5 years ago

Well this is the first year I have had a blog on September 11th. Time to recount where I was.

September 11th, 2001, was, for me, one of those incredibly long days that people flying over the Pacific experience; over 30 hours. You see, on that day, I was exactly where my family hoped I wouldn’t be, in the air.

I was travelling to the US to Stanford to present a seminar and to meet up with Paul Romer who was founding his fledgling economics teaching start-up, Aplia.com. I was only going to be in the US 5 days and I left Australia on the morning of September 11th. It has become a cliche but “it was all completely normal until …”

Well, when the first plane hit the World Trade Centre, I was on a Qantas flight, three hours out from LA. When they decided to ground every flight in the United States and send back others going there, we were one hour out. We turned out to be the third last flight to land. I’d like to say that the first thing I noticed that was unusual was the accompanying fighter jet out the window. I didn’t see that and it was only later that I found out that they were probably there.

We landed and, here is the first unusual thing, the pilot announced that there may be some disruption to internal flights “due to terrorist activity on the East Coast.” That made everyone quiet but not overly concerned. In the next five minutes, I left the plane and cleared customs. That was the second unusual thing. Let’s face it, no lines, no questions, a quick stamp and we were out. I was going to have plenty of time before my next flight. Little did I know that it would be 5 days.

I went up to the American Airlines check-in for my flight to San Francisco. The board was unlike anything I have ever seen. Every flight said cancelled. I went to the counter to ask when there would be a flight. “Maybe tomorrow, who knows.” They were quite upset.

I had a car I was going to hire at SF but clearly that wasn’t happened. I decided that I was in LA and if I knew nothing else I was going to need a car. So I went to the Hertz counter. It was on a bus away. A United aircrew got on the bus. They had been ordered to drive to Oakland. Remember, at this time, I didn’t know what had happened. But I overheard them. “There must be 10,000 people dead in New York alone.” This was sounding pretty serious. “Yep and I guess LA is next.” OK more serious.

I arrived at the Hertz centre. They had a TV on but it was hard to hear. There was a queue and as I got closer I read on the news: “Both towers down.” It was all inconceivable. I got my car and also hired a cell phone (in those days and expensive proposition but it was necessary — and I believe there was a $500 bill at the end of that). I decided to drive to Stanford. It would take 5 or 6 hours, but I had a seminar to present there the next day. Hopefully I wouldn’t get caught in LA traffic. I had had a 15 hour flight with no sleep so this was the time for easy driving.

Well there was no traffic and I heard the news. Oh boy. That we all know. Without the annoyance of other cars, I could easily make a call on the I5. It was 3am in Australia so I called Susan Athey (a Stanford Professor and old classmate of mine). I was staying with her in Stanford. She said call home immediately. It turns out that Natalie had called Susan up when at 12 midnight, she had been woken up by my brother who was calling me to say, “turn on the TV.” Suffice it to say, as she turned on the news, the second plane hit.

Now just to flash forward, for a moment, to when I returned. In Australia, the news cut in right after The West Wing which we were dutifully recording. When we finally watched that tape, a week and a half later, we had forgotten that it would record about an hour over (thanks to Channel 9’s late night scheduling issues). I got to see what Natalie saw. No wonder she was in a panic. The level of speculation about what was happening to flights and so on was extraordinary. I would not have liked to have been in her position.

Apparently, Susan took some convincing that all this was really happening. She asked Natalie if “she was sure she wasn’t watching a movie.” During that conversation the first tower fell. This only reinforced Susan’s hypothesis. Well, we know who eventually one that argument.

So Natalie and Susan tried to work out what I should do. Who would I stay with in LA? Things like that. It was all moot when I bypassed their sensible planning and started driving north. The call to Natalie was a big relief and she was able to go back to sleep. I spent that day driving and listening to California country radio. It was a surreal experience; especially for someone much more used to the TV and the Internet. Basically, I heard all about this with no images. It was only much later in the day that I saw what everyone else was seeing.

The rest of the story is less interesting. My seminar on September 12th was incredibly well attended. It turns out that no one wanted to stay in their office and that drew a crowd. It was on a technical theory piece Catherine de Fontenay and I had written and so it was nicely removed from the real world. Ironically, I was still working on that paper today!
Paul Romer was stuck on the East Coast and didn’t return until my last day. I was eager to get back and for most of those days didn’t know if I could and spent way too much time trying to work that out. (Qantas was hopeless after Ansett collapsed on September 12). I did manage to get on the flight I had intended. Actually, the same flight crew were on that flight and indeed the announcing stewardess broke down as we landed in Melbourne.

I do remember one other thing. It was plain for me to see how united the United States could be. You could feel the solidarity of that week. There was something incredibly peaceful about it all. A captured moment in history.

But I have one other lasting captured moment that I remember every time I travel. My passport has an entry stamp to the USA dated Sept 11, 2001.

3 thoughts on “5 years ago”

  1. I remember reading something a few months after 9/11, about some research into how well people remember major events. The researcher found what s/he predicted: that, even for major traumas, people get details wrong. In particular, chronology: what order did things happen?, e.g. first tower fell, pentagon hit, second tower fell, etc.

    Anyway, there’s one detail I remember differently in this story. Natalie couldn’t have seen the second plane hit. At least, not live. I didn’t turn on the TV until after the first tower was down (and I spent a while watching confused about what was missing in the picture.) I rang Natalie – we’re allowed to name her? – after that, fairly hysterically, waking her up. Shortly after that, the second tower fell. (A trivial detail many people forget: the second tower to fall was the north tower, which was the first one hit.) Anyway, this would’ve been a long time after the second plane hit…


  2. That could be right about the second plane. But first tower definitely fell during the phone conversation. And by first tower I mean first tower to fall not to be hit. I knew that but it is hard to refer to it.

    Suffice it to say, when the TV went on, enough had happened that it seemed like the world was ending. What people forget is that that was the feeling while this was happening. The strange thing really is that it all actually stopped with just 4 planes.


  3. Yes, the first tower fell during the phone conversation. My husband had been about to board a flight to New York, and I thought he was in the air when Natalie called. So I was doubly terrified. But fortunately my husband called soon after to say he was on his way home. I was sleeping when Natalie called, and it did just seem totally impossible what she was telling me. I remember getting on the internet and frantically trying to look up Joshua’s flight for Natalie.

    Joshua kindly didn’t mention in his blog that he had to put up with sub-standard information access at our house during this tragedy… we didn’t have cable TV, and barely got reception of any channels!


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