It was a warm, sunny September morning and I was anxiously yawning.
I was on my second flight of the day, a commuter plane from Philadelphia to Westchester County, NY. If all went well, I would make it to my office by 10am and not have to take a vacation day that Monday.
If my flights were late, I would have one less vacation day for the year and my limited vacation days were precious at that time in my life. My grandfather’s 80th birthday celebration in Ohio was absolutely worth a vacation day, but perhaps not two.
I flipped through a magazine, checked my watch one more time and listened to the sound of the plane wheels extending as our flight quickly descended through the NY skyline. I looked out the window, recognized my client PepsiCo’s corporate headquarters as the earth got closer and checked my watch once more.
The plane suddenly pulled back, began rising higher and we heard the wheels receding. I thought “WTF?” and immediately started contemplating if my boss would be forgiving if I at least made it to work by 11am.
The captain came on and apologized. Westchester Control wouldn’t allow us to land at that time and we needed to circle until we had further instruction.
After what felt like an eternity of circling in the air with other flights, the captain came on told us there was a security issue, all NYC area airports were on lockdown and we were being diverted to upstate NY until the airports re-opened.
“Oh shit,” I thought as I sighed audibly with frustration. I was going to have to take a vacation day.
19 years later I can still recall every minute from the moment I stepped off the plane at 9:45am on September 11th in upstate NY.
The man in front of me was awkwardly swatting at his crimson tie and dark suit jacket as they blew wildly in the wind. Two young guys were walking behind me, one already on his cell phone as I heard him tell his friend “You’re never going to believe this. Two planes flew into each other in the air.”
Inside the airport it was so still and quiet you could have heard a pin drop. Every single person was staring at the TV’s. Getting closer, I could see a burning building on the monitor. I was standing alone in a tiny airport surrounded by strangers as we watched the towers fall. Together we watched the coverage of the Pentagon and the crashed plane in Pennsylvania. The quiet airport erupted into chaos and panic.
Cell phones and pay phones wouldn’t connect. Wifi, text messaging and constant connectivity were not a thing yet. Locals started rushing out the doors, leaving bags on conveyor belts. Those of us who had been diverted were stuck together, confused and lost somewhere in western New York state.
A woman across from me fainted when the 2nd tower fell. Her husband worked in that building. Another woman was emotional at the car rental desk about how far we were from Westchester. She needed to get to her kids school right away, her husband also worked at the World Trade Center. A man was having chest pains, someone else was having a hard time breathing.
The news kept reporting. Thousand of planes in the air were being grounded all over the US. They had no idea how many had hijackers on board. People were jumping out of buildings. The cloud of smoke on the NY skyline is an image that I will never forget.
I sat alone, leaning against a wall in complete shock. My mom had flown that morning as well. I had no idea if she made it to Rhode Island. Was she on the plane that had crashed in Pennsylvania? I kept trying to frantically dial all the contacts in my Nokia cell phone so I could tell someone, anyone I was alive and OK.
Just as I felt my own panic attack begin, my phone rang. I began sobbing as I answered the phone saying, “I’m OK” over and over.
On the 19th anniversary of the horrific 9-11 attacks, a day that will never be forgotten, I find myself reflecting on how that day has impacted my life, the lives of those close to me, and our nation as a whole.
Right now, I am struck by so many parallels in today’s reality and the lessons that emerged in the wake of 9-11:
- Brands who are by our side in a crisis, either functionally or emotionally, capture our hearts. I remember my blue Nokia phone, the Enterprise sign at the car rental desk, the McDonald’s drive-through as I drove for hours with strangers to get back home that night. To this day, I have a subconscious connection to those brands because they went through that day with me.
- Crisis catalyzes innovation and lasting consumer behavior. On 9-11, wireless cell phones were just gaining widespread popularity. We saw the significant impact of passengers being able to call 911 and loved ones from planes in the air. Social media didn’t exist in 2001, but throughout the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen how it has connected us to our friends and family at a distance.
- Lasting business relationships and connections strengthen in a crisis. We remember those who inspire us, and those we inspire remember us. It is easy to fall into the trap of misery. The news thrives on sharing negative content that keeps us glued to the TV. When we form connections based in inspiration, hope, and the realistic yet optimistic view, without hiding from or disregarding the cold, hard truth of our situation, we are elevated by elevating those around us. That’s how business relationships will grow and deepen throughout the crisis.
Anniversaries encourage us forward, giving us strength and power as time goes by. They remind us of meaningful events, people and moments in time, grounding us in what is real and significant. Their impact drives awareness, reflection and compassion.
I hope you all take a moment today to reflect on this life-changing day, as I have, and remember that humanity is stronger when we come together in support of one another.