September 11 Stories

Travel insiders share stories from September 11, the day that changed everything By: Jim Calio
The World Trade Center was a landmark on New York’s Skyline.// © 2011 Alfredo Cerra
The World Trade Center was a landmark on New York’s Skyline.// © 2011 Alfredo Cerra

More 9/11 Coverage

Read "How 9/11 Changed Everything" at Travel Weekly

NYC Campaign Encourages Growth of Lower Manhattan
Read about the growth of Lower Manhattan

“Where were you on 9/11?”

That question will be asked over and over again as we approach the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C. For the country, it was traumatic. For travel industry professionals, including the experts below, it was particularly difficult because the industry was among the hardest hit. Here are some of their stories.

That day, I was working at The Ritz-Carlton New York, Battery Park by the World Trade Center (WTC). We hadn’t actually opened yet, but I was working on site with the other managers. We were just waiting for some artwork and furniture and, then, we would open on Oct. 9.

I got off the subway at Bowling Green. I was running a little late. It was a beautiful day and, as I exited the station, I looked up at the twin towers like I was a tourist. Suddenly, I saw an explosion at the top of one of them. I looked around, but people just kept walking. It was as if nothing unusual had happened. I saw a police officer nearby, so I asked him what had happened. He said, “A small plane crashed into the World Trade Center.”

Then, I started walking toward my hotel, which was only a few blocks away. Suddenly, the ground below me started to shake. There was a tremendously loud noise. I looked up and saw the giant belly of a huge plane. It was silver. It was not so close that I could touch it, but it was the closest I’d ever been to a plane like that. It was going right down the West Side Highway, almost as if it was using it as a guide. Then it suddenly did a 90-degree turn and hit the second tower. I saw a big hole.

Reality was starting to set in.

I was the resident manager of The Peninsula New York at the time and, that morning, I was having breakfast with a guest of the hotel.

At the table next to us, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was having a business breakfast at a long table. I remember looking at his face as he chaired the meeting and, then, the next thing I knew, everyone was running out of the restaurant.

When we got the news about the first explosion, we went into emergency mode and began to inform our guests as they were leaving the hotel to avoid the WTC. We were situated approximately 15 minutes away by car from the towers and wanted to ensure that no guests tried to get to the site, as we were not sure exactly what was happening. Our main objective at that point was to communicate what was happening to all of our guests.

Once we discovered that a plane had been hijacked and had crashed near the capital, we knew that our city was under attack. We decided to stop our guests and staff from leaving the hotel in order to look after their safety. We then called all incoming staff to stop them from coming to work and set up televisions in the lobby as well as in the staff canteen so that our guests and the staff could see what was happening.

I was living near the South Street Seaport, just a few blocks from the WTC, and my nine-month-old son had just started daycare in the neighborhood.

Every day, we would walk through City Hall Park, at the base of the first tower on the way to his school. That morning, just as we were about to round the corner a block from the WTC, I heard the sound of a jet flying way too low. The next second, there was a huge explosion.

When we turned the corner and looked up, there was a large, black, smoking hole in the center of the tower.

Immediately, I called my wife in Midtown and told her that she was about to hear some news, but that we were okay. I then held my son close as the fire in the first tower grew. I felt sick to my stomach as people, desperate to avoid the smoke and flames, began leaping out of the windows of the building to their death.

I knew instinctively that this was not an accident and, a few minutes later, a second fireball exploded by the second tower. I watched a huge chunk of the airplane’s engine sail across the skyline of Lower Manhattan (days later, they found the engine a few blocks away).

I decided to get my son to safety.

I was at the Omni Berkshire Place hotel in Midtown Manhattan, where I was based as regional vice president and managing director. As usual, I had my morning meeting at 8:15 a.m. with all of the department heads of the hotel to review VIP guest arrivals and all of the day’s activities. During the meeting, my assistant interrupted, which was very unusual, to say that there had been a terrible accident downtown.

After the meeting, as I returned to my office, my assistant said that there was an unbelievable amount of smoke coming from the WTC buildings. I climbed to the roof of the hotel to get a better view and, as I looked in the direction of downtown, I saw the second airplane hit. I immediately realized we were being attacked and felt that this had to be the work of terrorists.

We don’t usually have the television on in the morning but, for some reason that day, we did. The kids were getting ready for school, and the neighbor’s kids had come into the house. Everybody was standing in front of the television when the news came on. Immediately, I thought, “Who do I have flying from New York today? Who is on a trip? How do I find everyone?”

Two of my elderly customers were departing Heathrow after finishing a Silversea cruise. Two nurses were in Washington, D.C., at a conference. Two other clients were in Baltimore on a sales call and I had another client in Dallas. Two salesmen were in Denver, four distributors were in Chicago, two more were in St. Louis, one was in Des Moines, Iowa, and three were flying out of Miami. Nobody was in New York.

A local customer called saying he had just heard that a United flight from Boston was hijacked and that his executive assistant was flying from Boston that morning. He said his assistant used miles to book her flight, but he needed to know if she was on that plane.

“United is not giving out information,” I thought to myself. “If we don’t have the confirmation number, we are not getting anything from them.”

We could only wait.

We had 25,000 passengers at LAX when the first plane hit the WTC. It was about 6 a.m. our time on the West Coast. Then, 20 minutes later, we heard about the second attack.

We shut down everything — all the airport operations. We tried to land some of the planes nearby, in Palmdale, Calif., but those runways were too short for the larger planes. So we told the pilots to “land and park.”

At one point, we had hundreds of planes on the airfield. They were parked everywhere: on the taxiways, at the gates — there were easily more than a hundred planes. It was like looking at a bunch of cars parked at the curb.

I would guess that about half of the 25,000 people at LAX were local, so they simply walked away or they called friends to come get them. We had Travelers Aid then, so we swung into action and tried to get passengers who were stranded into hotel rooms.

I was driving to my office in Dallas. In fact, I had been hired exactly one year earlier as a public relations coordinator, so this was going to be my one-year anniversary. When I heard what had happened on the radio, I knew it was going to be an emotional and difficult day — for the country and the airline.

I reported to the media phone bank, part of the emergency command center. There was a lot of bonding with other team members. We were getting updates and watching the television news. We had 100, then 200 and then all our planes safely on the ground.

We broke out in applause then. There was a huge sigh of relief.

We had one couple on a Cosmos tour in New York that we couldn’t locate right away. As the day unfolded, finding this couple became a mission for us — they became a symbol that, in some way, there was a part of this we could control.

At 6:11 p.m. our time (I’ll always remember the 11 after the hour), our tour director heard from them — they had been ferried from Manhattan to New Jersey and were safe and sound.

That moment became a huge release for all of us, as we had accounted for every single customer in every part of the world. Only until that was done, did our minds begin to actually consider the consequence of the day’s events — and it hit us all like a ton of bricks. There was a lot of emotion at that point.

Later that morning, I got a call from a customer in Washington, D.C., He was watching the smoke coming from the Pentagon, and he wanted to know if his company had anybody flying that morning to or from D.C.

“No,” I was relieved to tell him.

Then the call came in that they were grounding all flights and landing the planes anywhere they could.

“Better call everyone who is out there and tell them to sit tight, stay at their hotels and keep their car rentals,” I thought. “Everything has changed.”

One woman at The Peninsula was screaming and insisted that she had to leave the hotel to get her Starbucks. None of our security personnel was able to convince her to stay, so I finally stepped in and, after a few minutes of talking to her, I realized that she was traveling alone and what she really needed was to be with someone at that moment because she was so frightened. I sat with her over coffee in the lobby until she was ready to go to her room and, then, I gave her my cell number so that she could call me if she needed to talk again at any time.

I remember telling myself that I could not lose my composure, so I started to walk the hotel floor-by-floor to check on the staff, trying to comfort them and also to get my mind off of what was actually happening. I was hugging guests and staff. It took me three days before I finally managed to cry; until then, I had been numb with the gravity of it all. There was an outpouring of grief. The candle-lit vigils on street corners that followed were the city’s way of dealing with the magnitude of what had happened.

After the second plane hit, I walked home with my son. I watched in disbelief from my balcony as the towers burned.

When the first tower collapsed, my son and I were sitting on our sofa. There was a deep rumble and suddenly a fine white cloud swept over the building, blocking out all the windows of our apartment. Then it was eerily quiet for several minutes.

Before that day ended, my wife, son and I had evacuated Lower Manhattan with whatever we could carry — walking Uptown as part of a steady procession of other New Yorkers turned refugees. Along the way, people stood and watched us in shock. Some offered us food and water and told us it would be okay.

I remember going down to the lobby at one point where panicked guests asked if we had weapons on hand to protect the hotel. We received demands for transportation to get off Manhattan while other guests were asking us to lock down the hotel.

Soon after, we started to see some of our guests returning to the hotel from downtown, coated in soot, ash and debris. One man couldn’t see out of his eyes so we administered water rinses until he regained his vision. Our hotel was full, but no one could leave, as all modes of transportation had ceased.

Before the end of the day, we had accounted for everyone except one pilot. We knew he was safely on the ground, but we couldn’t contact him.

Finally, we found out that he had taken his entire planeload of passengers to a movie. He just whipped out his credit card and did it.

As the weeks went by, the effect on the travel industry started to set in. “Experts” predicted that 2002 would be a slow travel year but that we could expect to see a full recovery as early as 2003. What those predictions didn’t take into account was the emotional effect that Sept. 11 had on Americans. Mature Americans, who had been so confident about their right to explore the world, were now hesitant about traveling abroad. That moment signaled a shift in the international travel industry — marking the moment that this steady, reliable mature market was replaced by a new era of boomers. It was a shift that was coming slowly up until 9/11, but that event accelerated the shift.

After a few weeks, the city allowed us to go back to work downtown at the hotel. The property had not suffered any damage, but many people questioned going back to work in Lower Manhattan. For me, there was no question. I needed to show the terrorists and the world that we would come back and they had not succeeded in destroying my city.

The Ritz-Carlton New York, Battery Park finally opened on Jan. 29, 2002. Opening day was emotional and memorable for everyone involved. I oversaw a ribbon-cutting that included Mayor Bloomberg and former Mayor Giuliani as well as our “first guest,” Joe Torre, the manager of the New York Yankees at the time.

That day, there was a sense of accomplishment for those of us who had been downtown on Sept. 11 and did not know whether the hotel would ever open or what would become of Lower Manhattan.

We were back in business — downtown New York was open again, and we truly hoped the world would come and visit.

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