The 911 Surfer

September 11th

As I waited on hold for a conference call with two clients to begin at 9 a.m. I listened to the mindless recorded music of the conference line and I had Morning Joe playing in the background.  Much was predictable political chatter.  Should Governor Romney be running a campaign that more sharply defines conservative differences?  Should he be specific?  Is the President’s post-Convention bounce going to endure?

And then Willie Geist interviewed the “911 Surfer” and his wife.  This man has such an incredible story to tell but his survivor’s guilt has apparently kept him from telling it for 11 years.  He was in the second building to fall, going down the stairs as fast as he could and he had reached the 22nd floor when the building fell.  Somehow, miraculously, his slab of concrete was supported as the building collapsed around him and while he may have fallen 14 stories or more he opened his eyes and had survived.

I was back in 2001.  That day, like 2012, was beautiful and clear.  I was watching the Pentagon from across the river when it exploded in a fireball.  I remember my knees went weak and adrenaline shot through me.  The federal government was shut down and mid morning, while driving home I was caught in traffic.  On an incongruously beautiful Pennsylvania Avenue at 12th street I was stopped dead with my roof open listening to NPR.  A traffic cop and I struck up a conversation as I sat there next to him.  “You could try going up there to the White House or maybe down there to the FBI”, he said.  There were rumors on the radio of car bombs and speculation about whether there was a fourth plane.  Neither path seemed to be particularly appealing.

The 2012 conference call ended and MSNBC was running NBC’s coverage from the morning of 911.  Listening to Katie Couric and Tom Brokaw and Matt Lauer try and figure out what was going on was remarkable.  First, they learned the story one piece at a time while they were live on the air.  But they made remarkably few comments that they should regret today.

Even more dramatic was the way in which their conversation reflected the innocence of an isolated America.  “This is the first time since the war of 1812 or what we did to ourselves in the Civil War, that Americans have ever seen any damage from an attack like this on our soil”, Tom Brokaw said as the television showed the smoke from the collapsing tower literally white out all of lower Manhattan.  “This is so unreal that it’s like scenes from a movie” Katie Couric said.

What struck me in watching it play out again was how much time there was if you had known what was going to happen.  The 911 surfer had stayed in the building for 80 minutes after the first attack.  There was no reason to think that the building would not be safe, he said, and he and a few colleagues were told to stay.

Reading the 911 Report several years later I was struck in particular with how many clues there had been to the planning and the practice runs of the terrorists and how many Americans had to believe that we were safe from the clearly articulated threats.  There were dozens of people who could have stopped the events that played out that morning of 911.  But there was no concern with what everyone would have agreed was possible, but unthinkable.

There are these moments when it becomes clear that after this, everything changes.  In the US we have been so fortunate since 2001 that the plots have been foiled and there have been no new everts.  Human nature will push these matters to the back.  But there is no question that 9/11 was a strategic inflection point on many dimensions.


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