A narrative: My 9/11 Story

By on September 5, 2016
Features

By Bart Freedman —

I made a major mistake on Sept. 10, 2001 and I will always regret it. This is my self-caused 9/11 story. It illustrates what happens when you make bad choices.

I was 56 and an in-house attorney for the former Brown & Williamson Tobacco in Louisville. My father, age 90, was dying in Fort Lee, New Jersey. I spent Labor Day weekend with him and knew he wouldn’t last long. We said our painful good-byes to each other Sept. 4, knowing we would never see each other again, and for reasons I no longer remember I went home. He lived another week.

He was still alive a day before I stupidly flew to Seattle to keep a long-planned business appointment on Sept. 11 with the Washington State Attorney General and key state cigarette officials at the capitol in Olympia. My boss at B&W and my wife told me to forget Washington and go to see dad while he was still alive.

The attorney general could not reschedule until early December and I had already waited for this meeting since June. I felt professionally obligated to go, and planned to fly home after my meeting and then to New Jersey on Sept. 12 to be with dad. Note to self: Get your priorities straight. God laughs when you make plans.

Dad died at 2:00 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, just about when I reached my Seattle Airport hotel room. I did not learn about him until morning. I have wished for 15 years now that I had stayed with him for the duration or returned again before he died. But he was lucky in a way – he never knew what happened seven hours later in New York City – what we now call “9/11.”

I drove to Olympia on the morning of 9/11. It was still an ordinary Tuesday morning when I arrived there at 5:40 a.m. I heard that my father died, and heard minutes later that a plane hit the World Trade Center North Tower. “The crash was an accident right? Had to happen eventually… I was in the North Tower two weeks ago.” I somehow compartmentalized my dad’s death and met my colleagues for breakfast to review our upcoming meeting. I didn’t want to cancel – I would have plenty of grieving time later on my flight home.

Over breakfast, I saw this was no accident. My wife called and begged me not to go to the capitol or fly home. I told her the attorney general had canceled our meeting (they were evacuating the capitol) and the U.S. had grounded all commercial flights indefinitely.

So now I’m stuck in Washington, 2,500 miles from home and 3,000 miles from New Jersey. I decided to drive my rental car East to see what happened. B&W arranged for me to keep my car for 10 days and drop it anywhere in the U.S. with no extra fees.

I left Olympia at 8:30 a.m., not knowing my ultimate destination. I wasn’t sure how many days it would take to drive to New Jersey, or if I could even get there in time for my father’s yet-to-be-planned funeral. Rest assured, they held the funeral on Sept. 16 and I made it to New Jersey with a day to spare.

Hotel rooms were scarce. With the help of a trucker at a rest area outside Seattle, I estimated I would reach Boise, Idaho that evening and B&W booked a room for me there. I reached Boise after about 10 hours on the road, ate dinner, talked to my family and fell asleep depressed and exhausted. I was lucky – people without reservations slept in their cars.

I left Boise at 3:00 a.m. on Sept. 12. I had only a couple of hours of sleep the previous two nights and did not know how far I could get before “crashing.” My wife, her friend and my office buddy played “where’s waldo,” tracking my progress and keeping my spirits up. Thankfully, I had a cell phone and talked to lots of people along the way. As I reached eastern Utah around noon, B&W booked several hotel rooms for me along a 100-mile stretch of Interstate 80 in Wyoming and Nebraska. I reached N. Platte, Nebraska at around 8:00 p.m., ready to collapse, and repeated my Boise routine. I personally cancelled my unused reservations along the way, freeing up much-needed rooms for others.

Again I couldn’t sleep much, and left N. Platte at 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 13, determined to make it to Louisville that night. I felt at home when I reached Kansas City at around noon; I’d driven there from Louisville before and knew the roads. I made it home at 9:00 p.m. that night, after roughly 40 hours and 2,550 miles behind the wheel. I returned the rental car to a chaotic Louisville International Airport on Sept. 14, when flights resumed in some cities, retrieved my own car and went home to sleep for the rest of the day. Home never felt so good.

The next day, I drove to New Jersey for my father’s funeral. As I approached New York City, I could see the ugly grey-black cloud covering lower Manhattan. No buildings showed through. I crossed the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey to New York City for the funeral on Sept. 16. I had a perfect view of the northern half of Manhattan, but the rest of the island seemed to have disappeared.

The next day I walked across the bridge to gawk. I was several miles upriver from the World Trade Center; however, I could smell the fumes from Ground Zero even up there. It was obviously hell at the site itself. 

Here are some observations about my drive: My office cell phone provider yanked my service three times because of my high number of rural calls. Master Card, Visa and American Express froze my accounts because of my purchases at unusual locations, so I used ATM machines and cash. My cramped maroon Buick was dependable, letting me drive around 500 miles between fuel stops. Self-imposed starvation and dehydration let me drive long distances without stopping, and NPR was seamless the whole way.

My driving saga ended on Sept. 18.

After attending my dad’s funeral two days before, and spending some alone time with my mother, I drove to Louisville and stayed home for the rest of the week. At least I got one priority straight.

The Washington attorney general rescheduled our meeting for October. The trip brought back bad memories. The next trip did too, as I had to go back to Olympia in November. I finally won my matter and the attorney general apologized for all the trouble the state had caused me.

It is ironic I lost my dad on the very day that the World Trade Center was destroyed, because the twin towers always had a special appeal for me. I am a native New Yorker and attended college and law school there in the 1960s when the World Trade Center became a serious project.

I visited the construction site (and some good bars in the area) with friends several times.

I left New York in 1969 after law school, landing permanently in Louisville in 1972. However, I visited New York for business and pleasure over the decades after I left. I would visit the World Trade Center and often stayed at the Marriott Hotel which was badly damaged in 9/11.

Before the attack, I regularly met with five New York state cigarette marketing officials in their 87th Floor South Tower office. We last met on Aug. 30, 2001. It did not go well for B&W and we planned to meet again in late September. Three of the five died in their office on 9/11, one escaped and one was out sick. USA Today reported the escape story years ago.

I visited the South Tower’s 110th floor observation deck about 20 times over the years, alone and with my wife, son, parents and friends. I was a dedicated jogger back then and often made the time to go to the top for a long walk. I would circle the top for more than an hour, enjoying the strong breeze and incredible view. I often visited the top to blow of steam after an unpleasant meeting with New York officials. On clear days using binoculars, I could pick out my old neighborhood and my college campus about 20 miles away. I loved it up there and have pictures and treasured memories of us at the top. My wife hated it for many reasons, one was that she feared a plane hitting it.

“Windows of the World” Restaurant, located on the 107th floor of the North tower, offered an incredible view, ultra-high prices, outstanding beverages and average food and service. I went there often over the years. In fact, I had a cocktail and lunch there after my Aug. 30 meeting to reflect on our latest New York problems and my impending Labor Day weekend visit with my dying father.

I left there, never dreaming that there would not be a World Trade Center on my next visit to New York.

I remember flying in to New York City weeks after 9/11 and thinking that the skyline had its front teeth knocked out. I tried to see Ground Zero on that trip but couldn’t reach it; everything down there was still snarled. I successfully made it to Ground Zero with a colleague in December.

There was nothing to see but a gigantic hole, assorted wreckage and thousands of personal tributes. We stood there in awe, and then perversely hit the Starbucks a block away that had survived and was back in business.

Fifteen years have passed. I retired in 2003 and now enjoy classes at U of L. B&W, a fantastic employer and corporate citizen, is no more and all the “important” business issues I dealt with have faded into oblivion.

Rest in peace to the World Trade Center victims, and rest in peace Dad.

 

About Kyeland Jackson

Editor-in-Chief at The Louisville Cardinal.

One Comment

  1. Amanda James

    September 6, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    Thank you for sharing this emotional story, Bart!

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