On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I’m brought back to my personal experience of that fateful day. A confluence of events had me in the air that morning, focusing on work, an upcoming vacation and the typical day-to-day stress of a working mother. I never imagined how our world was about to change.

Photo: Aspengull (flickr)

I was the creative director for an ad agency in Boston, and we had just won the direct marketing business for Eddie Bauer. This was an exciting and lucrative coup for us. The president of the agency was supposed to fly to Seattle on 9/11 to dine with Bauer’s president. He asked me to go in his place because his wife was starting chemotherapy for breast cancer that day. Although I had a family vacation coming up and would fly back on a red-eye the same day we were leaving, I agreed to make the trip.

Typically, we flew out of Manchester, NH because it saved us several hundred dollars a ticket. But the trip was last-minute, so I booked flights in and out of Boston’s Logan Airport. I tried to check-in online and found there was only one seat left on the plane: in the back row. I was also told that I had to check-in in-person at the gate.

When I got to Logan early that morning, I went to the gate to check in. I asked if I could change my seat, assuming the answer would be “no.” But the agent said, “Sure, there are plenty of empty seats.” This struck me as a bit odd but it was good news so I didn’t question it. I waited at the gate right next to the passengers who boarded Flight 11 to LA. I wish I could tell you that I saw them. But I didn’t. Caught up in my own world, I simply found a seat, nursed a cup of coffee and leafed through a magazine. My plane left 30 minutes later. It was only about 1/4 full.

We had been in the air an hour when the pilot came on — I still remember this so clearly — and said “There has been a serious threat to the security of this country. The FAA has requested that all planes land at the nearest airport. We are turning around and will be landing in Buffalo in about 15 minutes.”  Of course, my first thought was “Damn, I’m going to miss dinner with the president of Eddie Bauer!” It is amazing how careless I was. It’s amazing how my perspective was forced to change in just minutes.

I soon realized that something was wrong. A flight attendant came to get my breakfast, smiled and said “Well, you’re one of the lucky ones who got to eat.” But her hand was visibly shaking when she took my tray.  So, it suddenly occurred to me that we must have a bomb on the plane. I tried to stay calm as we descended, but the crew was clearly concerned.

When we landed in Buffalo, I could see that whatever the “threat” was, it involved more than just my flight. There were dozens of planes on the ground. We had to wait about half an hour for a gate, so the pilot got back on the speaker and said that we were cleared to use our cell phones. I called my husband Jim to bitch and moan about my ill-fated business meeting. And, that was the last time I thought about work that day, because my perspective was about to change forever. I had some trouble getting through, but he finally picked up — here is another memory engrained for me word-for-word — and said, “Thank God you’re alive! They hijacked planes out of Logan and flew them into the World Trade Center. It’s gone, Alex! It’s gone! The World Trade Center is gone!”

At any point over the last ten years if I have wondered whether or how much my husband loves me, I need only play back that outburst of relief. “Thank God you’re alive!”

It turned out that my husband was watching the Today show when the first plane hit (if you remember, the press thought it was an accident at first). My mother had called him from New York and said “Could Alex be on that plane?” He had assured her that I couldn’t have reached New York yet. Then, the second plane hit while they were on the phone together.

Because the trip had been scheduled in such haste, I had forgotten to leave my itinerary in its usual place on the refrigerator door. Jim had called my office, but no one there could find my flight information either.

Worried now about all of my family in New York, I tried over and over to call, finally reaching my mother and learning that my brother had been at jury duty down on Chambers Street when the towers fell. He was safe and walking uptown with countless other shell-shocked people. My sister was also all right, although it was many days before we connected.

Sooner than anticipated, they unloaded us in Buffalo, which was surreal. The first thing I saw was a police officer riding a bicycle through the gate area. The Red Cross had set up donuts and coffee. All the monitors were playing live World Trade Center footage, but you couldn’t see anything except smoke and dust. We all stood around (thousands and thousands of people) and they pulled aside anyone who looked Arabic and took them away. Then they herded the rest of us onto buses. The petite uniformed woman who loaded us onto the Boston bus turned back and said “God bless America. God bless you.”

The drive to Boston was about 10 hours I think. A little redheaded girl sat next to me and cried the entire time. She had been visiting her boyfriend at Harvard and had no cell phone and no money. I bought her a sandwich when we stopped in Syracuse. I tried to read, but couldn’t concentrate. Everyone I loved was in New York or Boston and it felt as if both cities were under attack. Late that night, Jim and my sleeping 3-year old daughter picked me up at Boston’s South Station. (He was going to have his sister come over and babysit, but I insisted he bring her — I just needed to be with her as soon as possible even if she wasn’t awake.) My car was locked-down at Logan for another 3 or 4 days.

The final piece of my 9/11 story is that a few weeks afterward, I learned from the FBI that my flight was a “back-up” plane. They found box cutters between seat cushions and that’s why the computer told me that it was sold out when it was less than half-full. A short story appeared in the Boston Globe about additional planes that were involved that day. But, the story disappeared almost immediately. I’ll never know how close I really came to being one of the day’s victims. And, in all honesty, I don’t really want to know.

It is hard to believe that ten years have gone by now. I’d like to report that I was never so work-obsessed again. But, that isn’t true. I was back in the air (albeit, nervous as hell), headed to a meeting at Eddie Bauer just ten days later. I’d like to say that I’ve cherished my family every moment of the last decade. But, that isn’t true either. My husband, daughter, mother and siblings are very precious to me, but we’ve had as many petty differences — and missed opportunities — as we ever did.

Most of all, I’d like to say that I looked at the people who boarded the flight to L.A. at the gate next to mine, that I actually noticed the individuals getting on that plane, made eye contact with them, somehow bore witness.

But, I didn’t know.

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  • Caren Gittleman September 11, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Dear God, I am speechless.

    You were spared for something extremely important.

    Bless you, bless you for sharing this


  • alice ray cathrall September 11, 2011 at 7:26 am

    I was spared that day too.
    Today I remember the desperate,immediate love I felt for my friends ,family and colleagues.
    But I also remember a collective love for those who were suffering, killed and injured.
    And I felt the same love for America,rich with principles hundreds of years old that needed to be defended and protected for us all.