“Did you see what is happening in New York?”
The woman’s comment caught me totally off guard as I walked past her in the hotel hallway.
I had been preparing for leadership team meetings in San Diego with leaders from around the country and had not seen the news.
“They flew a plane into a building.”
Who did what? I asked myself. I went out to the parking lot and got in the rental car and quickly turned on the radio. What I heard described was unimaginable. It’s true! How can this be!
A media room sat in the back of the fellowship center that hosted our conference. It had begun live broadcast with visuals, sounds and the unimaginable image of terrorism striking at the heart of New York City.
As folks arrived for our Tuesday meeting, they huddled around a TV screen. Not only had both of New York City’s Twin Towers collapsed in a pile of rubble, a plane had flown into the Pentagon. Reporters told us yet another plane was “missing” somewhere over Pennsylvania.
I learned that the Sears Tower in my home base of Chicago was being evacuated. Officials expressed deep concern that it could be the next target of whomever was attacking our country. The same fear and concern gripped cities all over America.
What should we do? Instantly, prayer came to the front of my mind.
Together, we declared our meeting room to be a room of prayer during the next hour. During that time, the 50 or 60 of us attending these leadership meetings could continue to pray with each other or just sit alone and pray. Many attendees walked the grounds outside, connecting with family, the communities and constituencies they served across the country and others with whom they prayed or just wanted to hear their voices.
Late morning, we restarted our program. Periodically, we would receive news about folks directly connected with the Twin Towers and other sites of the unfolding tragedy. We shed many tears collectively and individually. Many leaders needed time alone to deal with their responses to the crisis.
A common bond united us that day – our faith in Jesus Christ and our shared mission. Our prayer support for each other and our loved ones carried us through the day.
Airline transportation had been grounded, so three of us decided to drive our rental car back to Chicago from San Diego. Our journey began on Wednesday morning. No one knew when “normal” plane transportation would resume, and we did not want to be stuck on the West Coast.
Wednesday morning, I was on calls with our Director of H/R and other team members in Chicago trying to figure out how to make sure all of our nearly 3,000 employees (particularly those who did not have direct deposit) around the country would get a paycheck on Friday. With planes no longer flying, the normally relied upon ways of getting things done was in chaos. But we got it done.
I always wanted to drive Route 66 from Chicago to San Diego. My thoughts never included doing this trip in such an unplanned and unanticipated manner. I never imagined when I flew into San Diego two days earlier that I would be calling the office about payroll from a car traveling along side the old Route 66. You never know what a day will bring.
As we drove toward Chicago, we all noticed the absence of airplanes flying overhead. It left us with an eerie feeling. We were not alone on the highways, of course – motels and hotels were filled. We fortunately found a room that first night on the road.
Thursday morning, we decided to drive home and avoid another overnight stay. One drove, one rode “shotgun” and one tried to sleep in the backseat.
Just outside of St. Louis and nearing midnight on Thursday evening, we stopped at a truck stop for gas. I saw a cassette tape for sale by Ray Stevens and purchased it.
Early Friday morning, I took my turn at the wheel and fought back the overwhelming desire to sleep. But that cassette playing Ray Stevens songs kept us laughing, smiling and alert. The musical delight did begin to fade somewhat as we listened to the same songs for the third or fourth time. But it kept us awake.
As we drove past O’Hare International Airport around 5 a.m. that Friday we saw a surreal scene. O’Hare sat quiet, without a single plane taking off, landing or in the air. I later learned about the only plane the federal government authorized to fly that particular week – the plane carrying Reverend Billy Graham to Washington D.C. to speak at the 9/11 Memorial Service held Friday afternoon, September 14, 2001.
As each of us returned to the Chicago area, we wondered what was ahead and if life would ever be the same.