On September 11th, 2001, I was flying along at 36,000 feet, in a United jet heading from Denver to Chicago, then on to New York. I was working as a literary agent for Alive Communications in Colorado at the time, and flew out of Denver regularly. There wasn’t anything special about the flight — I was in first class, seat 3B, and directly across the aisle from longtime Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy, who had been in Denver to call an NFL game on television.
We’d been in the air about an hour when I said to the guy next to me, “Something’s wrong. We’re going down.” So I motioned to the flight attendant (a tall, young guy who looked all of 20) and asked him. He clearly didn’t know what was going on either, but said he’d check with the pilots. I watched him knock on the cabin door, enter, stay inside 3 or 4 minutes, then come out, white as sheet. He motioned to me that all was fine, but he was obviously upset, and I knew right away something was deeply wrong. I reached for the phone (in olden days, they had phones in the back of the seat, and you could call home five miles up). The phone didn’t work.
The captain came on the speakers and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to remain seated. There have been terrorist attacks against the United States of America, and all planes have been ordered out of US airspace. We’re going to make an unscheduled stop. Please do not leave your seats. There’s nothing wrong with the aircraft.”
I turned to the guy next to me and said, “You know, I fly just about every week, and I’ve never heard anything like that before.” Of course, I was right. Nothing like that had ever been said before. So everybody in first class reached for the phones, but none of them were working. So we all broke the rules and turned on our cell phones — and none of us could get a signal. I know because we were all sort of sharing information politely by that time. Frankly, we were convinced something was wrong with the plane, and we all thought we were going to crash. I prayed I’d get to see my kids again.
The plane went very low, and stayed low for a long time. The pilot, who I spoke with later, was a former military pilot, and he told me if anything was going to happen to his plane, he was going to make sure he got it onto the ground. So we flew very low, not knowing anything — no details, no reports, not even a notice of where we were headed. Just before we touched down, the pilot came over the sound system to say, “By the way, ladies and gentlemen, we’re in Omaha.” When the wheels touched, there was a burst of applause by the passengers.
The airport was jammed. There were no gates left, so we taxied onto the grass. They pushed a set of stairs up to the plane doors, and I found myself standing at the doors, ready to be the first one off, still convinced the plane was about to explode. As I raced up to the terminal, there were two United gate agents opening the doors. One of them, a pretty African-American woman, was crying. Inside was a madhouse — remember, none of us on the plane still had any idea what was happening, and the rumors being passed around the terminal were wild. People talked about planes being hijacked, bombs going off, the capital building being attacked, the White House being under seige. Nobody really knew what was going on.
There was one TV in the Omaha airport, and they had the good sense to put it on top of a refrigerator and wheel it out into the concourse so the crowd could see it. I was moving around, trying to get a view, and just as the crowd parted I caught a glimpse of the screen, and watched the World Trade Center collapse. The woman beside me screamed. I remember looking at my watch; it was almost exactly 8:30 in the morning back home, 9:30 in Omaha. I made note of it because I thought the world had just changed.
Cell phones couldn’t get a signal, and the lines to the pay phones stretched for a quarter mile, so I walked outside into the parking lot, figuring nobody would think to wander out there and hunt for a phone. Sure enough, I located a phone, nobody was waiting, and I called my wife. She was happy to hear from me, since the young gal we’d hired to work the front desk had apparently called her and asked, “Do you know if Chip is okay? We’ve heard about a bunch of planes getting hijacked and crashing, and we haven’t heard from him…” That’s how Patti first found out about the events of that day. She turned on the TV, watched it unfold, and was the first person to give me the basic details of what was happening, as I stood outside in the sun, on a pay phone at a parking lot in Omaha.
I next called my office, and my assistant, the sainted Isabel, had already learned where my plane had landed, called ahead, and rented a car for me at Hertz. The Hertz counter had forty or fifty people by this time, all shouting and waving their arms, while the one young lady behind the counter fought back tears and tried to explain to people that she couldn’t help them, that she wasn’t supposed to be renting any cars, that they’d have to wait until she got further instructions. So I slipped around to the side door, and asked her how she was holding up. She sort of smiled at me and sniffled, so I pointed to my name on one of the gold folders, and she simply took it and handed me the keys, without so much as asking for ID. (It pays to be nice, apparently.)
Once I had found the huge Chevy Suburban Isabel had reserved for me, I wandered back into the terminal to find a mountain of luggage — the airlines had decided the only way to get checked bags back to passengers was to stick them in piles in the concourse, by flight number, so I dug through them until I located my bag. I then turned to the group of people who had been on my flight and, over the din, simply shouted, “I’ve rented a big car and I’m heading back to Denver. Does anyone want to ride along?” Five people motioned to me, we all got our bags, and started the long trek back.
Normally I find a long car trip like that to be fun — a great time to tell jokes and get to know each other. This trip was remarkably quiet. Two males, three females, and after fairly brief introductions we simply got on the road and made the long haul back to Denver and Colorado Springs. We spent the entire day with the radio on, trying to glean details, and trying to get our minds to grasp the events of the day. While everybody in the country was watching the images on television, we were getting by with annoyingly repetitive radio reports from news anchors who were simply trying, like everyone else, to decipher what had just happened. (It’s ironic that the first public announcer to state, “This is an act of terrorism” was none other than the wise and thoughtful, um… Howard Stern.) I didn’t get to see any of those iconic television images we all have come to know until late that night, when I finally got home and got to sit on the couch with my wife and kids, holding on to them and wondering what the future was going to bring.
Every generation gets to look back and thinks of the past as being simpler and quieter. That’s how it seems to me now, gazing back into the hazy past before 9/11. Everything changed with the attack on the World Trade Center. What followed was another war in Iraq, seemingly endless fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a looming war in Iran, and ten trillion dollars in war debt. We came to understand that we’re not invulnerable and, for good or bad, decided we would become the world’s policeman, protecting the innocent from evil. For I truly believe that’s what happened that day — evil attacked. And while I know the events drew us together as a country (President Bush, in unquestionably his finest moment, rallied the country with his speech from atop the rubble: “I can hear you, the rest of the world can hear you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon”), but overall it seems what has followed has been more economic struggle and partisan rancor. I ended up representing my only #1 New York Times bestseller because of this day (Lisa Beamer’s Let’s Roll!) as well as another book that hit the NYT list for weeks (Mike Hiingson and Susy Flory’s wonderful Thunder Dog), but the fact is, I’m tired of war, of bombing people, and of watching our national debt rise. I’m tired of hearing about evil Islamic thugs. I’m glad we got Bin Laden, but I’d like to see every American serviceman and servicewoman come home, and fly in planes, and feel safe doing so, without having to worry about having to land in Omaha for any reason other than to see the annual College World Series.
2977 innocent people died on this day, eleven years ago (plus 19 nutjob hijackers, who can frankly rot in hell for all I care). 343 were firefighters, who lost their lives trying to save others. 23 were New York City police officers, 37 were Port Authority police officers, 2 were paramedics. The rest were just people like me — moms and dads and brothers and sisters, going to work or to meetings and trying to make a living. None of them deserved to be attacked for what some religious bigots felt was disagreeable international policy. So on this day, we pause to remember the victims. We will never forget.