Sunday, September 11


The losses were so staggering on that fateful, unimaginably grim day -- September 11, 2001 -- that the memory of it all remains seared into the American consciousness. Almost within minutes of American Airlines Flight #11 striking the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City at 8:46:26 am ET, I landed in Philadelphia on a flight inbound from Louisville, Kentucky. As I walked quickly through the terminal I noticed people -- quite a large crowd for that time of morning -- gathering in an airport bar, but I was in a hurry to catch a cab and make a meeting downtown with an important client, so I dismissed it and kept on moving. Once in the cab and underway, I called my secretary to check on a few things and ask for messages. She asked immediately (and I paraphrase from memory): "Did you hear there's been a crash of an airplane in New York?" This I remember distinctly, as I asked: "Was there bad fog or severe weather in New York?" She replied that she wasn't sure. I then told her, entirely unaware of the nature of the crash, the size of the plane, or the implications of it all, "You had better check into flight options for me, as, if it was a major crash, inbound and outbound flights in the entire northeast corridor may be bottled up." Or words to that effect. I was returning to Louisville that same day, hadn't brought clothing for an overnight stay, and didn't want to get stuck at the airport. I was an executive on a tight schedule and all I wanted from her were options -- alternatives! I was on the go; I was being practical. I was focused. Little did I know at that moment, on my way to downtown Philadelphia and a corporate client whose world headquarter's building was on Independence Mall, right across the street from the Liberty Bell exhibit and within a stone's throw of Independence Hall, that our country and our people and our liberties were being put to an epochal test and that 3,030 of us were going to die that day -- in New York, in a field in Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon. Indeed, little did I know that images from that day would remain forever etched in the minds of Americans and that September 11, 2001, would be a day that would live in infamy much as December 7, 1941.

When I arrived downtown and walked into the large first floor lobby there was commotion. Businessmen and women were clustered about the reception desk and their faces betrayed that something was seriously amiss. I soon overheard that a commercial airliner had struck one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and that the crash didn't appear to be weather-related. There was speculation that this may have been purposeful. What I didn't realize until I was retrieved in the lobby and escorted up an elevator and to my scheduled meeting was that a second commercial airliner -- United Airlines Flight #175 -- had struck the South Tower of the WTC at 9:02:54 am ET. Once with my client and the people I had come to meet, it all became too apparent: the United States was being attacked. These commercial jetliners must have been commandeered. Something sinister and unconscionable was afoot and the magnitude of it all remained ambiguous and incomplete.

Because my secretary's casual mention of an airplane crash in New York was dimissed by me as more of a possible logistics problem I might face that afternoon in returning home, and because the initial information and speculation on my arrival downtown didn't clearly distinguish whether there had been one or two crashes at the WTC, what I remember most about the early events of that morning -- what I will always hear in my mind when anyone talks about "9/11" -- was the loud scream of a secretary just outside of the private office where I was seated talking to my customer. Her scream signaled the news that American Airlines Flight #77 had struck the Pentagon at 9:37 am ET -- a commercial jet had been flown into the Pentagon! That's when a real case of nerves broke out across the entire floor of that building and people were seen leaving their offices and work stations and gathering together around radios and small television sets. That's when, not long thereafter, we heard that the entire building might be evacuated. That's when I knew my meeting with my client was not going to happen and when I first tried to call my wife and began thinking about how do I get home from here?

Meanwhile, events were unfolding and things were happening that we were still unaware of as the eastern half of the nation recoiled in shock and disbelief and was trying desperately to rub its eyes and clear its head and understand just what had happened to us, and to ponder what was yet to come. Good God, the White House and Congress were being evacuated, even before I was part of an evacuation of that high-rise building in downtown Philadelphia! But I didn't know that! Information -- hard information -- was coming in piecemeal, although the President of the United States was already calling the events of the morning a "national tragedy" and "an apparent terrorist attack." And those events, those horrific events, seemed terribly compressed into a concatenation of the incomprehensible. Both WTC towers would eventually collapse and a third commercial airliner -- United Airlines Flight #93 -- would disappear from radar screens and crash with heroes and madmen aboard into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

A local manager of mine somehow, someway, got a rental car delivered to me by late afternoon and I drove non-stop, all the way home, through the night, listening to the radio, to Louisville, Kentucky. When at first it didn't appear I could get my hands on a rental car, my wife and one of my sons were talking about driving to me. I don't know that "scared" was the applicable feeling, but certainly "apprehension" was an apt description. Apprehension, confusion, and an emerging feeling of payback were what I remember about that long drive home. America had gone through a tectonic shock to its system and everyone was unsettled and searching for answers and trying to determine what best to do in an environment of the unknown.

As with most Americans who were alive at the time, I remember when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, just as my parents remember Pearl Harbor, as if it were yesterday. I heard it from Walter Chronkite on CBS News and I was as choked up as he was. And I remember, too, when Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed. I was in college in southern California and called my parents in Cleveland to tell them, incredulously, that another Kennedy was dead. And I will always remember "9/11." Always, until my last breath. As Americans, we must never forget. And as President Bush assured us: "Freedom will be defended; justice will be done."

My thoughts, my prayers, and my heart go out to the loved ones left behind on this 4th anniversary of so monstrous a tragedy, and, most assuredly, to the brave men and women in uniform who have made gallant sacrifices -- so many even giving up their own lives -- to answer the terrorists and heap retribution on their ignoble souls.

FOLLOW-UP: Kindly consider signing the petition (as I have) to take back the memorial planned for the "9/11" ground-zero site, replacing it with something fitting and dignified, and which honors those who died and the great country within which they lived.