Tomorrow we will mark the 20th Anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America and the downing of New York’s iconic World Trade Center twin towers.
I remember the day vividly. I was sitting in a conference room on Third Avenue in Manhattan with my team. Around 8:30 am we heard a screeching and unusual noise, of a plane literally buzzing down Park Avenue. Within minutes, a junior member of the team broke into the meeting to inform us that a plane had careened into one of the twin towers. We all looked at one another in horror. Our initial thoughts were what a terrible accident. However, minutes later, when we were interrupted again with news of a second plane hitting the second building, we knew this was no longer just a tragic accident.
That morning I had finished packing my bags before heading to NYC, planning on leaving later in the day for a business trip to Paris and London. But within minutes, our day and lives would change forever. The meeting adjourned to a conference room with a television set to CNN. We divided our team in two, one group focusing on reaching out to clients offering to prepare internal communication announcement, CEO statements and even public reactive statements. The other group was focused on tending to the needs of our staff. In the ensuing chaos of that morning, the City had gone into lockdown and in the early hours, we were told not to leave our buildings. Public transportation was shut down, the airports closed, and even the bridges and tunnels were closed to traffic. Probably the most difficult thing we faced was limited to know cell or telephone service. The lines had become so overloaded, it was nearly impossible within the first couple of hours to get a sustained dial tone on any device.
My team’s effort that day was heroic. We all had families, loved ones, and in some cases friends and family members who worked in the twin towers or lower Manhattan, yet both the client facing and the internal care teams performed to their fullest. We had food and housing for our people, and client needs were being met in as close to real time as possible.
By late afternoon, the City had started to ease up on its lockdown. A colleague’s father had a car in the city and was heading back to NJ, so I hauled my suitcase a few blocks to his office. We slowly wound our way up the westside highway and over the George Washington Bridge. As a security measure, every car going over the bridge was being checked and Route 4 access had been shut to Jones Road in Englewood for security purposes. I had about a two mile walk from where he could drop me off to my family waiting near the Jones Road blockade for me –and other refugees from Manhattan— to be reunited with our families.
I spent a fair amount of time this week thinking about how the 9/11 crisis compared to the COVID crisis we are still wrestling with. With COVID, we had much more of an ability to prepare. The 9/11 crisis afforded us no such luxury.
I also think about how much change occurred after 9/11 and can only imagine what the permanent changes to our lifestyles will be after COVID. On 9/11 when I was preparing to fly off to Europe, you walked into an airport, checked in and went to your gate. Now, it is hard to remember how easy air travel was then. No TSA line, we could bring water with us and we didn’t need to take our shoes off. You could enter a building without having your ID checked. What will a post-COVID world bring for us.
I purposely hang the iconic Tom Franklin photo of firefighters holding up the U.S. flag amid the World Trade Center towers rubble outside my office as a reminder that even in our darkest hour, Americans come together, work and pray together, and together, we always come back stronger.