As we near the 15 year anniversary of 9/11, I have been reflecting recently on that day, week and month that hit us all so hard who lived in and around New York City. It changed my life like no other event, before or after. And, it is why my family and I became farmers.
It started for me September 7th, the Friday before that fateful Tuesday. I was in downtown New York City at The New Yorker Magazine headquarters, meeting with Malcolm Gladwell, acclaimed author who had previously written “The Tipping Point”; a book that anyone in business has probably read. I was Senior Vice President of Global Marketing at the time for an international tech company and I had hired him to speak for us at an executive retreat coming up later in September with all our CIO clients in the energy sector. I had purchased hundreds of his books to circulate to our energy CIO clients. Malcolm and I were going to do a facilitated workshop focusing on ‘tipping points’ for energy leaders. Malcolm and I spent that Friday morning brainstorming the workshop. We walked out of the building together and we specifically stopped in front of the Towers. I looked up and said to him, “I want to work there some day.” Unbeknownst to me, that would haunt me later.
It was a great day in Manhatten. I shuttled back to our townhouse in New Jersey that overlooked the New York City skyline and exhaled, thinking how awesome the day was spending time with such a big thinker that Malcolm was. But, it was time to get our daughter ready for her first day of school, as it was her first year going to school, in pre-K at a montissori school in Morristown, NJ. School started for her Tuesday, September 11, 2001. We spent the weekend buying supplies and school clothes. It was an important weekend as I felt very guilty I would not be there to take her to school. Her dad would have to, as I had management meetings with my staff from across Europe, Middle East and Africa who would be flying in to London for a three day workshop. So, off I flew late Sunday night, leaving Chloe to start school without me. That was gut wrenching boarding that plane.
I love London. The hustle and bustle of busy city life is thrilling. Having staff in London made the trip especially fun as we were able to go to some great evening spots only accessed by ‘members’ where famous musicians played and the environs were such that you truly knew you were in Europe. Our whole team was enjoying the meetings and the evening affairs. We settled in late Monday night to start an early day Tuesday morning.
I however, had a terrible sense of something late that night. For some reason I had a vision of our daughter Chloe sitting on the curb of her new school crying, waiting for someone to pick her up. The picture was so acute that I panicked and called my husband. My husband was CEO and Chairman of the Board of a tech company at the time. He had board meetings Tuesday evening in San Francisco. Our plan had been that he would drop Chloe off at her new school, then board his plane and fly to San Francisco. I would fly back from London after my meetings were done on Tuesday, and pick her up from her first day of school. Made sense, of course that was only if there were no glitches. With my premonition that Chloe was going to be left stranded, I forced my husband to change his flight to the following day. It was literally our first major fight all being done over an international phone, with me hysterical, begging him to switch days he was flying. “CEO’s can’t change board meetings honey,” he said. I think I threatened to divorce him if he didn’t. It was that bad. He changed his flight.
Tuesday morning our management meetings started and all was good. However, slightly before noon we get a call in the meeting room. It was my husband. He asked to speak with me and in front of all our staff he told me that the towers had been bombed. London is five hours ahead time wise. He had called immediately after the first tower was hit and at that time no one knew it was a plane and tv reporters said it was a bomb. I was confused. I had no idea what he was talking about. He asked to speak with my boss, our CTO. He relayed what was happening in the US. My boss relayed that all to our team.
I stood there in shock. My baby. My baby. I got back on the phone with my husband and said to him that he needed to get our daughter. I was hysterical that I could not get to her. He told me he was monitoring that situation, but the school was on lock down. No parents could get their kids at the moment. Many of my daughter’s classmates parents’ worked in those towers. The school did not want some kids picked up and others left there without any understanding of death count. I was terrified. Plus, my husband said, he had to stay at the company to make sure the employees were okay. It was during this period that we all were informed that it was planes hitting the towers. He needed to understand if any of his employees were on those planes. And, if there were going to be any more planes going down with employees on them.
My staff and I were trying to stay calm. We all left the meetings and went to the local Starbucks, in shock. It was there that we witnessed the horror of the footage on tv cameras showing the towers being destroyed. All I knew is that I wanted to get to my daughter. I never realized that I would be stuck in London for a week trying to get home. While watching the television commentary in Starbucks of each plane’s finality and it’s departure location – I pulled up my husband’s itinerary – shaking – the plane my husband was supposed to be on that I begged him to change, United Airlines Flight 93, was the one we just watched on the monitor that crashed in Pennsylvania. Then it hit me, he would have been dead had I not threatened divorce the night before. It then dawned on me, while standing in Starbucks, that God had truly intervened in my life, and had sent me a premonition of Chloe sitting on a curb, to protect her and my husband. That was so overpowering, all of that, all at once, to even process. I sat down with staff around me — all of us deeply shaken. I have never, in all my life, before or since, felt so powerless and afraid for my family. And, I wondered, how would I get home.
Traumatized, we all sat in Starbucks for hours, watching the tv screens, trying to make sense of things. At this point all phone service with the US crashed. We could not get through to our families. Those were scary hours and no one wanted to be alone to wonder and worry. My corporate offices were right outside of NY City. We had many staff who I am sure had family members who’d lost their lives. It was the following week when I would hear the horror of their stories.
We were staying at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in downtown London. We all went back to our rooms and shut our doors, watching news throughout the afternoon and evening. No one wanted to speak. Late into the evening we re-emerged over some drinks trying to piece together news from family, if any, and death count of employees family members. These were sobering hours. We went back to our rooms to rest. To our terror, after midnight, we awoke to alarms going off in the entire hotel. We all rushed out of our rooms in downtown London in our pajamas. The hotel had caught on fire. Terrified, after being traumatized from the morning, none of my staff nor I even knew we were scantly clothed, standing in downtown London streets.
After the fire was quelled, we were able to return to our rooms. No one could sleep. The next morning another round of stress hit us as we were all scheduled to leave the hotel. So, there were no vacancies for us. All flights were stopped in London so all hotels were completely backed up due to no one flying and London now a no fly zone. We literally had no place to stay and we also had no idea when we would even get to go back to the United States. I was so traumatized at this point because I still had not talked to my husband as the phones were still out. I had no idea how my daughter was doing or even if my husband had gotten her. All I knew is that my baby only knew her mommy was going to fly home that day and she never arrived. And, she was in a ‘lock down’ where kids were having to be told their parents would not be picking them up because planes crashed. My daughter was four. She didn’t understand there were thousands of planes in the sky. She only knew that her mommy didn’t make it home. These images, and that of the premonition of her sitting on a curb alone with no one to pick her up, haunted me.
Every day we tried to board a plane, every day we waited at the airport. No luck. Everyone at the airport was terrified. Everyone was trying to get home. The speakers were constantly saying, “do not accept any bags from strangers who ask you to hold it for them.” A middle eastern man came up to me and asked me if I would hold his bag. I said yes, not thinking. The woman next to me grabbed me and shook me shouting, “no!” I woke from my fog and realized her point and the man sauntered off with his bag.
Several days later I heard from my husband that our daughter had been collected and she was fine. Traumatized, but fine. The school was providing counselors at the school as there was a high count of parents who had been killed. In some cases there were kids in Chloe’s class that lost both parents. I was informed that in my company there were to be 45 funerals. I had to begin to plan for staff leaving for undisclosed periods of time. All of this I was trying to conduct while sitting at the airport trying to get home.
During the days we awaited getting home I experienced two amazing things in London. First, the city of London did a tribute to the dead. They stopped all traffic, sound, lights, etc. in the entire city for three minutes, to pay tribute to those who died. I was on the street for that pause in prayer. The power of an entire city, stopping to focus on one thing, was so powerful I have never before or after felt such concentrated intention. People were crying and they weren’t even American. London grieved too. It was one of the most grateful experiences I have ever experienced. The second, for the first and only time, they played the American National Anthem, at Buckingham Palace with the guards saluting our flag. I was there for that too as Britains waved US flags in support of our nation and each of us. Our American congregation was hugged by literally 100s of foreigners waiting in line to hug us and give their respects. One of my employees, a young late 20s something go getter Aussie who was stationed in London, spent the day with me and bought us American flags and gave me a set of Paddington Bear items for Chloe as she knew I was suffering. I always think of her to this day, as we have paddington bear as a stuffed animal on our Christmas tree each year. Come to think of it, I doubt my daughter even knows the story behind her paddington bear baby blanket she still has to this day and the paddington bear mobile that I put on our Christmas tree ever year. It wasn’t a year later that this young women was dead, of a minor dog bite, that carried some strange and deadly bacteria. I sent a letter to her parents telling them of her stoic and loving ways exemplified from that day and her awareness of our whole group and our need to stand as Americans with that flag that day. And I expressed my appreciation for her understanding of my personal grief being not just a career women responsible for these people around me but being a mother and missing my daughter. It still saddens me of her departure from this planet too young.
As I said at the beginning of this story, our townhouse overlooked the New York City skyline. My husband and daughter watched it burn then smoke and glow for days all while I was frantically trying to get home.
It was not lost on me that I had stood with Malcom Gladwell the previous Friday and stated I wanted to work in those towers. Today, they were gone.
I called Malcolm and informed him from the airport that we would be cancelling the retreat. No one would want to be flying and since the retreat was right around the corner, no one knew if our airplanes would even be in the air at all. That was the last time I spoke with him, hanging up after both of us commented on how surreal it was that we were both looking up at that NY City landmark together just a few days before. I never spoke to him again and I am not sure why. Probably the memories.
I was able to get on the first plane back to the US that landed in JFK. I am not sure that is something to feel special about — being on the first plane that landed in NY or the US for that matter, after 9/11. What I can say is how terrified every person flying was on that plane. The plane was packed with air marshalls. And I mean packed. But, we all knew that if something bad happened we’d all be dead. Death was at our door. I was flying first class with a bunch of other fellows. We were all joking in a completely fatigued and dimented way, as people do from sheer exhaustion, about if we should all take sleeping pills to rest on the plane and get the torturous ride over. We waffled from yes, let’s sleep so the time goes by fast, to we need to be awake to fight on the plane if a bad guy was on board. Honestly, we were wondering….did we even imagine a week prior we’d have such concerns while flying. Not in a million years.
When the plane arrived near New York City the capitain came on the microphone and shared that we were heading in and that we would be flying directly over the towers. We did. The smoke was insane but what struck me was the metal was glowing red hot as if I was looking directly into the depths of hell. I have chills even as I type this, fifteen years later. This flight was Friday evening, four days after that terrible day, and the metal was glowing red hot near liquid form. The plane was silent. It was as if the spirits of the dead entered our plane. There was great agony. We were the first people to witness that hell hole from above, of anyone. And it gutted in each of us whatever was left of our sense of order. This was hell and we knew it. Watching overseas and flying directly overhead, were two completely different things. Both terrible but in entirely different ways.
When we were getting ready to land everyone held their breath. When wheels touched the ground there were cheers so loud and crying so intense, it’s like we’d all survived a 40 day ‘naked and afraid’ experience and were all now best of friends. Those five hours on that flight were the hardest five hours of my life. When we unboarded we all looked for our loved ones and never looked back.
The coming weeks were very sad at our offices. The stories were tragic. Our IT manager’s brother was hiding under a car right by the tower right after the first plane hit. He was in the unfortunate spot where people jumped out of the building. He was having nightmares of the sound of thumping of dead bodies falling around him like rain. Then, looking in their eyes, laying there by the car looking at him. Another woman’s mother was basically trampled going down the stairs in one of the towers. She was below the impact zone. She was in her 60s. She experienced a heart attack in the stairwell. Finally, good folks carried her above them to get her out. She survived but was never the same. I went to cut my hair. My hairdresser had the picture of a beautiful young lady about the age my daughter is now. She was heading back from a trip abroad before going to college. Her mom was my hairdresser’s client who had just had her hair cut before me. That explained the sad face of the women I had passed by on my way in. It was like that everywhere around New York. You couldn’t go to the store without some link to someone dying being right there for you to reflect on. It wasn’t any easier at work either. My staff were terrified of flying. But, I had to tell them their job required it. I had to fire and I had to change people in jobs, all because people did not want to fly anymore. These were terrible times. I couldn’t NOT have my staff fly. And, I had to continue to fly. It was our job. Firing people who were panicked at flying but panicked at being fired was not fun. We had counselors too for many reasons. The domino effects were unimaginable for companies around New York City.
At home, our daughter would try and share what was happening at school but it was hard because she was so little. But, she understood many parents died. There was alot of ‘drawing’ the kids were being asked to do by counselors that were in the school full time, to help with the grieving process. At night, we would look out over our balcony at the New York City skyline and watch the smoke billow into the sky. It was not lost on us that my husband and Chloe’s father was still alive. Thank God he changed his flight 8 hours before it crashed.
What many don’t remember is that right after 9/11 there was the anthrax scare in NJ. Within two weeks of 9/11, maybe sooner, we had FBI helicopters flying around our high rise office building. There was suspicion that the anthrax was coming somewhere from this area. My staff were further scared. I had one staff member experience a true mental breakdown of the highest degree during a FBI fly over. She was under her desk hovering, crying, covering her ears and begging for things to stop. We had to have her admitted into psychiatric care.
No one ever knows these stories. It was about then that I made the decision that corporate marketing in NY city was not for me. I moved my daughter and I back to our country house in Fairfield county, CT. We had a beautiful weekend home there and I wanted to move back. So, I moved Chloe to a new school and within a week, the 90 year old woman who died of anthrax in CT, well she lived five miles from my country home. At that time I just gave up.
I am a journalist now. And, I am a farmer. I had the opportunity to interview New York’s Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball last week for an article I am doing on the American Dream. He owns a farm. He talked of how many people changed after 9/11, particularly those who lived in and around NY City. He said in our interview, “We bought our farm in 1993 and began to introduce changes in response to the marketplace. In 2001, after 9/11 we really saw so many lives change. We saw it in customer’s faces; especially people who came north from New York City. We saw a real anxiety and need to reach back to what they perceived from their grandparents’ time. Many people really wanted to touch agriculture. This is important to understand as Commissioner, as food security is inherently tied to our nation’s security and the sense of safety every New Yorker needs to feel.” After he finished his words, I immediately replied, “Oh my, that was me!”
He saw our fear. He saw our need to find solace in food, the land, community. Our communities were decimated. The land may still be there, but our memories were shattered, our sense of safety destroyed. That single event made me want to be a farmer and one person on this earth understood that — NY Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball. Unbelieveable! It was after 9/11 that we began to look for farm land in Upstate New York as downstate had ‘upstate’ designation recommendations should future events happen in the lower portions of the state. Upstate NY was far enough away yet close enough for NY City dwellers to have a healthy fall back location should similar events happen in the future. That’s why upstate was our farm target location. And we have, over the course of many years, invested all we have in building a farm that we call HiBar Ranch located outside of Lake Placid, New York, in the Adirondack Mountains. Our focus is not just farming, but teaching others farm practices and back to the land basics. We understand the pain and fear of a society that unravels. We understand the great solice in farming. It is healing. Agri-tourism has been our goal along with high end products such as organic honey and dairy goat soaps and salves. All of this is geared toward healing the mind and spirit — that came from that great tragedy that hit all of us New Yorkers so hard, 9/11/2001. New York is so blessed to have Commissioner Ball representing agriculture. I believe his greatest contributions are ahead of him in his role as Agriculture leader for New York. Why? Because such tragedies like 9/11 aren’t over. And humanity wants, more than ever, a reconnection with the land and Commissioner Ball I believe will make this connection real, just like the broken connection he recognized in each one of us after 9/11. Sometimes it takes 15 years for things to come full circle — in New York, I think it just did.
To this day I remember the awareness of protection for my daughter and husband. I give this all to God. God was with them when I couldn’t be. God is watching and knows all before we do. God is power and God is love. God has intervened in my life numerous times. This was one of those very vivid God moments of my life. I hope as others walk the path of life, you too trust the Lord is walking before you and taking care even when you are blinded by events in your life. 9/11 was tragic. But for me 9/11 truly showed me how real God is in my life and also allowed me to learn that great beauty and healing can come from tragedy. Connection and wisdom can develop out of trauma. And, more than anything, green shoots grow out of collapsing things; rubble makes way for new beginnings. And that, I believe, is where we are at as a society and where our nation is, in so many ways. Great things are happening in New York. It is a city and state of resilience and with that spirit new ideas and new solutions are born.
God Bless! L. Davis