Where were you on September 11, 2001?

Five years on, this is the theme for a great deal of news coverage today, including my daily dose of Rocketboom and the wiki where they’ve been gathering stories.

Six days before 9/11 was my final day working at FileNet in southern California: tired of the boys club and political infighting, I had given notice in early August, and in fact had extended my leaving date by a week when I was needed in Philadelphia for one last bit of evangelizing on August 31st. I spent the Labour Day weekend in Toronto and flew back to Los Angeles on September 3rd to finish up working on the 5th.

Bodega BayWith almost everything that I owned in storage, since I had no idea where I’d be going next, I packed what I needed for the next couple of months in the tiny trunk of my car, put the top down, and headed north on the 6th. My only plan was to be in Vancouver at my brother’s home for (Canadian) Thanksgiving, which fell on October 8th that year, so I was really taking my time up the Pacific Coast Highway: the first night, I only drove to Santa Barbara. The next night, I was in Carmel, then spent the weekend with one night with friends at their place in Bodega Bay, and one night at the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs to meet up with some friends from Toronto.

HeavenlyMonday was bright and clear, and I decided to head for Lake Tahoe, since I’d never been there before. I was scheduled to head back to Sacramento on Tuesday to meet up with my friend Philip from Toronto, who was working there that week and realized that we likely wouldn’t have a chance to meet up again for a few months since I was headed off to Australia for at least a month after Thanksgiving. We chatted on the phone on Monday afternoon and I made a hotel reservation in Sacramento for the night of the 11th. I was hiking pretty much every day in addition to whatever driving I did, so pretty much just crawling into bed at night, and the night of the 10th was no exception: staying at Camp Richardson which was in the woods, no phones, no TV (except in the lounge of the main lodge), only the raccoons at night to keep me awake.

Tuesday, September 11th, 2001: my cell phone rings just before 8am, and I see from the caller ID that it’s Philip. Fuck, doesn’t he know that I’m not on a work schedule any more? He sounded a bit shaken, and said “Turn on your TV”. “I don’t have one”, I replied. “Radio?” “Nope.” He proceeded to tell me in a couple of sentences what had happened: planes hitting the towers, both towers collapsed by now. Given the setting in the woods at Tahoe, the whole thing was a bit surreal, almost unbelievable. We agreed that I wouldn’t come down to Sacramento as planned since he already realized that travel was going to be a problem and was focussing on getting home to Toronto; I hung up and headed for the lodge lounge with the only TV around to watch the endless replays of what had happened.

My first thoughts were of my FileNet colleagues in New York, and I made calls over the next several hours until I finally reached someone in the southern California head office who confirmed that everyone from the New York office was safe. I eventually did meet up with Philip the next day when he drove by Lake Tahoe on his way back to Toronto — he made Chicago in about 30 hours, then stopped over for the weekend before continuing on to Toronto.

VikingsholmI ended up spending the rest of the week at Camp Richardson, figuring that any bigger city was going to be swamped with stranded travellers. Also, the chance of any terrorist attack on Lake Tahoe in off-season was practically nil, making this about the safest place in this country that I no longer wanted to be in. On the 12th or 13th, I was hiking near Vikingsholm on the west side of the lake and overheard a group of 50-ish Americans talking about the attacks. “We should just go in and bomb them!”, declared one man (although it’s not clear that he knew who they should be bombing), which gave me a bit of a shiver when I realized that this was all likely headed for war.

Six days before 9/11, I was a software company executive, flying 100,000 miles each year (much of it long-haul flights), with LAX as my home airport. All four flights that day were long-haul. Three of the four were headed for LAX. Timing is everything.

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