I was on an airplane flying to focus groups in Phoenix on September 11, 2001. I left Newark Airport on Continental Airlines flight CO1535 at 7:00 AM. I was sitting in seat 9D, next to the window. We were going to test concepts for a new campaign that was about to launch for Verizon wireless.
We never made it.
When the pilot came over the public address system and told us we were landing, we had no idea of the horror that was happening back in New York. We had no idea that we were the lucky ones. We had no idea that hundreds of people had already lost their lives. All we knew that “due to a national emergency, we are instructed by the FAA to land at the closest possible airport.” We were about to land in Kansas City.
I was flying with three co-workers, John, Rick and Dave. While the announcement got our attention, the speed at which we landed was scary. I have flown hundreds of flights, but never before had I been on a commercial airliner that landed so quickly.
Only when we were getting off the plane did we find out what had happened. Shock. Tears. Concern. The first tower had already fallen by the time we got out of the terminal. We made it to Avis, rented a minivan to begin the long drive home. By the time we left the parking lot, the second tower was gone, too.
Four co-workers in a minivan, starting a long drive home to our families. For the first few hours we barely spoke. We listened to the radio. We saw Air Force One and its fighter escort in the sky over Iowa. We saw American Flags being hung on every overpass along the interstate. We had a deep feeling of loss.
We drove in shifts. We barely ate. We stopped only to get gas and to find a car lighter adapter for our cell phones at a local Wal-Mart off of Interstate 35, ironically near the town of Liberty.
At some point our cell phones began to work. We had a very hard time getting through and it was hours until our friends and families knew we were safe. We didn’t have a plan except to get home. We had an overwhelming feeling that we needed to get home. No matter what it took. No matter what roads may be closed. No matter how long the drive. We needed to get home.
We drove all day and all night. From Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Near the Delaware Water Gap we started to make plans on how we would get home. The bridges and tunnels were still closed. Nothing was running. But we kept driving. We noticed at a gas station in New Jersey that the post cards of the Twin Towers had been sold. People were beginning to fill up spare gas tanks. People were bracing for the worst.
I dropped off Rick and then Dave. John somehow got home to Brooklyn from some place in New Jersey that he thought he could get in. I was now alone. I was also one of the first vehicles allowed over the recently reopened George Washington Bridge.
That’s when I saw the smoke.
That’s when the tears started to flow. I had driven over 1,300 miles and was emotionally spent. Everything that had happened over the past 19 hours finally descended on me. I was alone. I was tired. I was in shock.
I’ve never been able to go downtown to look at the 9/11 Memorial. Maybe someday I’ll be able to do it. But not yet. I do carry with me one reminder of that day. In my wallet I have my boarding pass. Flight 1535. Seat 9D. I keep it with me as a reminder of that day. As a reminder of people who were not as lucky. As a reminder of the bond that was formed with John and Rick and Dave.
Today, in Phoenix, our agency is testing work for a new television campaign for one of our clients. I couldn’t bring myself to go.