Just Another Blog
Wednesday, September 11, 2002
More on September 11
When Islamic terrorists attacked the United States last year, I was in Hawaii on vacation with my family. Sometime between 3 and 4 AM, I heard my sister's cell phone ring. I heard her whispering in the other room and I heard her turn on the television. I started to go back to sleep, but didn't. Something about the phone ringing and the television going on wasn't right. I got up and went into the living room and we watched together. I seem to recall that I tuned in just as confirmation was coming in that the Pentagon had been hit. By then three planes had crashed and we were clearly under attack. I remember thinking in those wee hours of the morning that this was going to be one of those days that everyone would look back on and remember exactly where they were when they first heard the news.
I hated the idea of waking anyone up so early, but I felt that it would be better if the rest of my family was awake too. I think I woke up my parents just as the first tower collapsed. It's hard to recall when everything happened as it was so early and every image was replayed over and over a thousand times so that it became hard to remember a time when those horrible images weren't in your head.
At the time, I was an employee of Merrill Lynch and I knew that our corporate headquarters were in the World Trade Center complex. Having never been to Manhattan, I didn't realize there were a number of different buildings in the complex. I thought for certain that I had hundreds of co-workers who were in those two buildings. Thankfully, I was wrong. Merrill's headquarters are in building 4 or 5 (I'm not sure which but I think it's the building with the rounded top to the west of where the towers stood). I feared for many hours about what had happened to my fellow employees whom I had never met.
Hawaii is about 4,900 miles and an entire world away from New York. When the staff at the hotel came to clean that morning, it was clear that they had no real sense of what was going on or where. Yes, it was the United States, but it was New York. These were people who had never even been to one of the other Hawaiian islands. They seemed unable to comprehend New York as a part of their country. It made me mad.
We watched televisions for as long as we could bare. Eventually, all the planes flying had been grounded. Another plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. The towers had come crashing down. The Pentagon was still on fire. The President was in a safe location. That was it. The attack was over. The recovery effort and investigation were underway. New news came more slowly, and to fill the time, the events of the day and the horrifying scenes were televised again and again. There came a point when it just didn't make sense to sit in front of the television any longer. So we went to the beach.
We were supposed to fly home the following day. First the aircraft seemed just to be grounded for a few hours. Then it began to look like security precautions were going to keep the planes down into the next day. Then it became questionable when the skies would be reopened. There is no choice when you're in Hawaii but to wait for the airlines. Suddenly, we were on an island with no way to get off. We were staying in an expensive hotel beyond our reservation and planned budget. We were supposed to be back to work or back to school. But we couldn't do anything. The airlines at first didn't know when they would be allowed to start flying again. Then they couldn't figure out how to honor days worth of airline tickets for people who were already supposed to be in other places. People who had existing reservations for the 15th or the 16th or beyond were given priority over those who were originally scheduled to fly on the 11th, 12th, or 13th. I am sure it was a logistical nightmare for airline operations. It was certainly tough for folks stranded off the mainland.
But there was nothing we could do. Nothing. There were no flights in or out of Hawaii. No mail, no UPS, no cargo flights. No one leaving, and no one coming. We called the airlines multiple times a day until we were finally scheduled for our return flights. In the mean time, we enjoyed the fabulous experience that is Hawaii. The hotel (the Aston Kaanapali) gave stranded guests deep discounts on their rooms, they waived charges for toll-free calls, and they just generally did everything possible to help us out while we were stranded. Other hotels around the islands put up folks for free who had been stranded when the flights they were on were forced to land in Hawaii and not allowed to continue on to their original destinations.
We left the islands four days later than originally planned and returned home to a very different sense of tragedy. In Hawaii, the sense of grief and loss and - more distinctly - the sense of anger was much more tempered and far less obvious and public. Back on the mainland, the anger and the patriotism were far greater. I was kind of mad at Hawaii again.
At home I found out that only two co-workers lost their lives. Two too many, but far less than I initially feared early that horrible morning. Things at work were hectic, but amazingly smooth in terms of operations. I saw a huge, huge company like Merrill react in a way that still amazes me to this day in terms of effectiveness of contigency and continuity efforts. Thousands of workers from Manhattan and the surrounding area had their normal workplaces displaced. Within hours, people and processes were moved around the country to ensure that business could continue as near to normal as possible.
The days and weeks went by and things moved closer and closer to normal. In the first week of November I went to Manhattan. I got a chance to see Ground Zero while it still smouldered. Watching the television over the past few days, I'm thankful for that. I'm glad I got to see just how bad it was before the area was completely cleaned up. In a few years it will be a completely different spot with new buildings and a hopefully fitting memorial. I think that seeing the ground still burning weeks later helped to make up for the increased lack of reality that came from watching it all happen on television from thousands of miles away. I'll never forget seeing the destruction. I'll never forget where I was when I first heard the news. And I'll never forget September 11, 2001.