When TechRepublic invited its contributors to share their reflections on the 10-year anniversary of September 11, 2001, I couldn’t help but think back to my own experience of that day, and how being unusually close to the events affected my life in IT. Looking at it today, I can say that my career has been impacted by those events, and it may be that many of you have similar stories to tell, so I’d like to share my experience with you on this somber anniversary.
Step back to 2001, when I had just recently started a new role as a software engineer for one of the largest supply chain automation companies. Supply chain automation is a catchall phrase and, quite frankly, not entirely specific. In the context of this client, it was an airport baggage handling system. For late August and early September of 2001, I had started to ramp up on a project for a large airline at their Newark hub for the baggage handling system. I’ve long been a fan of aviation and travel, so to be right there in the thick of it, including in the restricted areas was really appealing to me.
The job I had as a software engineer required a lot of travel, more travel than I probably should have enlisted for when looking back on it. But it was something I felt ready for at the time.
I, and a small team of engineers, traveled to Newark on the evening of September 10, 2011. This was a Monday, and my plan was to start a week of training and orientation for the large project we had before us. The project was going to involve 24-hour support across a small team, with very tight support requirements. So this week’s objective was to become familiar with the client site requirements and the particular software installation at the site, and to identify all of the stakeholders of my client.
My excitement started with our arrival in Newark. We did arrive two hours late, for reasons that escape me now, but we made it into Newark late in the afternoon. Upon our final descent into Newark, I took particular note of all of the visible highlights of the city. This was my first time to the metro New York area, and the views on that afternoon were stunning. So much so, that I phoned home to my wife; I called her that afternoon and was very excited to report how cool it was to see all of the big sites of New York, including the World Trade Center, just by arriving via airplane.
Once our team was on site, we started getting familiar with the area and the project requirements. I still remember how interesting it was for me to be that close to aircraft on the tarmac, and see the inner operations of a modern airport baggage system.
The project continued on with a normal pace, so much so that I think we were there until 10 P.M. or so, which made for a long day. That was par for the course for that role-we’d start at 7 A.M. and work as late as we could every night. It was hard.
The next day, Tuesday, September 11, 2001, started out like any other. The morning meeting with my project team occurred without incident, and then we started off onto specifics for the day’s objectives. One item on my plate for the day was safety training. The safety training started out normally enough: what to do, what not to do, if something happens, etc. Then, pagers started going off and cell phones started ringing. First one pager went off and someone stepped out of the room. One by one, people were receiving some sort of alert and sketchy reports of what was happening. Then it got real.
A couple of uniformed Port Authority staff then came into the room. Again, working on limited information, we were told that there were airborne incidents in the New York area. Further, we were told that the Port Authority requested that all persons in restricted areas were to stop what they were doing and remain in place until further instruction. I found myself running through a number of scenarios that could explain what was happening. A few attempts to find better news online seemed fruitless, and then another Port Authority staffer came in to the room. The update was that there was a hijacked plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center. Then, the instruction was that all non-essential personnel were to leave the restricted areas of the airport. This meant I had to get out.
At that point, I had to scramble backwards in what was quickly becoming a chaotic environment to gather, among other things, my laptop and hard hat (required for the construction site). We exited into the airport terminal and saw even more chaos. At that point, I could look over to Manhattan and see the smoke coming from the towers.
Eventually, we made it back to our hotel. Still having clear views to lower Manhattan, we noticed that there was only one tower standing. Then, later on that morning in the hotel, the other engineer and I witnessed the North tower fall.
All we could do was try to get ourselves home, and that wasn’t easy. We had to go to Trenton, New Jersey to find a car, and from there drive all the way back to Michigan. Some of my colleagues had to drive to Dallas to get home from Newark. The drive home was odd, but in a way serene. The weather was very nice on both Tuesday and Wednesday, yet our thoughts were not as clear.
This series of events fundamentally changed me both as a person and also how I practice IT. In particular, I am a little obnoxious in my own data protection strategy. I also ensure that all plans are clearly communicated. It seems simple, but basic things like “what if something doesn’t go as planned” and “what should we do” are the things I can try to account for. While I don’t dwell on the horrible events of that day, I do feel I’ve been strengthened by it. I ride my bike to work when I can. It is good for my health, and it helps keep me in good spirits. On my path, is First Responders Park in Westerville, Ohio. Like many other parks of a similar theme, this one is a constant reminder of all of the events of that day. I pass it frequently on my ride to work. The imagery it provides encourages me.
This anniversary of the tragedy is both a sad memory and a reminder of a turning point for me. I found out how incredibly blessed I am. Economically, I stayed employed, though I was unsure for a while. The people closest to me were safe, and my co-workers were all okay. I feel that by proximity, I was impacted more than the average American, but I also feel that the resolve I feel is also that much stronger.
So for this anniversary, as we commemorate the day and honor the fallen, let’s stay strong for the values we have and be thankful for who we are and what we have made of ourselves.
Please feel free to share your own memories or stories about 9-11.
TechRepublic: Ten years later: IT and life lessons from the South Tower
ZDNet: How 9/11 changed my IT consulting career
ZDNet: The day the planes hit (9/11 Diary)
CBSNews: Holes remain in flight school scrutiny after 9/11
CBSNews: Patriotism’s new face 10 years after 9/11