June 24, 2024


Five years ago this morning I was in a hotel room in Minneapolis, getting dressed. I flipped on the TV and saw smoke streaming from a skyscraper. Nobody knew yet what it meant.

My plan had been to meet a colleague in the lobby and walk over to our meeting. Everybody in the lobby area was watching the big-screen TV in the bar. It’s there that I saw the second plane hit.

There was nothing to do but go to the meeting. Not much got accomplished and we all spent much of the day in my hosts’ conference room watching a projected image of CNN. Much later I visited the same room and found a big painting of a firefighter hanging near where I had stood that day.

My wife and I had just moved to Palo Alto, California for a sabbatical year. The attacks affected folks in Palo Alto and Princeton quite differently. In Palo Alto, it happened during breakfast. Families were together; many learned of the attacks by phone from East Coast friends and relatives, and spent the morning watching together. In Princeton, adults were at work and kids at school; most kids learned of the attacks from parents who had had a few hours to think about what to say. In Princeton, the horrible question was: Who do we know who works There? Many people commute from Princeton to New York. The social network buzzed. Exactly where does M work? Exactly which train does he ride?

We didn’t lose any close friends, but at least two people I knew died. Later, reading the 9/11 report, I learned that one of them had been killed horribly by the hijackers to intimidate the other passengers. Several people we know were scarred. One man, who had been staying in a hotel across the street from the Trade Center, was haunted by images of falling bodies. A new doctor who had emergency duty at a Lower Manhattan hospital sent an email that I wish you could read.

As for myself, I was stuck in Minneapolis. As the week went on with no definite date of departure, we extended our meetings, trying to put our time to use. The hotel quickly emptied, as cancellations flooded in and those who could get home bolted. The few remaining guests bonded with the staff. One morning in the coffee shop, I was the only customer. The waitress sat down at my table and we had a long talk about what it all meant. I visit that hotel occasionally, and it still feels different to me than every other hotel in the world.

Eventually the airports reopened and I was on one of the first flights out of Minneapolis. The security screeners were jittery and ultra-vigilant, but also polite. I was disconcerted to note that nobody ever checked my ID that morning. When I mentioned this to the flight attendant, she quietly told me not to bring it up again.

I was happy to be at home and looked forward to some quiet time. Little did I know that I was about to be called to Washington for the final settlement talks in the Microsoft antitrust case. A month working in a DOJ building, in immediate post-9/11, post-anthrax Washington, is an experience not soon forgotten. Perhaps I’ll write about that next year.


  1. “THAT” day, in Belgium, I was at home, waiting for a co-worker to pick me up to go to inspect a new work project. He was late and I switched the TV-set on and had a look at CNN. WOW. WTC burning.
    I had heard of radical air defenses against stray airplanes in the US and then another plane slammed into the second tower. I was very impressed, I must say.
    My colleague arrived to tell me that our meeting was postponed, so we kept watching the broadcast.
    When the first building came down, we looked at each other in amazement.
    Hans and I are both civil engineers and have been certified blasting and demolition experts for some 20 years and we can still not believe that the relative small damage and short-lived fire caused by the plane impacts could bring down that type of steel-and-concrete framed building. And, moreover, make them collapse into their own footprint! BOTH of them!
    And, by Jove, I KNOW what it takes to make buildings collapse so neatly !

  2. “The waitress sat down at my table and we had a long talk about what it all meant.”
    Sigh. I remember having these kinds of discussions, back then. Wouldn’t it be great if it would have meant more than beeing an excuse for our governments to kill even more people?

  3. I was sitting in history class my senior year of high school when we flipped on the tv to watch what was going on in our nation. I’ve forgotten a lot of things from high school, but not that. This year I met a boy whose father died in 9/11. It’s weird to see how it affects people and is still affecting people today.

  4. I have been isolating myself most of this day from that morning 5 years ago. I felt like I already had enough on my plate dealing with today, and didn’t need to think about it. I know I am not the only one who went through the day with that attitude, there was an entire roomful of us at work – 9/11 never was mentioned. Sales, marketing, and getting everything red labeled out before 5 pm was our only focus.

    This evening I found myself visiting your site for a routine work project. The last thing I expected was to be tearing up, and letting the wall down. Thank you Ed, for an eloquent and heartfelt description of a day that I now realize I can never be too busy to feel, no matter how rough or hectic I think my own life is at the time. If you hadn’t taken the time to share it, I would would have woken up tomorrow a little more hardened, a little bit more complacent, and a little less human. That isn’t who I strive to be. So again, thank you for the unexpected lesson in life you offered me tonight.

  5. 9/11. A tricky issue. For most people, it is an abomination. A small vocal minority thinks it is not an abomination. I second the former: I think it is an abomination. ’nuff said.