Nineteen years ago, September 11, 2001, some 3,000 people died in a series of four orchestrated passenger airline crashes. Two hit the World Trade Center, one hit the Pentagon, the fourth after passengers attempted to wrestle control away from the terrorists, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
The evening before that fateful day I was headed to McLean, Virginia, just outside of DC, on a business trip. It was always easiest to fly into Dulles but Baltimore was attempting to attract more of the traveling population so reduced their rates at BWI. This meant that the travel office at company headquarters made the choice for the company’s road warriors predictably placing frugality above ease of commute. I didn’t like BWI principally because I always got lost between the airport and my hotel usually in McLean or Herndon, VA. This was before GPS in cars was ubiquitous and so that night, I got lost and didn’t arrive at my hotel until nearly midnight. I cannot remember the name of the hotel after all these years but it was on the order of a Marriott Suites; that is to say it had a bedroom, living room, kitchenette, and bath. The suites were housed in a collection of two-story buildings on the hotel grounds. I made my way to my room and immediately was struck by what seemed to be the powerful smell of cooking vegetables like broccoli or cauliflower. It was after midnight and too late to complain. And, after all, the kitchenettes were there to prepare food- but after midnight? I climbed into bed and lay still for a while becoming gradually conscious of the level of activity in the room directly above my own. There was obviously more that one or two people in the room and I could hear voices without being able to discern anything said. The harder I tried to sleep, the more it sounded like stomping around the room directly above mine. I traveled every week at that time so wrote it off as just another occupational hazard and finally fell asleep.
The next morning, I had breakfast in the lobby area where these sorts of hotels typically offer coffee, cereal, fruit, and pastries. It was busy as the hotels in and around DC always are during the week. I remember watching a man who was grossly overweight eat his breakfast as I also read the paper. Funny the things we notice and those we don’t, I considered for a for a moment. The checkout line was to my right and very busy with guests headed out to accomplish their “to dos” while in the nation’s capital.
Very shortly after I arrived at company headquarters the first plane had hit the World Trade Center. A short while later, the second plane. A television was rolled out to the break room where those who wanted to watch could. I was transfixed. My youngest daughter called me from California sounding frightened, “Well, I guess we’re at war.” It was more a question than a statement.
“No, I don’t think we’re at war”, I said to reassure us both. I wandered around our building and was struck by the number of people who remained at their desks and not in front of the tv. “HAVE YOU SEEN WHAT’S GOING ON OUT THERE?” I wanted to cry. But, the “factory” just kept churning as the reality and rumors of further attacks swirled around us like phantoms.
The next few days are a blur, with my only concern being to get back home; to be in a place I knew in the midst of all that was now unknown. The airports were closed nationwide although BWI was one of the first in the area to reopen. I was booked onto a flight and arrived at the airport that was eerily empty. When we boarded, one of the senior execs from the airline came aboard and asked that we observe a minute of silence. All became silent but the guy next to me who was busy on the phone oblivious to all of us trying to shush him. It was like all those people at headquarters who kept on working in their offices and cubicles as the towers burned and finally collapsed.
Several days later I returned to my Southern California office where a little over one hundred of our staff were co-located with several hundred County Health and Human Services Staff. The place was rife with stories and the need to recount the events of 9/11 as it is after any traumatic event.
“Where were you…Did you see when the second tower came down? Oh my God, people were jumping from the windows!”
We had to relive the moments over and over to try to grasp that this was us it was happening to not some remote country whose name we barely knew. Then the series of bomb threats began. Our government building for the next several weeks received multiple call saying there was a bomb in the building. We were paraded in and out by our designated safety officers and people tried to do their work because our clients needed it. But a heightened sense of anxiety and jitters was pervasive.
Part of my job involved attending certain events with state and local officials and government and quasi-government executives. So, sometime during the second week after 9/11, I attended an event where I met an official with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. We were making small talk and he politely inquired where our company was based.
“McLean, VA”, explained.
“Really?” he responded surprised. “Where do you stay when you are there?”
“This last trip I stayed in Herndon.”
“No kidding?” he seemed even more surprised. “Which hotel did you stay at in Herndon?”
The question struck me as odd but I told him.
“My daughter is the Manager of that hotel!”
“Wow! Small world.” I laughed.
His smile then disappeared and dropping the volume of his voice asked. “So, you were there when it happened?”
I raised my brows wondering what he meant.
“They had that place locked down tight as a drum that morning. You didn’t see that?”
I shook my head confused. “What do you mean?”
“They were there! They were staying at the hotel! The guys that flew the plane into the Pentagon were at the hotel that night!”
I stood there mouth agape for a moment. “They were there?”
“I’m surprised you didn’t know. My daughter said the place was crawling with FBI agents.”
Two days later my mobile phone rang. The caller identified himself as an agent from the Washington office of the FBI. It all made me very nervous but I wanted to help in any way I could. He asked where I stayed on the evening of the 10th of September. Then he asked me what room I was in. Then he asked me if I smelled anything unusual. I couldn’t believe he asked me this.
“Are you kidding? You know I travel all the time and don’t remember little things like smells but I remember the smell that night and the noise from the room above my own.”
“Did you hear anything else?” He waited a moment. “Like chanting.”
“No. Are you telling me… are you suggesting that they were in the room above mine?”
“I’m not at liberty to disclose this but I think you’re getting the picture. Now, you were sitting by the checkout desk during breakfast. Did you see anything, can you remember anyone who might have been checking out”?
How did he know where I was sitting for breakfast? “No, I…I wasn’t looking for anyone.”
“Did you see any Middle eastern men?” He paused. “In khakis… carrying a laptop?”
“I want to help. Really. But I just wasn’t looking at anybody except some fat guy eating breakfast.” I don’t know why I felt compelled to tell him about the fat guy.
“Will you come to the San Diego office and look at photos. Maybe they’ll jog your memory.”
“Sure, but really, I just don’t notice others on business trips. I just wanted to eat my breakfast and get to work.”
Over the next week or two I received more calls from the FBI seeking additional information and asking if I remembered anything else.
Regrettably, I didn’t and returned to work where there were still more calls from someone stating a bomb had been planted in our building. Hundreds of us filed out of the building then back into it. It was unnerving.
In the years that followed I spent quite a bit of time in New York City. I stayed at the Millennium Hilton which overlooked the site where the Twin Towers had stood. I watched the new Tower rise to it 1776 feet. I watched them create the twin fountains reflecting the footprint of the original WTC. I watched police drills where a hundred police cars would descend on the site and think ‘Oh God!’ only to have an officer explain its part of the regular drilling they do now to prepare for another such event. I have walked around the WTC site to view and contemplate the vast number of names inscribed around the fountains. And in Washington, when Regan National was reopened I would eye the Pentagon remembering the men who crashed Flight AA 77 into it were in the room above my own plotting its destruction. I have visited St. Paul’s, the mission church of Trinity Wall Street and right next to the hotel where I always stayed. After the Towers collapsed, the graves of those buried in the Church Yard dating back to pre-revolutionary days were blanketed with crushed concrete, ash, and scraps of paper intermingled with the remains of thousands of victims that looked like snow. First responders rested in the Church and people posted desperate messages looking for loved ones.
Time has provided us with the opportunity to rebuild, and, of course the complex of buildings is still more grand than the old Twin Towers. But time does something dangerous to our memories. Time can blunt the memory of a humility recognizing just how delicate our lives are, how easily our great monuments to wealth, strength and power are brought low even by a small band of men with boxcutters. And the reminders that this is true are paraded before us now on the morning and evening news. How helpless and small we seem to be as we attempt to address Covid 19, or the wildfires that are engulfing our western states. Perhaps our recovery from the wounds that life invariably inflicts upon us are incomplete when they fail to provide a place in our thinking going forward for the humility necessary to survive. There is no such thing as climate change…no such thing as the pandemic…the school shootings were fake news. Alright then, let’s just keep doing what we’re doing.
September 11, 2020