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Today is 9/11 - My Story

Each year I share my own 9/11 story. This is it. What is yours?

Every September 11 since 2001, I share a story with a group of friends that experienced the events of that day in a very personal way. Each year I tell it, I forget some details and remember some new ones. This year, I thought I would retell my story in public. So, Paul, Art, Jack, Rich, Frank, Joe, Michael, Debbie and Scott...here is our story.

At the time, we were all working for a software company named Firstlogic based in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. We were engaged in merger discussions with another company based in upstate New York. The negotiations had gotten to the point where it made sense to have our executives meet with theirs. We decided to meet at 10 a.m. on September 11, 2001 in Manhattan. Our investment banker, Michael, arranged for us to use a conference room located on Wall Street.

As part of aligning our employees at Firstlogic, I had done a series of videos in which I would surprise employees riding our elevator with a video camera and ask them: “Can you tell me what our mission is before the end of this elevator ride?” The ride was only three floors and most employees struggled with telling the “elevator speech”. So, I thought I would be clever and do a video of me doing the “elevator speech” during a ride up the elevator at the Trade Center. I made plans to be at the towers at 9 a.m. on September 11 - right before our Wall Street meeting.

Our group planned to travel to New York on the evening of September 10. Some of us were coming from La Crosse, some from Chicago.  Paul was travelling from Milwaukee and Michael was based in New Jersey. Scott was flying from Atlanta. I had an American Airlines flight scheduled for 6:30 p.m. from O’Hare. But, there were huge thunderstorms that shut down air traffic that night. At 10:30 p.m., after numerous flight delays, I finally rebooked an early morning flight on the 11th and went home. The same thing happened to the others - except for Rich and Frank, who were able to fly from LaCrosse to New York on Monday night.

Tuesday morning, we boarded our separate flights. My flight was uneventful until somewhere over Pennsylvania when someone on our flight received a Blackberry message warning that fighter jets were going to shoot down a passenger jet. We started to get bits and pieces about what was happening in New York. I received a message from Michael which started out “you won’t believe what I just saw.”  He went on to describe the Twin Towers spewing smoke and the ferry he was riding from Red Hook, New Jersey turning around on its way to Manhattan. (Michael, went on to play organ at 64 funerals stemming from 9/11 deaths.)

There were no announcements from the cockpit until the flight attendant announced we were landing in New York. It was plain, though, we weren’t in New York.  Looking down, I saw fields and even cattle near the landing strip.  I soon learned we had landed in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.   Art, Joe and Scott landed in other Pennsylvania cities.

Meanwhile, Paul’s jet did make it to New York - his plane flew past the flaming towers and was the last jet to land at Kennedy that morning.  Frank, Rich and Jack had made it into town the night before.  Frank & Rich were still in their rooms in Manhattan when their wives called to see if they were okay. Frank was a volunteer fireman and the two of them made their way to the area of the towers to see if they could help.

While my jet was still in the air I exchanged messages with Debbie, my assistant in LaCrosse. Debbie got the word out to everyone that the meeting was cancelled. The execs from upstate New York messaged that they were turning around and heading home.

The Harrisburg airport was small and hundreds were crammed into it. Lines of people were trying to rebook flights. There was one public TV in the airport bar, but it was so packed with people it was impossible to get in. Suddenly, all of the flip cards on a flight board showed that all flights had been cancelled. People looked lost and confused. Rumors of a pending terrorist attack on the airport circulated.

I didn’t want to be one of the stranded masses and left the airport and flagged a cab. “Take me to the nearest hotel,” I said. The driver knew nothing of what had happened in New York. We drove to a nearby Holiday Inn. I sat in the small cafeteria and, with the hotel employees, watched the jets hitting the towers on two TV’s.

Paul, Frank and Rich walked to Brooklyn and were able to rent a car to drive home after an overnight stay. Art and Joe rented a car in Allentown and picked me up in Harrisburg. We stopped at a K-Mart and picked up phone chargers and food and began the drive back to Chicago. The roads were full of taxi’s, limos and rental cars making their way west. In the sky to the north, we saw jets leaving huge circular contrails in the sky, fighter jets patrolling our border with Canada.

We had dinner in Cleveland and sat in silence with other customers as the days horrific events were displayed on the giant TV screens usually reserved for football and baseball games.

My son Seth managed to reach me on the cell phone. He was panicked, knowing that I was on my way to New York. The events of the day inspired him to enlist in the Army on September 12. He was rejected, though: there was marijuana in is system. He was issued an Army recruit i.d. card and told to come back for a retest in 30 days. He kept in touch with his recruiter and told funny stories about the kind of underwear recruits had worn to the Army physical. The recruiter attended the funeral when Seth died the following February.

We all made it home safe - unlike thousands of others that day. Flights in the US were cancelled for about a week, so my employees weren’t flying. Early on the morning that flights resumed, I went to O’Hare and bought a ticket to Atlanta.  I didn’t want any of my employees having to fly until I had demonstrated it was safe.  I had lunch which Scott in Atlanta and then returned to Chicago.

And then, our lives returned to the new post 9-11 normal. We lived through a tragedy and an adventure, but had no idea about how these events would so profoundly change our lives.

Eric Lieberman

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Eric Lieberman September 11, 2012 at 09:38 PM
From Michael - our investment banker: My current office at 140 Broadway overlooks a corner of Ground Zero (now the 9/11 Memorial). It is a beautiful view of an increasingly beautiful urban campus, and the new One World Trade is a spectacular structure as are several towers and structures around it. But I am very glad I was not in this office that day. I visited the 9/11 Memorial for the first time a few weeks ago. It is a very moving and yet awesome space. I felt pride (maybe a strange sentiment but that’s how it felt) that the Memorial respectfully honors those who lost their lives and at the same time powerfully affirms that we as a people will not be taken down. It was done right. My eleven year old nephew went to the Memorial with me and we happened to get interviewed about our reactions to the Memorial by a reporter from a Charleston SC TV station. The TV reporter asked Zachary (nonsensically) whether he remembered 9/11. He said no, but that he had grown up with 9/11 his whole life, that he had visited downtown NYC each summer and seen the towers grow, and that he would never forget seeing Ground Zero change into a beautiful place where there had been so much sadness and fear (his words). I don’t know where he pulled all that from with a microphone and camera in his face, but I totally agreed. Michael
Conrad September 11, 2012 at 11:37 PM
My brother in law was in one of the towers. He didn't make it out. I hate this day.
Jennifer Fisher September 11, 2012 at 11:49 PM
Conrad, I am so, so sorry to hear that. I wish you and your family the best on a difficult day.
Conrad September 12, 2012 at 12:39 AM
Thank you Miss/Mrs? Fisher. I appreciate that.
Robert Dunne September 12, 2012 at 04:09 AM
Conrad, my condolences on the loss to your family. May you find some comfort on this Patriot Day and National Day of Service and Remembrance. Ironically, on September 11, 2001, I was facilitating the first of a three day emergency management program in simulated disaster training exercise design, which I had planned several months in advance for a large public entertainment venue. I had representatives from the local municipal police, fire, public works, emergency medical services, public health, hospitals and disaster relief organizations including the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, as well as private sector building facilities management all in attendance. We stayed for several hours on the first day, and as we watched the events unfold on television, representatives of each professional functional discipline provided feedback as to what members representing their organizations woud be doing during response and recovery operations for this type of event. By mid day, with two of the instructors called back to duty at the State Capital in Springfield, we elected to suspend training for the balance of the day, uncertain if we would return and complete the program. After having the opportunity to connect with family members, and assure their safety, class members were polled that evening to determine if they wanted to continue on or re-schedule the training. All of the participants voted to return and complete the program with a resolute sense of purpose.


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