Traveling on the Tenth Anniversary of 9-11

It’s just after 10AM and we are packed and ready to leave for our two week vacation in Germany. We are flying out of Atlanta because the flight schedule to leave from Chattanooga will not get us home in one day. We have a plan for today: we will drive to the Atlanta airport, check two of our bags, leave our carry ons in the trunk, and take the MARTA downtown for a few hours before our flight. We divide our bags between us and head out the door looking somewhat like pack mules.

The weather has cleared and warmed up again. It’s cool this morning, but promising to get into the upper eighties. We are preoccupied with our plans and have not given much more than a passing thought to the significance of this day. But as we cruise down the highway around Chattanooga, we pass under a high overpass with a group of people on it unfurling a huge American flag and waving. I wave back as we pass under the enormous flag, and am instantly returned to ten years ago.

I was at my desk on 9-11, thankfully on a reprieve from the constant travel that I did at that time of my career. My phone rang and a colleague in NJ excitedly informed me that a plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. At first, I waited for the punchline, assuming it was a joke. He didn’t yet know that it was an attack; it was just a crazy event for the next half hour until he called me back and told me that a second plane had crashed into the other tower.

I went down the hall to talk to my boss. He was getting updates and it was clear now that this was, in fact, the first attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. In that moment, the sense of security I’d never known I had was shattered. Many of us gathered in the halls, talking quietly of people we knew who worked in the area. More news came in and we heard of the two other planes, one still in the air. Most of us decided to go work from home the rest of the day–it felt safer not to be in a building that once (decades ago) employed over 18,000 people.

When I got home, I turned on the TV and watched the news. I was on the phone with more friends and colleagues in the NY area, each of us recounting the stories we had learned of missing loved ones. For me, it seemed close to home even though it was a distant event. I was happy that all travel was suspended for two weeks–no one seemed to want to have a meeting in light of the tragedy. I had no desire to go get on a plane.

When I flew into Newark two weeks later, the airport seemed like a ghost town. I met with customers that day who had regular meetings in the trade center prior to 9-11. Two of them recounted their 9-11 stories. One missed being on the 11th floor of the first building when it was hit only because he’d stopped to get a cup of coffee. The other was in the street when the first tower collapsed, diving behind a dumpster with a woman he’d never met before and running for shelter in an abandoned building, barely escaping unharmed. They still didn’t know if the people they were on their way to meet had survived. I never learned the outcome.

I add these stories to my collection from people who had relatives in the city that day–one of my colleague’s daughters had a terrifying day just trying to leave the city to get to the safety of her parents’ home. Photos of one of our customer sites across the street from the destruction were forwarded around. An entire wall is missing from a data center that houses the equipment we make. Those of us who know the people that work there are stunned by these photos. These stories make what might just seem like something in the news feel next door. I am reminded of a person I once met who was sent to Grenada (or was it Panama?) in the military. He described walking through a suburban neighborhood while under attack. I imagine war in a whole new way when I hear his descriptions. I try to imagine where I would hide while soldiers go through my quiet suburban neighborhood shooting at one another.

These are the images that come to mind as we cruise along the highway. I think about what it would be like to live somewhere where personal safety is a foremost concern on a daily basis. In the ten years since 9-11, we have collectively forgotten the fear that the attack created and been more annoyed by ridiculous security rules in the airports that are hard to connect to increased security than worried about repeat attacks. I suppose that’s a good thing. After all, what would being afraid accomplish? At the same time, prior to 9-11, no one would have thought that a terrorist would crash a hijacked plane. Since that day, I’ve swapped many stories of “what we would do” with fellow travelers, each of us feeling personal responsibility for the safety of each flight in a way we never considered before.

I received a news alert from the Wall Street Journal that plans for car bombings on 9-11 were discovered and foiled. I feel oddly reassured by this news, I suppose the fact that they were found out and prevented is reassuring, but it always makes me wonder what else is going on that they haven’t found out about yet? I think the majority of the relief is purely selfish–the attacks were about car bombs and not planes and, after all, it’s a plane I’m getting on.

I feel like I should pause for a moment and honor the dead, the injured, and the chronically ill that resulted from 9-11. Yet, in some respects, do I honor them by flying on this day? Does the fact that I feel confident enough to get on a long, international flight say that we recovered well? It is impossible to know what the people most horribly affected by the attack would say, but since I am going to Germany today regardless, I choose to think they would be pleased. I say a silent thank you to the men and women who responded to the attack and an apology to those who did not survive. Then, I tuck away my fears and focus on the road ahead.