My colleagues and I were in New York City to negotiate a credit agreement for our employer, Sun Healthcare Group. Our meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m. on September 11, 2001, and was to take place in the offices of Goldman Sachs at 85 Broad Street.
Sun was headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was a publicly-held healthcare company that filed for Chapter 11 protection two years earlier after a change in Medicare reimbursement rates triggered defaults on multiple debt instruments used to finance an aggressive expansion in the 1990s.
Earlier that summer, Sun’s Board of Directors and its Creditors’ Committee decided a change in Sun’s financial leadership team was necessary to complete the lengthy restructuring negotiations. Based on our reputations and experiences in the long-term care industry, I was hired as CFO and Bob Schneider was hired as Treasurer.
My assistant coordinated our reservations for the trip to New York. Broad Street was downtown, and she suggested that we stay at the Marriott World Trade Center.
However, Bob’s flight from Seattle was scheduled to land at Kennedy at midnight, so we opted for the Sheraton Midtown at 7th and 53rd to shorten his taxi ride. I traveled from Baltimore on an early evening Amtrak train on September 10th. I saw the downtown skyline and twin Trade Center towers reflecting in the setting sun, just before the train entered the tunnel from New Jersey.
The four of us (our CEO, General Counsel, Bob, and I) checked out of the hotel before meeting for breakfast at 8:30 a.m. in the hotel’s dining room. Around 8:50 a.m., my cell phone rang, and I ignored it. It rang a second time and I ignored it again.
It rang a third time. I looked at the display, saw that the call was from my wife, and answered the phone.
I knew something was very wrong when instead of a greeting, Sharon asked me, “Where are you?” I responded that I was having breakfast at the hotel in Manhattan.
Again, she asked, “Where are you?” I replied, “The Sheraton.”
“What floor are you on?” she enquired. “The ground floor,” I answered.
She said, “Stay there!” I asked her why she was asking me all these odd questions. She replied that an airplane had just hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Sharon knew I had a meeting downtown, and she wanted me to be careful. She asked if there was a television nearby. I told her I would look for one and call her back.
I explained the situation to my colleagues. We went to the lobby to find a television with the news. As we watched the news, our general counsel called our banker to see if traffic in the area was disrupted by the emergency vehicles. There was no answer.
We returned to our table, settled our tab, and returned to the lobby to watch the news again. While we watched, the second plane appeared and flew into the South Tower.
Stunned, we stood in silence watching the replays as the announcers speculated why this event was happening. Bob suggested that we renege on our checkouts, since it was likely that we were not flying out of New York later that day and finding available hotel rooms could be difficult.
Our general counsel called our banker, reached him this time, and told him that he assumed our meeting was postponed. Our banker could barely speak, said something about seeing people jumping from the Towers, and hung up.
The rest of the day was a blur. We returned to our rooms and watched the buildings collapse on the news. News about the crash at the Pentagon. An additional flight had crashed in Pennsylvania. Thousands of lives lost in a coordinated attack on our home soil.
Around noon, I walked outside to 7th Avenue for some fresh air and noted that the streets were devoid of trucks and cars, save for the occasional police car heading downtown. The weather was perfect, the day was not. Thinking that it might be useful to take some pictures of the empty streets, I bought a small digital camera at one of the few stores that had not closed.
We regrouped for dinner at six o’clock and walked to a restaurant a few blocks away. As we talked about the day’s events, I noticed that every table was filled, but the restaurant was oddly quiet. People were talking, but there were no sounds of laughter or loud conversations. We talked about the day’s events around the country, how it would impact our families, how we would return home, and eventually, back to work in Albuquerque.
When we returned to the hotel, there were people unable to obtain rooms sleeping in the lobby. Our colleague’s quick thinking had spared us from a similar situation. Around 10:30 p.m., Amtrak announced that they would schedule trains leaving Manhattan the next day.
In the morning, I walked to Penn Station and arrived just before 7 am. The station was packed. The lines were longer for service from ticket clerks, so I waited in line at a kiosk for two hours to buy a ticket to Baltimore on the first available train, which was the 11 a.m.
The trains were not running on schedule. My train boarded at 12:30, and it was standing room only. We left the station shortly after 1 p.m.
While we were in the train tunnel between New York and New Jersey, the train stopped. The conductor announced that we were stopping because of a bomb scare in the Newark train station.
Still numb to the events of the previous day, the announcement barely created a murmur among the passengers. After a 30-minute delay, the train continued its southward journey. When we exited the tunnel into New Jersey, I looked outside and saw plumes of smoke where the Trade Centers had stood just 36 hours before. Thoughts about the thousands of lives gone, their families and communities shattered. It was difficult to understand why someone would do this. I can’t remember a more grateful but somber homecoming than when I greeted my wife and girls at the train station in Baltimore.
A few weeks later, my colleagues and I returned to New York for another meeting, which we scheduled in the midtown offices of our law firm. Purposefully, we made dinner reservations at a restaurant near Ground Zero.
It was eerie. Metal fencing cordoned off the area. Crews were still sifting through the rubble, and the air had a stench like that from an industrial fire. Handwritten signs asking about loved ones were attached to the fencing. Thick layers of dust accumulated on parked cars that you knew were likely owned by victims.
I don’t remember the name of the restaurant or what we ate for dinner that night. I remember the three of us talking about the impact of the events on the victims’ families and our country. We discussed how fate intervened when we changed our hotel from downtown to midtown the night before. We spoke about the madmen who orchestrated the events, the resilience of our country, and how we would never forget where we were on September 11, 2001. I remember the wine that we chose to toast the memories of all who had lost their lives.
We were right. It’s 20 years later, and I still remember details of that September 11 unlike any other day in my life except the day my daughters were born. Over the years, I’ve met others who were in New York City that day and some who were in the Pentagon that morning. Each of them has a story and their memories. I can’t imagine what the memories are like for those who lost a loved one that day. Those of us who were old enough in 2001 will never forget.