Non-Traditional

Remembering 9/11

Anyone old enough to have any form of long-term memory remembers that day. How can you forget? The images from seemingly endless television coverage, for better or worse, burned into our minds. Everyone has a story. Here’s mine.

At the time, I was working for IBM and my account was Avnet, a large distributor of IBM’s products.  As a distributor, Avnet sold products to other businesses, otherwise known as resellers.  Avnet’s corporate headquarters is not far from my home in Phoenix, but their IBM-related headquarters was, and still is, based in San Antonio, Texas.

avnet

They hold an Annual Partner Summit and this particular year, it was in San Antonio on this fateful week. Oddly enough, a few years later, also in San Antonio, I had the opportunity to shake the hand of 7 of the 14 surviving members of Doolittle’s Tokyo Raiders – but that’s another story.

The Conference was held at the La Cantera Resort on the north side of San Antonio on the edge of Texas’ Hill Country – also the home of the PGA Tour’s Valero Open golf tournament.

The Avnet event is usually very well received and this year was no exception.  There were over 1,100 people in attendance – a combination of employees from Avnet, their partners and IBM, along with some press and analysts for media coverage.

I remember waking up on Tuesday and preparing for the long day of sessions and meetings.  It wasn’t long before those gathered in the conference area started to hear the buzz of a plane hitting one of the Twin Towers (North Tower).  Surely it was an accident.  Probably a small plane with mechanical trouble was the pervasive thinking.

Statue of Liberty and Twin Towers, World Trade Center at Sunset, New York City, New Jersey, New York, designed Minoru Yamasaki

But news reports continued and people were still arriving at the meeting area after seeing the videos on the news while in their rooms.  They claimed it was more than a small plane.  It had to be in order to do the damage seen on those first images.

Before long, we were all gathered around TVs in the lobby.  Thoughts of terrorism started to creep in as we speculated – staring at the gaping hole in the side of one of our nation’s largest, and well-known iconic buildings – a building I was in just a few years prior while attending the NYC Automobile Show.

After a few minutes, we saw another plane inexplicably fly directly into the other (South) tower.  Now, we realized it was no accident.

The normal sessions were supposed to be getting under way. The Avnet execs had a tough decision to make.  Do they continue sessions and risk being insensitive to the events unfolding? Or do they cancel sessions and waste the time and effort that everyone had put into this event to make it successful?  Their response was as good as anyone could do at this point – press on with the meetings, but there was no expectation of attendance.

I went back to my room and called home – still unsure of the gravity of the situation – and certainly unsure of how to get home.  My flight wasn’t scheduled until Thursday. As I stared at the TV, my phone rang and it was my friend Tom.  He wanted to know where I was and if I was near any nuclear facilities, iconic buildings or military bases.  Well, I wouldn’t consider San Antonio or the luxurious La Cantera Resort a high-profile target – but I was near Lackland and Kelly Air Force Bases.  He was concerned, but I was still naive as to what was happening.

Then he asked about my wife and the girls.  Now, I started to get a little worried.  Our home in Chandler, I told him, sits about 80 miles, due east of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station – the largest power plant in the United States. He implored me to make a plan for them in case something happens.  Tell them to head south, away from the prevailing winds he suggested. I hung up with Tom and continued to follow the news from my room.

Then, the news breaks of a plane flying into the Pentagon. Oh my… What is happening?

My head was swirling. How can I get home and be there for my wife and our 4-year-old and 2-year-old? Shortly after the Pentagon flight, they announced the grounding of all US commercial air traffic.

Then, reports of another plane downed in a field in Pennsylvania.  Where is Shanksville, I wondered. Being from Pennsylvania originally, I grew even more concerned.  Tom was calling me from Bethlehem, PA.  Is it anywhere near there?

flight_paths_of_hijacked_planes-september_11_attacks

At this point, I made the decision to get home as quickly as possible. I called back home and said that I’ll try to catch the next flight out – knowing they had just grounded the planes, but not even considering the consequences.

I called America West to see if they could change my reservation.  They said that all planes were grounded until further notice and they could not accept a reservation. Undeterred, I called Southwest Airlines.  Much to my delight, they accepted my reservation for the next morning!

After updating home on the progress, I returned to the lobby to check on the latest. Avnet had already been in triage mode. They created a makeshift command center to post updates. They had made arrangements with the hotel for the guests to stay as long as needed. They were working on transportation to get everyone back home safely. This was no easy task considering the 1,100 plus people were from places spread out throughout the country.

It was then we learned of the story of an Avnet employee whose father worked in the South Tower. He had called his son to tell him he was OK – and that they were evacuating the building and that he promised to call him later.

Resigned to the fact that we were now stranded at this resort, minds in a fog, what would we do until the next morning. I caught up with my boss, Tom, and discussed my plan to fly the next morning. He wasn’t as optimistic as I was that I would be able to get out considering the logistic issues with grounding the entire US commercial fleet.

At that point, we decided to break away from the television and clear our heads. How? We played golf.

lacantera

When Tom plays any sport, he likes to bet. Not so much for the money, but for the glory. The wager? Always a single dollar. I don’t remember much about the round, but I do remember it was hard to concentrate. We worked our way around the course in likely record time – considering we didn’t see many people on the entire course. I’m fairly certain that autographed dollar holds a special place in Tom’s Trophy Case.

Playing golf when such tragic events were unfolding is hard to fathom now, but at the time, it seemed like just the distraction needed to take our minds off the madness around us. Paraphrasing those now infamous words spoken by a particular coach, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done something different. But what?

Back at the conference hours later, we learned that the employee’s father still hadn’t returned his promised call. Telephone lines in New York were next to impossible to get through, so we held out hope.

During our time away, Avnet had updated the group that they had chartered several buses that would be leaving tomorrow (Wednesday) at noon. They had mapped out the number of people and the locations they needed to get to and hired the appropriate number of coaches. A couple of buses heading west, one head north and a couple heading northeast – making stops along the way to drop off passengers at rendezvous sites.

They recommended that any Avnet employee with a rental car hand over the keys to their partners so they could get home sooner – and everyone gladly obliged. And finally, those with cars, established carpools to transport as many people as possible.

For me? I’ve got my flight lined up and I’ll take my chances. I thought, there’s no way I want to sit on a bus for the 1000 mile trip across the deserts of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona – even though Phoenix was the first stop along that route. With the transportation plan set, it was now a waiting game.

The next morning, I called Southwest to check on my flight and they said it was on time, but questionable to leave.  They recommended I get to the airport just in case. I hopped in cab with tempered expectations – only to be turned away at the airport curb by security.

Next stop? The rental counter.

I was fortunate enough to get the last rental car at Hertz – a Lincoln Towncar. I called Tom to let him know my change of plans.  Considering he lives in Orange County, CA and was scheduled on one of the buses, I asked him if he was interested in making the trek with me. He gladly accepted the offer.

It was later reported that some rental agencies either purposely took advantage of the situation and charged exorbitant rates or couldn’t adapt their systems quickly enough to change their policies. And then there was Hertz, whose CEO supposedly mandate to all employees, “let the cars go and we’ll worry about it later”. Well done Hertz!

hertz

The resort sits just off I-10, just north of the airport, so after a quick pit stop to pick up Tom, it was “wheels up” at about noon – the same time the buses were getting ready to leave. No GPS was needed for this trip. After hopping on I-10, we didn’t need to exit until 1,000 miles later, just 1 mile from my house.

There really isn’t a lot to see along the way – not that we were in a touristy mode – but the scenery is pretty bland.  We listened to news radio to try to stay up to date, stopped a couple of times for gas and a bite to eat and that’s about it. Rarely did we pass a car, even though the hot-rod Lincoln was cruisin’ – and we never saw a single police car. I couldn’t imagine an officer writing a ticket that day.

Along the way, we bonded.

The one thing I do remember was the size of the Mexican flag as we drove through El Paso with Juarez Mexico off to our left. On our right, was the US, somewhat populated, and on our left, densely packed homes and buildings with thick smog and an enormous Mexican flag signaling their land. Juarez, in 2010, was known as one of the deadliest cities in the WORLD – racking up over 3,000 homicides! That’s 8 people per DAY! And it is literally a stones throw away from the US.

juarez

You don’t realize how big Texas is until you find out that Phoenix is actually closer to El Paso (430 miles) than El Paso is to San Antonio (550 miles) – and Houston is another 200 miles east of San Antonio on I-10!

map-from-sa

We pulled into my house at midnight – making the 1,000 mile trip in 13 hours (AZ is an hour behind). For those checking the math, that’s an average of about 77 MPH – including 2 stops for gas and food.

It was so good to be home.

Tom spent the night at our place, then headed out very early in the morning to make the final leg of his drive, another 5+ hours across mostly I-10 – to get home to his wife and two daughters.

The following days continued to be surreal. I remember looking up into the sky where the normally busy flight path runs by our house. Nothing. I remember for months after, looking at planes that didn’t seem to be on the right flight path. I remember the first time I had to board a plane afterwards. How would I react I thought to myself. I remember hearing rumors that any “twin towers” were a potential target – and the IBM building in Phoenix is in a twin tower.

2929 IBM (building on the left) 2929 N Central Ave, Phoenix AZ 85012

In the days, weeks, months and years that passed, the fear has subsided, but the awareness is still present.

This year, we visited the Healing Fields in Tempe. It’s an incredible display that tugs at your heart – knowing that, for every one of those 2,977 flags on display, one for each of those that lost their life that day, there are countless other people impacted by the events of that day. Families, friends, co-workers, sons and daughters who never had the chance to meet their mothers or fathers.

At the same time, there were incredible acts of heroism and countless acts caring and compassion. The Avnet response being just one of those unheralded acts in the aftermath.

healing-field

This was our generation’s Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, our parents and grandparents had to live through both tragic days. Let’s pray that we don’t ever have to live through another day like that, but’s let’s continue the acts of caring and compassion.

God Bless America!

Let us Never Forget. The promised call never came.

fj

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