(This has always been a personal document, shared with family, friends and a few close colleagues. Today I'm sharing this with you, whomever you may be. God bless America. - Dan)
I’m in more comfortable place when I’m not thinking about it. Every time I return to look through this, I feel a deep sadness. I don’t look at tall buildings the same way anymore. I know what it’s like to see a jet knife through a skyscraper. It goes right in, a clean cut, a killing incision. These are my notes, this is my story.
On Sept. 10-11, 2001, I attended a TMP corporate leadership conference at the Embassy Suites in Lower Manhattan, one block from the World Trade Center. I’m lucky to be alive, and my heart goes out to those people who lost their lives, and to their family and friends who miss them.
I am especially grateful to Ian, Scott and Andriana, colleagues of mine from TMP. The four of us went through this awful day together.
Sunday, Sept. 9, 2001
Sitting in Terminal A at Boston’s Logan Airport, I realize I left my cell phone in my car. I debate whether I should hurry and get it. My flight isn’t until 6:30, but I’m in Central Parking and it’s a long walk. I scurry from my seat and make a loping walk to and from my car, arriving back at the terminal just as we’re asked to board the 82-minute flight to LaGuardia. It’s a hot summer day, and I’m sweating from the walk.
Monday, Sept. 10, 2001
I’m walking on Vesey Street with Jennifer, a colleague, on our way to a scheduled tour of the New York Stock Exchange and someone points out the North Tower and says, “that’s where the truck with the bomb went in.” I’m looking at this massive base and thinking, how could someone just park here with a bomb?
I’m standing on the deck of the World Yacht dinner cruise boat, drinking a glass of Cabernet, gazing across the water at the massive twin towers of the World Trade Center. A few minutes later we’re passing the Statue of Liberty, and I’m awed by her height from this vantage point. I’m talking with Annette from Dallas, and make a comment about how great it is to be an American, a citizen of a country that opens its arms to everyone, regardless of race or religion. Funny, but I don’t usually talk about patriotism. In the shadow of Lady Liberty on this rainy summer night, it feels right. Corny, but right.
Sitting at a table with Kevin, Annette and Scott, we’re playing ‘80s music trivia. I’m good at this game, but Kevin matches wits with me, recalling bands like Bananarama, the Thompson Twins and Dexies Midnight Runners. It’s a light conversation and a warm place to be as the rain patters the window at our table.
I’m back in my hotel room, happy with the choice I made not to go to Chevy’s, a bar where a lot of my colleagues went to have a nightcap. I watch a little bit of the Monday Night Football game between the Broncos and the Giants and fall quickly asleep.
Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001
I’m wide awake and review my notes for our team meeting on our presentation. Watching ESPN, I’m disappointed that the Giants lost 31-20, and didn’t cover the spread. I pick up the USA Today outside my door and set it on the coffee table. With a 12 o’clock checkout, I pack my belongings so I can just grab my bags at the morning break.
I’m eating a full breakfast with my group as we go over the presentation we’ll be delivering at the next conference in December. Everyone seems sleepy and I’m guessing a few of us are a little hung over. CNN flashes on the TV on the wall behind our table, with Michael Jordan’s announcement that he’s coming out of retirement one of the top stories. Despite the overall sluggishness of our group, I feel like we make good progress on who has ownership, deliverables and deadlines.
I’m sitting at a table in the hotel’s second-floor conference room, drinking a cup of coffee and listening to Jim’s presentation about company finances. Jim’s our COO and is animated about how we’re going to hit our numbers. He’s about 20 minutes into his talk when we’re interrupted by a shaky women’s voice on the intercom. She says something about remaining calm and staying in the building because of “the situation outside.” She makes the same statement in Spanish, in the same wavering, frightened voice. She sounds like someone’s holding a gun to her head, forcing her to make a statement. It’s the most uncomfortable voice I’ve heard on an intercom. I glance around the room. Some people are shifting in their chairs, others continue to watch Jim, who goes right back into his presentation.
After about two minutes, the woman interrupts the presentation with the same announcement. Her voice is more harrowing this time and it sounds like she’s crying. I’m definitely feeling uneasy and wondering what’s going on that could make this woman so nervous, so frightened. Since I’m sitting near the door, I plan to get up and walk out into the lobby to see what’s going on. Besides, I could use another cup of coffee. I hesitate though, because I don’t want to show disrespect for our speaker. Again, the woman comes on and most of my colleagues in the room look visibly uneasy. I notice the videographer who’s taping the presentation quickly, yet silently, breaking down his equipment to head outside to investigate “the situation.” Little did we know that, just a block from where we were watching a succession of power point slides about projected revenues and cost analysis, the second of two full-sized, fully fueled commercial airliners had just ripped into the World Trade Center.
Finally, Kim, the leader of our conference, interrupts Jim to say that a plane had flown into one of the towers just outside our hotel. A subdued collective gasp fills the room and people start to get up from their seats. Jim says, “I guess we’re done” and tells everyone to be careful.
Alone, I skip down the steps to the first-floor lobby. As I walk outside, I see a few people mulling around, talking on their cell phones. I walk to the right, toward the north side of our hotel and hardly believe what I see. The North Tower of the World Trade Center has a gaping hole in it, and flames and smoke are billowing out. The hole looks like a slit, like someone lunged a large knife into the side of the building. As I stare at this surreal sight, I notice that the tower behind it has a hole in it as well, and that it too is on fire. I’m guessing that a plane crashed into the North tower with such force that it continued into the second tower. I crane my neck to look up, and think the people above the flames are likely in trouble but that everyone below will be fine. I’m not scared, but have the feeling that I’m witnessing a monumental accident. At the time, I have no idea that two planes have hit the towers, and I give no thought that this is a terrorist act. Around me, people are standing looking up and seem to be in denial. I hear “holy shit” more than a few times.
A crowd begins to gather on the corner of our hotel and I decide to head back in to see if we have a plan for our group. I run into Michael, a colleague, and ask if he’s seen the towers. He says he hasn’t and I walk the few feet back to the street corner with him. I guess I feel I need to be looking at this with someone familiar, so I can verify that this is real. Michael looks up and says “Oh my God, holy shit.” I see what looks like a flurry of birds hovering around the top of the North Tower and wonder why birds would be so close to a roaring fire. It wouldn’t be until later in the day when I realize I was looking at people, waving pieces of clothing and some jumping in their panic to escape their dire situation. We walk back together to the hotel in silence, probably in a mild state of shock. Michael, who always seems to have a suntanned look, is white as a stone. It’s odd that I can’t even find words. We walk back into the hotel and see long lines forming for the pay phones.
I take the elevator to my room on the 10th floor and make four phone calls in this order: my wife, my parents, my boss and one of my direct reports. The only one I get live is my wife, Christine. I tell her that a plane went into the tower and that I’m OK. She says she’s watching on TV. She didn’t realize how close I was and I sense she’s scared. I tell her it will probably be a long day and I’ll get in touch with her when I get more information. I brush my teeth, grab my duffel bag and laptop, and take the elevator back down to the second-floor conference room. A girl from the conference is in the elevator, and she’s pale, shaking and crying.
I put my bags in the conference room and ask Kim, our conference organizer, what we should do. She suggests staying together in the hotel and that they’re trying to get a TV. I’m thinking why would we get a TV when this is happening right outside our hotel. I bump into Chris who says a plane crashed into the Pentagon. I challenge him and say something like it’s not a time to be joking but when I look into his eyes, I see he’s petrified and shaking. It’s at this point I realize this is serious and we could be in trouble. I see Scott and ask him what he’s going to do. I tell him I’m heading back outside, and he tells me to wait up. I somehow feel safer seeing what’s happening rather than mingling with people speculating on what’s happening. Besides, I’m feeling claustrophobic. I see Ian and tell him we should go outside and monitor the situation. He’s hesitant, mentioning something about sticking with the group and waiting for instructions. I take a quick pass of the room looking for Scott, then take a long look at my two bags and grab just one – my laptop – and Ian and I walk down the stairs to the first-floor lobby and through the big glass front doors to the street.
The air feels different this time in front of the hotel. There’s an electricity that’s hard to describe, but similar to Dorothy trying to get back to her farm house before the tornado hits at the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz.” Even though the sky is bright blue, there’s a murky darkness in the air, and I sense an overwhelming feeling of danger. Two policemen in yellow jackets are standing in the street, forcibly instructing people to walk north, away from the hotel. Ian tells me we should turn around and go back into the hotel to get the others. I agree, because I knew Scott wanted to stick with us. We turn to walk back into the hotel, but one of the policemen very loudly tells us no one is allowed back into the hotel and that we should head north, away from the building. We tell him our group is back in there and he doesn’t care, making it clear that his orders are for us to move away from the hotel. Ian and I start walking. I apologize to Ian because I knew he wanted to stay with the group and now we are on our own, heading who knows where for how long.
Just 100 or so feet in front of the hotel, the policemen start making frantic movements and are clearly panicking. I hear a loud roar, with the sound of rat-a-tat clapping that sounds like bombs exploding. I turn around to see a wall of gray smoke coming toward us, like sickening black and gray gigantic tumbleweeds rolling through the street behind us. The noise is deafening and one of the policemen yells “there are more planes coming!”
Ian and I both think we’re being bombed and grab each other for safety and run zigzag across a small open field down to the Hudson River. Images of those civilians running during the Vietnam War flash through my mind and I worry that at any instant we could be gunned down for running. We look up and see a fighter jet coming in low across the sky, right toward us and I’m ready to jump into the river. Someone yells that the plane is “one of our own” and there are a few seconds of relief.
I feel like we’re running through landmines, fully anticipating bombs to start hitting the ground around us. I survey the water and see wooden pilons close to the shore, but far enough out that we could cling to these for safety if we had to jump into the water. Ian and I make a pact that if we see planes coming toward us or a ground army approaching us that we would get in the water and huddle on one of the pilons. At the time, we have no idea that the South Tower had just collapsed. I’m as scared as I’ve ever been, and actually think I could die on this beautiful summer September morning.
The air is terrifying and I hear piercing screams coming from behind us. I’m watching the skyscrapers along West Street, anticipating the next plane or bomb ripping through the skyline.
Ian and I stop running and turn back to look toward the towers and all we can see is a large plume of thick gray smoke covering the tracks we’ve just walked. We see more people scrambling toward us and recognize Scott and Andriana. They both have their luggage and Scott’s hair and shirt are chalk white from the falling debris. The four of us are in a mild state of shock, but common sense and adrenalin push us to keep walking north along the river.
We move silently, and I feel like a refugee driven from a war-ravaged home. Scott says “It’s Bin Laden, and this is war.” I have trouble digesting those words, but for the first time realize this is more than a terrorist attack. We’re escaping from an unprecedented dark day in American history. Ian and I are walking together, Scott and Andriana close behind us, Andriana struggling with her luggage. The sun is baking on my face and arms, and I wish I were wearing shorts. Each of us breaks the silence by asking “are you OK?” as we keep trudging forward, unsuccessfully trying to get through to our spouses on our cell phones.
A steady stream of sirens pierce the air and the noise is sickening, constant and in your face. It sounds like all of Lower Manhattan has lost power and alarm clocks, fire alarms and other electronic devices are droning on, waiting to be reset.
A young black woman carrying a baby approaches us walking south and is sobbing uncontrollably. Fire trucks and ambulances race south on West Street toward the towers. The crowd grows a little larger around us and I notice that everyone’s face seems ghostly white with wide, lifeless eyes. No one can believe this is happening. I look to my right toward the Empire State Building and shudder. That could be next. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a plane fly into the landmark.
Ian, Scott, Andriana and I stop to assess our situation. We’re about five blocks from the towers and the crowd escaping Lower Manhattan is surging toward us. We know we’re ahead of most people, including the 100 or so colleagues from our conference, and we need to make a decision. Someone suggests crossing over West Street and heading toward Midtown and across the Brooklyn Bridge. I quickly nix that, saying that I think we should stay clear of tall buildings. Ian suggests we wait where we are on this bike path along the river, hoping to catch others from our group. After a few minutes of debate, we see some familiar faces from the conference – Joe and Elaine, stonefaced and walking like zombies. We talk briefly and they keep moving, away from hell. Ian, Scott, Andriana and I make a group decision that it’s best to keep walking, away from the devastation. If we have to, we’re going to walk to the George Washington Bridge and into New Jersey. Turning around, it’s odd to see only one of the towers standing. One of the largest landmarks in the city, on fire just minutes ago, has disappeared. Gone.
I hear a boom, like a cannon, and turn around with a perfect view of the North Tower collapsing. It looks like the outside of the building is swallowing the inside, like an ocean wave rolling in and spinning inside itself under the rhythm of the tide. I watch the floors methodically disappear in a horrifying plume of gray smoke, and feel my heart drop from my chest to my stomach, knowing that I just watched thousands of people die. I turn to look at Ian and his eyes are teary, like mine. There are several “oh my Gods,” and I notice that most people in the surging crowd are looking at what remains of Lower Manhattan, in a collective daze of disbelief and overwhelming sadness.
The buzz in the air turns from catastrophic to Armageddon. Fire engines and ambulances continue to shriek southward, into the depths of the hell. With each step, I’m feeling blessed, knowing that thousands have died just a few blocks from where we’re walking. People ahead of us are passing out cups of water and we eagerly drink without pausing. Saying “thank you” is uplifting, giving me reassurance that civility exists despite the war zone we’re plodding through. I find myself turning around and looking back every few minutes, expecting to see a bright, blue sunny day with the skyline intact. Instead, I see a Lower Manhattan fully engulfed in flames and heavy, thick smoke, a sickening contrast to the beautiful sunny, blue-sky day. And there are no towers. They’re gone.
I find myself holding back tears, but I refuse to show emotion. I sense we’re not out of danger, that there could more horrific surprises and traps ahead. Someone says there are eight planes. I think of the Pentagon and how the entire East Coast could be under siege. I keep walking, turning toward the others to ask “are you OK?” Each time, I get the same response from the others: a nod of the head. I notice that Scott has almost taken on an air of bravado, his shoulders wide and a confident gait in his step. Ian is still very white, but shows a determination to keep moving. Andriana is keeping to herself, concentrating on carrying her luggage and keeping one foot in front of the other.
We’re still trying to get an outside line with our cell phones, but no one is having any luck. We’re feeling bad because we can’t get in touch with our spouses, who knew we were OK before the towers fell but haven’t heard from us since. I wonder what my wife is thinking. I’m sure she saw the towers fall on TV. She knew how close our hotel was to the towers. Does she think I’m dead? I push this thought out of my mind and pray for our safety and that are spouses are comforted.
We see dozens of people turning left at the Port Authority on 14th Street. They’re loading people on a ferry to Hoboken and we have to make a decision. Do we get on the boat or keep walking toward the upper West Side? Ian, Scott and Andriana want to get on the boat. I’m the hesitant one, saying I don’t think it’s safe to join hundreds of people on a boat. What if the boat is rigged with a bomb? By now we’re well aware of the planned spectacle Bin Laden orchestrated by flying the planes into the towers. He knew the cameras would be stationed on the burning North Tower as the second plane slashed into the South Tower. Wouldn’t blowing up a ferry, loaded with 600 New Yorkers in the middle of the Hudson River, be a spectacular site for the global audience back home?
These are the thoughts dancing through my mind as we walk through the entrance to the boat. I notice the people loading us onto the boat don’t look American, and I don’t see any police around. Why would there be? They’re all in Lower Manhattan, dealing with the devastation under the fractured skyline. As we walk onto the deck of the boat, I make sure we climb the stairs to the top deck and secure a spot as close as possible to the railing.
I sense Ian, Scott and Andriana share my apprehension, but we know we have to get off Manhattan. The Port Authority workers (at least I hope they’re Port Authority workers) start pointing new arrivals to the inside cabin. It’s clear most people want to be on the top deck, with the ability to see what’s going on. I’m glad we have the top spot because I’m ready to jump overboard at the first sound of gunfire or an explosion. I tell the others that we should be ready to jump, if necessary. They just nod, in silence. I feel better when I see the Port Authority workers handing out cups of water to the passengers. Terrorists wouldn’t go through the trouble of making sure their victims’ thirst was quenched. Still, I’m uneasy and say another silent prayer.
The boat slowly pulls away from the dock, overflowing with 600 passengers on board, 200 more than the recommended 400. We’re packed like sardines, with just enough room to move our arms to take a drink of water. When we’re halfway across the river, I look back at Lower Manhattan. The entire city looks like it’s on fire, flames and thick smoke billowing to the sky. It’s a sight I’ll never forget. I sense the feeling is similar to what the survivors saw as they moved away in their lifeboats, looking back at the indestructible, sinking Titanic. The contrast of a city in flames and the picture-perfect blue sky is surreal. Looking at Lower Manhattan from this boat, I realize I’ll never use the word “surreal” again, unless I’m describing the image in front of me on this September Tuesday morning from hell.
Someone has a radio and we hear the first news of what we’re living. There are possibly eight hijacked planes, and that the two that hit the towers originated from Boston. This bit of news hits close to home and I start thinking if there was anyone I knew who was flying today.
As the boat lurches closer to Hoboken, we suddenly stop and sit for what seems like 20 minutes. Very few people are talking and I’m wondering why we’re stopped. A young man standing next to us is deeply concerned about his brother, who works on the 82nd floor of the North Tower. After several minutes, he gets through to his brother on his cell and finds out that his brother missed his train and never got to work. The few of us who knew the situation start clapping and patting the guy on the back. The small victory gives us a glimpse of hope. The boat starts moving ahead, and you can hear the collective sigh of relief.
Slowly, we make our way off the crowded boat. I’m in the front, and I turn around to ask Ian, Scott and Andriana if they’re OK. Stepping onto the New Jersey soil, I start to feel safe. If there’s going to be another attack, it’s going to be in Manhattan, not here. I can’t see Hoboken as a terrorist target. The four of us walk toward the Sheraton, which is buzzing with activity. We still haven’t been able to get through to our spouses, so we enter the hotel to use a hard-wired phone. Ian and I both get phones, and start to dial. Just then, the hotel fire alarm goes off and someone says something about a bomb. Ian and I look at each other, say “holy shit” in unison and run out of the hotel. My heart is racing again as we stand in the parking lot, looking back at the entrance to the hotel. After a few minutes someone says nothing’s happening, that everything is clear.
After discovering that finding a cab is an impossibility and that there are no rentals available, we see a limo driver picking up his fare, a woman heading to an affluent Jersey suburb. The driver agrees to take us to Hartford, but we have to wait until he comes back from dropping off the woman and that, with traffic, it could be a few hours. We ask the woman if it’s OK for us to pile in the back and come along with her so we don’t have to wait and she agrees. Ian, Scott, Andriana and I squeeze into the back seat as we head inland. We try our cell phones again but are still unable to get through.
After dropping off the woman, Ian moves to the front and we have a little more room in the back of the car. Our driver has the radio on and we’re listening to the news about the attacks. Heading north through Jersey, I glance to the right and see the cloud of smoke coming from Lower Manhattan. Finally, we’re able to get a signal on our cells and through to our spouses. I tell Christine I’m OK, we’re in New Jersey and heading to Hartford. Her sigh of relief is the best sound I hear all day, and I see Ian, Scott and Andriana’s faces lighting up and sense they’re feeling the same way. Each of us has connected again to our familiar reality and our spirits are rising.
We stop to get gas and food at a convenience store. As I step out of the car, I feel like the world has changed. When I pay for my snacks the clerk says something about how terrible this is. I don’t have the energy to tell him we were just there, and even if I did, how could I expect him to believe it. Just a few hours ago we were running along the Hudson in the shadow of the collapsing towers and here I was buying a Three Musketeers bar, Combo cheese pretzels and a Diet Coke. For about the hundredth time today I realize how lucky we are to get out of there as fast as we did.
There’s little conversation in the car. What is there to say? We mention things like “nice teamwork,” “so glad we stuck together” and “I hope the rest of our group is OK.” There are five conversations going on at once as we each update our spouses on our arrival time and where to meet us and our driver checks into his base.
The driver drops us off at Trinity College in Hartford and Scott’s wife picks us up. The ride costs each of us $100 plus tip, but that seems so cheap for the importance of getting out of Hoboken when we did. We drop off Andriana at a hotel, where she plans to regroup and find transportation to St. Louis.
We pull into the service area on the Mass. Pike. Christine walks up to meet me and we hug for a long time. Ian’s wife and two children greet him and Ian takes his boy, Gabrielle, and walks with him away from the car. I hug Scott goodbye, thank his wife, and Christine and I head home.
We sit down and have dinner at our kitchen island and, for the first time, I see the news. I watch the second plane fly into the South Tower and the adrenalin rush that seized me most of the day kicks in. I have to turn away from the TV, then I turn it off.
For the first time today, I cry.