Luck of the Draw
I was staying in Jersey City the night of Sept. 10 in preparation for a training class I was conducting the next day at a well known insurance company. They are located in a building one short block from the river. For those of you not familiar with the area, Jersey City is located directly across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center.
I met a colleague in the lobby at about 8:50 on the morning of Sept. 11. We had checked out and ran into an employee for the insurance company that was in town from Trenton for the training. Since he had a car and we were about 5 blocks from the building, he offered to drive us. The radio was not on. As we drove he casually commented, "Hey - the World Trade Center is on fire...". We looked over and saw flames licking out from several floors. I thought to myself, "I wonder if it was electrical or some terrorist left a backpack bomb in a restroom?" The fire did not look serious.
We got to the main drag and saw lots of people running in both directions, towards and away from the river. We parked the car in a deck beneath a building directly on the river and walked to the office building. People were evacuating the building we were parked in - I thought I overhead something about a "bomb threat". I walked into a deli to get a bagel before the training and was told that an airplane had hit the tower. I naturally assumed a terrorist had flown a private plane loaded with explosives into the tower.
It wasn't until we actually got inside the office that we found out it had been a hijacked airliner. As we gamely tried to setup our equipment, the events unfolded - the Pentagon being hit, the second tower being hit, and then finally the first tower collapsing. Due to company security policies, we had been put in a conference room with no access to the outside world. We waited for what seemed like a very long time, and saw people running through the halls crying. It occurred to me that New Jersey (at least that part) is really just a suburb of NYC. I also remembered on a previous visit (when we had stayed in NYC) sitting on the dock of the ferry on the NYC side waiting for the boat to take us across to Jersey City, and seeing packed ferries unloading New Jersey citizens loaded with brief cases and cell phones on their way to the financial district to work.
Finally, we were told that the FBI was evacuating all of the tall buildings along the river. We also found out that all flights were cancelled. We called the hotel to get our rooms back, but all the rooms were taken already. As we left the building, I looked over at the Twin Towers and was shocked. When we had walked in, there were flames licking out of one of the buildings. Now there was a huge cloud of thick black smoke and there was an empty space where one of the towers had once stood.
We were told by police to evacuate away from the river. Our suitcases were in the trunk of the car parked beneath the building on the river. The thought of being on foot in Jersey City with no clothes and no place to stay in the middle of what appeared to be a declaration of war on the United States was a bit scary. Fortunately, the police let us go pick up the car. Even more fortunate was that we even HAD someone with a car. As we drove away, the second tower fell. We inched our way out of Jersey City, and began looking for a place to spend the night.
I could not get a cell phone signal. By now, my home office and my wife (at the time) had been trying to get ahold me for about 3 hrs. We drove , no map, not really knowing where we were going, only knowing that we needed to find a hotel, and our customer's colleague had to get back home. We finally got the last two rooms in a shabby Howard Johnsons in N. Plainfield NJ. I also managed to get a message back to my office and get my wife on the phone to let them know I was okay. It wasn't until we got checked in and I watched the footage on TV did the scale of everything really sink in. I felt very alone and wanted nothing more than to be home with my family.
The next day we rented a car (one way) and drove the 14 1/2 hrs home.
There have been many stories about lucky people who did not go to work that day and were spared. For me, I had been up for a preliminary visit two weeks prior to 9/11 and stayed at the Marriott at the World Trade Center. I would have stayed there again on the night of 9/10, except there was some sort of conference scheduled and the hotel had jacked up the rates. We had to stay in N.J to save money.
Otherwise, I would have been walking through the lobby of the Word Trade Center about the time the first plane hit.