by Hank Boerner
My Internal Memo of Monday September 17, 2001
I offer my thoughts on the past week — recapping and thinking things through while events are still fresh in my mind
By Hank Boerner
Introduction: Fifteen years ago, as our nation slowly began the recovery after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, I wrote down my thoughts of the past days…”some thoughts on the past week,” for my family, friends and business colleagues. I share them here today on the 15th anniversary of the deadly attacks on the United States of America, a day when we lost so many innocent men, women and children because of the actions of fanatics bent on harming us.
And so I observed…
This is a sad time for humanity…thousands of innocent people are dead or missing in New York City and in the rest of America tonight because fanatics and madmen have declared war on civilization. Families are without fathers or mothers, sisters and brothers; our children just starting their careers were cut down where they sat in the offices where they were so pleased to be invited in; other loved ones are missing and we all presume the worst now.
Hundreds of brave firefighters and police officers are missing, or dead, or injured. Life seems so unfair at times like these. Why? What did these innocent people do to invite such tragedy into their lives? Why must family members be missing from our homes?
And yet, even as we grieve, we must go on. For them, for our children. Our striving for a return “to life,” to whatever circumstances and conditions will pass for normalcy in the months ahead, is a basic human instinct.
We are becoming focused now on getting on with our lives – but pledging to do things better, and living a more exemplary life with care and concern for others. This attitude will be a memorial for those who lost their lives. We grieve; but we must also go on for the sake of our children and those who must put things back in order after the terrible events in downtown New York. We will be OK…right?
Our instinct is to feel rage and to call for retaliation; our heart and religious upbringing tells us that we must temper our response so that more innocent people do not die. The fanatics and madmen must not succeed in making us less civilized, and more like them. Blessed be the peacemakers; let our nation’s response be appropriate and limited to the wrongdoers who committed this evil.
We are all OK in our family, thanks to all who inquired, but all around us we have people we know who are suffering. Our daughter, Heather, began her grad studies at NYU but was not scheduled to be in class on Tuesday. Still, like many her age, including her close friends who live in Manhattan, she is anxious about the future…will this mean a world war….what is a world war…what will happen to us?
She works with small children as a speech teacher and therapist; above all, she needs confidence in herself and the world around her to help her young charges cope. Have we failed our children in some way?
In our Long Island, New York communities, were hear of the missing – 40 in this town, 75 in that. The churches are filled this week. As we reconnect with friends and family, the stories increase dramatically: those who are still missing; those who had narrow escapes; still more who turned left instead of right and survived that day; who was on the road and away from the towers, and so on.
Throughout September 11th, from within the hour of the first airplane crashes, our team was in place assisting our client, American Airlines, in responding to rapidly changing events. For five straight days we assisted in every way we could, especially at the New York area airports. We have been standing down since late Saturday, after midnight.
Sunday was a day of letting ourselves “feel” again, and of examining what happened and examining the awful impact of it all. Tears came during a church service; oh, the enormity of it all. What can we do? That, too, is a basic human instinct – to do the right thing, to help, to feel what we should without shame.
My Diary: Where was I when the events occurred? On the way from Long Island to New York City for three meetings during the day, last Tuesday (the 11th). As our train reached the first location where we could see the downtown Manhattan skyline, on this clear and sunlit morning we saw thick black smoke coming out of one of the towers – that was the North Tower, struck by American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston at 8:46 a.m.
Of course, many people on the train remember the terrorist attack on the towers in 1993, so they grabbed their cell phones and called home and office. The word was passed around the car – a small plane apparently hit the tower. Was this a plane off course? A demented pilot at the controls?
We slowly moved on and then came to the high point in Central Queens where the downtown towers were again just becoming visible (before we entered the tunnels under the East River to Penn Station). Now, a huge cloud of smoke arose from the South Tower, struck by United Flight 175 at 9:30 a.m. As the train moved on, we very briefly saw the area engulfed in flames and with black smoke pouring out – never will I forget that sight. Words fail to describe the horror of knowing what was happening to the people in those two buildings, on the aircraft, and in the surrounding areas of the downtown neighborhood.
As a longtime crisis manager, I am trained to make fast decisions, right or wrong. My decision was to return at once to my Mineola, Long Island command center and be ready to respond as needed. I dashed upstairs to look at the monitor in Penn Station — the two towers had smoke streaming out, and then I raced down to a train just departing for my Mineola station (the office was a block away). The car was jammed with people, many crying, others anxiously dialing the outside world. Ours was one of the last trains out of Manhattan that day. And it was one of the longest rides I have ever experienced …minutes stretched on the short ride to Nassau County (18 miles distant)..
When I reached the office, there were numerous emails calling for assistance for our airline client, mostly from Dallas, the HQs office of American Airlines (my client).
This was surreal; I was an American Airlines communications manager early in my career, and here my crisis training and experience of those years past would come into play. (I had worked with other airline clients over the years since, including in many crisis situations around the world.)
All phone lines and cellulars to Manhattan and Queens were not working; our link to the world at ground zero and environs and the airports was the Internet. Our crisis teams in New York and Northern Virginia dispersed at once to airports, where we supported our client for the next five or six days.
On September 11 and over the next days, I moved by auto from LaGuardia to Kennedy International to Newark International and back again, over and over, for early mornings, late night conferences, always moving to support operating staffs. My concentration was on the duties at hand.
As I drove over the Verrazano Bridge spanning the New York harbor en route to Newark, I could see the horrible black smoke pouring out of the heart of the financial district. I drove through the low-hanging cloud, which choked the throat and smelled awful – the smell of death and destruction. No one who ever experienced that smell will ever forget it.
Oh, how helpless I felt…who would do this awful thing? Why is there such evil in the world? In the New York region, emergency vehicles were everywhere…rescue teams with search dogs; volunteer firefighters from the suburbs; ambulances; fire trucks; portable power units on trucks; police, police and more police. Ambulances. Caregivers in white coats stood by near the towers. Where the people inside the towers alive? On their way to a hospital? I hoped so.
The airport security forces were anxious; the airline staff at each airport knew those who perished, or felt deep concern for the souls on board the four flights. This was not supposed to happen to travelers departing with hope in their hearts.
The mood saw somber inside the American Airlines operations tower and offices; folks here struggling to keep things going knew the men and women who were pilots and flight attendants on those crashed airliners.
Only on that Saturday night (well after midnight) could I stand down as airports and flights became more stabilized. Duty set aside, I became more the observer.
This morning, at 9:30, the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange was sounded. this became surreal again. This was my old environs (I worked at NYSE early in my career). I teared up again, with sadness and with pride. America is getting it together to move on. People are functioning near ground zero. Though almost everyone on The Street has lost someone they know or love, many came to work through the obstacles to get our machinery functioning again.
My old friend and colleague Dick Grasso (NYSE chairman), a man from a working class family from Queens, spoke eloquently and fervently when he declared the Exchange open with the governor, the mayor, a firefighter and police officer at his side.
One TV channel calls this time “America Rising.” I hope so. Today I continued to reach out to family, friends and colleagues to find out how they were, and most of the stories were encouraging. The losses were sad stories…our friend next door in the law office lost her 21 year old stepson, who watched the first plane hit and called home from the adjacent tower. They evacuated his office; for him, probably not fast enough; he is among the missing.
We are becoming overwhelmed by all the media coverage, but it is also comforting. We are not alone in our fears, tears, concerns, love, caring, response. The picture of President George W. Bush and the retired firefighter atop the barricades sent cheers throughout our town. “We hear you,” the president proclaimed to America. “And the people who did this will hear from us.”
Today we regroup and go on, those of us who can. Tonight is a special time for Jews around the world, who gather in their homes for the high holy days and start of the new year while troubles intrude. We wish all those who begin their observation of Rosh HoShanna tonight peace and love and comfort in the faith and traditions of the millennia.
Before long, we will all be celebrating our American Thanksgiving, which will be a day of both hope and great sadness, depending on the circumstances of each family. Christians will celebrate Christmas and we pray that at year-end all of our families are intact, none missing family members because of more such tragic events.
We owe a special thanksgiving – tonight as well as in November – for the fire fighters, police, volunteer workers, and those public servants on duty in lower Manhattan as they pry the wreckage away. They are redefining the American Spirit…one life, God, we pray, at least one life should be saved tonight as a result of their heroic efforts. We need that victory over evil to inspire us to go on.
Life does go on. Civilization must survive. Evil must not prevail. Our examples of doing the right thing will be memorials to those who have gone on “across the river,” as the Good Book says. God Bless Us all in the days ahead.
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We would love to hear from you, and to know that all is well with you and your family, and friends and colleagues. Good news is so much needed today!
Hank Boerner – Mineola, New York