The anniversary of September 11–my personal experience

For a moment, I want to step away from my typically snarky commentary about things I see in the pseudoscience world. I want to talk about my own experiences on that day, which, in retrospect, ended up being a closer call than I ever wish to have.

You see, on September 11, 2001, I was taking a morning flight from New York’s JFK airport to my home. I had spent the weekend in New York City with my girlfriend–we had good food and drinks with her brother and her sister-in-law, and we all got good seats for the hit musical on Broadway that year. Even after 13 years, I’ve never seen the movie based on that musical nor listen to the songs, despite how funny they are. It’s because, to me, that musical is intimately tied to 9/11.

 

Credit to Wikimedia Commons, 2011
Credit to Wikimedia Commons, 2011

On Monday, September 10, I had to go down to Wall Street (in a building close to the World Trade Center) to meet with a group that was doing an analysis of one part of the medical device industry, and we spent all day examining numbers, evaluating companies, and discussing future technology. It was highly analytical, and something I enjoy doing.

I also met with a hedge fund operator in the Twin Towers, whom I had befriended in a previous job. His whole investing strategy was to root out liars and frauds in the small medical companies, then short the stock (that is bet that the stock price will drop and profit from it). He had an amusing and colorful internet nom de plume, which I remember to this day.

After the meetings, I was originally going to stay in the Marriott Hotel on Wall Street, but I decided to just stay in my more uptown hotel for better restaurants and things to do.

At this point, the world was perfect for me. New York’s weather was feeling a bit like autumn was just around the corner. I was in a wonderful relationship. And I was going to close on a new house on Tuesday afternoon, so I was in a hurry to get back.

On Tuesday morning, I got up early, and half-asleep, I took a taxi to JFK Airport to hop on a Delta Airlines Boeing 767. Going through the airport back then was totally different than it is today. I breezed through security, and you just walked through with your shoes, coats, belts, whatever. I had purchased a huge cigar cutter as a gift for a friend in NYC, and it was in my carryon luggage (I never checked back then). Security didn’t even ask me anything about it.

While I was sitting in the terminal waiting to board my flight, I received a call from another stock analyst in Minneapolis (one of the key areas for new medical technology in the USA) who wanted my opinion on a new thing from a Big Pharma company, and we got into a long detailed conversation. But we were supposed to board, and I said I’d call him back from the plane (an expensive proposition back then).

We took off around 6:00 AM (Eastern time), and I tried to call back the analyst, and didn’t get through to him until around 8:30 AM. We were chatting away about the Big Pharma (if you had heard my opinion of them during that conversation, you’d know how little I think of them at times), when he kind of stops the conversation and says, “CNN is reporting a small plane crashed into the World Trade Center.” Incredibly, given what happened, we were both nonchalant. He actually made some joke about another investment banking company–I can’t repeat it because it was so awful from today’s perspective, but just kind of funny at the time.

Seriously, we talked about the plane for 30 seconds before getting back to stocks and new products. As we’re having this conversation, it’s clear he’s distracted by the TV in his office, and he says “wow, that fire doesn’t look like a small plane.” And a few minutes later, he’s says, “I gotta go.” At that moment, I gave no further thought to what I had heard. Because what actually was happening was so inconceivable (and yes, I keep using that word, and I know what it means) that I just thought a small plane went off course. Maybe some guy was committing suicide and making a statement. Or a pilot had a heart attack while descending to an airport. Or just random, but wholly conceivable, things happened.

About an hour later, there’s an US Air Force jet flying next to us, and the pilot said we’re landing, way short of where I wanted to be. I had vague unease that what I had heard on my phone call with the analyst in Minneapolis was related, but again, it was inconceivable that there was any logical tie between the what was happening to our jet, and what was happening in New York.

Now, you have to remember that 2001, despite being just 13 years ago, was the Stone Age of technology. Text messaging was expensive. And there was no way to get a cell signal on a plane. I actually carried what was called a Sky Pager, a pager (remember those) which sent messages from satellites to my pager, but being a good passenger, I kept it off. Until I decided to not be a good passenger, and discretely turned it on. My assistant had sent like 20 pages for me to call. My oldest daughter was calling her. But for some reason, the simplified news feed had nothing important, except to mention a few sports events were being cancelled. My vague unease was no longer vague. It was something much more powerful.

When we arrived at our forced destination, we were met at the gate by various state and Federal law enforcement agencies. I was actually interviewed by a Federal officer of a fairly secretive department of the US government, who asked some perfunctory questions. But I noticed that anyone with dark brown skin was given a more intense “review.” At this point, I had no idea what had happened specifically, but things were getting really weird. The terminal was nearly empty, as all outbound flights at this rather large airport were temporarily cancelled.

It wasn’t until I saw a group of people standing around a bar did I find out what had happened. I found out that one of the Towers had collapsed, and just as I get to the bar, the second one collapsed. All I remember thinking was “I’m watching thousands of people dying.” At that moment, I still didn’t know what had happened, but I commenced to shake. I was beginning to put together all of the information that I had heard and seen, and started to understand that commercial jets were at the heart of this “attack.” And since all I knew was that two of the attacks were in New York, I kept wondering if the jet I was on was somehow involved in the tragedy, and that’s why the FBI, Secret Service, CIA and every other agency was at the airport. And the police seem to be giving longer “interviews” with Middle East looking passengers. Of course, asking questions of any law enforcement officer was met with “sorry sir, there’s nothing I can tell you.”

I then turned on my mobile phone, and my voicemail was full. My oldest daughter, who was in high school at the time, was hysterical. She didn’t know what flight I was on, and of course, details were sketchy, she just knew I was flying out of New York City. Before I listened to all of the messages, I knew I had to call my daughters. Although I was never in danger (or so I presume, I have never found out if our flight was grounded with all the other flights, or there was some other reason), I realized how many people were terrified of what happened to me because they had no idea what flight I was on. I travelled so much, I long before that quit telling people my travel schedule (I used to take about 300 flights a year, almost one a day).

I wasn’t able to get home, so I needed to cancel or delay the closing on my new home. It took forever to get through to my bank, but they said that money transfers were all shut down (many bank computers were located in the WTC), and there would be no closing. And it was that point I was beginning to see that my world was going to be badly effected by what was happening (and it was going to get much worse for me personally), I was alive. I was breathing fresh air. My daughters still had a father. I could still watch a sunset.

Thirteen years later, I look at those few hours rationally and almost clinically. It’s hard to describe the emotion, but because I wasn’t watching or listening real time, it was until after most of the country was shocked into a new reality, I was still getting the first bits of information. I was late with any emotional hit, but watching the second Tower collapse put me in the same state of melancholy as everyone around me.

I had a daughter that was in tears because she thought she had lost her father, but through some random events in life, I just happen to be in the same location as part of the 9/11 tragedy, and avoided a tragic death. However, I was deeply affected personally by what had happened.

I began to loathe flying commercially after that. In the last 5 years, I have only flown a few times. Because I have an “ethnic” look (it’s ironic, because I never thought of myself that way), I was constantly being pulled over in security lines for “special screening.” They kept saying it was random, but it happened nearly 90% of the time, especially in smaller airports. Don’t get me started about the racial profiling at the Fort Wayne, IN airport security (I had to fly there a lot because of business dealings). I despise those people with all the energy I can summon. But that attitude faded from the security screenings, but by then I really couldn’t tolerate flying any more.

On one flight, going out of Salt Lake City, which had special security rules because of the upcoming Olympics, an Israeli man (I only could tell because he kept tossing in Yiddish and Hebrew words) went berserk because he couldn’t take his child into the bathroom while we waited to pull away from the gate. The woman in the seat next to me started sobbing hysterically because she thought he was a terrorist. We had become a nation of anti-brown racists, or so it seemed. The police came on board, took the man (and his sobbing wife and screaming child) off the plane. The woman next me just got up, told the flight attendant she can’t do this anymore, and walked off too.

I did finally buy my house, but because things had changed immediately after 9/11, I had to restructure the loan in a way that was less favorable to me. And funding was slow, possibly because the government was carefully checking large money transfers or something. I don’t know, it just delayed everything. Of course, little did I know that September 11 was the beginning of the end of an Age of Prosperity as the stock market collapsed, we fought unfunded wars that created a huge debt market, and of course, the institutional destruction of many of our freedoms. Eventually, the housing market collapsed, which meant I bought my house at the high point of the market, and only during the last few weeks has the value of that house finally exceeded what I paid for it.

But again, I’m alive. My daughters have grown up to be confident, strong young women. I get to write, my life’s passion. And my experience, though incredibly harrowing as I look back in time, made me a different person.

The analyst with whom I was on the phone has moved on to new jobs, but he always drops me an email on September 11 to remind me that we were on the phone together. I’ve actually never met him in person, and maybe I will someday, but I remember that conversation with nearly perfect clarity. The investment group with whom I met on the September 10, all got away from their building, and survived. The hedge fund operator who was in the Twin Towers disappeared for months. I didn’t know if he was alive or not, but suddenly, by the end of the year, his secret internet identity started to reappear on various stock forums, and he emailed me that his office was destroyed, and he was busy getting his hedge fund back together. He had lost a couple of employees, and all of his computer files and paperwork (back ups were not a thing back then). I see him on financial forums here and there, but his method of researching companies has now been copied by so many other hedge funds, he’s now involved in more “safe” investing.

About four weeks later, I had to return to NYC for a meeting in midtown Manhattan. My hotel was was filled with FEMA and FBI agents, and they all had this hollow look in their eyes when I would stand in the elevator with them. All I could say to them was “thanks for doing this.” One FBI agent said back, “I appreciate that.” He smiled, but it was hard for him.

When I was there, I read an article (in one of the New York papers or magazines) which said, and I’m paraphrasing, because I can’t find the original, that every New Yorker knew they were breathing in the ash and particles of people who were murdered in the World Trade Center. I looked out of the window of the deli, and I saw a young woman hold onto her hat as the wind blew dust about her.

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!