Derrick is a native Texan, telling stories about the people, the places, and the past of the Lone Star State.

A Texan Remembers 9/11

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I wish it wasn’t such a big question because in times like this we need simple answers.
— Luca Babini

On a beautiful New England morning I was driving from Boston, Massachusetts to Woonsocket, Rhode Island to visit a client. The air was fresh and crisp. The sun had just enough warmth to keep the chill at bay. The sky was a stunning hue of blue. It was one of those days that made you wish you worked outside.

The weather remained pristine all day; what the day would bring was anything but. The morning was beautiful and life-affirming. The afternoon was ugly and life-altering.

Saturday, September 8, 2001

My business associates and I flew into Boston on Saturday, September 8, 2001. After stuffing ourselves into a shuttle van and snuggling up to strangers on our way from the airport to our downtown hotel, we braved the frantic twists and turns through Boston’s every-congested streets. Each time the driver slammed on the brakes, luggage that had been piled to the ceiling shifted and whacked us in the back of the head. When we came to a tire-screaming halt somewhat near our hotel in the Back Bay, we peeled ourselves off our newfound friends, bided them safe journey, and freed our luggage from the bottom of the heap. The driver pointed to our hotel, down the street, and held out his hand for a tip. I gave him a dollar; my thanks for not killing us on the way and my displeasure for not dropping us off at the front door.

Walking down the street, we passed a bar with plate glass window. I glanced in and, while I thought nothing of it at time, I didn’t notice any women inside. Soon after, we reached the hotel, an older but quaint abode. Chris and I approached the desk clerk while Jan stayed in the lobby watching our bags. Since Chris had made the reservations, she spoke first: a room with two twin beds for Chris Williams and Jan White. The clerk searched his computer. Yes, he had her reservation. But he didn’t have a room with two twin beds; he had a room with one queen-sized bed.

As Chris tried to straighten our her room reservation, I noticed two women approach Jan. They politely asked her where she was from and what she was doing in Boston. Then they wanted to know what plans she had for that evening. Jan said something about going to dinner with Chris and me. They looked at the front desk. Looking past me, they locked eyes on Chris and said they’d be happy to show Jan and her friend a good time.

I turned back to Chris, who was still haggling with the hotel clerk, and joked, “Jan has just been propositioned by two lesbians and I think you’ve been invited to an evening of fun.” It was then I heard the clerk say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I misunderstood. We rarely get reservations for two beds in this hotel. We do have one room on another floor, if you don’t mind being separated from Mr. Jeter. You’ll like it, it’s quieter on that floor.”

Quieter! What did he mean by that?

Then it dawn on me—the all male bar, the two lesbians propositioning Jan, the mess up on the bedding arrangement, and a quieter floor. I turned to Chris, “If sometime during our stay in this hotel I grab you and kiss you smack on the mouth, don’t be offended. It will be the greatest service I could do for you and for me this whole trip. And I guarantee Joe and Christy will thank me for it!” That clued Chris in. But Jan was still having a pleasant conversation with the two lesbians, thinking she had made two new friends.

No doubt about it, we had just checked into an all gay establishment.

When we got to our rooms, I had barely walked through the door and put my bags on the bed when the phone rang. I picked it up and said, “Are you ready to go?” All Chris could muster was, “Get me the hell out of here!”

I called the front desk and explained that we had obviously made a mistake in making reservations at this hotel, and that we wouldn’t want to keep his usual clientele from having rooms for the night. Chris made quick arrangements for a taxi to pick us up and drop us off at Faneuil Hall, across the street from City Hall. A client would meet us there and, after we took her to dinner, would drive us to a hotel out of the city—one we usually stayed at during our travels to Boston.

When we arrived at Faneuil Hall, Chris and Jan decided to go shopping at Quincy Mall, around the corner. I was assigned security detail—to watch the luggage. Sitting in casual business attire on a curb at the base of a statue of Samuel Adam in Boston’s bustling downtown I looked like the best dressed, well equipped homeless man Boston had ever seen. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long. Our client arrived, we took her to the Union Oyster House, and she drove us to a clean, conservative hotel outside the city.

When I settled into my room, I had a good chuckle, called Christy and told her the story, and thanked God that the most exciting part of the trip was behind us.

Unknown to us that Saturday evening, the most exciting part of the trip was before us. A plot to murder thousands of innocent men and women was unfolding that very night in Boston, New Jersey, and Washington D.C. Within a few day the plot would prove successful. And life as we knew it would never be the same.

Sunday, September 9, 2001

Because this was Jan’s first trip to Boston, Chris and I thought she might like to see the traditional and historical sights. We took Jan on a walking tour of the city, following the Freedom Trail. We began at Boston Common, walked up Beacon Hill to the State House and viewed the memorial to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment—an all black regiment in the Civil War. From there, we went to the Park Street Church and the Granary Burying Ground, where John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, James Otis, and the victims of the Boston Massacre are buried.

Continuing on our tour, we went by King’s Chapel and the burying ground there, where John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, is interred, along with Elizabeth Pain, the inspiration behind Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter. We then went past the site of the first public school in America on our way to the Old South Meeting-House, one of the birthplaces of revolution. We then passed by the site of Benjamin Franklin’s birthplace, to the Old State House, and the site where the Boston Massacre occurred.

Passing Faneuil Hall and the statue of Samuel Adams again, we crossed under I-93 on our way to the North End and Paul Revere’s house. From there, we passed by the statue dedicated to Revere and came to the Old North Church. It was from the steeple of the Old North Church that Robert Newman held up two lanterns to signal Revere that British soldiers were rowing across the Charles River, setting him out on his midnight ride. Up the hill from the Old North Church is Copp’s Hill Burying Ground.

Later that day, after lunch, we drove to Charlestown and toured Bunker Hill and the USS Constitution—Old Ironsides. Then we drove out to Quincy, Massachusetts and toured John Adams’s birthplace and the home he and Abigail bought after returning from foreign service. We then drove to Salem, where we toured Nathaniel Hawthorne’s home and the house that inspired his novel The House of the Seven Gables. We had dinner in Salem and headed back to Boston.

Monday, September 10, 2001

Our business plan was to cram all our New England clients into one long day. We would start with our clients in the immediate Boston area before driving to Woonsocket late in the day and taking our CVS Caremark contacts out for dinner. The next day we were to fly out of Boston’s Logan Airport—the very airport from which American Airlines Flight 11 and United Flight 175 departed before flying into the twin towers in New York.

However, CVS needed to push back our meeting, so we made arrangements to stay extra day. We would see them Tuesday morning and fly out later that evening.

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Walking out of the hotel Tuesday morning was liking walking into Neverland. The weather was perfect. In fact, we all joked about canceling our CVS meeting and spending the day outside somewhere next to the water.

We had just entered the highway when we became wrapped up in the unfolding tragedy of that day. Chris received a phone call from Joe, her husband. From Chris’ reaction I knew something must be terribly wrong at home. “Are you listening to the radio?” Joe asked. No. Turning on the car’s radio we couldn’t believe what we were hearing: two airliners had flown into both towers of the World Trade Center. A few minutes later, the radio buzzed: “We are under attack! The Pentagon has just been hit by an airplane.”

Arriving at CVS’ headquarters, the lobby was filled with television sets. Hundreds of people huddled around them. We maneuvered our way to see the live feed of the twin towers ablaze, grim gray and black smoke billowing against that pristine blue sky. White and silver flecks tumbled from the buildings like snowflakes. Then the unimaginable. Gasps! “What is happening?” I heard someone ask. “Oh, my God,” rumbled through the lobby. I remember saying, “The building is collapsing.” Shrieks and tears intermingled with the scrams and panic we were watching on television.

Unable to work, we watched, dumbfounded, as the second tower crumbled. Later, we heard the news of a violent plane crash in rural Pennsylvania. And without knowing it then, it was all over.

Cellphone towers were gridlocked. We managed a few landline calls to loved ones in Texas, and reached our office. Our CEO encouraged us to stay in Boston. Though air traffic had been suspended, he was sure general aviation would be allowed to fly in a few days and he would come get us in the company’s plane. Chris and Jan wanted to leave immediately. Both keep say, “Derrick, get us out of here!” I told my boss, we would drive back to Boston, grab our things, check out of the hotel, and then be on our way—driving. If general aviation was allowed to fly, we would coordinate from the road; he could pick us up at a regional or county airport somewhere along the route.

The eight hour drive from Boston to Buffalo, New York gave us plenty of time to think and talk. I was struck by the paradoxes of the day: how the brightness of the morning turned into the darkness of mourning; how the beauty of upper state New York contrasted with the of ugliness taking place at Grand Zero in Manhattan; and how the eerie allure of the night sky was filled with twinkling stars but without the streaking, blinking lights of airplanes.

It took the three of us two days of hard driving to arrive back in Dallas. The whole way we kept talking about how this trip began in farce, and ended in tragedy.

We all suffered that day. For some—the victims and the families of the victims—the suffering was excruciating. But all lovers of America and liberty suffered at the hands of evil that day. We all questioned why. “Why would anyone do this to us?” “What had those innocent people done that their lives should be snuffed out on that beautiful Fall morning?” “Why would God allow this?” “Where was He on September 11, 2001?”

A year later, the PBS investigative program Frontline produced a documentary, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero,” which wrestled with the question of where God was on that September morning. It featured a cross section of New York society, including civic workers, professionals, and religious leaders. Each person interviewed voiced a common theme: hopelessness.

Of all the voice that questioned why and found the search for answers futile, the most desperate came from Luca Babini, a photographer. He said,

I wish that there was a God that I could access and that it could be proven that I can access him. I wish that God had a telephone number since September 11th . . . it doesn’t have to be an 800 number, either. I’d gladly pay for the call, you know? That’s what I wish. I wish it wasn’t such a big question because in times like this, we need simple answers.

What I wish is that I could talk with Luca and tell him there is an answer, an 800 number—a 911. You dial it: J-E-S-U-S-C-H-R-I-S-T.

As each anniversary of 9/11 comes and goes, perhaps the rawness of that day will become less sensitive. But questions will continue to gnaw at the soul. “Where was God on 09/11/01?” “Why did He allow it to happen?” We who lived through the suffering of that terrible day by leaning on Christ can bring hope to those whose hope has crumbled as surely as the twin towers. We who have God’s phone number can help others dial it, and assure the hopeless that the call has been paid for by Jesus Christ.

The Death of Days Gone By