Turning a Day of Infamy Into an Hour of Hope4:07 PM EST Thu. Sep. 13, 2001
This was a moment I will never forget. It was shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday morning and my cell phone rang as I drove my car to work.
It was my friend Jeremy, who lives in New York and works in the financial district of Manhattan. When I answered the phone, he seemed surprised to hear my voice on the other end. "Rob?" he asked. "Is that you?" Something must be wrong, I thought. "Where are you?" he asked urgently, his voice shaken. I told him I was on my way to work in Boston. I had told Jeremy a few days earlier that I was planning to fly to New York Tuesday morning to cover Vignette's new software launch that day. My plans changed but I never told Jeremy I wasn't coming in to town. I asked him what was wrong.
"Turn on your radio," he said. I asked what station. He said, "Any station, it doesn't matter."
That's when I realized something truly horrible had happened. Jeremy went on to explain that two commercial flights from Logan Airport here in Boston crashed into the World Trade Center. He told me that he was sure I was on one of those flights, and fully expected that I wouldn't be answering my cell phone that morning.
I told Jeremy to get the hell out of his office--he works just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. He told me he felt an incredible jolt as the first plane hit, and then saw the second crash from the roof of his 12-story office building. He told me the first tower that was struck was on the verge of collapse. I couldn't believe it until I saw the television footage at my office. As the building fell, so too did my heart and spirit.
When his cell phone stopped working, Jeremy gave me updates via e-mail. He told me that they were going to evacuate his building an others outside the "danger zone"--buildings that may be in danger of collapse and structural damage--but that there were just too many people. Authorities started sending wounded citizens along with women and children covered in soot and ash to Brooklyn via the South Ferry. Jeremy and others stayed behind and watched the entire horrific day on Manhattan.
Soon after I spoke with Jeremy, my father and other friends and co-workers were calling and e-mailing me to make sure I wasn't in New York anywhere near the chaos. Then I started calling friends in the New York and Washington, D.C. area to make sure they were safe. Then, I began to ponder how to approach this tragedy as a journalist.
Now that the initial shock has worn off I've realized, like so many others, that Tuesday's terrorist attack is my generation's "Day of Infamy." Only this is worse than Pearl Harbor because this is our city, our citizens, our way of life that is under attack.
This is a defining moment in American history, perhaps the single worst event to occur in our nation. We will be judged on how we respond and how quickly the culture as a whole repairs itself. There has been constant criticism involving today's 20-somethings, often called Generation X. We've been called apathetic, lazy and unpatriotic. Older generations have argued that we have not achieved their level of greatness seen in the World Wars, the Great Depression or the Civil Rights movement. I've often argued against those claims. Here is an opportunity to prove our resolve and dedication, not just for Generation X and today's youth but every post-Baby Boom American.
Several defining moments have taken place in the last few days. Scores of people are lining up at American Red Cross centers and other blood banks looking to donate blood. I left my office around midday Tuesday for the nearest Red Cross blood donor center and was told that I would have to come back two or even three days later. Some blood banks were booking appointments.
Many citizens are making financial donations as well. Several community groups, charities and even churches are sending volunteers to the relief. Others are simply buying all the American flags they can and organizing candlelight vigils or simply showing support for their country and the police, firefighters, paramedics and military personnel that keep them safe. They chant "God bless America" and sing the National Anthem. You can knock us down, they say, but you'll never knock us out.
This flood of support must continue. It must be expanded, too, to include our businesses and corporations. Just a few days after taking over at General Electric as CEO and chairman, Jeff Immelt made one of the most important decisions he'll make as GE's leader. He called New York Mayor Rudolph Gulliani and pledged his company's support, donating $10 million to relief efforts.
It was a turning point. Other corporations, such as Cisco Systems and Microsoft, soon followed. But as I write this column, I have Fortune's list of the richest 500 companies in America. There are 100 corporations that have revenues between $20 billion and $210 billion. So far, only a handful of those 100 companies have stepped forward with support. Many smaller companies, surprisingly, have made significant contributions. If you're the head of a Fortune 500 company, make the call like Immelt did. If you're simply an employee, call or e-mail your bosses and let them know that your company simply cannot sit back and watch the carnage--it must act. I'm going to start checking Fortune's listing as well as VARBusiness' own listing of the biggest IT companies to see who is stepping forward and doing the right thing.
It's encouraging to see that many IT firms, even some that have lost employees as a result of the attacks, offering the support. I was pleased to see my own company, CMP Media, pledged to match donations made by employees to several relief and victims' funds. It's a great start, but more needs to be done.
I've read numerous reports that the effects of the terrorist attack, both real and psychological, will trigger a global recession. We may not be able to stop it, but we can at least try and perhaps it will soften the blow. If not, this attack will continue to victimize us long after Sept. 11. It will take more than simply getting back to work. We need to do more than simply stand by as gas and food prices soar in the wake of this tragic attack. We need to put our heads together, especially those of us who lead the U.S. economy and who possess enormous personal wealth, and come up with solutions to restore morale and confidence. Following the posting of an online story on VARBusiness.com about the donations made by GE and Cisco, one reader who held stock in GE chimed in with his approval. "I can't applaud enough the recent $10M donation," the reader wrote. "It's time for America's major companies to step up and do the same." It's a small improvement to morale, but it's a start.
For those of us without millions of dollars, the task is harder. We have to come up with ways to overcome the fear and reclaim our country. It may only take a variety of small tasks that, combined, will become greater as whole. Bake cookies for rescue works. Arrange a parade or a march. Build a house. Start a charity movement. Sing a song. Organize a benefit concert for the victims in Central Park. Turn on your brain and do something. Do something, because a lot needs to be done. Because years from now, when the Twin Towers have been rebuilt, we can look to them and know that we gave our very best when things were at their worst.
A few hours after the attack, Jeremy was still sitting in his office building sending me updates on the tragedy. He wrote these words in an e-mail to family and friends: "We all at times feel disjointed in this country, a melting pot that is a mass of cultures. If there is good that comes of this, then I hope that we will join tightly as a country and realize proudly that we will overcome this. Let those who did this know that they ultimately didn't get what they wanted, which is fear."
United we stand.