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Entries in 9/11 (1)

Wednesday
Sep072011

My 9/11 as a Father

There are two 9/11 stories in my mind. The first is the one we’ve all sadly shared, documented so well by the popular press. The other is my story, and one I haven’t shared as it seems so trivial compared to the “event.”  I don’t want to take away from the first, as it is something we can never forget; by telling my story I hope to add to the memories.


“A plane just hit one of the World Trade Center towers,” Kevin announced as he ran into my office. I remember thinking how odd, given what a nice day it was outside. Working for Fidelity Investments in downtown Boston, we had a television in the break room. Entering the room, 20 or so people had already gathered.

“Even if I had a passed out as a pilot, I can’t imagine the odds of my plane hitting a skyscraper. This seems like something else,” I said aloud to nobody in particular. A few minutes later, the second plane flew into the World Trade Center. A colleague looked at me and said, “You’re right.”


Westborough was a sleepy town. We had combined two households in a (new to us) five bedroom home. We felt fortunate, the Westborough schools are great, and each child had their own room. With the summer over, all four kids were back to school, and each of us was working to pay for the house and associated lifestyle accoutrements. One of us was in Boston, the other in MetroWest.

 

“I need a status! I need a status!” Bob shouted over the phone. Bob was a tough as nails manager, one of those guys where you need your asbestos suit when going to see him. Over prior years of working together, I discovered Bob is actually a sweetheart, and you simply need to look past the amplification to get to the real message. Bob helped businesses recover after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and spent his career preaching about readiness. He was no stranger to this.

Yet, Bob was in another building in his bosses’ staff meeting, and was beginning to get pages (yes, this was the pager era) on something happening. Bob was looking for answers he could give his peers and boss….in a time when there were no answers.

I had moved to our “war room” (since quietly renamed the “crisis room”), the room we used to “manage an event” when there was a big issue. Having responsibility for disaster recovery and business continuity for FMR (Fidelity Management and Research – the funds management part of Fidelity,) it was logical for Bob to call me looking for updates. Of course, the war room had a TV, silently providing a window to the rest of the world, New York in particular.

“Bob, all our systems are fine, and we are operating normally. Both World Trade Centers have had planes fly into them, the Pentagon had a plane fly into it, and there’s word of another plane heading for the White House.,” I then continued in a hushed voice one would use to whisper to a friend, “Bob, it looks like the country is under attack. We’re fine, but the people at the other end of the wires are not.”  All Bob could say is, “You’re kidding, right?  Holy cow.”  But he didn’t say cow.


How can I reach the kids?  How do I make sure they are safe?  I don’t carry much cash, I need to get to an ATM and get some money out. What’s going on in Westborough?  Can you believe this?

How are Mom and Dad in Cleveland?  Do they know?  Is Cleveland OK?  Has Cleveland been a target?

 

“Gary, get everyone together. We need to get a status. Call me back in 15 minutes, or if something else happens,” Bob was still talking. He brought me back to my conscious mind.

People gravitated to the war room because it was simply what we did when there was an issue. Nobody had to be told. It’s just what we did automatically. I turned around, and saw a dozen or so very frightened people. And then I saw Wayne, a matter of fact, engineering-minded manager with tears running down his face as he said nothing, staring at the TV.

“Everyone, take 10 minutes, do what you have to do, call who you need to call, then get back here. Bob wants answers, and once you’re set personally, we’ll get back to Bob.”


At Fidelity, we had nothing but the best, and our pagers could send AND receive messages. I was able to send emails from my pager.

Text from my pager: “Have you seen what is going on?  Have you heard from the kids?  Need to get some money.”  Response, “Yes, haven’t heard from kids. Will find them.”

The kids were split between the High School and the Middle School. What is the school system doing?  When John F. Kennedy was shot, my elementary school had a fire drill and they told the students nothing.  Are our kids standing outside their schools wondering what is going on?  Are the teachers in tears like they were when JFK got shot?  Are the kids safe?

 

Business continuity plans are set up to accommodate a variety of operational issues including loss of a building. The issues are typically things like fire, loss of power, loss of facility, etc. Fidelity had a predefined assembly point where everyone would meet if something happened in a building. Nothing was wrong with our buildings; our plans didn’t call for moving to the assembly point when the country was attacked. Our plans didn’t anticipate war.

“Gary, we need to move Abby. Would you come get her?” Bob said in his best “in command” voice. Abby is Abigail Johnson, daughter of Edward C (Ned) Johnson III, and with Ned own 49% of Fidelity. Everyone knew Abby’s net worth was more than Ned’s through estate planning, although it was never talked about. She was the 18th wealthiest person on the Forbes 400 list in the year 2000.


Text from my pager:  “You have to get to the kids. Please get cash.”  At a time like this, you have a crystal clear perspective on what should be done, however no sense of what the other person is facing. Phone calls wouldn’t go through, yet pages would. Boston was gridlocked, certainly MetroWest must be fine.  MetroWest is closer to Westborough; it must be easy to get home.  Response, “Will when I can, big issues here.”  Oh God, MetroWest must be under attack. Where are the kids?

 

What do you say to someone you’ve first met when the country is under attack?  “How is your day going, nice weather, how’s your afternoon looking?” somehow didn’t fill the bill. I’d seen Abby in presentations and company meetings, and had never met her. Abby is a polite woman, with young kids of her own. She’s been told to follow me, and she is. For some reason, I begin telling her what we are doing. “We’re going to go here, and then you’ll be fine.”  I wonder if she believed or even heard me. Planes are falling from the sky, yet I sound like Kevin Bacon in Animal House, “Remain Calm, All is Well.”

 

We get to the appropriate executive command center, however Fidelity Security is blocking the door. Now, Fidelity Security always seemed to be an outstanding paramilitary organization. I made it a point to be friendly with them in an attempt to make sure they didn’t pull out their Uzis and summarily execute me for something like not bringing my ID to work. “I’ve got Abby with me,” I said in a low, firm voice to the overly zealous security type. “Ned is already in there, nobody gets in,” quietly responded the suddenly very human guard whose pleading eyes said, “I don’t know where she should go but it’s not here.”


Where are my kids?  Did we get money out?  What is happening in NY, the Pentagon, and did the White House?  Where else have we been attacked?

Cleveland has steel, I heard something about Pennsylvania. Is the Midwest under attack?

 

Getting off the elevator with Abby on “my” floor, the departmental admin Dottie met me with silent tears running down her face. “Gary, what can I do?  I need to do something,” asked Dottie knowing and not particularly caring who I had in tow. Dottie and I had a bond where we helped each other, and Dottie needed something to do, something where she could help, and something where she could fight back. “Dottie, please get food. We’re going to be here a while, and I have to believe places are going to close. Thanks.”


“Kids are home safely.”  I don’t have the pager any longer. If I did, “Kids are home safely,” would be the only page I would ever need to see on it.  I’d take the pager to the Art and Frame Emporium and have Ed Turner frame it with just that page on the screen. I would hang it over my mantel.

“Are you OK?” was my reply. “I can’t think right now,” was the hurried response.

 

Abby’s new conference room had a huge 9’ screen playing the events. Abby’s staff quickly got word of her location, and began assembling with her. The head of equity trading was on the phone to New York. “People are jumping out of the Trade Center,” he announced loudly slapping the table, “and hitting the ground.”  A shudder went through the room, as if the televised coverage wasn’t enough.

And then the South Tower collapsed. The room went silent. Abby watched with the same disbelief we all had. Abby, with her own family worries and all her wealth, shared the same moment as the rest of us.


Text from my pager, “Did you see that?”  Reply, “Some of the people on the planes were from TJX and we knew people there. I have people in my office in tears. Can’t talk.”  Some of the people were from TJX?  Hold it, there were passengers on those planes?

 

You’d never know the Johnson family was related based on day to day public interactions… they respect each other in a well-choreographed manner. And you know never to create a situation where they were at odds with each other publicly; conflict is avoided at all costs.

Ned entered the room via a back stair. He made eye contact with Abby, and immediately made a fatherly sigh of relief, otherwise not acknowledging his daughter over anyone else in the room.  Ned wasn’t fully up to speed on the collapse of both World Trade Center towers, and didn’t seem to comprehend when told both towers had collapsed…. who could comprehend this?  As if on cue, CNN replayed both collapses, as the room turned to silence again allowing Ned to take it all in.

When the replay had finished, Ned turned to the room, and without skipping a beat or hesitating, said, “Within our business, how can we help those people?  What can we do?”

And in that moment, Ned defined the Fidelity response in a way our Business Continuity Plans had not anticipated…..”How can we help those people?  What can we do?”


At this point, the two stories of 9/11 begin converging. The kids were more resilient than I. My 17 year old son went to his after school job monitoring a large retailer’s web site. I started to object, and was reminded the parents on the team were home with their families. Yet, I wanted him with me, behind my locked front door.

The other children continued their studies quickly, enduring family conferences talking about “assembly points.”  (Yes, we use the mailbox as our assembly point if the house catches fire. If there are issues while you are at school and you can’t get home go to the Catholic Church, it’s walkable and stone construction.) 

We watched CNN every night, expecting Larry King at any moment to expose a sensible explanation by watching countless reruns of plans hitting buildings from multiple angles. We eventually, simply had to turn off the television.

Fidelity didn’t stop until every person had been accounted for, including new hires not yet started and where contact information had not been collected. Fidelity opened the money market funds so people could take money out. That was a big deal; the official prospectus for the funds said withdrawals could only be made on day when the New York Stock Exchange was operating. “The regulators are going to have a problem with this,” the attorney’s commented. “The prospectus wasn’t written assuming an attack; this is the right thing for our customers. After all, it is the customer’s money.”  I don’t work for Fidelity any more, and for me this was Fidelity’s shining moment….where humanity came through.

We did take the kids to New York City to see the World Trade Center area, so they would never forget.

Shortly after 9/11, I asked a friend of mine who grew up in London enduring IRA bombings if things get back to normal and if you ever get over the fear. He paused and said “it diminishes, yet never goes away.”

It’s like my memory of 9/11. It diminishes, yet never goes away. I can never forget.