It seems so long ago, yet it seems like yesterday. The day dawned warm and clear in Des Moines, Iowa. As I drove from my hotel to the ADP Office on University Avenue, I noticed the lonely windmill just off I-35 turning lazily in the wind. The blue sky seemed deeper blue than normal and the sun brighter than usual. In short it was a perfect Midwestern late summer day. I had a busy day scheduled working on the open enrollment project for our customer, BellSouth.
By noon, the day had darkened significantly. The offices, with the exception of the associates working in the call center were empty. We were all gathered together in the cafeteria watching events unfold in NY, Pennsylvania and Washington DC. I had important conference calls scheduled during the day so from time to time I would wander back to my workstation to hold the meetings which were more about sharing stories and feelings than they were about getting things done. Even Jim, my BellSouth customer contact called to cancel our meeting scheduled for later in the day.
The worst was trying to reach our partners in the project who worked in NYC. We were not being able to reach them for several days. Mercer had several offices in the city, one of which was in the World Trade Center. It would be days before we found out that their employees who were working on our project were in the other office. Still, one or two people who supervised their team were in the WTC that day.
That night, like most of America, I got very little sleep. I was glued to the TV watching those horrific videos over and over again, trying to understand what had happened and searching futilely for that scrap of new information. I tried to sleep but I was so afraid that I would miss some important piece of news that I turned the TV back on and stared vacantly at the images on the tube.
Despite the constant viewing, I did miss something important to me. Up until the end of 1999, I was part of the Television Crew for the PBS “Firing Line with William F Buckley” show. When we broadcast from the city, we used NYC Firemen from the Chelsea and Staten Island fire stations as grips. The guys from Staten Island were safe, not arriving on scene until after the towers collapsed. Those from Chelsea were not so lucky. Two firemen named Angel were standing 20 feet from each other when Tower 1 came down. One of the Angels was killed instantly and the other buried in a void for a half day. To this day, I have been told, he still suffers from PTSD.
Back in Des Moines, a problem was brewing; all air travel in the US was grounded, I had no way of getting back to Columbia, SC. On top of that, I was scheduled to give a seminar sponsored by my customer in Montgomery, AL that Friday. On Wednesday my customer told me that the conference was in-state and would still be happening, and that he really needed me there as many of the other presenters were coming from NY and could not get out of the City. My only hope was my Hertz rental car. I began to try to call the Hertz customer number to ask for permission to drive the rental car that I had to Columbia. Despite a day of trying, I was unable to reach their call center.
Bright and early on Thursday, I headed East under a cloudy sky out of Des Moines on I-35. It was eerie seeing nothing in the air above. In fact, other than birds, all I saw in the air on that trip were Army Apache Helicopters flying perimeter patrols around Ft. Campbell, KY. As a crossed Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee I was enthralled by local radio broadcasts of local events mostly blood drives and fundraisers in response to the attack. Listening to the heartland’s reaction, I began to have hope that it will be all right, not the same but OK nonetheless. By mid afternoon, I finally made contact with the Hertz customer service desk to tell them that I was driving their car to Columbia and would arrive there by the weekend. To my amazement, they said that the only charge would be for the extra days, no mileage! The best $50 my company ever spent on travel!
Just after dark, I pulled into a Marriott on the south side of Nashville. I didn’t have a reservation, but it turns out, one was not necessary. Because I had the highest loyalty rewards status, they guaranteed me a room anywhere during the emergency. Good, I would not have to sleep in the car that night.
At 6 AM the next morning, I was on the road first to Birmingham to meet with my customer then to convoy with him to Montgomery for the conference. I would up delivering two seminars to the Alabama Society of Public Accountants that afternoon instead of the one that was scheduled. Ironically, the second one was one I had done a couple of years earlier on internet security after I removed a slide from my PowerPoint deck that contained a video of a building implosion. Those images were just to “real” for that time.
Despite offers from my hosts to stay in Montgomery that night, by 4 PM, I really felt the need to see my home, to be sure that it was still the same after everything that had happened. So I headed out towards Atlanta on I-85. I picked up I-20 around sunset after passing a silent and empty Hartsfield – Jackson Airport with rows and rows of jets lined up on the tarmac. It almost seemed like a scene from some apocalyptic movie. Was that a zombie peering back at me from underneath that 737? Never mind, I was 200 miles from home and nothing was going to stop me.
Finally at 11:30 that Friday night, I pulled into the Hertz parking lot at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport and found a familiar counter agent waiting there for me. She was the first hometown familiar face I had seen since the world changed. I made it. 1,375 strange miles across the heartland and I was home. But not for long, the project timeline was thrown off by aftermath of the events of 9/11 and by the first week in October; I was back in Des Moines to manage the roll out of the online open enrollment process. That was before the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was formed in November. But that is a different story. Oh MY!