Fifteen years ago I was on a United flight to Boston on a sunny, crisp Tuesday morning that started like any other work day that year. I rolled out of bed, pulled on a suit and drove to Newark Airport, arriving about 45 minutes before my flight, stumbled through security and onto the plane where I took a short nap. I was employed by Sun Microsystems, working for the iPlanet-Sun Alliance, and was en route to host a customer event at our Boston area sales office.
It was my 39th birthday, and I was going to be away for the day, mostly because I had been subjected to a well executed surprise party a few years earlier, and I truly, completely hate surprises. Each year after that party I ensured I would be traveling on the actual day, getting home for well-timed cake and celebration, but without the overhang of a surprise. And so it was that on 9/11/01, instead of attending the Waters conference at Windows on the World, on the 113th floor of 1 WTC (and where a Merrill Lynch customer of mine was speaking), I was on a plane to Boston. A bit of self-centered compulsive behavior saved my life.
Once in a cab from Logan, about half way up I93, my wife called me on my (then quaint) cell phone. That was unusual; I’d usually check in when I had a better idea of my return logistics. While watching the morning news, the little TV on our kitchen counter lost its signal, upon switching to CNN she saw the live feed of a plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center. As I was on a plane to Boston, she did the logical thing to check in on me. A few minutes before 9:00, I was completely oblivious to what was happening in lower Manhattan. I had the cab driver put on Boston’s news radio for more details, at the time believing like many others that it was a small, private plane that had a hideous accident, and that New York’s bravest would soon put out the fire and return life to its normal level of crazy.
While in the car the 2nd plane hit 2 WTC, where our Sun office was located on the 25th and 26th floors. It was clear that this was a terrorist attack, and nobody knew what was to come next. After getting to the sales office, and deciding to cancel the customer event, I began calling people — using our Sun internal network to route calls out to the west coast, I was able to get outside lines and reach my family, my employee Laura who I knew was in 2 WTC that day, but I was unable to reach my friend Bob. About half an hour later, I heard “the tower is down, the tower is down” echoing down the hall and didn’t know how to parse that until I saw CNN.com coverage of 1 WTC collapsing (this was before the time of streaming video on the Internet).
I called a few people in California to let them know I was OK and that I had checked in on a few of our iPlanet employees. What I remember, vividly, is that they had no idea of the scale of what was going on; I got the feeling they believed this was a bit of New York drama and that things certainly couldn’t be so terrifying. I think if you had never lived in or near New York (or any other city which had suffered a terror attack) you have no idea what anybody on the east coast went through that morning. An administrator at our company was actually annoyed with me for calling repeatedly, and I never forgave her and the executive she supported, who knew where I was, for not failing to check up on me when she saw the morning news.
Panic ensued. One of my co-workers from NJ had a rental car, and we hopped in and began driving back to NJ. We made the trip in about 3 1/2 hours, doing well over 100 MPH the whole way, and seeing very few other cars on the road. Coming over the Tappan Zee Bridge, as you looked south to Manhattan, you could see the black plumes of smoke rising from the WTC side. Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017” ran through my head, and still gives me chills.
During the five hours from the first impact until I reached NJ, I had no idea if my friend Bob was alive; there was a major financial services event going on at Windows On The World and I couldn’t remember if he was going to attend or not. I’m pretty sure I cried at least a few times as fear and anxiety set in. Once we got back to NJ, and my co-worker dropped me in town, we had a tearful family reunion as we attempted to explain the events of the day to our kids.
I heard from Bob, and we haven’t gone more than 3 or 4 days without talking to each other since.
Our Sun mail room attendant was drinking his morning coffee and saw the first plane hit 1 WTC, swept the office hollering at everyone, including those in the PA-proofed conference and machine rooms, to evacuate. He saved half a dozen lives.
One of our neighbors decided to drive his kids to school and go into work (in the WTC) a bit late, and he was still en route to the Holland Tunnel when the first plane hit.
The first plane entered 1 WTC right one floor below a customer of mine, and I was certain of bad news as the names of the missing appeared. Two days later, I got an email from the CEO, saying that they were safe and sound and operating out of temporary offices in NJ; they had a staff meeting that morning and the designated breakfast person failed to bring muffins, so the entire team was on its way out of the building at the time the plane literally crashed through their office.
I heard other stories — people who decided it was a beautiful morning, possibly one of the last nice ones, and worthy of a trip outside of the building to get coffee, or donuts, or muffins. My sister was in Switzerland on a business trip, and after finally getting on a flight that would take her to Newark on Saturday, I decided to meet her in Terminal B. Eight hours late, she arrived around midnight, and I was there while her scheduled limo was nowhere to be found. We drove into Manhattan in silence, not just in our car but in Times Square, around Central Park, up the East Side. It was the loneliest and scariest trip through New York ever.
That day accelerated the dot-com bust. It reshaped our views of security, of terrorism, of xenophobia (whether we knew what it was or not). It created many tales of tragedy, of miracles, and of bravery that simply cannot be fathomed or imagined, unless you know someone who has run into a burning building. Fifteen years later, the new World Trade Center transportation center is open, featuring a huge, white, multi-story high architectural sculpture that frames the occulus of its center. Seen from Vesey Street, it’s a maw or teeth or something large and threatening. Seen from Broadway, it’s the head of an eagle, a nice complement to the Liberty Tower behind it. Seen from the 20th floor of a surrounding building, with proper perspective you can truly appreciate the artistic and architectural intent of those long, sweeping arcs of concrete and steel.
It’s a dove.
Fifteen years later, on a Tuesday like many others, I hope we all find the right perspective.