Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11: Never Forget

9/11: Never Forget

Five years ago this morning, I was driving to my office slightly exhausted from having had little sleep the night before -- I had arrived late the evening of September 10th on a delayed flight from Vancouver. I was also somewhat agitated because I was running late and knew I had a significant amount of work to plow through before heading back to the airport in the afternoon to catch a flight to Atlanta. Little did I know that there would be little sleep for me during the weeks ahead.

As I neared my office, I heard reports on the radio of a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers. I immediately thought it must have been a small errant plane similar to that which crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building back in 1945 (in that case, dense fog contributed to the crash of a B-25 twin-engine bomber). Never for a moment did I even fathom that it was anything more serious. After all, I was thinking if the Empire State Building could withstand a crash of a small plane, so could the World Trade Center.

Once at my office building (actually part of its own unique twin tower design), I rode up the elevator to my floor and overheard two men discussing the crash. I posited my thoughts vis-à-vis the Empire State Building crash and suggested it probably was nothing to worry about. After entering my office and turning on my computer, I received a frantic call from Rusty -- one of my colleagues -- who breathlessly said, "Steve, they've hit the second tower!" I was in disbelief. I said, "Are you sure?" and she said that they just saw it on CNN.

I immediately ran down the hall to the office of our company president and found a half dozen colleagues gathered around the television watching in shock and dismay -- they had just witnessed the second plane hit the second World Trade Center tower. As riveted as I was by the coverage, I knew I had to get back to my desk to begin the task of communicating with our offices throughout the United States (as a public relations director for a large travel company, I realized at that moment that the events unfolding before our eyes would have a dramatic impact on everything that constituted our livelihood).

Sadly, the grim news just continued getting worse with word of another plane crashing into the Pentagon and yet another somewhere in Pennsylvania. We couldn't help but wonder what would happen next and where this would all end. Were we even safe being in our office building?

Suffice to say that I never made it to Atlanta that afternoon. It didn't take long before we made the decision to indefinitely postpone the trade event that had been scheduled for the remainder of the week. But even if we hadn't made that decision, it would have been made for us when the U.S. Government shut down the nation's air system -- at first for a few hours, then for a day and then for what seemed like an eternity.

With the steady stream of communications going out to our offices throughout the rest of the day, as well as an unusually high call volume from journalists wanting our take on the impact that these attacks would have on travel, it dawned on me that this heinous attack just might mean the end of travel as we knew it -- and quite possibly the end of my job. Still, I labored on through the late hours that evening, stopping every so often as I attempted to get through to my friends living in New York and Washington to make sure they were all accounted for (it was nearly impossible to get through to either city, but eventually, I learned that each was indeed safe).

My life took on a surreal existence over the next several weeks as I would arrive at work early in the morning only to find myself dealing with endless media calls wanting to know the latest impact on travel, and then I would take care of my normal responsibilities as best I could from about 6 pm through midnight. I even half-joked to my boss that if they would bring a bed in for me, I could save the wasted gas I was using simply to sleep only a few hours each night.

Of course, we know now that travel eventually rebounded. I didn't lose my job, but I know of many individuals who did. But even they were fortunate in comparison to the thousands of families who had to endure such an immense loss that fateful September 11.

Can it really be that five years have so quickly passed since the horrific events of 9/11 unfolded before our eyes? Like nearly every other American, I was profoundly shocked, saddened and outraged that such a vile attack could conceivably be made on our soil taking thousands of innocent lives -- not only American lives, but those of nationals from scores of other countries from around the globe.

Despite not losing any loved ones, I felt an incredible sense of loss like I had never before experienced. Perhaps it was a loss of innocence -- my naïveté kept me from even considering that America and everything it stood for could be so virulently hated and despised. Yet now, five years later, I fear that too many Americans have forgotten that in addition to nearly 3,000 lives being mercilessly snuffed out, our culture and way of living were attacked as well.

We must never forget what happened that day five years ago. And while we have not suffered another devastating day on American soil, we must remain vigilant -- not only against those from the outside who want nothing more than to destroy our country, but also against those within who would attempt to chip away at our freedoms. For if the latter are successful, then the 9/11 terrorists really will have won, haven't they?

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 11 September, 2006, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

About a month after the 9/11 attacks, I was asked to go with the Chairman of our company to Washington DC - she was slated to provide testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the impact that 9/11 had on the travel industry. The reason why I was asked to make the journey was because of my prior background as a staffer to a U.S. Senator who had served on that very committee.

This marked my first visit to DC after the attacks. By this time, the close-in Washington Reagan Airport had already reopened, and the security surrounding travelers into DCA was never tighter (inspectors found a quarter-inch safety pin holding up the hem of my suit coat and promptly confiscated it since it was deemed a weapon).

DC seemed like a shadow of itself. Naturally, security was extremely tight around the Capitol and adjacent buildings. Unbeknownst to me, however, was the coinciding anthrax incidents -- occurring at the very same time I was in the Dirksen Senate Office Building for the committee hearing.

On my way out of town, I found DCA to be a ghostland - devoid of all human activity save for the troops patrolling its long concourse.

I was now en route to New York City for my first visit there after 9/11. You see, I heeded the call of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who asked the world to come to New York, stay in its hotels, do some shopping and see a Broadway show - I was going to do my own little part for the Big Apple by doing all three, but I also made a conscious decision that I was not going to get in the way of the recovery operation at the southern tip of Manhattan.

There were stark reminders everywhere you looked that this was a city that had been under siege. My hotel was filled with firefighters and rescue workers from around the country trying to lend a helping hand.

I felt a little guilty for taking in two shows -- 42nd Street and The Women -- but kept reminding myself that this was precisely what Hizzoner had asked the world to do.

When my New York friends asked if I was planning on visiting the 9/11 site, I thought they were kidding. I told them I didn't think it was appropriate to go as I'd only be viewed as a gawker. But then my friends surprised me - they implored me to go to the site to bear witness to what I saw so I could share the ugly truth as I had seen it.

So early that Sunday morning, I got up early and proceeded down to the ruins of the once great World Trade Center. While I had seen plenty of coverage on television and in print, nothing prepared me for the awful immensity that I found. I walked around the perimeter of the WTC site as best I could and was struck by how enormous this task of recovery would be. I was also chilled seeing the now familiar wreckage, as well as the hundreds of hand-made signs with pictures of missing loved ones. It suddenly all became real in a way it never would had I not seen it in person. I became so overcome with grief that I found myself in tears.

There's no easy way to sum up my emotions from the events of 9/11 or my subsequent visit to Ground Zero. But I remember for a brief, fleeting moment how absolutely unified Americans were in the immediate aftermath - how filled with hope we were that the world seemed to care, and how filled with resolve that we would never let this happen again.

While all too many Americans blithely think that a terrorist attack could never occur where they live, my fear is that Americans by their nature have a short attention span. As philosopher George Santayana once said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

We must never forget!


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