Remembering my 9/11 experience

Sep 12

Ten years ago today I was in Washington, DC at a conference at the Willard Hotel.  The night before I had been out for drinks with an Australian news crew who was in town with their Prime Minister.  They had been talking about what a boring trip it had been.  I often think back on that comment when one of my children says that the day is “boring”.  Boring and ordinary is not so bad when you consider what the opposite might be.

On the morning of September 11th I had breakfast with my boss, Tom, who had flown in from New York that morning.  He had been at the World Trade Center the day before for a meeting with investors.  The conference had just started when it was interrupted to tell us that a plane had hit the first tower.  Many of the attendees were from New York so they suggested people who were step out and let people know they were okay or check on those back in New York.  Tom stepped out to the call the office and let them know he was in DC and not New York.  The conference continued for a few minutes more.  A few minutes until they came and told us that another plane had hit the second tower.  We were dumbfounded as we left the room.  I found Tom and we went up to my room to look at the television.  Just as we arrived we saw that the Pentagon had also been hit.  That wasn’t far from where we were.  We were scared.  Tom said to finish packing that we were going to leave and go to our offices in Richmond.  But we didn’t have a car.  I quickly packed as we watched the coverage of the towers falling to the ground.  It didn’t seem real.  As we made our way through the lobby of the Willard we saw people huddled in groups trying to figure out what they were going to do. Most at the conference did not have cars so an escape was going to be a challenge.

We walked out the front of the building to chaos.  All of the Federal Buildings were being evacuated.  The roads were clogged with cars and the streets with people coming out of the buildings.  We turned to our left and there sat an empty cab.  Tom opened the back door and asked if he would take us to Richmond.

He said, “Sure.  I want to get the hell out of here.”

We merged in to the heavy traffic and made our way toward the 14th street bridge – the route to I95 South to Richmond.  We weren’t initially thinking how this would take us past the Pentagon.  Within minutes we were driving across the bridge with very little traffic.  There were cars pulled to the side all along the bridge, their occupants standing outside, mouths wide open, staring in the direction of the Pentagon.  There was  black flume of smoke rising from the building.  It was surreal.

Our cab driver had no radio and we were getting agitated not knowing if anything else had happened.  Tom asked the cab driver to pull off the highway in to Pentagon City so we could go in to a store and get a radio.  We could not get our cell phones to work – there was too much volume for the system.  The driver pulled off and we immediately realized we had made a mistake.  People were pouring out of the metro stations like rats from a sewer.  The roads were packed with people wandering around in a daze.  There were people in military uniforms with clip boards on several corners.  There would be no stopping for a radio.  This detour took us well over an hour.  It is extremely difficult to get out of the Pentagon area and back on I95.  By the time we got back on to the interstate, we were the only car on either side of the road.  I95 is an extremely busy artery into to DC.  Being the only car on the road was unnerving, especially with no radio to indicate if there was further danger.

I remember driving down the highway in silence.  All along the drive I saw raptors circling in the sky.  At the time I thought they were hawks.  I later figured out they were turkey vultures.  We were finally able to reach one of our co-workers in Richmond on the cell phone.  He started driving our way and we met a the Quantico exit.  There was a long line of  cars waiting to get in to Quantico – the marines were already headed to our defense.

Most of the next two days were a blur.  I missed most of the news coverage for those days and the two days it took us to drive and fly back to Denver.  We looked at every option to get home but there were none.  We were finally able to get a rental car from Hertz on Thursday.  We left at 8pm and started driving west through the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia.  There was a terrible accident on the highway and the road was shut down for several hours.  Everyone turned their cars off and sat parked on I64.  Tom and got out and walked up and down the shoulder of the road, while Joseph, our other co-worker sat with the car.  We were finally able to go again sometime after midnight.  We drove through my hometown around 4am and stopped for a few minutes to say hello to my parents and get a few pillows so we could sleep in the van.  We drove on through the day, stopping for breakfast in St. Louis.  Sometime after 1 Tom’s assistant Alix called us to say she had a plane for us if we could make it to Kansas City by 3.  We stopped to get a radar detector and got on the road driving as fast as we thought was safe but would get us there in time.  The window to fly was going to be small, if we missed it we would have to continue driving.  We were exhausted and probably should not have been driving but we made it to the airport and boarded our plane.  We arrived in Denver around 4:30pm that Friday after the attack.  Joseph’s friend picked us up and dropped me off at home.

I just wanted to sit and hold my family.  We hugged, then I fell exhausted in to the bed and slept for several hours.  My daughter Lindsay was 12, Mary Mac 3 and Jack was 1 1/2.  Lindsay was old enough to understand that something terrible had happened.  My younger children were not.  They have no real recollection of it.  The images of those days and weeks are not imprinted in their minds forever.

In the weeks following the attack what I remember most is the silence in the skies – no noise pollution from airplanes constantly overhead.  It was soothing, yet erie.  I also remember the kindness of strangers – people reaching out to each other, talking to strangers, smiling, helping each other.  That’s the one thing that sticks out to me ten years later – how far we have moved away from that sense of oneness that produce kindness and consideration.  The vitriolic discourse and inflaming news coverage drives a wedge that puts civility out of reach.

Just for today, reflecting on that, I ask if we can’t remember our oneness ten years ago.  Can we reach back to that feeling, that understand and comprehend that we are many but we are also one.  Can we try to find that civility again?  Appreciating our differences and finding common ground to move forward?

I did not realize until recently the impact 9/11 had in changing me and my path in life.  It was from that point that I began to question everything that I had worked for up to that point.  It has taken ten years but my path has changed dramatically in that time.  Has yours?


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