Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years

As I drove from the hotel to the office through the rolling plains of West Des Moines, Iowa that sunny Tuesday morning, I took in the crystal clear blue skies and the cooler temperatures and I thought this was a great day to be alive in the heartland of America.

I was working as a project manager for ADP those days. My customer was BellSouth and I was managing a benefits management team preparing for the upcoming open enrollment period. I had flown up from South Carolina the previous Sunday. My team was located across all of North America but the center of operations was there on University Avenue, a block east of where the combined I-35 and I-80 jog around the city. I settled into my home away from home, a "hotel" cubicle that was maintained by the ADP hosting center for traveling company employees that were on site for a project. Work was going along normally that morning. I was updating my project plan that was due to be presented at a meeting the next day, when my cell phone rang. My wife was calling to tell me that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in NYC. All of a sudden, I realized that the office, normally abuzz with keyboard clatter and muted conversations was deathly quiet.

Curious, I started to look around to find out what was going on. I found everyone in the cafeteria watching NBC on the local affiliate, WHO-TV. The Today show was still on the air covering the crash. At the time we were unsure of the type of plane that crashed, and there was a lot of speculation of how a small plane could run into the WTC under perfect flying conditions. Safe in the assumption that I would get all the answers in the evening news, I returned to my desk and the project plan I needed to finish.

A short while later, security made an announcement on the building PA system that a second plane had struck the other tower in New York. Everyone gathered in the cafeteria again. By now more televisions were set up and you could choose between the networks but there was not much difference in what they were saying. A third plane had struck the Pentagon and then a fourth crashed in Pennsylvania. By now there was no doubt that America was under attack.

There was little work done the rest of that day or for the next, either. I stayed up almost all night watching the coverage, which was non-stop wall to wall. I tried sleeping but after a little while, I was back up, staring bleary eyed at the television. The airlines were grounded and expected to be for the foreseeable future. I tried to call the car rental company to see if I could drive my rental back to South Carolina but I couldn't get through to their customer support number. I had another problem; I was scheduled to present a seminar on what was new on the Internet that Friday afternoon to the Alabama Society of Public Accountants in Montgomery. I called my customer in Birmingham and he told me that the conference was still on.

So, bright and early Thursday morning, I began driving east on I-80 with a plan on spending the night near Nashville and then driving to Montgomery the next morning, meeting my customer's project manager, Jim Byrd in Birmingham at 9 in the morning on Friday. I can tell you, that driving alone through the heartland, with my radio tuned to the local stations in Iowa, Illinois Kentucky and Tennessee convinced me that we were going to be OK as a country. Everyone was pulling together, raising money for the victims in NY, PA and DC, giving blood. There was a sense of unity that was unlike any since the Second World War permeating the country. I finally reach the car rental company and they told me that it was OK to drive their car back to SC; they would not charge me for the mileage, just the extra day's rental.

As a former commercial pilot and flight instructor, when I drive, one eye is on the road and the other is on the sky above me. I saw absolutely no air traffic for almost the entire trip. It was eerie to see an empty sky. However, as approached Paducah, KY on I-24, I was startled by a low over-flight by an Apache helicopter based out of Fort Campbell. He was 50 feet over the interstate, checking the ground vehicles for any potential threats. That was the only aircraft I saw that entire trip. Just as the sun was setting, I saw an eagle fly across the highway; in the background were two towering cumulus clouds. I can tell you the symbolism of that vista was not lost on me.

I met Jim in Birmingham the next morning and we drove down to Montgomery in time to have lunch just before my seminar was to begin. During lunch, I was asked if I could fill in for the seminar to be given after mine. It seems that speaker was from New York and couldn't get out of the city. I happened to have another deck of PowerPoint slides with me, the subject was computer security and I agreed that I could do that one too. As I finished lunch, I realized I would need to remove something from the presentation. On the slide about letter bombs, a type of cyber attack, I had included a video of a building being demolished. There was no way I could use that just 3 days after 9/11.

I finished my seminars around 3:30 PM and decided that I really wanted to be back home that evening. So I picked up I-85 and headed northeast towards Atlanta. The sun was just setting when I picked up I-285 at a deserted Hartsfield Airport. The busiest airport in the world lay dormant in the evening dusk off to my left. Just as before, the big city radio stations were telling the same story as the small town stations in the Midwest. America was pulling together, America would be fine.

Shortly after 11 PM that night after four hours on I-20, I pulled into the car rental lot at the airport in Columbia, fortunately the car rental company realized that their customers were driving home instead of flying and there was a lone attendant at the counter. I said good bye to the little red car that took me across 1,375 miles and seven states.

As soon as the planes were flying again, I was back in the air. Over the next 7 years, I flew the length and width of this country, a country forever changed by the events of September 11, 2001, a country made better and stronger by those events. Today, we face different challenges, if we remember how we came together after 9/11; we can't help but overcome these difficulties too. Oh MY!

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