On the 15th Anniversary – My 9/11 story.

My 9/11 story. It can still rattle me. I was on an 8am American Airlines flight to Chicago the morning of 9/11.

The plan was to meet the client at the airport for a 4 hour meeting and then fly to D.C. for a late afternoon meeting and dinner. We landed early at O’Hare – 9:30 ET (a huge surprise since flights were never early). After sitting on the runway for 30 minutes, the pilot said, “I don’t know why they are holding us here. Does anyone have a transistor radio so we can check the news and see what’s going on?”

A passenger brought one to the cockpit. By now, people were starting to use cell phones and there were screams and cries echoing throughout the plane. Back in those days, I had two phones because they limited minutes and I always ran out. I phoned the office and heard what happened. Then I started offering my phones to anyone in the cabin who wanted to make a call.

Shortly afterwards we got to the gate and learned the second plane had hit. Our client said, “meetings over, what do you want to do”. I said, “Get drunk with whoever wants to join me”.

So we moved downtown and started a party that moved to the promotion director’s house around 6pm. It was insane. Grief. Joy at being alive. Fear that the next plane might hit Chicago. The camaraderie of the survivor.

Around 8pm the neighbor from across the hall came in. He was an FBI agent who shared dog caring duties with the promotion director when either one traveled. He was drained of color and gulped a scotch as soon as he walked in the door.

Quickly, he said, “I had to get Rumsfeld to a safe house this morning and then they put me on the phone with the passengers on the other plane.” For perspective, planes had hard wired phones in those days and no one knew what happened on that United Airlines 93 flight for a couple of days.

The one Neil Young wrote a song about. We learned that night. The FBI guy continued, “The guy I was talking to said he knew they were going to die so they were going to rush the hijackers to stop them from driving the plane into another building.” Then he gasped, “Oh God, I forgot to call his wife. He asked me to call his wife.I have to call her.” And, almost in tears, he ran out the door.

I was stuck in Chicago for 4 days and finally decided the only way out was to try for the bus. The terminal looked like the crowd trying for the last chopper out of Vietnam. Wall to wall people, shoulder to shoulder, trying to get tickets and find a bus.

As I got my ticket and tried to move through the crowd, a man bumped into the woman in front of me who was standing over her two little kids on the floor. She spun, reached into her purse and pulled out a (no joke) silver-plated .38 and starting turning towards me. Everything slowed down. I froze. I saw the cops at the edge of the crowd as they noticed the gun, starting to move but barely able to budge in the crowd. The noise was so loud no one could hear. The guy who bumped into her pushed her again and she turned towards him. By now, the cops were pushing through the crowd who had started to notice the gun and were dropping towards the floor. Someone grabbed her wrist, I moved away and headed for the bus lane, more concerned with getting a seat than seeing how it played out.

Eighteen hours later, the bus came over a rise in New Jersey and I saw the smoke still rising from lower Manhattan. I was a mess. Eventually I got a cab from Port Authority to LaGuardia to pick up my car, parked days earlier. The cabbie, a Pakistani, cried all the way. His brother had been killed at the World Trade Center. My car was covered with dust in the LaGuardia parking lot and as I got in and turned on the radio, I learned they had just opened the bridge to CT so I would be able to make it. An hour later, as I pulled into my driveway, I looked up and saw a huge banner across the window that said “Welcome home, daddy”. I sat in the driveway and sobbed until I didn’t have tears and then went into the house. When I think about it, I still choke up.

And, that’s why this photo is so important to me.

About: John Parikhal 

John has consulted to and researched for over 1000 companies – including media, entertainment, packaged goods, and internet/online companies – in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and South America.

lHe has written over 300 articles on marketing, media, consumer behaviour and how to ‘cut through the clutter’ along with a book, ‘The Baby Boom: Making Sense of Our Generation at 40’. Most recently, he wrote the Branding chapter for Valerie Geller’s book ‘Beyond Powerful Radio’.

You can read Radio Today’s Greg Smith’s series with John here.

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