Monday, September 14, 2009

A Bad Way to Learn Geography

It was 7:30am and the alarm clock radio went off, nothing new. Like many I lay in bed waiting for a decent song to come on and help me kick start another day at the office working at United Airlines “World Headquarters” in suburban Chicago.

September 11, 2001 wasn’t supposed to be anything special beyond a typical Tuesday. I used to always say Tuesdays were the one day of the week that I could do without. There was nothing special about Tuesdays. Monday started the week, Wednesday was Hump Day, Thursday started the anticipation for the weekend and the eagle flew on Friday. Tuesdays were just…there.

By 8AM I was telling myself the first crash in to the World Trade Center in New York was either an unfortunate heart attack on approach to Newark or some student pilot with particularly bad luck. By 8:03AM I knew two heart attacks on the same day in the same place was not likely. Racing to work, the scene at the office was all the five stages of the Kubler-Ross grief model in full force and then some: anger, denial, depression, bargaining, acceptance, confusion, crying and crowded conference rooms, every TV and monitor tuned to any news source worth watching. And this was the Cargo Division.

My mother reminded me of having called her and asking if she had turned on the television yet. She hadn't but quickly spread the word around the family to tune in. Just in time to see the 2nd plane fly in to the South Tower.

"What the hell is going on here?!" I have shouted to myself, fear and anger rising in equal measure as news of the Pentagon attack began filtering in. I viscerally felt that either they had missed the Capitol building or the White House or that one of them was next in line. Shanksville, Pennsylvania got that one instead, after the passengers fought the hijackers on the fourth and final flight that day.

Stories of sheer chaos and panic in the streets began to fly. The tallest office towers in the smallest cities from Wausau to Wichita were evacuated. Cell signals and rental cars were virtually non-existent. Across the land the sight and sound of arriving and departing aircraft was replaced with the kind of stillness only the early settlers themselves may have once heard.

Flights inbound from Europe and Asia were stopped short in Canada or turned back. Those of us in the business old enough to remember Gander, Newfoundland as a regular stop along the way mentally knew where some of the planes were but even the hard-nosed veterans were stumped with some of the places stranded flights were calling in from.

“What? A 747? You're where? Where the heck is Yellowknife?!”
“Do we even fly there?”
“Does ANYBODY fly there?”
"How did he get in there?"
“How are we going to get the damned thing out?”

Think of a 5lb. bag of rice exploding all over the counter and you have to account for and recover each multi-million dollar grain in that bag. Airline operations centers around the world launched “disaster recovery plans” as they wrestled with how to reset the system from a “not-in-a-million-years” catastrophe featuring thousands of planes grounded at the first available foreign or domestic runway long enough to handle them.

None of it seemed to matter when the first tower fell.

I remember being in New York not two years earlier taking a visiting friend from New Zealand on a tour of the city. We had stopped directly under the South Tower where I explained the first attack in 1993.

“Try to imagine something that big coming down.” The impact on my New Zealand friend was, to say the least, profound. Then the other tower fell.

At the time United Airlines was the premier US carrier, highly ranked and respected around the world for its service, savvy and strength. In less than an hour this major corporation was reduced to a catatonic, nonsense-gibbering, pupil-dilated shell of itself from which it and so many individual lives still have yet to fully recover.

“Where are you?” is the typical opener to any conversation between airline employees and their loved ones. Through work or simply “just because,” someone is on a plane, out of town or out of the country. Those of us that could went home early to find out.

Who could work? Moreover, what was the point? Every project, plan, profit and price was suddenly, instantly way off target. No one said anything if anyone, and most of us did, were to leave by early afternoon. In the airline game especially there was literally nothing to do except go home and light up the phones.

Following the attack articles would appear about high-flying, six-figure executives accepting $9/hour jobs at the butcher’s counter of the local grocer to try and keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. Other stories emerged of people rediscovering the true meaning of life away from the rat race by opening their own small businesses, serving humanitarian causes and remembering the reason why they started families in the first place by deciding at least one parent should stay home with their suddenly much older but still young enough children.

I was a young manager finally on the up, high profile projects, far flung appointments, international contacts and a sense of place and purpose. For seven years after the furlough I drifted, trying my hand at substitute teacher, a disastrous turn at retail, even all the way back to airport baggage handler in Baltimore where I’d moved to be around family and sift through the ashes.

I never use the phrase “My life was over” regarding September 11th because I am still here to reflect upon it and mourn those souls who did live their last that horrible morning. All the same I am only now just starting to feel that I am nearly back to the life I had eight years ago. I will always carry a torch for that day, that life and those lives, however, so long as I live.

May they all rest in peace.

Gotta go.

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