This is a date that means different things to different people. Everyone remembers exactly what they were doing. My friends in Japan tell me they were watching in shock as the late night news switched to the billowing smoke from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Out on the West Coast, only the early risers were aware of the news.
MSNBC ran some footage from seven years ago as events were unfolding. And as I watched the images, I am frozen by the drama, but at the same time feel unusually distant from coverage. I wonder why, since this was one of the most memorable days of my life.
I’ve told this story to close friends, and have shared it with clients.
I was on board United Flight 83 bound from Newark to Los Angeles on 9/11/2001. My flight was scheduled to depart about 7am. It pushed back from the gate about 15 minutes behind schedule, was stuck on the take-off queue, then took to the skies around 7:30 am. I remember that I got on a limousine around 5:00 am from mid-town Manhattan, checked into my United flight around 5:45 am or so, then sat around in the Red Carpet Lounge. I was quite sleepy, since a 5 o’clock pick-up meant that I was up at 4:00 am (which was 1 am in LA). I can still recall the golden gleam of the WTC buildings, visible from 30 miles away in Newark, as our plane was waiting in line patiently. As soon as the flight was in the sky, I fell asleep. Around that time, four terrorists were boarding United Flight 93 in Newark. They were less than an hour behind my flight.
I was awaken by an announcement. I didn’t know what was happening, except that there was a mentioning of “we will be landing shortly.” I knew I was sleepy, but doubted I had slept through the entire six-hour journey. I heard something about Kansas City. The cabin attendants seemed to be moving around nervously, speaking in hushed tones. Something wasn’t right. I wondered if a massive earthquake had hit Los Angeles, and thus we were being diverted. Or perhaps the plane had a mechanical problem.
As we got closer to the airport, I was still in a daze, unable to either go back to sleep or to fully arouse myself. Everything was surreal. After landing and taxiing on the runway, I looked out the window and saw trails of two other planes in the sky. But the trails were all circular. They were circling overhead. I knew something was terribly wrong.
A flight attendant announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have arrived at Kansas City International Airport. We will be taxiing to the gate. Once we arrive at the gate, and the doors are opened, the captain will have an announcement.”
Something was definitely wrong.
Passengers in the half-empty first class section glanced at each other looking for some comfort, but got none in return. The scene was almost straight out of a movie. We just sat in silence, no one particularly eager to unbuckle his/her seat belts.
When the plane stopped, strangely, I heard no clicking, banging of the overhead bins, or shuffling shoes. I could see the door of our Airbus being opened, and a tall air marshal walked into the cabin, clearly armed.
“Ladies and gentlemen. This is the captain. We have a national emergency. We’ve received reports that two aircraft have hit the World Trade Center. Another one has hit the Pentagon. There are an additional 8 aircraft that are unaccounted for. The FAA has closed all US air space for the remainder of the day and until further notice. No planes will be allowed to depart for the rest of the day. We have booked rooms for all of you. Please visit the United counter outside for additional information…”
I don’t recall what he said after that. We picked up our stuff, and walked down the aisles of the plane like zombies, in shock, and without knowing what to say or to do. Nothing in life has prepared anyone for a moment like that.
As I watch the MSNBC program, it finally dawns on me why none of the images seem to register. It was because in spite of the fact that I have seen the video replays of the events countless times, I was never there. I never watched the event live, because I was on the plane. And only after I deplaned did I see the crumbling of the Twin Towers. By the time I saw it, everything was already history.
For me, 9/11 was always history. It was an event that I missed, because I was part of it. On 9/11/2001, I was rushing back to LA because of a big sales meeting—a quarterly meeting that was supposed to be in San Francisco. If the venue had stayed in SFO, fate could have placed me on United 93.
Every time I watch the move of the same title, I feel my heart race. It could have been me.
If United decided to fly Boeing 757 or 767 on the Newark – Los Angeles route, it could have been me.
I keep a letter that was sent to me from United, apologizing for diverting Flight 083 to Kansas City. Along with my boarding pass to that flight, I have it stored. I don’t keep it close to me, but it’s sitting somewhere in storage, where it belongs. I don’t want to be reminded every day, but once in a while, it’s good to know that I was lucky. And once in a while, I need to be reminded of all those that perished.
And then, I tell myself—Every day is a gift.