Every September 11 since 2001, I share a story with a group of friends that experienced the events of that day in a very personal way. Each year I tell it, I forget some details and remember some new ones. This year, I thought I would retell my story in public. So, Paul, Art, Jack, Rich, Frank, Joe, Michael, Debbie and Scott...here is our story.
At the time, we were all working for a software company named Firstlogic based in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. We were engaged in merger discussions with another company based in upstate New York. The negotiations had gotten to the point where it made sense to have our executives meet with theirs. We decided to meet at 10 a.m. on September 11, 2001 in Manhattan. Our investment banker, Michael, arranged for us to use a conference room located on Wall Street.
As part of aligning our employees at Firstlogic, I had done a series of videos in which I would surprise employees riding our elevator with a video camera and ask them: “Can you tell me what our mission is before the end of this elevator ride?” The ride was only three floors and most employees struggled with telling the “elevator speech”. So, I thought I would be clever and do a video of me doing the “elevator speech” during a ride up the elevator at the Trade Center. I made plans to be at the towers at 9 a.m. on September 11 - right before our Wall Street meeting.
Our group planned to travel to New York on the evening of September 10. Some of us were coming from La Crosse, some from Chicago. Paul was travelling from Milwaukee and Michael was based in New Jersey. Scott was flying from Atlanta. I had an American Airlines flight scheduled for 6:30 p.m. from O’Hare. But, there were huge thunderstorms that shut down air traffic that night. At 10:30 p.m., after numerous flight delays, I finally rebooked an early morning flight on the 11th and went home. The same thing happened to the others - except for Rich and Frank, who were able to fly from LaCrosse to New York on Monday night.
Tuesday morning, we boarded our separate flights. My flight was uneventful until somewhere over Pennsylvania when someone on our flight received a Blackberry message warning that fighter jets were going to shoot down a passenger jet. We started to get bits and pieces about what was happening in New York. I received a message from Michael which started out “you won’t believe what I just saw.” He went on to describe the Twin Towers spewing smoke and the ferry he was riding from Red Hook, New Jersey turning around on its way to Manhattan. (Michael, went on to play organ at 64 funerals stemming from 9/11 deaths.)
There were no announcements from the cockpit until the flight attendant announced we were landing in New York. It was plain, though, we weren’t in New York. Looking down, I saw fields and even cattle near the landing strip. I soon learned we had landed in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Art, Joe and Scott landed in other Pennsylvania cities.
Meanwhile, Paul’s jet did make it to New York - his plane flew past the flaming towers and was the last jet to land at Kennedy that morning. Frank, Rich and Jack had made it into town the night before. Frank & Rich were still in their rooms in Manhattan when their wives called to see if they were okay. Frank was a volunteer fireman and the two of them made their way to the area of the towers to see if they could help.
While my jet was still in the air I exchanged messages with Debbie, my assistant in LaCrosse. Debbie got the word out to everyone that the meeting was cancelled. The execs from upstate New York messaged that they were turning around and heading home.
The Harrisburg airport was small and hundreds were crammed into it. Lines of people were trying to rebook flights. There was one public TV in the airport bar, but it was so packed with people it was impossible to get in. Suddenly, all of the flip cards on a flight board showed that all flights had been cancelled. People looked lost and confused. Rumors of a pending terrorist attack on the airport circulated.
I didn’t want to be one of the stranded masses and left the airport and flagged a cab. “Take me to the nearest hotel,” I said. The driver knew nothing of what had happened in New York. We drove to a nearby Holiday Inn. I sat in the small cafeteria and, with the hotel employees, watched the jets hitting the towers on two TV’s.
Paul, Frank and Rich walked to Brooklyn and were able to rent a car to drive home after an overnight stay. Art and Joe rented a car in Allentown and picked me up in Harrisburg. We stopped at a K-Mart and picked up phone chargers and food and began the drive back to Chicago. The roads were full of taxi’s, limos and rental cars making their way west. In the sky to the north, we saw jets leaving huge circular contrails in the sky, fighter jets patrolling our border with Canada.
We had dinner in Cleveland and sat in silence with other customers as the days horrific events were displayed on the giant TV screens usually reserved for football and baseball games.
My son Seth managed to reach me on the cell phone. He was panicked, knowing that I was on my way to New York. The events of the day inspired him to enlist in the Army on September 12. He was rejected, though: there was marijuana in is system. He was issued an Army recruit i.d. card and told to come back for a retest in 30 days. He kept in touch with his recruiter and told funny stories about the kind of underwear recruits had worn to the Army physical. The recruiter attended the funeral when Seth died the following February.
We all made it home safe - unlike thousands of others that day. Flights in the US were cancelled for about a week, so my employees weren’t flying. Early on the morning that flights resumed, I went to O’Hare and bought a ticket to Atlanta. I didn’t want any of my employees having to fly until I had demonstrated it was safe. I had lunch which Scott in Atlanta and then returned to Chicago.
And then, our lives returned to the new post 9-11 normal. We lived through a tragedy and an adventure, but had no idea about how these events would so profoundly change our lives.