Sunday, September 11, 2011

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.


Hans said...

We are all New Yorkers today!

God Bless, America!

Cabodog said...

Great post Scott. Thank you.

chaim said...


I was working in NYU Downtown Hospital (now NY Downtown Hospital) 3 blocks form the twin towers.

I was giving a Grand Rounds Lecture to medical interns when we heard a sound that, to me, seemed that a huge crane had upended. Someone near the window in the room thought that a helicopter crashed into one of the towers; however knowing the history-past and present of the Mideast- I though to myself, Oh-Oh, now it’s spread here. Then people were saying that it was a “small” plane crashed into the building, followed shortly that it was a large passenger jet.

While we waited for the incoming wounded, I went outside for several minutes and saw a sea of papers flying all around and the flames growing. I saw helicopters hovering near the tower, and remember foolishly waiting for some of the helicopters to douse the fire.

Somehow I had a sense that the tower would collapse.

Meanwhile we went back into the hospital; although I am a radiologist, we all went into the ER to triage and treat patients. Mostly we saw minor injuries.

Then we heard that a second jet that crashed into the other tower. Many of us looked at each other and said “this means war”.

A short time later, we were immersed in massive amounts of dust, and we were told that one of the towers had collapsed. I don’t remember hearing that awful sound that people described of the collapse. Then more dust, as we heard that the second tower collapsed.

I remember feeling dry as the dust and ash gave me the feeling of marked dehydration. It felt that I must have drunk 10 gallons of water during those 36 hours.

Dozens of people who had been totally immersed in the dust came into our hospital to shower off. The look on everyone’s face was of sheer shock.

I remember feeling extreme anger, as we continued doing our work.

Then we lost power as one of the other buildings (I believe it was 7 world trade center) collapsed. We had a generator kick in, but only for very limited services. (Within a few days GE sent us a large truck with emergency generator. Thank you, Jeff Imelt. He had just become GE CEO, I believe.)

We continued to wait for incoming, but there was almost nothing. That first night we went outside, and there was almost utter silence, except for an occasional police or EMS siren. But it was difficult to stay outside for a prolonged period because of the smoke, ash and dust.

The only significant surviving casualty that we had was an unfortunate young lady who had a landing gear from one of the jets land on her pelvis and legs, and miraculously survived. She was hospitalized for several months requiring many bouts of reconstructive surgery. I heard from one of the other staff that she was a worker in the downtown area, and was several days or weeks from her marriage when this tragedy occurred. Her parents were at her bedside, and I was told that her dad had frequent dreams about confronting and killing her assailants.

During the following few days, some of us ventured to ground zero to attempt to help find and treat survivors, but unfortunately this was in vain. There was ankle deep dust and ash within a block of ground zero.

One of the “60 minutes” journalists offered one of my colleagues a small video recorder to take video of the site, but he declined.

I took the subway to work, and the smell of burning plastic/paper/ flesh? were constant.
The fear of the other terrorist shoe dropping was constant when in the subway. It took about 6 months for the burning smell and the fear to subside.

Many of us were disappointed that political correctness and profound NY bureaucracy prevented the site from being built immediately.

Scott Grannis said...

chaim: Thanks so much for your post. You are truly one of the many heroes of 9/11.

Paul McMahon said...

Scott, thanks for remembering me in this post. And to set the record straight, your presentation was quite well received, at least while we were all still ignorant of the tragedy happening downtown. (I daresay that no one remembered much it by 10:15 or so...)

Reed pointed this post out to me and I'm glad to have discovered your blog in the process. A way for me to stay in touch with your always interesting and insightful views.

I hope we meet again sometime in the future -- maybe at a Cato event?

Paul McMahon

Kimberly said...

It was such a sad day! Also shocking because nobody expected such a tragedy. I was in Argentina that day, in a convention that my company had sent me to in a hotel in buenos aires. They treated the subject with respect and sorrow. I felt good that they understood our pain!