Memories fade and become personal mythology over time. It can be difficult to extricate fact from fiction.
It is the 19th anniversary of September 11, 2001 and I will do my best to relate (as I have done before) what I was up to that day.
On September 10, 2001 we hopped into two vehicles and said goodbye to our home in Debary, Florida (north of Orlando) and began the long drive back to Ottawa, Canada.
I was driving a 28′ U-Haul packed to the gills with stuff (including the passenger seat) while the kids (4-year-old Matthew and two-year-old Caleb) and their mum were in the Ford Windstar van, also packed to the gills with stuff.
Early the next morning, about an hour south of Washington D.C. the van got a flat tire. We pulled into a rest area and were able to contact a garage in a small town very nearby. We made our way to the garage on a donut and waited for our tire to be replaced.
While we waited the television began to play breaking news about a plane that had flown into the World Trade Center in New York City.
From that moment on began a series of cascading thoughts that started with “surely it was just a Cessna or something small” followed by increasingly shocking and unbelievable revelations that kept crushing the initial, minimizing assumptions.
Once the repair was made we hopped in our vehicles and continued the journey home listening to NPR report live what was going on the whole way to our next motel.
The plan had been to drive through Washington D.C. along the way but as we got closer signs began to crop up along the highway –
“ALL ACCESS TO WASHINGTON D.C. CLOSED”
“ALL ACCESS TO NEW YORK CITY CLOSED”
The radio announcer on the scene reported that the south tower and collapsed. The host back at the station assumed he meant the radio antenna on top of the building. No – the whole tower had collapsed. Not long after the remaining tower collapsed.
It was surreal.
In days in tech we had made connections with many of the companies who occupied the towers – Cantor Fitzgerald (floors 101-105); Bank of America; Morgan Stanley; AT&T; Sun Microsystems; Verizon; and Xerox. They had employees we met with regularly. They were our clients, they were our partners, they attended our conferences.
We stopped at a rest stop and got out to stretch. I stood by a typical American monument and understood that the moments and hours we were experiencing we in some way historic.
Perhaps it was not unlike what certain citizens felt when Rome was invaded by the Visigoths in 410 A.D. Shock and a deep sense that things would never be the same.
Once we got to the motel the television went on and CNN kept us up to date until our eyes could no longer remain open.
The next day, early in the morning I bought several morning after newspapers. I still have them.
When we arrived at the Canadian border the U.S. had set up a pre-clearance checkpoint. You had to be cleared by the U.S. to leave the country. Vehicles were lined up for kilometers. When we finally got to the front of the line an officer was met with a tired family with a very smelly, poopy, crying two-year-old. The officer was friendly and polite. He opened the back of the U-Haul and was greeted with a wall of boxes. After surveying the situation, he closed the U-Haul and sent us on our way. I thanked him and told him we were sorry for what he and his fellow citizens had endured.
Once through the Canadian border traffic was lined up along the highway for what seemed like forever because the U.S. border was still closed. Semi after semi was parked along the highway.
That’s it. When we arrived at our rental in Ottawa we contacted friends in the U.S. and slowly allowed our new reality to seep in.
To this day the world remains changed. Security levels are still higher than before September 11. Air travel changed forever. Our friends to the south are still embroiled in the Middle East (but to a far lesser degree).
There have been larger calamities in history. What made this one more momentous was not that there was an attack but who was attacked and where. A sense of American invulnerability was dented that day.
As Canadians who lived in the United States for four years the American response was not surprising. In Canada we have and always will be the first to come to the aid of others but we are far less eager to press our claims for vengeance upon others than our southern friends. We are nations forged by very different histories in this sense.
I can say in all honesty that my memories of September 11, however dim, would likely be far less embedded if not for the journey we were on when it happened. Travelling through the American eastern seaboard in the midst of it all. Almost certainly our flat tire prevented us from being trapped inside Washington D.C. and I am thankful for that.