Where Were You?
For so many in the United States and around the world, 9/11 will forever be a “where were you when” moment. Like so many others, this day and this event changed me forever. It caused me to reflect on my own tolerance for others, my place in this world and as a result through adversity, made me a better human being.
I was in New Jersey when the planes hit the towers. Below is my account of that day and the days that followed, as provided to the Aylmer Express newspaper.
Sept 15, 2001
Today I feel I need to tell my story. It is small and insignificant compared to the horror many experienced over the past few days, but reflects the impact this act of terrorism has had on those of us that were working in the United States at the time.
I lead a Nortel Networks’ project team working in Eatontown New Jersey. This team is a combination of men and women, Americans and Canadians. Most of us fly to and from the Newark airport weekly. Last week was just another week.
After kissing my family goodbye as they lay sleeping in their beds, I drove to the London airport. My early morning flight was cancelled and many of us were bussed to Toronto, to catch a flight to New Jersey. A miserable start to a week I will never forget.
The flight to Newark was uneventful. I picked up my car rental and drove down the Garden State Parkway to my destination, 45 minutes away from New York City. As most Mondays go, this was no different. Deadlines, meetings, a late dinner and off to bed, Just another day. No one could know what was to happen less than 12 hours later.
Tuesday began as any other day. It was a glorious sunny day, not a cloud in the sky. Several of us were in the office by 7am, catching up on email, preparing for the day ahead. Just after 9am, an American co-worker came into the office and in a voice cracking with emotion stated that a plane had hit the World trade Center. In a heartbeat work stopped, while everyone tried to comprehend what he had just told us. (Note: Ever since this day, I have referred to a cloudless, blue sky as a 9/11 sky)
Word soon filtered that a second plane had hit the other tower. We had no access to television, nor could we see anything from outside. Internet became our view to the world. Phone lines were jammed, cellular access was denied. It soon became clear that something unspeakable was happening, not more than an hour away.
Were we in danger? No one knew. We seemed safe where we were, but I knew our families would be concerned as word got out that this catastrophe was in progress. I gathered our team together and insisted everyone try to call home. Friends, family and loved ones would be desperate for information. I left messages for my wife and kids at work and school to ensure they knew I was safe. Everyone else did the same.
We were awaiting the arrival of a colleague from Ottawa, who was scheduled to fly in to Newark that morning. He finally arrived just before 11. He said that he landed at 9am. From the air they could see fire. The pilot indicated only that there was a fire at the World Trade Center. It was not until he left the airport, picked up his car rental and turned on the radio that he was aware of what had happened. By the time he got on the freeway the first tower had collapsed. People were pulled off the side of the road, hands over their faces, in shock and in tears.
By 11 am, flags were flying at half mast all over new Jersey. The company we are working with gathered everyone in a large room and told everyone they were shutting down for the day. Airports were closed, all international and state borders were shut down. We were given a number to call to contact the American Red Cross. Co-workers were in a fog. It was surreal. It seemed everyone knew someone that worked at the WTC, or had a story to tell. We were told to extend our accommodations, and to expect to be on site for at least a week.
Our team went back to the hotel and gathered to console each other and to offer support. We saw the first television images of the horrific acts of terrorism from the hotel lobby. Over and over, time and again. No matter how many times I see it, it is unimaginable. I set up a small command centre in my room, to ensure everyone had a place to call and to be certain everyone was accounted for. We arranged to give blood if required. Our extended management team set up 2/day conference calls to provide status and updates to our respective teams.
As the day unfolded, it was apparent that all airports would be closed indefinitely and people became increasingly agitated. We were told that it would be back to work the next day. We needed to keep our minds busy.
Work was almost impossible to concentrate on. Individual stories of human loss began to filter out. Our working partners, Accenture, had a team of 12 people working on the 104th floor of the South tower and were unaccounted for. One of our colleagues lives in Manhatten and witnessed the second plane hitting the tower. People were jumping out of windows to their death. A neighbour of another co-worker had apparently been caught in the rubble. His 4 year old tried to call him on his cell phone when told “daddy was not coming home”. It was gut wrenching.
Work suddenly was just not important. Wednesday dragged on with rumours circulating that our project may be shut down for a few days. We would perhaps be allowed to go home, only to return late next week. We began making travel arrangements, as it began to sink in that although we consider the United States our friend and neighbour, we were in a foreign country and could be in further danger should violence escalate.
Rental cars were secured and 3 groups left for Ontario, a 7 hour drive, at noon on Thursday, amid rumours of 10-12 hour border delays. Each driver was to call in periodically with their position and status. All got across the border with less than a half hour delay.
I still had one team member trying to get to West Palm Beach, Florida and another hoping to get home for his wedding in San Francisco on Monday. We arranged 2 more cars on Thursday, one to London and one to West Palm Beach. The other person was determined to get a flight to San Francisco over the weekend.
We drove to Budget car rental at the Newark airport on Friday morning, hugged each other and left for home, one north and one south, vowing to keep in touch via cell phone. The radio declared that a motel in our area had been swarmed, looking for fugitives. I crossed the border at 4pm with little problem. Every car was being searched.
We often discussed among us the limited security in the Newark airport and the other US airports we have travelled through. We talked just last week about how easy it is to walk directly to the gate with limited ID. I have travelled through Washington-Dulles and have seen the same. This tragedy will undoubtedly change forever the ease with which we will travel in North America.
We must overcome this. We cannot allow terrorism to deter or change our fundamental right to freedom. I pray that President Bush, his advisors and coalition of other countries will choose the correct path in snuffing out this risk to our freedom.
Our prayers are with those who died and more importantly perhaps, their friends and families. I can’t help but think of those on airplanes, that had time to consider what was happening….and the feeling of helplessness as they thought about their loved ones surely to be left behind…..and how it might feel to die.
Be proud, be strong and pray for the victims and their families, friends and loved ones. We will all gain strength and resolve from this over time. For now we can only offer each other words of encouragement.
I arrived home at 7pm and hugged my family!
In many ways that event changed the world, not just in the moment, but even today. The world is more divisive than ever before. Though there is annual recognition of those first responders that gave their lives so bravely and those that lost loved ones, the sentiment seems more fleeting every year. There are signs saying “we will never forgot”. But we do forget in our daily lives. We forget to be respectful. We forget to be empathetic. We forget to be caring. We forget how our democracy was shaken to it’s core.
The words without action, are hollow.
We cannot allow hate and division to rule us.
To #JoanneCirillo, #KathleenLewis, #JimWright, #VitaWindrim, #SharonCarson, CarolAnnOakley, #GaryLeitch, #NormBrooks, #LynnPoirier, #FrankieZhan, #JohnnyChao and so many more. Our lives will forever be connected through this moment in time.
Be kind! Tomorrow could change your life.