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My 9/11 remembrance

I was deaf when I flew into JFK from Argentina on the evening of Sept. 10th, 2001. A week before, I had travelled from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires to deliver a speech to a gathering of several hundred bankers. My message to them was going to be that unless Argentina changed its policies quickly—rejecting the IMF's demand for higher taxes and dollarizing its currency to avoid the disaster of devaluation—their country was likely to suffer a major crisis before the end of the year. (My prediction was off by only a matter of days, as it turned out.) As the plane began its descent to Buenos Aires' Ezeiza airport, I woke up and discovered I was deaf.

I had been losing my hearing in stages before then, so this didn't just come out of the blue. But it was the first time I found myself profoundly deaf for a prolonged period of time. My meetings in Buenos Aires had to be conducted with a yellow pad. After the speech and the meetings I went to spend a few days with some good friends in Mendoza, Argentina's wine capital. They insisted on taking me skiing at Las LeƱas, and on the way back (Sunday the 9th) we were almost killed by a truck driver who had fallen asleep and woke up to find himself on the wrong side of the road and headed straight for our car. Our driver, my friend's son, swerved off the road, narrowly missing the truck, and our car slammed into a concrete post. I was sitting in the front passenger seat, and avoided serious injury only because the post hit the car right between the front and rear right-side doors, only inches from me. At the time, we were rushing back to the airport in Mendoza so I could catch a flight to Buenos Aires with enough time to make a connection to JFK, so that I could deliver my presentation on Tuesday in New York.

It was a very bad omen, but I didn't realize it at the time.

I made it to the Mendoza airport just in time, and connected in Buenos Aires just in time, and wound up in my hotel room in mid-town Manhattan late Monday afternoon. My speech was scheduled to start at 8 am Tuesday morning at Lever House, just a few blocks from the hotel. I checked out of my hotel shortly after 7 am, and went to Lever House with my bag, since I had a noon flight out of JFK back to Los Angeles and planned to go directly from Lever House to the airport. At the time I had no idea what was happening just a few miles to the south, and apparently, neither did anyone I saw that morning.

Since I couldn't hear anything, I think my presentation to a gathering of Unilever's international Treasury personnel went OK until 8:45 am or so, when I began to realize there was a lot of commotion and people were pulling out their cell phones. I thanked everyone for their attention, apologized for not being able to hear, and said I would be leaving since I had to catch a plane. That's when Paul McMahon, Unilever's Treasurer, grabbed my arm and started trying to explain what was going on. I was confused and the commotion was intense, but I got the message that going to the airport was not an option. Suddenly someone turned on the TV in the conference room and we saw the Towers burning, and after what seemed like just a few minutes one of them collapsed. Paul scribbled a short summary for me, and, like all the rest, I just sat down without knowing what to do.

What followed was a blur. Phones didn't work, and I couldn't use one anyway. After an hour or two, a secretary managed to communicate with my wife to tell her I was Ok. I didn't have a hotel room to go to, and finding a reservation at any hotel in mid-town proved to be impossible. We looked out the windows down to Park Avenue, and people by the thousands were walking uptown—an endless stream of humbled humanity. With nothing else to do, we all went to a nearby Italian restaurant where they had previously planned to have lunch. I think we were the only ones in the restaurant. We had a long but quiet lunch. The waiters also had nothing else to do, so they carried on as if nothing were amiss.

After lunch I wandered across mid-town with Paul, who had offered to share his hotel room with me. As we passed the Hilton on Sixth Avenue I decided to give it a try, and to my surprise they had a room. I spent the rest of the week in that room, and I'll never forget walking out on Sixth Avenue the following morning, standing in the middle of the street, and seeing not a single car moving anywhere. Manhattan was all but deserted, with only a few people such as myself out on the street, gaping at the empty streets. To the south, of course, was the hideous cloud of smoke that towered over everything, streaming east. I decided to see how close I might get, but by the time I got as far as the Empire State Building, the smoke became too much to bear and I turned back.

Somehow I managed to catch the first flight out of JFK the following Friday. Security was intense. Every one of us on that plane looked at everyone else and wondered if we were looking at a terrorist. The stewardesses apologized for serving our meals with plastic forks and knives. The mood was somber and conversation was almost nonexistent. It was at that moment I realized that the terrorists had succeeded not only in destroying 3,000 lives and the pride of New York, but in making sure we would all pay a huge price for an endless number of years.

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