09/11/04: Three Years Ago Today...
...My bag was packed and sitting on my hotel bed...where it stayed for four more days
It's funny that I remember that image very clearly. The damn suitcase. I refused to just open it up and unpack it. Each day I would reluctantly pull something out of it...figuring I ought to change clothes...although who would care?
But I kept thinking each day would be the day I got to go home.
But I'm jumping ahead.
As I described in my last post, I had had a damn good weekend in NYC. Great weather (everyone talks about the weather that week) great catching up with friends and family, great theatre.
The speaking engagement on Monday wasn't so great. Turns out this panel was a pre-show panel that people had to pay extra for. Consequently it wasn't the most well-attended panel I've ever sat on. No biggie though. Piece of cake.
So, on Tuesday morning I was packed and ready, expecting a cab in an hour or so, and I was sitting at the desk in my hotel room checking email. I am not a morning news watcher. Nor a radio listener. My first clue that something was up was when I went to check the industry stocks I tracked via Yahoo Finance. The news item merely said, opening delayed due to fire? Or was it explosion? I can't really remember. It was not drastic enough to make me all concerned.
But then my cell phone beeped with a voicemail. I listened to it, and it was our MarCom Manager, the one who sent me to this speaking engagement, and one of the few folks who really knew where I was at. She said:
"Elisa, can you please call us, and let us know you're okay?"
That was weird. And definitely warranted doing some checking out.
Being on my laptop, i simply tried to load cnn.com. No such luck. I tried a couple of other news sites, but everything seemed to be bottlenecked.
Finally I realized that I was being pretty silly, given that there was a TV sitting two feet away from me in my hotel room! I turned on CNN. I immediately saw the ticker along the bottom saying the World Trade Center had collapsed. Now, I lived in New York back when the 1989 San Francisco earthquake happened. And the new reports we got at first were quite drastic...the Golden Gate Bridge had collapsed; the Bay Bridge had collapsed; the City was on fire. So my first thought on seeing that ticker was about the 1993 WTC bombing. Sure, I thought, a couple of floors got bombed again. (Amazing how that didn't totally freak me out as it was.)
But within a few seconds that indelible footage was shown. Shown for the first of what feels like thousands of times I've now seen it. And that first time, and each time since, it looked like footage from some action film that I would turn my nose up and not go see. It didn't look real. Or more accurately, it didn't look possible.
After some timeless amount of time...minutes? seconds? I called my boyfriend back in California. I was crying, I think. And not quite thinking straight. It was only 7:30am back home, and he is a prototypical night owl engineer, but my first question to his groggy self was "did you hear what happened?"
I don't remember much of our conversation. He turned on the TV. Who knew what to say? Eventually I hung up to call my Mom and tell her I was okay. Trouble was, she hadn't known I was even in NY, so where she had been worried and upset in a general kind of way, now she was worried and upset in a very specific kind of way. Good work, Elisa.
Finally I called work. By now, I was really not thinking straight at all. I had seen more on CNN. NYC was under attack, basically, and I was in NYC. And I wanted to get out of there. Somehow I could appreciate that flying out as planned on my afternoon flight was not going to be happening. But I got an idea in my head that someone was going get me out of there. I wracked my brain and decided that Lori, my company President's Admin was going to be the uber-Admin and get me out of there. Honestly! Well, I said I wasn't thinking straight.
I'm not sure what I was imagining she would do; I just had an image of her calling me back in 30 minutes telling me she had gotten me tickets on a train or a flight out of Newark or something.
Instead she picked up the phone, having seen the 212 area code on her phone caller ID, and said "Who is this?" I identified myself; she asked where I was and what I was doing there, and the she said "hold on."
Good, I thought, she's getting the travel agent on the line. Or something equally in the realm of pure fantasy.
Instead our CEO's voice came on the line. He asked me where I was and why I was there too. Yes, communication wasn't our strong point at Company T.
But, by now, I was a little, maybe not hysterical, but definitely unhinged.
I started saying:
"I'm supposed to go home today. I'm supposed to have a flight. I'm all packed. I'm supposed to be at work tomorrow. I'm supposed to go home today. I don't know what to do."
And I will give this guy one piece of credit: he knew how to talk to a nearly unhinged person...firmly, calmly, with a confident and resolute voice: "Elisa" he said "where is your hotel?" "7th Avenue and 50th St." I replied, then couldn't help adding: "But I'm supposed to check out. I'm supposed to go home today."
"Elisa" he said firmly "you are not going anywhere. Stay right where you are. You will be fine. Just stay there. Don't worry about work. Let us know if you need anything. Okay?"
End of phone call.
[As an interesting side note, you may have heard the story of the WTC investment firm CEO who was late to work that day to take his daughter to her first day of kindergarten? Nearly his whole company was wiped out, while he survived. As it runs out, my CEO was supposed to be meeting with him at his office in the WTC that morning. The guy called him to move it to the next day, because of the whole kindergarten thing. So, in fact, my CEO would have been right there, but for the new modern ethic that allows dads to take time off for their kids too.]
Okay. I called downstairs and told them i was supposed to check out, but likely couldn't. They said sure, but you're now going into the week and will have a higher rate. Yes, that's right. The Sheraton Midtown raised my rate on 9/11/01. I will never stay there again, and neither should you.
So, there I was. And it remained surreal. For one thing, who knew if it was over? Sure, I was several miles from the WTC, but I was damn close to Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Station and Times Square and Lincoln Center and the UN for that matter. So, who knew? Once news came on about the Pentagon and Pennsylvania it did truly seem like a full-scale plan underway. That first night I had visions of masked gunmen rounding up all the American tourists from their hotel rooms!
And occasionally I would hear planes flying very low and loud, and I would immediately freak out, knowing there should be NO commercial flights in the air. They were military planes of course, but who knew?
And 7th Avenue is a prominent thoroughfare heading downtown, so there were the emergency vehicles speeding by for what seemed like hours.
And all there was to do was to watch TV and smoke cigarettes.
I'm not sure what it was like in other parts of the country. I know they showed some of this everywhere, but on TV in NYC for the next few days you had an unending parade of people with posters and flyers...pictures of their spouses or their parents or their children or their siblings. The news shows were setting aside parts of every hour of coverage to let people come on and show their pictures and ask for sightings and of course, talk about their loved ones. Person after person. From day one, where for some reason we all had a little hope and on into the days when it seemed like letting someone come on and ask if their loved one had been seen was simply cruel.
Finally at 3 or 4 PM I emerged from the hotel to get some food. There was no room service, so I really didn't have much choice.
If you saw the movie "Vanilla Sky" you probably remember the opening scene. Tom Cruise wakes up goes out into the world and realizes there are no people anywhere. Like a "Twilight Zone" episode. he ends up in Times Square, a deserted Times Square, and screaming.
So, there were people on the sidewalks, including police officers, but there truly were no vehicles on the road. No cabs. No buses. No cars. On 7th Avenue and 50th Street in the middle of a weekday afternoon. And it was eerie. And it made it all true. Because nothing but a national emergency could explain this.
Luckily various stores and delis were open, so I grabbed a big salad and headed back to my hotel. Showed my ID and room key to get upstairs (a new security measure they carry out to this day.)
And it was back to hours of watching TV and smoking cigarettes. And crying. And talking on the phone. But only back to California. I couldn't get through to any of my local friends or family. None of them lived or worked down there, so I wasn't frantically trying to get to any of them. But, perhaps the worst part of being there, given that I was so far removed from the real tragedy, is that I was so isolated. I rarely traveled for business when i wasn't with at least one other person from my company, maybe a sales person. But this was a flukey thing to go somewhere alone, to pop in, do my thing and pop out. So no one was there from work, and I couldn't get hold of my local people. While the rest of the world was coming together, I definitely felt apart.
And it still felt surreal. Even though I was there, I was watching it on TV like most other people. I felt afraid, really, to leave my hotel room anyway. Like just being one person in the anonymity of a thousand hotel rooms was going to keep me safe. The minute you left and were seen...that was dangerous.
Still wasn't thinking straight I guess.
Eventually I contacted American Airlines, and we started the dance that would go on for days. They booked me on a flight for the very next day!
They weren't thinking straight either, I think.
So ended my 9/11/01: sitting on a hotel bed, chain smoking, chain TV watching and thinking I would get home on a flight the next day. It was just the beginning of four strange and stressful days, but days that were filled with moments that cheered me too.