The morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, looked bright and promising in
New York City. Just a few hours earlier, my chance to see Roger Clemens
pitch for his 20th win of the season had been dashed when the Yankees-Red
Sox game was rained out in a downpour.
I was in midtown Manhattan on business, though. The investment banks Credit
Suisse First Boston, Morgan Keegan, CIBC and Bear Stearns were holding
conferences for institutional investors like me. Tuesday was to be my last
day in Manhattan. Around 8:30 am, I had checked out of the Warwick Hotel and
was strolling north up the Avenue of the Americas toward Central Park and
the Plaza Hotel, about five blocks away.
Gorgeous, perfect day. Rain had muted the normal odor of the streets and
sewers. The air was clear the way only a strong rain can do it. One of the
best days I had seen in Manhattan.
On my stroll, I was juggling the day's responsibilities, plotting which
companies' presentations to watch in which locations, thinking about stocks
that seemed to have good potential, others that were approaching the dump
list. Rehashing that now-daily question, "Which stocks, if any, aren't on
the dump list?" Perhaps it was an intense focus on these details that
distracted me from the low-flying jet overhead as I entered the Plaza lobby.
When I reached the second floor meeting room, a bulletin was displayed on a
Bloomberg news terminal that had been set up for the conference, and a
fellow on another computer to the left was looking at cnn.com, where the
front page displayed a picture of the World Trade Center towers. One of them
had a black, smoking hole in its side. The Bloomberg bulletin said a
two-engine airplane had collided with one of the WTC towers. The description
was simple and did not indicate the size of the craft or the seriousness of
the problem. My first thought was of the American bomber that hit the Empire
State Building in 1945 as the war played out its last moments.
I never understood how, under any circumstances, a bomber could hit a
skyscraper by accident. I'd always believed the truth about the 1945
"accident" must have been concealed for the good of morale, so there was no
way I thought it could happen again by accident.
Still, the headlines were not alarming yet--we thought it must have been a
Cessna--so I walked into my first meeting. At its close, a Credit Suisse
First Boston representative announced that large jets had hit both WTC
towers. No one had to announce that the conference was over; the crowd
In the lobby of the meeting area, two televisions were set up. A gathering
of perhaps 100 brilliant, highly educated finance professionals (plus me)
watched in horror as, on live television, the towers collapsed upon
themselves. Nobody seemed to be concerned about whether a similar
catastrophe might play out somewhere close enough to do us harm, such as the
towering GM building across the street. No, it was hard enough to try to
comprehend what we had just seen. Maybe the next step for all of us was
helping each other to race through the mental Rolodex and recall who we knew
working out of the WTC. Some people knew a lot more than others, and it was
hard for them to accept the obvious finality of the situation.
Trying the cell phone, I found it impossible to place a call. All the
available wireline phones were mobbed. Someone said it was impossible to get
a long-distance line from the hotel. Certainly: all the New York hotels have
antiquated switching equipment and what always turns out to be precious few
lines when one really needs to make a call.
A Plaza Hotel employee advised me to check back into my hotel as soon as
possible. No official information was available from anyone, but my mind
raced through the possibilities...no way I'm flying home this week, they
hijacked how many planes?...somebody said the bridges and tunnels are shut
down...I bet the cabbies are running for cover...Grand Central Station and
Penn Station are closed...am I trapped?
The Warwick already had given away my room, but the staff was good enough to
reserve available rooms first for people who had checked out that day. By 11
am I was in my room. No outside line available. Tried the cell phone, and
calls to our home number would not go through, which was maddening, for my
digital Nokia handset was telling me I had nine voice mails. Somebody was in
a panic trying to contact me.
But I was not a stranger to the quirks of the telecom network, as I've been
researching telecom companies for more than a year. Placed a call to the
toll-free line of the Ivy Funds, my employer, and it worked (why would an
800 number work when the other did not, simple: two different switching
systems for toll and toll-free calls). I asked the Ivy operator to call
Teresa and tell her I was OK. Before long, I was having the Ivy operator
connect me to the numbers I wanted to dial. It was both a relief and agony
to hear Teresa's voice at last. The pain came from knowing how long we might
still be apart.
For a couple of hours, I watched the television reports and waited for
information about what travelers like me should do. Reports on the various
New York stations focused on recounting the disaster and adding details
about the incidents in Washington and Pennsylvania. Very little information
came about what people should do. And there was no one to call.
How does a person make a decision based on almost no information? I had
traveled to Manhattan many times, but my knowledge of the city was very
limited. I had never been on the subway (what, are you crazy?). I was
completely dependent on cab drivers to get me from the airports to hotels to
airports again. My guess was the only way off the island was by subway. But
which one? To where? And were they even running?
Already at the disaster site, officials were asking that volunteers be
restricted to people with rescue or medical expertise, because they were
overwhelmed with good-hearted people but had a serious shortage of people to
handle the wounded. Everybody wanted to help; the blood banks had hours-long
lines in no time. All signs told me that the greatest good I could do would
be to get home to my family and protect them from harm. I felt great
sympathy for everyone at the WTC site who was in the same tug-of-war as I
was but had to choose the other direction.
Around 1 o'clock, one news report said that some trains were running
outbound to get commuters back home. That opened the possibility of leaving,
if that was the right thing to do. My thought process was leading me in that
direction. No trucks coming into Manhattan meant the food supply was going
to dwindle. No inbound transportation meant the employees of restaurants and
stores might not even make it to work tomorrow.
After many repeated tries, a cell call went through again, and I was able to
talk to Dad. I asked him to call Hertz and find where in the NYC area they
had cars available. Soon I talked to Dad again. The only place where cars
was available was JFK airport, at least until somebody shut it down. Sure,
who would go there right now? Well, I would if I could. I dressed in casual
clothes, left my suitcase in my hotel room and departed for a blind stab at
The streets were virtually bereft of vehicular traffic by normal NYC
standards, filled instead with pedestrians trying to figure out what to do
next. Most of the entrances to the subway stations were locked. At the 57th
Street station, the lone official presence directed me to Columbus Circle,
where he thought the A train could take me to JFK. A bystander directed me
to the only available entrance to the subway, well concealed behind heavy
construction work. If I ever meet that person again, I am going to buy him
But the trains were running on what seemed like random schedules. I
discovered this the hard way when getting on an A train running in the
opposite direction from where I should have gone. It went 30 blocks before
stopping again and allowing me to discover my error. Thirty blocks.
Then the southbound A train stopped at virtually every station along the
way, plus a couple of long, idle delays as the central controllers tried to
decide how to move so many people on so few trains, without access to a
large swath of lower Manhattan. It took two hours before the subway emerged
above ground in Brooklyn, where the cell phone worked long enough for me to
confirm my plans with Dad.
The JFK station, by some miracle, was deserted of passengers but completely
manned by staff. I was the only passenger on the shuttle bus to the airport,
where I was to catch a Hertz bus. It was an act of sheer faith that led me
to believe that a Hertz bus would even show up, and after a half-hour it
did. It was hard to wait, though. I was seeing, JFK, one of the world's
busiest airports, like no one had before that day. Deserted, not a single
aircraft moving. It seemed like a scene from a Stephen King novel.
I felt tremendous relief when the Hertz bus showed up, then more when we got
to the lot and it contained cars. The Hertz staff seemed unsurprised to
learn I wanted to drive from JFK to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They offered
directions to Interstate 95 but confessed they did not know how soon I would
be able to get there.
By 4:45 pm, me and my rented Lincoln were headed west into the heart of
deepest, darkest Brooklyn, a place I would have avoided like the plague on
any other day of my life. Police had cordoned off access to the expressway
that led directly to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge that led to Staten Island
across the river from Manhattan. Getting there meant taking Atlantic Avenue
until I reached water, a police officer said.
On this day, Brooklyn did not seem like a menacing place. The giant smoke
cloud overhead blowing over from the WTC set the mood for everyone. People
were deadly serious and reserved. And on their cell phones. Use 'em if you
got 'em. Mine still would not work.
Around 6 o'clock, I reached the end of Atlantic. Ahead was another freeway
that led to the bridge, and it was open. Also ahead was a ferry landing,
where people on stretchers were being carried off. Behind them was an
unforgettable, awful view of lower Manhattan across the water. No matter how
many times I looked, the skyline would not compute. The city had suffered an
amputation. A smoke cloud that massive never should be rolling out of the
world's mightiest city.
At least somebody was to have some good fortune on this day. A train came
along that would go to JFK, not long before the airport was sealed off.
Hertz had a car for me, one of the very last ones within a hundred miles. At
the New Jersey Turnpike portion of I-95, my path intersected at precisely
the farthest point north that one could go before the police barricade.
Very little traffic was on the southbound road. Going north, every minute or
so a police car, fire truck or other emergency vehicle whizzed by running
hot, racing to help. At one point I saw a convoy of more than 20 ambulances
all running like blazes. Otherwise, the traffic level was so low it was
When I had entered Delaware, I heard on the radio that some people were
buying cars to get out of the New York area. JFK was shut down. Nothing was
being allowed into Manhattan. The midtown Dunkin Donuts was reduced to
serving coffee. The hotels were overwhelmed.
My trek south made me one of the few people on earth who were in both
Manhattan and Washington DC that day. Outside the DC Beltway, on the
electronic signs normally used to tell people about traffic delays, the
message was "MAJOR INCIDENT IN WASHINGTON DC REGION. AVOID METRO AREA."
The roadblocks on the Beltway were lifted within minutes of my approach. I
took the easterly route, as far away from the Pentagon as possible.
Overhead, a solitary aircraft flew what I learned was air cover. In America.
I did not stop for the night, driving and absorbing every detail from the
radio news, until reaching a town in southern Virginia just a moment from
the North Carolina border. The next day, I had an experience in South
Carolina that showed me that I was not alone in my trek. At a truck stop in
Manning, a town about the size of Bentonville it seemed, an employee
directed me to a local Radio Shack for cell phone accessories. There is no
way a non-native could find this store without directions. It was a hole in
the wall buried in a strip mall adjacent to an old-style Wal-Mart.
I parked in front of the Wal-Mart, having a hard time finding this little
store. After a good stroll, I found the Radio Shack at the opposite end. I
was no more than in the door when the kind fellow behind the counter said
"You're driving from New York and you need a cell phone charger." Before I
could ask how he knew, he added, "I've been hearing it all day long."
At rest stops, truck stops and restaurants in New Jersey, Maryland,
Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, I encountered other pilgrims.
One couple was trying to get their son from Atlanta to Tampa, that's all.
All of his bags were still in the belly of an airliner. No one would get
them out. Atlanta had more stranded passengers than any other North American
airport. Other people had been stuck in Raleigh, or Richmond, or
Philadelphia. Many others were not trying to leave New York but to get
there, to see what had happened to the people they loved.
I arrived home in Boca Raton at 1:30 am on Thursday, and Teresa met me in
the driveway for the best embrace of my life, nearly 1,300 miles from point
to point. Heaven knows how everything fell right for me to get home, but
Teresa was just glad that her husband came home when so many others never
--Randle Reece (Biggus Piggus)