Every generation has its, “I’ll never forget what I was doing when…” event. Well into their 70’s, my parents could tell you exactly what they were doing on the day JFK was assassinated, to a level of detail that was, in itself, telling. For most of us, our “never forget” event is September 11, 2001. I wrote this account of the day, from my perspective, a few years ago, and republish it every year on the anniversary. Never forget.
In the late summer and early fall of 2001, I was traveling extensively for my job with R.S. Byrnes Associates. On September 10th, I left the office in the late afternoon and drove to the Piedmont Triad airport in Greensboro to catch a flight to Canton. In those days, it was often much less expensive to fly U.S. Airways from Greensboro than Charlotte, even if, as was the case on that day, the connecting flight to the final destination was through CLT. The 30 minute flight from Greensboro to Charlotte was uneventful, but the connection was very tight and I rushed from my gate to pick up a to-go sandwich before boarding the Dornier 328 turboprop for the two hour flight to Ohio. I was planning some leisurely reading during the flight and had brought the new Kathy Reichs novel, Fatal Voyage, to read en route. No sooner had we reached our cruising altitude, however, than the weather took a turn for the worse, and eating my sandwich and reading my book became difficult as the plane rocked in the turbulence. Somewhat ironically, Fatal Voyage was about a plane crash in the North Carolina mountains.
The pilots had to make several diversions around the weather and it was after midnight when we landed at the Akron-Canton airport. By the time I picked up my Hertz rental car and checked into the Hampton Inn-North Canton, it was one in the morning. Exhausted, I set my alarm and collapsed into bed.
My original agenda for September 11th was, in itself, somewhat unusual. Normally, I would fly to a consulting site on Monday evening or Tuesday morning, spend three days there on the project, and fly home on late Thursday or early Friday. This was going to be an unusually short trip built around one very important client meeting. I would be picking up executives from our biggest client, Parker Hannifin, at the airport and driving them to a lunch meeting with representatives of a potential major new customer. This was part of a larger market development project in the floor care industry relating to assets which Parker had acquired in a merger deal with Wynns Precision earlier that year. After the meeting, I would take the executives back to the airport and catch a 5:30 p.m. fight back to North Carolina.
Since the Parker executives’ flight was not scheduled to land until 10:30 a.m. and I had been late getting in the night before, I slept-in until around eight, then rose, showered, dressed and went to the lobby for a cup of coffee and a Danish. Returning to my room, I called the office and answered a couple of emails. By then, it was almost 10:00 a.m. and time to leave for the airport. I re-packed my overnight bag, checked the bathroom to make sure I hadn’t left anything behind and headed down the hall to the lobby. As I approached the desk to check out, I noticed a group of people huddled around the television on the far side of the room. On the screen, an aerial view of lower Manhattan showed huge billows of smoke rising hundreds of feet into the air. For some reason, my first thought was “earthquake.” I approached the group and asked, “what’s going on?” As if in answer to my question, on the screen the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed in a great cacophony of smoke and dust. Nothing could prepare a person to witness something like that, but at least the others assembled there had some idea what was happening and had some context for the collapse. Nevertheless, there were gasps and shrieks and numerous statements of horror and despair and disbelief. For my part, having just walked in, it was visually surreal; my mind actually had difficulty processing the reality of it for a minute or two. I had been in New York on this same project just a few weeks earlier! It just couldn’t be!
Over the next few minutes, I learned what little was known at the time from members of the little group in the lobby: Two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center; It couldn’t have been an accident; Many other planes were “missing” and presumed to be on their way to other targets; There were rumors about unexplained explosions in Washington D.C. In the cool light of retrospection, it is easy to forget just how confused the situation was that morning and how little was known about what was really going on. The local news announced that one of the “missing” planes was headed for downtown Cleveland – which in fairness, it was… before turning around and crashing in Pennsylvania – another plane on the ground in Cleveland was believed to be carrying a bomb and had been moved to a secure area at the airport. One national news report established that there might be as many as a dozen hijacked planes honing in on targets across the United States. Suddenly, I thought about the Parker executives who were flying in that morning! I called one of the cell phone numbers, not really expecting to get through, but was surprised when the call was answered almost immediately. “I was just about to call you. We were diverted to Cincinnati. The pilot said there’s a complete lock-down of all air traffic across the country. Nobody’s going anywhere for awhile.” I thanked him for the information, said I was glad they were safe and told him I would take care of things on this end.
My next call was to my wife, Janet, back in Charlotte. I wasn’t always the best at leaving her detailed itineraries for my trips, and so all she really knew was that I had left North Carolina on Monday and would be back late on Tuesday. When she answered the phone, I got really choked-up, to the extent it was difficult to say more than one or two words at a time. It was all I could do to convey to her that I was okay, safe at my hotel in Ohio and would call her when I knew more. I took a few minutes to compose myself and think through my next actions. By this time, it was abundantly clear that there would be no 5:30 flight back to North Carolina that evening. I knew I had to call and cancel the lunch meeting, but then what? Basically, I had two options: drive the rental car home, or drive to my mother’s house, two hours away in Port Clinton, and stay there for a day or two until flights resumed. I called Hertz to inquire about the rental car. The clearly shaken guy in the call center was about as professional as he could be under the circumstances. “Sir, you do what you have to… just return the car to a Hertz location whenever you are finished with it. We’ll charge you the standard daily rate, but there won’t be any fees for returning it to a different place.” More than anything else which I had seen or heard that day, his statement drove home just how serious the situation really was, and it scared me a little. If Hertz was essentially saying, do what you want with our car, we cannot control the situation; things really had hit the fan. It was at that point I realized it might not be “a day or two” until flights resumed, but days or weeks, and I decided to make the long drive home.
Before leaving, I called my mother to let her know I was safe. She didn’t have any idea about my day-to-day or week-to-week itinerary, but she knew I traveled a lot and I didn’t want her to worry. My final call before heading out on the road was to the potential customer we were supposed to be meeting for lunch. It was something of an odd call because initially — although he had heard something bad had happened in New York — he did not fully understand the gravity of the situation or comprehend why it might affect our meeting plans.
The Hampton Inn-North Canton is located conveniently off an exit on I-77, and it is a 7 hour straight shot to my home in Huntersville, which is also conveniently located off an exit on I-77. Unfortunately, my car was at the Piedmont Triad airport in Greensboro, so, with that side-trip, I was looking at the better part of 10 hours on the road. I started out just a few minutes after noon, and looking back it is amazing to me how much the world had changed in just two hours. At some point during the first hour of driving, I called Janet again to let her know I was headed south. Her office had closed for the day and she was at home with our dogs, Jake and Cy. She’d been watching the television and the news reports were saying all the missing planes had been accounted for, so the worst was apparently over. That was somewhat reassuring. The news coverage on the car radio was non-stop and ubiquitous; ranging from hard reporting to informed speculation to wild conspiracy theories: The President was safe at an undisclosed location/No one knew where the President was; There were 4 or 5 hijackers on each plane/There were as many as 10 hijackers on each plane; The hijackers were trained pilots/The hijackers forced the pilots to fly into the buildings at gunpoint (which, of course, would never have happened); The plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was headed for the White House but was shot down by the Air Force; It was suspected that some radical Islamic group based in Afghanistan was behind the attacks.
As I drove south throughout the afternoon, reports from New York continued to filter in: Additional buildings were on fire and in danger of collapse; The death toll from the towers didn’t appear to be as great as originally reported (some initial reports had put it at 20,000+). Finally, somewhere in West Virginia, I just turned the radio off and drove the rest of the way in silent contemplation.
John B. Marek
Huntersville, North Carolina