11 September 2008

Reflections on September 11

I was supposed to have been on a plane to Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001. I cancelled my trip because I needed to be in the office to finish up a project. If I had been on the flight, we would have been in the air for about an hour when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. I think the flight I would have been on was diverted to Detroit. I suppose most of the Minneapolis passengers ended up renting cars to get back home.

September 11, 2001 was supposed to have been the kick-off for our company United Way campaign. I was working at my desk when a co-worker arrived and said that he’d heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. My first reaction was – oh, it must have been a small plane and an inexperienced pilot who lost control. No, my co-worker said, it was a jet.

I checked the news on the internet. At that point, it still wasn’t clear what was going on. I read what I could online and then went back to work. Some of the other people turned on a TV and continued to watch. Of course, it wasn’t too much later when shouts rang thru the department. Another plane had hit the second tower.

I went out and joined the small crowd of people huddled around the TV. The images were both riveting and horrifying. Finally, I couldn’t stand seeing people falling from the towers, forced to choose between plummeting to their deaths or being burned to death. I went back into my office.

Not too long after that, another co-worker rushed in. “The first tower just collapsed. I watched it happen on the TV.” I rejoined the crowd in front of the TV. They already had video of the planes hitting the towers. We watched the replays of the first tower’s collapse. Despite the horror, after so many impossible, unimaginable things had happened, you couldn’t help but keep watching. While we were watching, the second tower came down. I saw it live on TV.

Needless to say, United Way activities were canceled.

Former U.S. Representative Richard Pombo used to tell his September 11 story. He was personally taking a group of constituents on a tour of the U.S. Capitol. They were at the very top of the rotunda. They watched as a plane circled the city and came in low. It disappeared from view and smoke started rising from the Pentagon. As Pombo used to tell the story, “It suddenly occurred to us that we probably ought to get out of the Capitol.”

I suppose people naturally connect to a tragedy like this by seeking some aspect that they can relate to. If you didn’t know someone who was directly affected, then you empathize with people from your home state who were affected. It didn’t take long for the local news to start finding stories about victims who were native Minnesotans, or Minnesotans who escaped from the towers, or the Minnesotan who vainly tried to regain control of the plane over Pennsylvania.

In 2001, both of my kids were in the hospitality business. My son had just moved to New Orleans and was looking for a job as a cook. My daughter was living in Boston and waiting tables while she looked for a job in her chosen field. As I watched the tragedy unfold and read the coverage, I couldn’t help but think that under different circumstances either one of them could have been on the breakfast shift in Windows on the World on September 11, 2001.

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