Memories of 9/11

Drawing of the new World Trade Center and Memorial

We’ll be seeing lots of news coverage this week sparked by the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. I’d like to hear about your memories of the day and your thoughts about its aftermath.

For me, 2001 was the Year of the Bay Area. I had been laid off at the end of 2000 after Tyco acquired my St. Louis employer, Mallinckrodt Inc. A recruiter quickly paired me up with Thermo Finnigan, an oddly named company based in San Jose. Thermo Finnigan was in the business of making sophisticated mass spectrometry and chromatography equipment. Finnigan had been purchased by science instrument company Thermo Electron, which at that time signaled that it had acquired a company by affixing the “Thermo” label in front of the acquired company’s name. Eventually, Thermo made a huge acquisition – Fisher Scientific – and today it is known as Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Thermo had brought me on to help with advancing the company’s spectrometry equipment into the market of proteomics, the large-scale study of proteins. I started in February and worked for them until the end of the year. September 11 hit the proteomics market hard, and I became dispensable. I’ve never had any hard feelings about the situation; the company treated me well and gave me an interesting experience.

I commuted between St. Louis and San Jose that year, going home to St. Louis every other weekend. Our daughter was a junior in high school, and we chose not to uproot her. It worked out well; had we all moved, we would have been living in the Bay Area with a mortgage impossible to maintain after a layoff. To replace what was then our $260,000 home in St. Louis would have cost us $1.2 million in the Bay Area, and I would have lived 30 miles from work.

During my first six months in San Jose, I lived in a new, furnished, 287-square-foot apartment that cost $1,550 a month. The last three months, I lived in a single-family home with Rong-Fong Shen and Yongning Zhai. I had my own room in a new, two-story home for $750 a month. It was a great step up; Rong-Fong, a co-worker at Thermo, called my attention to the opportunity. Yongning needed roomers to help pay his mortgage. Rong-Fong was in the same boat I was in. His family was back in the Baltimore area, so he needed housing in the Bay Area as well. Rong-Fong and John Macchia, another Thermo employee, are two of the lasting benefits of my time at Thermo. Both remain friends to this day.

I had spent a couple of weeks before Sept. 11 in St. Louis. My boss knew I wanted to see my daughter’s high school softball team play a few games, so he told me to work from home for a couple of weeks. The team was good; it took third place in the state tournament that year. Sadly, while driving from St. Louis to watch the tournament in Columbia, several students died in an auto crash.

On Sept. 10, I flew back to San Jose. I was buying Priceline tickets in those days, which meant you could never pick the exact flight you’d snag with a low bid. The flight I was on that day got me back into the San Francisco airport about 11 p.m., and I had nearly an hour’s drive back to San Jose. I always went to work early, about 6 in the morning, so I was groggy but behind the wheel of my 1993 MR2 before the sun was up on Tuesday in San Jose. I turned on the radio and couldn’t believe what I was hearing – that a passenger jet had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.

It took me about 15 minutes to get to work, and I was there alone at first. I kept watching Internet reports, and that’s how I learned of the second tower being hit. Slowly people began showing up, but no work got done that day. We watched TV together, speculated what this was all about, and shared the double shocks of the Pentagon attack and the jet being intentionally crashed in Pennsylvania.

Rumors were flying like crazy – that 10,000 or more had been killed in the towers, that more jets were headed to other cities to take out more skyscrapers, that the jet that went down in Pennsylvania had been headed for the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco.

My boss, an Australian named Bill Hancock, was out of the country. (I can’t remember where.) He made it back more quickly than expected. My recollection is that he found a way to be back in the office by the following Monday as the ban on air travel slowly lifted.

By the afternoon of Sept. 11, Osama bin Laden already had been identified as the mastermind behind the attacks. I remember one co-worker, Nelson Cooke, saying that bin Laden had to be taken out and that the skin should be stripped from his body piece by piece (or words something like that).

I remember President Bush’s speech in the aftermath of the attacks, and I remember being impressed. I thought he had seized the moment well and had spoken the right words for the situation.

I also remember the economy collapsing and then dragging on for more than a year with little to no progress. 2002 wasn’t any better; Enron and MCI Worldcomm showed just how corrupt companies could be, and they prolonged people’s lack of confidence in the economy and the trustworthiness of America’s corporations.

It’s been quite a decade since 9/11. The economy got back on track by the middle of the decade and then derailed again. The gap between the haves and have-nots has grown steadily. A presidential candidate sensed that America needed hope, and he promised it. And then he learned that delivering the goods is tough, and tougher still when a nation can’t agree on what’s possible, what’s not, and how we can come together to build a new future together.

I think the legacy of 9/11 is fear. We in the U.S. fear that we’re vulnerable, that we’re under attack by enemies and aliens, and that we have to hold onto to our piece of a pie that’s shrinking. It’s not a good place to be. If we keep looking down, and back, and over our shoulder at shadowy figures, we’re going to be stuck forever in a fearful rut.

It’s time we look forward. We need to listen to and follow people who have a hopeful vision of the future. It’s also time to recognize that achieving such a vision is going to require work, and sacrifice, and commitment. It’s also going to require finding ways to be on the same team and not carp at each other all the time. FDR said it best: We have nothing to fear but fear itself. So let’s stop being afraid and start building hope again, one person at a time.

As a start, let’s root together for the new One World Trade Center taking shape in lower Manhattan. It’s taken a decade, but a new building is rising at Ground Zero. I find great inspiration in the building, which will stand 1,776 feet tall. Maybe it can be a rallying point for us, capturing the Spirit of 1776 and bringing us together to build yet another iteration of an America brave, strong, free and fearless.

So there are my thoughts about 9/11 and its aftermath. What are yours?

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