Ten years ago, just as I was leaving home for my morning commute to the office, I got an email alert from CNN that a plane had struck a skyscraper in New York City. The image in my head was of a kite stuck in a tree.
Shortly after I reached my desk at the office, I received another email about a second plane. Then my phone rang. It was the wife of a staffer, Tom, whom I had sent to New York that day to retrieve some beta-tested equipment from a customer in Manhattan. Tom had left to fly from Boston to LaGuardia hours ago, and she wanted to know if we had heard from him. So I called him, but he didn’t answer his cell. The company he was supposed to visit didn’t answer either. Shortly, Tom’s wife called again even more distraught than before, but I had no news. I wasn't even really clear what the fuss was about.
Calls to Tom and the customer remained unanswered. It was clear that he wasn’t going to fly home that day regardless, and even surface traffic had been halted on the island. People had to walk the bridges to leave Manhattan. But even if he walked, Tom had no where to go--I imagined him in the chaos of people fleeing, but having nowhere to evacuate to. So I started calling hotels and made a reservation in midtown. At least he'd have a safe place to go. I went back to the travel office to confirm, and by then they had started crossing off names of those confirmed to be safe. Half of about 20 or so names were lined out. The cafeteria was now full of people, and all work had pretty much stopped.
Finally, I got a call from Tom’s wife. He had finally called home. Later I learned he had landed at LaGuardia as planned but never made it to Manhattan. He was in a taxi on the bridge, but was turned back just as the first tower fell right in front of him. He took the taxi back to the airport and took whatever rental car he could get. He was lucky to get any. He drove the rental back to Boston and was home by dinner time.
Meanwhile, I called the travel office with the good news. I cancelled the reservation and let the staff know Tom was OK. I wandered over to the travel office to be sure they crossed off his name. There I found the CEO and a trembling travel agent. There was only one name left on the board. It wasn’t Tom, but Doug Gowell. His itinerary put him on Flight 175, which was emerging in the news as a highjacked plane. We later learned this was the second plane.
There were three people in our company that did “business development” work. Doug, Ken, and occasionally me. Doug was on the Boston to LA flight, as he often was, to visit customers in the entertainment industry. I had been on that same flight often myself, and for the same reasons.
We hoped all day that Doug had somehow missed the flight, that we’d still get a phone call. But it never came. His name stayed on the whiteboard. He was indeed on that second plane we all saw hit the tower. His plane is the one everyone saw on every channel ever since.
More memories follow. The next day, my wife and I went at lunchtime to pray at a tiny clapboard church down the road from my office. A few days later, I went with my officemates to Doug’s funeral at a Catholic church in Methuen. Since two of the planes came out of Boston, it seemed like every suburb and town around us had lost a few people. Everyone I knew in Boston knew someone lost.
Later that year, I took the train to New York on business, but didn’t go to ground zero. It was still a mess. The impromptu walls of photos became an icon of the aftermath. Paranoia was in the air. Bomb threats became common--both my office in Tewksbury and Calvin College back home in Michigan were closed down based on bomb threats. Real Anthrax-by-mail attacks and white-powder imitation attacks followed, even in my little town post office in Reading. It's hard to remember how imminent the threats of violence were everywhere.
I recall making a collage of editorial cartoons that depicted both our grief and anger as a nation. A sleeping giant had been viciously provoked, and nothing would stop us from inflicting justice. A decade later, we will have to let historians decide if justice was done.