Memories of the week when everything changed

A birthday gift from November 2001, picture taken at the World Trade Center memorial in NYC days after 9/11.

20 years ago today, I was attending a conference held on the Genentech campus in South San Francisco, California. We were split up into working teams and I was sitting next to a woman I’d just met, Rikke Winther. We enjoyed the day and had a lovely evening that night, sharing dinner and maybe little wine 🙂 and I was so happy to meet this new friend. I went back to my room, eager to see what the second day of the conference would bring. I was also excited because I had made a reservation for myself (party of 1) months earlier at a restaurant I had always wanted to go to but never had, Chez Panisse in Berkeley. It’s a famous place with an amazing chef, one of those places that is booked for weeks in advance and you need to reserve your table with a credit card nonrefundable deposit. I was looking forward to this meal so much that I didn’t even want anyone to come with me so I could just fully embrace what I knew was going to be an amazing (if expensive) experience.

I woke up early the next morning to go for a run before the meeting. As I was lacing up my shoes, I glanced up at the television I had turned on just for background noise. I saw the reports of what they first thought was a small plane that had hit the World Trade Center in New York. The story we all know all too well then unfolded rapidly before my eyes. I was glued to the television for the next several hours.

Back then, I was flying all the time, traveling almost every week, several flights a week sometimes. I had just moved back to Texas from Philly a few months prior. I didn’t always share all the details of my travels with friends or family, they just knew I was traveling. So the first thing I did was call my mom to let her know I was ok. Then my phone started blowing up, starting with my then-boss who first wanted to make sure I was safe, and then asked me to be part of the team that called every US employee to find them and make sure everyone was accounted for. That was probably a good thing, because it did help me go into action, any action, rather than being paralyzed by my own fear and disbelief of what was happening, and what might be to come. Once that was done, I started calling my friends, Carolyn and Barbara back east, to make sure they were ok. Everyone was just in shock and a mess. And here I was in a hotel room in South San Francisco, with all flights cancelled, and unsure when I might be able to go home. And let’s face it, for anyone who was traveling that day, all we wanted to do was to go home. To be in our own comfortable place where we could try to feel safe.

It was early days of internet and social media, there was no Facebook or Twitter. There were message boards, but not the same kind of connections as today. I felt trapped and very alone and wanted to turn off the television, but I couldn’t. Some time in the early afternoon, I remembered my new friend Rikke. If I felt alone and far from home, imagine how she must have felt – she was here all the way from Copenhagen! I called the hotel front desk and asked to call her room and check on her. I asked if she wanted to have dinner, more out of habit than anything, because no one felt like eating. Understandably, she said she didn’t feel like doing anything and just wanted to stay in her room – she had family and friends who were worried about her and vice versa, of course.

And then, I remembered my Chez Panisse reservation. I had completely forgotten about it. I didn’t feel right doing something so extravagant after that horrific day, so I called them to cancel, realizing that I would lose my deposit – money I couldn’t really afford to lose, but couldn’t imagine enjoying a meal like that on a day like this. They were wonderfully understanding and I didn’t even have to ask about the deposit. They said it would be refunded and hoped I would come back in happier times. I have eaten at the casual cafe upstairs with friends one time since then, but I’ve still never made it back to Chez Panisse.

Days passed and the full horror of what had happened began to sink in. Continental Airlines told me to call each night for an update on when flights might be allowed to leave San Francisco, assuring me that I’d be on the first one out when it was time. After a while, everyone in the hotel was stir crazy. I think it was Thursday or Friday when I finally decided to try to venture out. I drove into downtown San Francisco and half-heartedly tried to do some window-shopping. Everything felt hollow, uneasy, and unsafe. There were several of us who found each other in the lobby bar that afternoon, and one of the people (I’ve forgotten everyone since then except Rikke) suggested we take a drive to Muir Woods the following afternoon, presuming there were no flights out for us, which there weren’t.

If you’ve never been to Muir Woods, I highly recommend it. It was my first time there to see the magnificent redwoods that day, and it was the perfect place to be at that time. Not only is it visually stunningly beautiful, but those magnificent trees emit some kind of sap that insect and birds find completely unappealing, so it is eerily, hauntingly, beautifully silent. One area is even called Cathedral Grove, and that’s exactly what it felt like – a giant, peaceful, intensely spiritual cathedral that was so pristine and beautiful that day and brought some much needed peace to all of our anxious souls. We wandered around for hours, this band of relative strangers from vastly different backgrounds who’d been brought together in the worst of times.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Driving back to the hotel, we stopped at Scoma’s in Sausalito across the bay from San Francisco, overlooking the city as sunset approached and the twinkling lights began to appear. We broke bread together and felt relaxed for the first time in days. I got the call from Continental – I’d be on the first flight out to Houston early the next morning. I went back to the hotel, packed up my things, and prepared for what was certainly going to be a surreal experience – getting on one of the first post- 9/11 flights. I was nervous, but so eager to go home. As was the case every other night that week, I slept poorly, with the television on in case another shoe dropped and something else terrible happened.

The next morning I went to the airport, still thinking that there was probably going to be a last minute snafu and more cancelled flights, but everything went as scheduled. I was upgraded to seat 1A. The seat next to me was empty until the very last minute before the door closed. A man in street clothing flashed a badge to the captain and sat down next to me. He was in street clothes, but there was no mistaking the physical stature and serious, badass demeanor of someone who was well-versed in defending himself and others. I smiled at him and he gave me a nod as he took the seat next to me. Trying to break the ice, I said “so, if anything happens on this flight, you’ve got this, right?” He smiled and sat back, looked me straight in the eye, and said “Yes, I’ve got this. Don’t you worry about that.” While they aren’t allowed to identify themselves, there’s no doubt in my mind this was a US Marshall.

I looked out the window as our plane rumbled down the runway and climbed into the sky. Of course it was impossible not to think of all those passengers who never made it home that Tuesday and the horror they must have experienced. But then I turned to look at the man next to me, and he said “I told you I’ve got this. Get some rest.” And I didn’t wake up until he gently tapped my shoulder a few hours later, just before we landed in Houston. I caught the connection back to Austin, knowing that while things were starting to return to normal, nothing would ever be the same.

May God give all of us peace and rest this evening and tomorrow, as we honor those lost because of this terrible anniversary and the amazing resolve of all who survived and responded to it.

Photo by Lars Mulder on Pexels.com

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