Erin Preston: 9/11 was ‘business as usual’ – until it wasn’t

On 9.11 I woke up early to get ready for a morning flight.   I was a Regional Manager (Lexis Nexis) who oversaw the Northwest Region.  Since I was supposed to be headquartered in Seattle I flew there every other week to maintain appearances that I actually lived there – and not Utah.   On that day I woke up earlier than usual so I would have time to go be sick for a while before pulling myself together, because – morning sickness.  I was expecting my first son – a fact I was hiding from my company, because – 2001. 

As I did most days I turned on Good Morning America to catch their 7:00 news summary.  That day however, coverage had already been interrupted.  They were talking about a small plane hitting one of the World Trade Center buildings.  The commentators were speculating that it could be the result of a radio disturbance and were showing a live shot of the building with smoke coming out of the top.  Only a few minutes later that live shot showed another plane hit the second tower.   They continued to talk about it being the result of a radio disturbance, but they didn’t sound as convinced.  What no one was talking about was that the planes weren’t small personal planes that had flown off course, but were actually large commercial jets.  No one was talking about any risk to the building occupants.  And no one was talking about this being an intentional act – let alone terrorism.  So in anticipation of a day of my “very important” meetings, I finished getting dressed and drove to the airport.

The airport was fairly empty, as it often was that early back then.  The first thing that seemed different is that when I got into the concourse all the TV’s were off.   A lone TV was on at Squatters – but it was small and so many people had crowded around that I couldn’t hear anything.   All everyone was talking about was what I had already seen, and it didn’t sound like the narrative had changed.  So I walked to my gate and got ready to board.  The airline attendant was still preparing for boarding, but kept announcing that boarding delays in unspecified increments.   That’s when my employees started calling me (on my flip cell phone of course – no such thing as internet access back then).  Each called me with various updates:   another plane had hit the Pentagon; another plan had hit the State Department building (an inaccurate rumor – but the news was a mess).  I was still focused on the meetings I was missing because of the delays, calling my boss to let him know that I was still coming, just had to wait for boarding.  We still didn’t understand what was happening. 

Eventually the Delta attendant announced they would be boarding the plane.  I had early boarding status so I headed to the desk.  As I did two police officers on bikes rode to the gate and told her to stop the boarding.  Shortly after, the flight board changed all the flight status’s from DELAYED to CANCELLED.  We were all still confused.  I called my boss to tell him I didn’t think I could get to Seattle today.  As I was going to leave I saw an elderly woman by herself looking distressed.  I sat down to talk to her and she explained that she was on a layover and had no idea what to do.  The airline staff saw her, but they didn’t know what to do either.  I made calls to her family members on that state-of-the-art flip phone until there was a plan for someone to come pick her up.  But still – no one realized what this was.  Everyone was still talking about catching a flight the next day.  And still – no one even thought about this being a hostile coordinated act – let alone terrorism.  It took days for that to sink in…

My other memory of that time was from taking my first flight after 9/11.  I was 29, stupid, and still trying to prove myself in that “important” job of mine – so I was on a flight to Seattle within days of them resuming flights.  I remember everyone being somewhere between on edge and overtly scared.  There were only a small number of people on my flight – not reassuring.  All were travel veterans, businessmen in suits and ties trying to look professional.  But when the plane took off, I observed a lot of them with white knuckles… like mine.  That flight was so quiet.  No one was working on computers, reviewing reports, or even talking to each other.  It seemed like we all held our breath for the 3 hours until the plan landed, then exhaled in unison. 

Looking back the flights were a marker of just how difficult for me, and so many others, to accept that WE were under attack.  That WE weren’t safe.  Heck, I went to an airport pregnant to get on a plane on 9/11 – what was I thinking??