Soon after 6a on September 11, 2001, my phone rang.
It was still early in Phoenix and I was sleeping, but my friend who worked for United Airlines at Washington/Dulles airport was wide awake. On the other end of the line, I heard him ask me if I knew what was going on in a sort of hurried tone. I was groggy and didn’t really respond. He stumbled over his own words trying to tell me that one plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center in New York and they were getting conflicting reports of a second one hitting the other tower.
I vaguely remember saying something about this being a joke, but when I flipped on the tv and saw the towers burning, I woke up quickly. My friend said they didn’t know which planes had hit, but there were all kinds of rumors running around that at least one of them was United’s. He sounded scared and was hoping I knew more. I of course did not.
At the time, I was working for America West, and my heart started pounding. What if one of those planes was ours? As a member of the emergency response team, I kicked it into high gear. Before 7a, I arrived at America West headquarters for work.
When I got off the elevator, it was an eerie site. Those who were there already were huddled together around speakerphones listening to a company-wide call. By then we knew that our planes weren’t involved, but we didn’t know if there was more to come.
By the time I settled in to listen to the call, those on the other end of the line were focused on keeping track of all our aircraft. Updates came through all the time when each plan landed. Those early morning flights from the east coast back west were forced to land in the middle of the country. Cities like Omaha, Kansas City, and even Grand Junction saw some action that day. When we heard that all our planes were safe on the ground, a huge sigh of relief ran through the building.
Then everyone started to think about what had just happened and a cloud of uncertainty filled the floor. In the pricing group, my boss and I stayed around while everyone else was sent home. We had to be there to manage the change/refund policies as the situation became more clear. The rest of that day at work is a fuzzy memory now. Everything happened so fast until there was nothing happening at all. Being only a couple miles east of the runway, we had all become accustomed to the constant jet noise flying overhead. That day we heard nothing . . . a very loud nothing.
At the end of the day, I met my friend who worked for Mesa Air Group at my favorite little dive bar in Phoenix. We just sat there drinking our beer staring at the tv with everyone else in the bar. It was completely surreal.
That was as close as I got to feeling the tragedy personally until I went to business school. My classmate and friend Carie Lemack lost her mother, Judy Larocque, who was a passenger on American flight 11 that morning. Even though I had friends who had lost acquaintances or friends of friends that day, it never really hit me personally until I met Carie and saw the pain that it caused her.
It was also truly inspiring to see how Carie dealt with the pain. She’s not the kind of person to just sit back and watch things unfold. Nope, she picked herself up and dedicated herself to making sure something like this never happens again. She cofounded Families of September 11 and has been a persistent and instrumental voice in influencing government policy on safety and security. It’s comforting to know that Carie is out there fighting tirelessly.
So, today I’ll be thinking of Carie and her mother as well as everyone else who was personally affected five years ago.