Remembering September 11, 2001

It’s hard to imagine that a decade has passed, yet it seems just like yesterday. Ten years ago, on this day, I boarded an early morning flight from Pittsburgh to New York’s LaGuardia airport. I was beginning my weekly travels across the northeast a day late, delaying the routine Monday departure for Boston to be home for an extra day. Back then, a decade ago, I was working for Siebel Systems, and was overseeing one of the largest software deployments on the east coast. Like most financial services firms, our client had sprawling operations, with headquarters in Boston, but ongoing Siebel deployments dotted the northeast landscape. I usually started the week in Boston, then would work my way through Providence, Hartford, Buffalo, and New York City before heading back home to Pittsburgh. Because I had hastily changed my plans, I couldn’t get onto the direct flight to Boston from Pittsburgh, so I decided to fly into LaGuardia and jump onto the first available Shuttle flight from there upto Boston.

Following a well worn routine, I cruised into the Pittsburgh airport with just 35-40 minutes to departure, knowing that clearing security as a frequent flier was just a formality. I hadn’t booked my flight until the last minute, so I wasn’t able to get the automatic upgrade to first class, but I did manage to score a bulkhead row seat just behind first class. We departed Pittsburgh on time, and everything seemed routine. As we got up to cruising altitude, the flight attendants went about their morning rituals of handing out drinks, coffee and peanuts throughout the cabin. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until around the New Jersey border. As many frequent fliers know, when the pilot pulls the throttle back on the engines, it’s usually the first sign that the control tower has requested a holding pattern. It was around the New Jersey border, that the engines were throttled back, and the guy next to me said, almost instinctively, “Oh no, I’m going to be late for my meeting in mid-town.” I smiled and replied, “yup, looks like delays into LaGuardia.”

While we were caught up in our own world, we hadn’t noticed that the flight attendants had suddenly disappeared. They hadn’t come back through the cabin, or to pick up trash. Later that day, once on the ground, it finally struck me that the pilot probably had informed them of the horror unfolding in New York, and emotions might have gotten the better of them. A few minutes after throttling back, the pilot came on over the air and said something like, “Well folks, there has been a problem in the New York area and we’re being asked to reroute further over the Atlantic to make our approach into LaGuardia. From what we understand, there is a major fire in lower Manhattan.” That seemed a bit odd, but LaGuardia has flight patterns that cross over large populated areas, so a ‘major fire’ could have meant anything.

As we approached lower the New York area, most of the plane could see smoke billowing out of what looked like one of the World Trade Center Towers. Someone behind me joked, “That’s not a copier fire for sure.” When we got closer, we could see both towers were smoldering. It didn’t make sense. From the air, it was hard to fathom what might have caused both towers to catch fire like that.

After doing a large sweep across the Atlantic, we descended onto LaGuardia’s active runway and quickly parked at the gate. The flight attendants never came through for their routine landing checks. Upon getting to the gate, one of the attendants, with tears in her eyes and visibly shaken, opened the plane door and we quickly shuffled out into a chaotic scene at LaGuardia. I turned on my cell phone and noticed over a dozen missed calls and messages. My first instinct was to call home, but the phone circuits were jammed. While I kept trying to call, an announcement came over the loudspeaker at LaGuardia, “LaGuardia is shut down. LaGuardia is shut down.”

I finally got through to my wife, and let her know I was alright. The family had been in shock, watching the scenes from New York, and knowing that I was on a plane bound for LaGuardia. The phone line got cut off mid-way through the call, so I decided to run downstairs to the taxi stand and see if I could hail a taxi to, frankly, anywhere. LaGuardia didn’t seem to be the place to be at that moment. As I ran down the steps, I saw one empty cab, and waived at the cabbie to come over. He waved back and yelled, “I’m done today, going home.” “Which way are you headed?” I asked. He said, “Jamaica,” as in Jamaica, Queens. I yelled back, “can you drop me off in Forest Hills?” He reluctantly nodded and I ran over and jumped in. I blurted out Forest Hills almost instinctively, as I knew it was between LaGuardia and Jamaica, and my cousin lived there.

In his cab, the cabbie was crying. The radio was on, and of all the people to have dialed in he had Howard Stern running. Stern was mumbling something about two airliners having hit the World Trade Center, a third having hit the Pentagon, and something about the Sears Tower in Chicago. To Stern’s credit, soon after, he essentially turned his broadcast over to ABC News. The cabbie and I listened in shock to Peter Jennings describe what was happening across the country.

The cabbie turned around to me, as we got onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and asked where to in Forest Hills. I gave him my cousin’s address, and when we got there he refused to take the cab fare. He just said, “Be well, man” and took off. He had dropped me off at the intersection of Queens Boulevard and Yellowstone. As I made my way over to my cousin’s place, I heard a fighter jet scream across the sky above. That’s when it really struck me that this was going to be a day never to forget.

I got up to my cousin’s place, and out her south facing window, we could see the towers smoldering. The intensity of the smoke had reached a point where the top of either building was not visible. She had the TV on, and we kept switching between channels to learn as much as possible as the morning wore on. We were having problems with both landline phones and cell phones, but the internet connection was working. I logged into my email account and fired off emails to my relatives and friends. I then logged into my Siebel email address, and it was flooded with messages from across the company.

Working in the Financial Services practice at Siebel, I knew that many of my friends and colleagues were in lower Manhattan on assignments. As fate would have it, many Siebel employees where in and around the towers that day, but all of them were able to escape in time. Other friends of mine would not be so fortunate.

Prior to working at Siebel, I had been a part of the Oracle Financial Services practice in New York. In those days I lived in the New York area, in fact just across the river from the World Trade Centers in the Newport area of Jersey City. The Oracle financial practice had been booming across North America when I joined, but I had been promptly told by the practice lead that there would likely be no travel beyond Manhattan since the biggest projects, and biggest financial institutions, were all a subway ride away. Coming on board at roughly the same time was Ken Zelman, a native of New Jersey and one of the hardest working guys I’d ever met. Ken and I worked on a few small accounts together, but really established ourselves working on a massive project at Merrill Lynch. We spent the better part of a year at Merrill’s World Financial Center building across from the WTC, and at 100 Church Street, which was also next to the towers. It was a year in, and around, the towers. Through the long hours there, we got to know the street food, restaurants and rhythms of the towers quite well. I eventually left for Siebel, but Ken continued to flourish at Oracle. We stayed in touch after I left, and I even tried to coax him to come join me at Siebel. He was doing well at Oracle, and more importantly, had a job that kept him at home. Once the Merrill project wrapped up, he naturally took the Marsh opportunity inside the towers.

A few months before that day, I called Ken, just to catch up on things. He was excited to hear about the growth at Siebel, but less interested in the amount of traveling I was doing. He said that the Marsh ‘gig’ was great because the NJ Transit Bus from Central New Jersey stopped right in front of the Towers, which made his commute a breeze. We even joked that I would have probably been at Marsh with him had I stayed at Oracle, given that I was just one PATH stop away from the towers.

As that Tuesday wore on, we saw the first tower collapse from my cousin’s Queens apartment. At first we didn’t know what had happened. Then, CNN kept reporting of a possible collapse. We then saw the second tower collapse. It was then that I thought of Ken.

We sat around at my cousin’s place, getting reports from relatives across the country. Everyone was safe. As night began to fall, I decided to call Ken’s phone. Ken’s wife picked up. Initially, I was relieved, figuring Ken was home and all was well. She then said she hadn’t heard from Ken all day. I didn’t know what to say. I kept thinking that he must be ok, just stuck somewhere. As it would turn out, he along with another colleague Frank Deming, never made it out of the towers. I told Ken’s wife that I’d call back the next morning to see if all were ok, but never could muster the courage for that call.

The next day, I made my way to Manhattan. I must have walked 200-300 blocks of the magnificent city, just observing the terrible silence that had descended upon it. Nearly every corner of the residential part of the east side had pictures of missing people up. I, along with nearly everyone else, felt a duty to look at each picture, almost out of respect for the missing. New Yorkers, pushing pause on the New York minute. That scene would repeat itself from east side to west side, and as I made my way down toward the village. Through the cavernous views down Manhattan’s avenues, the smoke was visible looking southward. Having lived in New York for many years, I always knew that New Yorkers were some of the toughest people on earth. On this day, they displayed their humanity. It was a stunning sight.

It would be several more days before I made it back home, but it was hard to look toward lower Manhattan for the longest time. A couple of months later, as travel picked up again, I returned to New York for an assignment. This time it was at the American Stock Exchange. Just blocks from ‘Ground Zero’. After making it through layers of security toward the exchange, we were ushered up to a higher floor to begin our review. The conference room that we used for the next several weeks had a direct view into the ‘pit’. Those days at the exchange were some of the most difficult working days in my professional career. I’ve continued to return to New York for work since that day, often to lower Manhattan. It’s never easy to go back to that place, but life does move on.

On that day, I would later learn, that a close friend from graduate school was working at the Pentagon when he was blown out of his chair from the impact of the third plane. He managed to get out just fine from the Pentagon. In October, my friends from graduate school all gathered in Washington, DC to honor those lost in the Pentagon.

A lot has happened since this day a decade ago, the country has changed. But, through all the noise and posturing that would follow in the ensuing decade, the memory of those lost on that day hasn’t faded. Passengers on the ill-fated flights, the firemen – New York’s Bravest, the policemen – New York’s finest, the Port Authority policemen, the workers and visitors to the towers, those who lost their lives in the Pentagon, and the Heroes of United flight 93 that began the defense of the homeland while crossing Pennsylvania. This day should be to honor them. For me, it’s a day that, a decade ago, I lost my friends Ken Zelman and Frank Deming. Much has changed in a decade, but they are not forgotten.

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