My 9/11 Story

My 9/11 Story

The only thing unusual about the way September 11, 2001 unfolded for me in Orange County, California was the fact that my alarm went off at 4:00 o’clock. 

In the morning.

Not normally an early riser, I was scheduled to participate in a settlement conference in the Bay Area that day and logistics required such an early wake-up call.   

Had I not been so expense conscious, I would have flown up the night before, stayed in a hotel, dined at one of the infinite number of excellent restaurants in San Francisco and returned after the conference. 

But my thrift convinced me the better option was driving to Riverside County where I could catch the first flight out of Ontario (John Wayne Airport has a curfew preventing planes from departing before seven o’clock in the morning) and return the same day.

The forty-five minute drive to the airport was typical.  It was early enough that traffic was not a problem and I listened to my local sports talk radio station to see what scores or trades I might have missed from the night before.

But I was running a bit late.

It was going to be tight but I pulled into a reasonably close parking space, quickly grabbed my computer, walk-ran to the terminal, dashed up the stairs to my gate, presented my driver’s license, and answered the silly obligatory security questions (“Are you carrying any firearms?”) before finally catching my breath.

“Whew!  Just made it,” I smile-commented to the gate agent as most of the other passengers were finishing boarding.

While waiting for my boarding pass, I glanced up at at the television monitor tuned to CNN and caught a glimpse of World Trade Center showing smoke flowing out of some of the windows. 

“Wow!  Looks like a pretty bad fire,” I thought to myself as I headed down the jetway, the last passenger to board. 

The clock read 5:48 a.m.

The Southwest flight to Oakland always takes a pretty reliable eighty minutes, the carrier priding itself on its on-time arrivals and departures.  As soon as the plane lifted off, I eased into my customary power nap.

About an hour into the flight, my bio-clock knew it was time to wake up as we’d be landing soon.  But as a stirred, I quickly sensed we were in a holding pattern.  I felt like Del Griffith in Planes, Trains & Automobiles as I mentally paraphrased one of his lines from the movie.  

“Six bucks says we’re not landing in Oakland.”

About twenty minutes after our scheduled landing, still high above land, the captain finally gave us an update.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re being re-routed to San Jose this morning.  Apparently some terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and there are still some planes that may contain hijackers . . . “

I have no idea what he said after that.  Talk about a message that gets people’s attention. 

Centre Court matches at Wimbledon could never generate as much head twisting as everyone scanned the plane, eyeing fellow passengers half-suspiciously for reassurance and a possible explanation.   

Were we, too, going to crash?  Was our time up?

A few minutes after that first announcement we learned we were going to be landing in Oakland after all.  Soon, we landed to what looked more like a Used Jet Lot than an airport.  No flights were departing and the gates were jampacked.

After a few oddly quiet moments with everyone getting caught up on the news once we deplaned, I realized this was going to be no ordinary day.  I also realized my return flight was going to be cancelled so I’d better work on some contingency plans.

I rushed to the Avis counter to get my car.  Standing behind a passenger and his wife who needed to get back to Texas being told there were no cars available, I awaited my turn.

“One full size vehicle returning this afternoon, sir?”

The wheels in my head turned. 

Were terrorists going to bomb the bridges?  Surely those would be optimum targets. 

Were planes going to be grounded for days? 

Will gas stations run out of gas? 

Will hotels be full if I’m forced to stay here?  I don’t want to end up at the Y.

“Sir?”

“Yes,” I lied, “yes, returning this afternoon.”

I knew full well I was not going to that settlement conference and I knew I was not returning my car to Oakland Airport.  I was going to immediately begin the six-and-a-half hour trek straight back to Orange County while it was still possible.

Once safely en route, I finally checked my voicemails to hear a frantic message from my distraught wife.  The news stations were announcing that some planes were still unaccounted for and it was very easy that day to expect the worst.

Her relief when I called to tell her I was okay was palpable.

I called to let the claims representative know I would not be joining her at the settlement conference in Santa Rosa.  To this day, one of less than a handful of cancelled business appointments in my career. 

Back at Ontario, the airport was on lock-down and I discovered my car had been towed.  It was unclear when I’d be able to pick it up.  Looked like the Avis-mobile was going to be mine for awhile longer.

I arrived safely back home to a world I knew would never be the same.

I was conscious of the fact that I now had a third “Do You Remember Where Were You When . . .” moment to add to the other two watershed events of my lifetime:  The Kennedy Assassination and The Beatles First Ed Sullivan Show Appearance.

But this was different.  I was older and this was different. 

Very, very different.

 

 

 

 

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