In 2002, Géza and Tom Dillon gave $1,100 in seed money to start a scholarship in Vic’s memory, the Victor J. Saracini Memorial Endowment. Four years later, Géza called on their classmates and friends to donate an additional $5,500, which was doubled by the Air Line Pilots Association, and the fund was on its way.
Within a year, Tom and Géza were asked by NMT staff to consider resurrecting the defunct alumni advisory board, with Géza as president. He and Tom accepted, wanting to give back to the school that had not only encouraged the formation of such close friendships, but to show today’s students how important these friendships and a lifetime of networking can result in a successful career. After resurrecting the New Mexico Tech Alumni Association, Géza also initiated the formation of a 501-C3 corporation. In 2012, Géza earned a Distinguished Service Award from NMT for his important work in alumni relations.
He had more hope for the next attempt, when he again teamed up with some fellow musicians, including a keyboard player who had actually been inside the north tower when the plane hit, but managed to escape. The keyboard player wanted to do his own version of “That Day,” and was going to serve as the album’s producer. Géza believed this was a sign, but alas, that effort fell far short of expectations and was ultimately aborted.
Then, in 2019, Géza started taking guitar lessons from San Diego legend Jerry McCann, after meeting him during a blues jam night at Aztec Brewery in Vista. Slowly, Géza and Jerry went from a student-teacher relationship to songwriting collaborators, working on a short list of songs for Géza’s album of originals, with Jerry as producer.
A few months in, Géza also brought in songwriting producer extraordinaire Sven-Erik Seaholm, whom he’d contacted two years earlier during the previous venture. Sven pulled the recordings together, adding drums and other effects in his studio, where all of them wore masks to protect them from COVID.
In late 2020, the list of songs on the album was almost set. They just needed to choose a few more.
That’s when Géza played Jerry “That Day.” Jerry’s response was getting to be a common refrain: “I can’t hear the lyrics. You should think about slowing it down.”
So, he did. Jerry joined in on his acoustic guitar, and came up with a riff. Géza modified the arrangement on the spot, and played the new version for him.
“I played it through. It was perfect.”
At the next recording session, Géza honed the lyrics to make them even more timely and laid down the vocals in just two takes.
After listening to it several times, Sven sent Géza a message, saying that he really liked the song. In fact, he liked it so much, he thought it should be the title track.
“9/11 was a huge thing. No question. Respectfully, I think your lyrics have tapped into an even more universal message here; one that can inspire and uplift many, many people, without a single rewrite," Sven wrote. "I think the music here reflects that.”
Géza’s partner, Caitlin Rother, had always told him that this should be his title song, because it had the most national relevancy; it was also the most topical, timely, and catchy song of his entire catalogue. Even so, Géza was reticent to proceed, concerned that it would look like he was trying to capitalize on his friend’s memory.
It wasn’t until Jerry and Sven reaffirmed this sentiment about the song—which had taken on a whole new meaning after the nation endured the chaotic and divisive events of 2020-2021, including the BLM and pro-Trump riots, more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths, and a violent insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol —that he acted on the advice.
Just one thing—Sven wanted to change the title to “Nothing to Lose.” On Caitlin’s suggestion, it became “Got Nothing to Lose,” a catchy line that is pulled from the chorus.
This song, and this album, after all, is about collaboration, and years of Géza’s persistent determination to make the world a better place.
Story, design, and recent photos of FakeBook, Geza and other musicians by Caitlin Rother.
BTC photos by David Swanson.
Paintings by Reta Rickmers.
Photos of Vic Saracini and his memorial plaques courtesy of Ellen Saracini.
Also in 2012, Géza organized a couple nights of music jams during 49ers, gathering alumni musicians to play a few sets before the Vigilantes gig. For the next seven years, one of those nights was always a fundraising dinner for Vic’s endowment fund, and Géza always made sure to play “That Day.” Today, that fund totals more than $80,000.
One of the top items on Géza’s bucket list has always been to record an album of his back catalogue, which contains about fifty original songs, written over the course of his 66 years. It is a crusade, however, that has faced many challenges and roadblocks along the way.
Recording three songs with the original breakingthecode (BTC) back in 1997, he put out an album, “Live at the Belly Up,” featuring their performance at the popular venue that year. But after that, Géza burned out from trying to promote original songs, and decided to step back from performing to focus more on his family. After a few fallow years, he thought it would be easier to get gigs if he formed a cover dance band instead, forming Fakebook with a couple of BTC members.
When he got the urge to record again, he spent many nights and weekends over the course of several years, laying down tracks with a former bandmate-turned-producer at their own studio, 2656 State Street, which was named after the address.
Years later, however, the project still remained unfinished years. Due to perennial money problems, the producer neglected to pay for a storage space where he’d put the recording equipment that Géza had purchased, so it—and all those years of recordings—were lost on the auction block.
But still determined, Géza persisted.