Friday, September 11, 2015

Fourteen years ago today

Fourteen years ago today, I was in Orlando at a tech conference sponsored by Gartner. It was a pay-for-play deal: vendor companies paid to participate, and senior technology execs from major companies attended for free. The catch for those free-loading tech execs was that they had to sign up to attend a certain number of sessions. For us vendors, the come-on was that they were guaranteed that x number of tech execs for show up for each of our presentation sessions. There was also some sort of mini-trade show in which we got to talk to those vaunted tech execs while they wandered around during lunch break or cocktail hour. I don’t remember exactly what the hotel was, but it was a pretty swanky resort. (After all, this was a Gartner Group event. Nothing but the best!)

I’d flown in on Monday, September 10th, early in the morning. The plan was to fly back home late in the day on September 11th.

At 9 a.m., a few minutes after the first plane crashed into Tower 1, and a few minutes before the second plane crashed into Tower 2, I was standing in front of a bunch of tech execs talking about the wonders of web hosting in a Genuity data center. Not only did “we” have world-class data centers, “we” (BBN, actually) had, if not invented the Internet, then come damned close. And “we” (Ray Tomlinson from BBN) had indisputably come up with the @ sign used in web communications. And one of our senior architects had been chosen the “Sexiest Geek Alive” in 2000. Me? My claim to fame was that I had been one of the Genuity employees featured in Web Hosting Magazine. (Practically a center-fold.)

In addition to my fun talking points, I got to drone on about security, connectivity, applications, support, and Black Rocket (don’t ask), all the while trying to engage the tech execs in some sort of back and forth. After all, no one wanted to listen to me drone on for and hour. Including me.

By the time my first session of the day ended, the hotel folks had already rolled TVs into the open hall area outside the small session rooms, and attendees were watching the news, trying to make sense of what we were seeing. After a few minutes, I fled to my room, called home, and tried to make sense of it in private.

By noon, everyone was in a mad scramble trying to figure out how they were going to get home without flying.

I was fortunate to get on a north-bound Amtrak, on which I shared a sleeper bunk room with a (male) colleague. Not knowing how long it would take to get home, I went to the lobby shop in the hotel and bought a pair of black capri pants, a white sleeveless shirt, and a sweater that made me look like a member of the LPGA. I figured I might need a few things to augment the pants suit/two shirts that had been going to get me through the conference.

The only guarantee was that the train was going as far as Richmond, Virginia. With Washington DC and NYC under attack, it wasn’t clear whether we were at war.

All aboard!

In Richmond, on September 12th, we found out that the trains were moving, slowly but surely. Washington, DC, when we pulled in, was eerily quiet. But not as eerily quiet as pulling into NYC. When we left Newark Station, you could see the black cloud over Manhattan. And the hole in the sky where the World Trade Center had stood. No one in the car I was in – the passengers included Carol Burnett – said a word. We just sat there gaping.

It was close to midnight by the time I pulled into Boston. Jim met me at Back Bay Station. I went home and collapsed. (Couldn’t sleep but nonetheless collapsed.) I went into work at some point on the 13th, stopping at Logan Airport to pick up my car in the garage. Talk about eerily quiet.

Nothing much doing at work. We mostly sat around speculating on how Joel was going to get back from Phoenix (rent a car to St. Louis, then got one of the first flights out when service was restored), and on how Karl was going to get back from New Orleans (attendees at this conference chartered a bus to head north). We also talked about the last minutes of the handful of colleagues who’d been working at the Genuity network communications center on the top of one of the towers. They’d been talking to folks in our NOC when the building collapsed, telling them that they’d been told that they were going to be evacuated from the roof via helicopter. We took comfort knowing that they died with some hope.

Other of our colleagues – and these were folks I knew – were in Genuity’s NYC office, which was just across the street from the WTC. They witnessed the whole thing.

We also began figuring out how many degrees of separation we were from folks on the planes. The answer was not many. Boston’s a small town. Everyone knows someone who knew someone on one of those planes. (My cousin’s husband knew the women from TJ Maxx who were killed.)

Long time ago, now. Lots of water under everyone’s bridge.

But I still remember as vividly as yesterday that it took me weeks before I could shake the images of the collapsing towers out of my head, the images of those who jumped to their fate, the images of the ghostly “dust”-covered survivors fleeing. Every night, I watched hours of reports from “the pile,” hoping along with everyone else that someone would get found.

When I first returned to NYC the next spring, the financial district was still covered with flyers about those who were “missing.”

For those of a certain age, the September 11 attacks were our Pearl Harbor. You’d always remember where you were when you heard.

I was in Orlando, talking about web hosting.

Long time ago.

No comments: