THE ECHOES OF 9/11
By Joe Brancatelli
Sept. 11, 2006 -- The simple fact of the matter is that I slept through 9/11.
My frequent-flying wife and I had flown to San Francisco the previous weekend, planned to start our vacation on September 11 and were going to fly to Hawaii the next day. I told my clients and contacts not to call. We had a late dinner on September 10 and didn't want a wake-up call.
So I slept in on 9/11 and didn't wake up until about 8:30 a.m. Pacific Time. Unusual for me, I didn't immediately flip on the television or radio. By then, of course, back East, the attacks were over, the Twin Towers had fallen, the Pentagon had been attacked and United Flight 93 had crashed in Pennsylvania.
But I knew none of that at 8:45 a.m. Pacific Time when I called a client whose New York offices were about two miles north of Ground Zero.
"I just wanted to remind you that I'll be out of touch for a couple of days," I started breezily. "How's it going?"
"Well," I recall her saying, "Everyone's accounted for. I don't think we've lost anyone."
"Geez," I said. "It's not even noon. Been that bad a day?"
"You don't know what's happened, do you? Turn on the TV…"
The images on the screen made no sense. It must have been the top-of-the-hour update when I heard the words, "The World Trade Center is gone."
That I certainly didn't understand and couldn't comprehend. I grabbed my cellphone and speed-dialed a friend, who also happened to be the former editor and publisher of a major science magazine.
"What the hell is going on?" I asked "What do they mean the World Trade Center is gone?"
"The towers collapsed. They're down," he said. "They're gone. What part of that don't you understand?"
I subsequently learned from an E-mail dispatch he wrote several days later that he'd been on a subway train halted before reaching the World Trade Center stop. He wrote a gripping account of coming out of the subway and watching one of the towers fall. I was not only out of touch with the facts, but also oblivious to his intense feelings in those minutes after the towers collapsed.
Then I started calling around, trying to do my job and gather facts. But so few of the facts made sense. Multiple hijackings. Massive death. The whereabouts of President Bush and Air Force One unknown and the Vice President in an undisclosed location. The air-travel system grounded. Perhaps a dozen planes still unaccounted for and possibly hijacked.
Then the hotel phone rang. A Los Angeles all-news radio station that I often worked with wanted to know if I could help with the coverage. The only thing I remember from the following minutes was reacting angrily when the anchorman said something about the pilots flying their planes into building.
"None of us knows what's happened for sure," I recall saying. "But I can assure you that no American pilot would fly his aircraft into a building. The pilots were not in control of these planes."
Several hours later, I was on the air with a San Francisco radio station. The anchor stopped our conversation to switch to a live feed from ABC News: World Trade Center 7 had just fallen. When the local anchor returned, he told listeners that "It looks like another subsidiary building has collapsed in New York. Meanwhile, Joe, as you were saying…"
I cut him off. "Do you understand that World Trade Center 7 is a 47-story building? Isn't that taller than anything you have here in San Francisco?"
"Well," fumbled the anchor, "I think the [Transamerica] Pyramid is…" And then I heard him say, "Oh my god, Oh my god… "
Sometime during the morning of September 12, I remembered that my rental car was parked on Pacific Street and should have been moved the day before. I walked down the street to the car and found a ticket on the windshield. It was written at 2:20 p.m. Pacific Time on 9/11, the exact moment that World Trade Center 7 was falling a continent away.
That strange duality--life as usual and chaos--led to We Will Fly Again, the column I wrote for biztravel.com on September 12. It was reprinted on many Web sites and newspaper op-ed pages in the days immediately after 9/11. It even made it into a recent journalism textbook. But it would have been a totally different column had I been in New York or Washington or scheduled to fly on 9/11. Sitting in a San Francisco hotel room waiting out cancellations and getting a parking ticket on 9/11 while a 47-story building was falling offered a somewhat ironic perspective.
But what really mattered about We Will Fly Again was simply that it existed. I had to talk the folks at biztravel.com into publishing that week. They thought it was "inappropriate" to send out a newsletter so soon after the tragedy. I insisted that the opposite was true: We had a moral obligation to reach out to readers, many of whom, like me, were stuck in a strange place with no idea when or if they would fly again. Business travel is, at base, a lonely thing. It was vitally important that we let fellow travelers know that they were not alone.
Meanwhile, it was obvious that we weren't getting to Hawaii or any kind of holiday in the coming days. So my wife and I moved to a hotel near San Francisco Airport. I spent almost all of the next few days alternately reporting and doing television and radio spots. Except for a little day trip into downtown San Mateo.
We came across a Middle Eastern place called Sinbad's. The food was superlative--I'm a sucker for great hummus--but what I remember was that the place was festooned inside and out with American flags. From the frightened look in the eyes of the wait staff, I had a feeling that those flags hadn't been there before 9/11 and they were hoping against hope that the flag-waving would help them avoid some of the ugly "reprisals" that had already been reported against Muslims and Arabs elsewhere in the country.
On the way back to our hotel, on an airport access road, my wife leaned out the window, looked up and called out: "It's a plane!" I pulled to the side of the road and looked. It was, indeed, a passenger aircraft. Things were starting to move again. But the early outlines of what we would eventually call the "new normal" were already taking shape in the emergency Tactical Traveler briefing I wrote on September 13.
I had hoped that my next Brancatelli File, scheduled to run on September 20, would begin to address the pain caused by the 9/11 attacks. But it was not to be because the nation's major airlines had begun lobbying for a huge bailout. The Big Six were pressuring both sides of the political spectrum for cash.
Gordon Bethune, then chief executive of Continental Airlines, was the first to go public with a demand. On the Saturday after 9/11, his press conference was carried live on television and his approach--layoffs, schedule cuts, demands for a cash bailout and no immediate management sacrifices--became the public posture of the major carriers. The next day, Leo Mullin, then chief executive of Delta Air Lines, made the single most offensive comment of the whole affair. The "airline industry cannot be the first casualty of this war," he said.
As I wrote in what became the September 20 column, No Taxation Without Reregulation, Mullin made this crass and callous statement even as real victims of 9/11 were still buried in the rubble. It was unconscionable--and utterable only by an airline executive. Mullin is gone now, tens of millions richer for his disastrous tenure at Delta, but his ilk lives on. Glenn Tilton, who became chief executive of United Airlines in 2002 and has become the airline's largest individual shareholder after the carrier's bankruptcy process, quickly became a devotee of Mullin's oblivious management style.
(There's another glimmer of the future in the September 19 edition of The Tactical Traveler. Unlike the Big Six, which cut 20 percent of their schedules, Southwest Airlines resumed 100 percent of its flying when the skies reopened. JetBlue Airlines also resumed virtually all of its scheduled flights. Those carriers became the big "winners" in the next five years. While they have grown their respective market shares in huge gulps, the Big Six have contracted both financially and operationally.)
I am told that No Taxation Without Reregulation was entered into the Congressional Record, but it didn't stop Congress from approving a $5 billion bailout. And even today people have trouble grasping what our elected representatives did: They just wrote checks to the airlines. Literally money for nothing. As I calculated for the September 27 edition of Tactical Traveler, the bailout cost every American citizen $17.85.
But No Taxation Without Reregulation did achieve a sort of fame. It was my last column for biztravel.com. I couldn't convince the site's owner, a clay-footed millionaire named Hal Rosenbluth, to keep even the information component of biztravel.com going. I thought he could have arranged a sale of that part of the site, since it had copious archives and several well-known columnists, including Randy Petersen and Chris Elliott. But Rosenbluth was a travel agent and, as he kept telling me, "The phones aren't ringing." So, to him, the site was worthless.
In fairness, Rosenbluth did agree to publish our final columns--and to keep those pages up for a while. I was appalled that Rosenbluth and many other self-styled Web entrepreneurs had bailed on business travelers in the days after 9/11, so I tacked a note onto the end of my column telling readers that I would keep writing the Brancatelli File if they wanted me to do so.
Thousands of E-mails flowed in asking me to continue, which raised the obvious question: How was I going to do what I promised? I'd been writing business-travel columns for Web sites since 1997, but I'd never built a Web site or even a Web page before. I had once used an HTML-free site called Zyweb.com to post pictures of my niece. So I found that page online and laboriously substituted the September 27 editions of the Brancatelli File and Tactical Traveler for the baby pictures. However shakily, JoeSentMe.com was born.
If nothing else, that difficult birth produced a column that I am proud to say I wrote.
The Cowards and Traitors Among Us addressed the frequent-flying manifestation of the bigotry I had seen two weeks earlier at Sinbad's in San Mateo. Some business travelers were conducting drumhead trials at the airport and putting other flyers off planes. Their excuse: They looked wrong or dangerous and they didn't want them flying. Amazingly, the cabin crews on the flights acquiesced.
The airlines were sued for their part in this sad interlude and they eventually settled out of court, paying fines and promising sensitivity training for misguided employees, but admitting nothing.
And nothing has really changed. Ten days ago, before an Air Canada flight from Montreal to New York, a man was removed from the plane. His offense? Praying to himself.
The passenger, an Orthodox Jew who spoke neither French nor English, was escorted off the plane by flight attendants. Air Canada has defended the action and refused to say whether he was allowed to travel on a later flight only after agreeing not to pray. The airline has also refused to provide the name of a single passenger on the plane who complained about the man.
A month after September 11, the topic was the now-infamous Texas Republican Tom DeLay. As Two Words About Security explained, DeLay, then majority whip of the House of Representatives, was delaying the federalization of airport security. DeLay is gone now, of course, dragged down by his own hubris and corruption. Yet his vitriol permanently poisoned Congressional attitudes toward the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
The TSA has become a cumbersome, stupid bureaucracy, of course. It doesn't have many defenders on the merits. But its biggest problem is funding. In the years since 9/11, less than $30 billion has been spent on the TSA. By contrast, more than $300 billion has been spent fighting the war in Iraq. The terrorists chose to make our airliners and airports a battleground. We chose Iraq. Yet we starve the TSA for reasons best known only to DeLay and his one-time patrons at the White House.
Meanwhile, we struggle with the echoes and ghosts of 9/11 every day of our lives on the road. Five years hasn't changed much.
Three months after the attacks, I wrote City of Ruins about the fragile mental and physical heath of New Yorkers and their wounded city. Some readers attacked me for criticizing New York without realizing that I am a born and raised New Yorker who still lives in the Metropolitan area. Most of us who live in New York are amazed and confounded by our subsequent revival--but we still "cringe noticeably" whenever a siren sounds.
As we neared the first anniversary of the attacks, travelers were planning to stay off the road on September 11, 2002. I thought I had a good idea to keep us traveling on the first anniversary of the attacks, but America Must Travel on 9/11 ran into the usual opposition from the frightened and hidebound travel industry. They let their planes and hotels go empty rather than try to make a statement.
And every year in the Brancatelli File column nearest 9/11, I have taken an unsuccessful crack at trying to find some kind of context and greater meaning. By last year, in a column I bitterly titled Empty, I had to admit that I'm simply not up to the task. But I note now that the column quotes a New Yorker calling Ground Zero "that big hole." It's probably why most New Yorkers weren't angry when Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans called Ground Zero the same thing. Nagin may be a fool and an incompetent, but he wasn't wrong about Ground Zero. Five years on, we're unable to find the right balance of commerce, reverence and remembrance. One day, maybe….
In some ways, though, we may have learned everything we could learn from 9/11 in the 60 days after the attack. The first two months on the road after 9/11 were marred by a horrific series of accidents and death. There was a fiery ground crash at Milan's Linate Airport. A Russian airline was shot down by a Ukrainian missile. Seven fatal incidents in 60 days, in fact, culminating with the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 on takeoff from New York/Kennedy Airport.
In Life Is an Adventure--Or a Punch in the Stomach, the first column after those 60 days of carnage, I found travelers at the airport who wouldn't be grounded and those who simply and suddenly couldn't bring themselves to step on a plane again. That pretty much says it all: You either fly or you don't.
As for me, I get a lot of notes from JoeSentMe members who wonder how we can soldier on after five years of this "temporary" and voluntary Web site. A lot of them wonder when I sleep. And I always jokingly reply that I haven't slept much since 9/11.
Except that it's the truth. The last decent night's sleep I can remember was on September 10, 2001.
A note to readers: This is my story and it's inconsequential, really, because 9/11 is about the almost 3,000 innocents who gave their lives on that day. You can see their names and read their profiles at September11Victims.com.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.