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Where were you on September 11th?

I received several responses to my question, “Where were you on September 11, 2001”, which I circulated last week. I want to thank those who shared. It is amazing how you see very different lives connect at a single point. It made me think of the movie Crash.

I thought I would share my own September 11th experience. I was in Cedar Rapids, IA at that time. I had just accepted a job there and was deciding whether I wanted to make it permanent. I had lived in eastern Iowa earlier in my life and loved it, but it wasn’t a place I intended to stay my whole life. Let’s just say that being an HR Consultant in Iowa carries with it its own unique type of glamour!

Although I still lived in Toronto, I had a small apartment not far from downtown Cedar Rapids. At the time, I was flying in on Mondays and flying back on Fridays.

The one thing that distinguishes the Midwest and Cedar Rapids from other parts of the world is how much your world revolves around freight trains and their schedules. On the morning of September 11th, I had decided not to leave early to go to work and it took longer to get in to the office that day because I had to wait 10 minutes for a large freight train to pass. As I sat in the line waiting for the train to clear, I remember thinking that it was it was turning Fall and that the music on the radio was good (which it ALWAYS is in Iowa—that’s how people entertain themselves). Because of the train delay, I arrived at my building at 8:20 central time.

As I was walking to my office, I could hear my phone ringing. I ran to pick it up and it was my husband John. At the time, he worked for Merrill Lynch in downtown Toronto. He was speaking quickly and I was having trouble understanding him, which was unusual. “Have you heard, have you heard?”, he asked. I said “about what”, thinking that I’d been listening to the radio for the last 20 minutes and had heard nothing but good tunes. He said, “A plane hit the World Trade Centre, there are terrorist attacks in the U.S., and they’re closing down the Merrill Lynch offices globally and I have to evacuate the building as soon as the management briefing is complete”. I told him that sounded awful, and he should call me when he had more information. On reflection, my initial reaction was curiosity more than concern. At the time, I was having difficulty picturing that the plane was a 747 and that it had the capability of bringing down a high rise and so I probably didn’t respond with as much concern as I might now.

Following that, I remember feeling frustrated at how long it took to boot up my computer. I remember trying several times to get on the web, but Yahoo was down. I remember calling John back and getting his voicemail. I remember going to get a cup of tea in the servery. After awhile, (maybe up to 15 minutes or so) I went and asked a few people and no one had heard anything. On my way back to my office my assistant had a radio in her cubicle and the news was starting to come on about it.

At about 9:00 central time, John calls back and says that one of the buildings just collapsed (my visual is that a few floors off the top fell down, not that the building disappeared), there’s still a plane in the air and they were going to shoot it down, he can’t find his emergency contact list and his staff left and he doesn’t know if he has the information he’s going to need to orchestrate things from home and he’s not sure if he can get train out of downtown because there are a million people on the street trying to get out. He kept saying, “it’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad”. Then he said something I will never forget. He said that his boss Margaret had gone down to New York City the night before and had a meeting in the WTC this morning and no one could reach her. He also said he had colleagues on Wall Street in a nearby WTC building who had evacuated but they didn’t know if they were safe. The squawk boxes in their New York office were now silent.

I told him to do what he had to do and to call me when he got home. I was fine, and I was going to try and get some more news. At about 9:20, my colleague Julie came flying by and told me that there was a TV in the health club downstairs and did I want to go with her, and I said yes. I watched the 2nd building standing for all of about 2 minutes when it collapsed. I remember that I gasped. The rest of the day was a blur. John got home around noon and called me on my cell phone and we talked for a long time. Not long after, all the malls and public buildings in Cedar Rapids were closed. I packed up my stuff and drove out to the airport to see the spectacle of airplanes. Cedar Rapids picked up a large portion of the emergency landings from O’Hare and they literally had them lined up in the cornfields at the end of the runway. I wish I would’ve taken a picture of that. I came home that afternoon and watched TV for 24 hours straight. All evening John and I debated whether I should go in in the morning and quit and/or if I should pack the car and drive back to Toronto vs. waiting for a plane. It wasn’t until about 10:00 that night that we learned that Margaret had been on her way into Wall Street when the plane crashed and that the smart cab driver immediately turned around and headed back to the airport in Newark. It would be more than a week before the fate of some of the other Merrill Lynch employees would be known.

It was a defining moment. Lessons learned: Life is short and things can change unexpectedly. Don’t try to achieve everything because it is there to achieve. You need to be near your family. You need to be where you love to be. There’s no place like home.

I had mentioned that this circulation list would not be in existence today had it not been for September 11th. This is why I say that. In the summer of 2001, I started a newsletter distribution, in a format that would be called today a blog. At the time, the circulation was mostly to family and friends, but there were some work colleagues on it. In the months after September 11th, I started circulating it to more people, who eventually sent it to their friends and by the end of the year, there were more than 150 people who were reading my newsletter. When I was formally back in Toronto, I started focusing on the contents of the newsletter as more work/culture-related and added job opportunities which people were sending to me, as I had gone back to teaching and was normally sending things out to former students informally—it was a “two birds” approach initially. This has just evolved and evolved to what it is today.

So now you know. . .

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