Personal Memories on the 9/11 Anniversary

World Trade Center, 9/11 anniversary, towers of lightToday is 9/11—the 13th anniversary of the attack on America by militant Islamists that killed nearly 3,000 people in three locations.  It’s a day when we remember where we were when we heard or saw the news of something we had considered impossible.

Amid all the remembrances, the moments of silence, the reading of names, the beams of spotlights creating spectral buildings, I have my own personal memories.  I am grateful that none of them are tragic. My grief is that of every American and my recollections are vivid, even if they do not include those of personal loss.

Working in the Desert

I was in Tucson, Arizona on September 11, 2001. My company, Netscout Systems, was sponsoring the Information Week Conference and I was onsite to manage our sponsorship activities. My job was to make sure the company got the best return on our investment.  I had risen at dawn because I had a lot to do and turned on the TV while I got dressed. The attack had just begun at that point (it was still early in Arizona) and there was little news but what I heard was nevertheless unbelievable.

I called my husband, a native New Yorker, and told him to turn on the news. Thinking of the 1945 crash of a B-25 aircraft into the Empire State Building, he responded that he was too busy to watch TV. I told him to do it anyway and rushed to the conference area.  It was in turmoil and the conference, of course, simply fell apart. Yet we were trapped in Tucson because all flights had been cancelled.

Several friends rented vans and I was invited to join them in a round-the-clock, non-stop drive back to Massachusetts. The conference was held in the Westin La Paloma, a four-star resort, and my back was giving me a lot of pain.  I also thought my fellow New Englanders underestimated just how big the country is and how long it would take to get back home.  With no small children to rush home to, I opted to stay in place and wait for air travel to resume.

The Westin La Paloma hotel in Tucson, AZ, 9/11 anniversary, Tucscon AZ

The Westin La Paloma hotel in Tucson, AZ

In the Aftermath

After watching as much of the TV coverage and reading as much of The Wall Street Journal’s comprehensive reporting as I could stand, I needed to move around. I felt like I would come out of my skin if I had to sit still for one more minute.

My colleague, Millie, and I spent the next few days going to some parts of Arizona that my business travel had never previously allowed me to see.  So my memories of this tragedy are mixed incongruously with bright sunshine, picturesque mountains, and dry air. We also got to observe what happens to a beautiful resort when people are leaving daily but no new guests can arrive.  My memories include these:

  • At the conference dinner, held because most people were still present and the meal was all planned, we listened to attendees talk about how the tragedy affected them. Executives from Cantor Fitzgerald related how they had spent the day trying to track down their employees and determine how many were missing—presumed dead.
  • I overheard someone talk about “the poor Taliban,” which had taken in Osama Bin Laden, and were now being vilified for it. (I gave him some information about the Taliban so he could stop being sympathetic.)
  • The crew of clean-cut young men clad in white shirts and khaki shorts who stood at the entrance of @WestinLaPaloma and sprinted to valet cars, fetch luggage and otherwise help arriving and departing guests dwindled to one person.
  • Millie and I stood in reconstructed Tombstone and listened as a re-enactor costumed as Wyatt Earp talked to a woman dressed as a dance-hall girl about the rumor that several firefighters had been found in the rubble of the World Trade Center towers. The rumor was, unfortunately, not true but the juxtaposition of historical costume and contemporary event was jarring, as if time had warped.
  • I watched the sky grow clearer and more intensely blue without the ever-present, interwoven contrails of jet airliners. Flights still went out of nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base so I didn’t miss the sound of jet engines.
  • The room-service trays that usually vanished from the covered walkway outside the hotel rooms almost as soon as they appeared instead lingered for days. I noticed how the wine evaporated from one glass every time I went past.
  • Saguaro National Park, Ron Niebrugge

    Photo: Ron Niebrugge

    Millie and I walked through a quiet—and largely empty—Saguaro National Park as the sun went down and the giant cacti loomed over us like dark monoliths.

  • The hotel grew ever more silent, occupied only by those of us who were waiting for flights home and the owls who lived in the tree by the swimming pool.
  • At the gate in Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport on Saturday, we watched the solemn flight crew arrive with hesitant steps and trepidation in their eyes.
  • I looked at my fellow passengers as they gathered and for the first time wondered if any of them was going to try to kill me—or if I was going to have to try to kill them.

My memories are, fortunately, those of a bystander. I watched and listened and cried but I did not lose anyone—whether family, colleague or friend.  In that, I am fortunate.  For those of you  for whom this tragedy was personal, my heart goes out to you today, as it did then.