Goodbye, Columbus

When I ran research projects for various FOX networks, I championed the need to be sure we were not only talking to representative people based on demography and level of interest, but also geography.  Long before the cheat of online groups were a viable option, we’d criss-cross the country like surrepititious vagabonds, starting out in the Eastern time zone and working our way back West, sometimes needing a travel day in between depending upon flight availability.  While there would arguably be a cost for a hotel room and a dinner or two, it was nominal, I argued, to the risk of having a test group go off with myself and my colleagues (usually my group moderator) stranded at an airport, having to eat the cost of the recruit and the facility rental.  I’ve had that happen on several occasions, and, believe me, that’s not a fun conversation to have with a CFO.

So when a project hit that was scheduled during the week of September 10, 2001, we aligned our calendars so that we’d fly East on Monday, grab a quick bite, get a good night’s sleep, be productive from the hotel room the next day and conduct our group on Tuesday evening. As I recall, this project was for a sports network, and men do tend to work in the daytime.

Full confession:  when scheduling where to go and when, I’d see if we could take our FOX Sports cousins up on their standing offer to snag us tickets to any of the dozens of teams’ games for which they controlled regional cable network rights to.  I’d traveled quite a bit with sales executives in an earlier stint, and many of them aligned their travels to tee time availabilities at golf clubs or spa appointments at resorts, exorbitant costs which the company was always fleeced into covering as an expense.  Most of these tickets were comps that would otherwise go unused.  I felt absolutely no remorse about aligning our work to allow me to catch a game.  Besides, ballgame food was almost always cheaper than any restaurant.

So this project saw my moderator and I land in Columbus, Ohio on the evening of September 10th, delayed, of course, by storms en route that forced us to abort dinner plans.  I ordered room service, took a pill to help get me to sleep earlier to adjust for the time zone difference, and set a wake up call for 8:30 AM the next morning in order to catch an episode of a new syndicated series that a friend was producing that aired in Columbus at 9 AM.

When the 8:30 AM call came in, still groggy and jet-lagged I reached for the TV remote and stumbled around for the channek my friend’s show was scheduled to run on.  I found it; THE TODAY SHOW was still on, Katie Couric chit-chatting it up with Al Roker.  I persued the room service menu again, and just as I was about to plunk down $30 of Mr. Murdoch’s money on an overpriced omelette, Couric’s intonation changed as a live shot of one of the World Trade Center towers on fire appeared.  “Oh, sh-t”, I thought, “my friend’s show might be pre-empted”.  I figured now was good a time as any for a shower.  I left the TV on.  By the time I came back, the grim reality of 9/11 was unfolding before my disbelieving eyes.

I had briefly worked a summer job in One World Trade Center; my dad worked in Two World Trade for years.  We actually commuted together on the subway a couple of times.  It was one of the best bonding experiences I ever had with him.  So seeing these buildings engulfed in flames, and then crumbling, hit me on a more personal level than many–though nowhere near that of those who were in those buildings that morning, let alone their families.  Seeing so many of them choose to jump to their deaths before the Towers could collapse on top of them to do so was sickening, yet riveting.

My moderator had wisely chosen to sleep in, to be fresh for the late evening ahead.  So by the time she awakened, the Towers were gone.  When she finally called my room, her first words were “Well, I doubt the groups are happening tonight”.

We were in an older hotel in downtown Columbus, three blocks from the state capital.  Naturally, that area was in virtual lockdown, with every capital building considered a target given what was later learned of the intended destination of Flight 93.  And we weren’t that far from where that flight crashed later that morning, either.  Wi-fi was weak at the hotel; we couldn’t even get online for a while to do work.  She called her husband, cried a little bit, and we resigned ourselves to what we could do besides watch the nonstop coverage of the death and destruction that had unfolded in my hometown that otherwise beautiful morning.

“It’s too damn nice out”, my usually upbeat work companion declared, “Let’s at least go for a walk”.  The Olantangy River cut through downtown Columbus.  It was 73 and sunny, we saw there was a path to lead us to the riverside a few blocks away from our hotel.  The downtown streets were otherwise desolate, sirens going off to protect the nearby capital building.  We explained our predicament to the National Guard officers that were patrolling our area, and they consented to let us go on our hike.

We strolled along the Olantangy for miles that afternoon, the eerie silence even as we walked under overpasses that would on other days carry midday traffic around the city was surreal.  I had no one in my life at the time to check in with that cared, so the persistent calls from my colleague’s newlywed husband to her ;eft me with a lot of alone time.   Eventually, my office called, my assistant eager to try and find ways to get us home safely.  Flights had been grounded, of course.  And not many airlines flew direct from Columbus to Los Angeles.  Our original plan had us flying to Phoenix on Wednesday ; one reason we selected Columbus was that it, like Phoenix, was an America West hub city.   (Yes, I had every intention of seeing the Arizona Diamondbacks play that night.  They were on their way to winning the World Championship in just their fourth year of existence.  Go figure. )

So like it or not, we were stuck in Columbus.  We walked and I did a lot of thinking.  How that could have been me in those towers.  How there were possibly only one or two degrees of separation between some of those that didn’t make it out.  It was an emotional hike; I’m sure it was several miles long.  At the time, I wasn’t in the same shape I am now.  But I was too dazed to care.  And, frankly, there wasn’t much to do, anyway.

Eventually, restaurants, and even movie theatres, reopened.  There were no sports teams playing that week, so that option for diversion wasn’t even on the table.  My office got a call from Mr. Murdoch’s, who offered us spots on the corporate jet if we could somehow find a way to Pittsburgh.  But by the time that plan was attempted, rental cars were gone.  We finally did find a way onto a flight that Friday morning.

When we landed at LAX the passengers on the plane applauded; many of them had been stranded on business travel as well.  Several people on our flight had connected in Columbus from New York.  One even had a piece of debris from Ground Zero.  Until my first post-pandemic flight, it was far and away the most emotional trip I had ever taken.

I never did have either the time or the resolve to go to Ground Zero myself until last summer.  Of course, these days it has been turned into a beautiful tribute destination, complete with the Freedom Towers and the memorial wall.  I made it a point to visit, even on a day when as it turned out the museum wasn’t open.  An impending tropical storm served as an appropriate climate for that day.  Even nearly 20 years later, I felt the emotion and the majesty of the spot.  I remembered those summer days of even longer ago when Dad and I shared a coffee before we’d depart to our separate buildings.  I’m pretty sure he was watching to be sure I got home safely that day, just as I’m convinced my mom was when I was looking to get back from Columbus.  And, lately, I’m truly hopeful they’re both making sure the journey I’m still on has just as safe an ending.

I’m honestly not sure where my current journey will eventually take me.  Every 9/11 is tough for me.  Seven years after the Towers went down my first cousin, the closest thing I had to a brother in my family, lost his life in a car crash in Florida.  I think of him, too, on this day.  Florida might be where I wind up.  Possibly New York even.  I’m open to anything.  I’m just thankful that I still have the chance to consider those options.

I’m still walking, just like I did along the Olantangy.  And it’s a damn pretty morning here today as well.  Time for another walk, and another 9/11.  You take care as well.

Until next time…

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