10 years ago

I actually posted this story 5 years ago. Here it is again (slightly modified).

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 happening. 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 my wife 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 my wife 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 my wife 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 they 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 my wife 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.

%d bloggers like this: