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Notes from 9/11


I was on that plane.

I was actually a passenger on one of the planes that crashed on 9/11. Fortunately, for me, it was a few hours earlier.

On Monday, September 10, 2001 I flew from San Francisco CA to Newark NJ with a business colleague after a Monday meeting in Fresno CA. I watched the dawn of a crisp clear new day from my window seat on a mostly empty United Airlines Boeing 757. I marveled at the laser like clarity and stunning profile of the New York skyline featuring the twin towers of the World Trade Center against a beautiful blue sky, as we made our final approach from the south, to runway 4R on the morning of September 11, 2001. When we pulled into Gate 17 at EWR my mind was filled with thoughts of my business schedule for the day. Little could I imagine then of the drama to unfold. The aircraft on which I had just spent the evening would soon depart again, in an attempt to return to San Francisco, as the infamous United Airlines “Flight #93”. It would not make it. You see, I was a passenger on the inbound aircraft, United Airlines, Flight #92.

Thus the tragic events of 9/11 became very personal for me. I have become convinced there are no coincidences. I have come to understand there is compelling evidence there has not been enough time since the beginning of time to get even one of the laws of nature solely from random or chance chemical reactions. The evidence for design is overwhelming. I think everything happens for a purpose, often to teach us something. The big question is if course: “What”? The experience has given me a special chance to connect with this event and inspire me to make the time to pause and reflect on what I might learn from it. Just as a time management note, I have not found time for anything in years. If I don’t make time for something it has little chance to happen.

I have often thought of how the terrorists had to be in the gate area when I exited the plane. We arrived about 40 minutes late. I had to walk right by them. How might I have known? All those who were waiting to board are now gone. What could or would I have done? I think about how the seat on which I slept, and probably snored that evening, was later buried in a field in Western Pennsylvania. I have read about the reconstructed events of “Flight 93” with my own special knot in the pit of my stomach and renewed nightmares. After more than a dozen years, I cannot yet bring myself to watch any of the dramatizations or movies. They say the brain can’t tell the difference between a real and a vividly imagined experience. Yes, that is my experience!

I watched, read and listened while our nation and the rest of the free world tried to cope with the magnitude of the horror of this despicable conduct and deal with reactions in various phases of what happened, why and who we should blame. There are those who wished to exploit the event for their own interest and those who had a genuine empathy for the victims and sense of pride and gratitude for the heroes of the day. There were those who immediately claimed, and argue today, contrary to overwhelming evidence, it was self inflicted conspiracy and no plane ever crashed into the Pentagon according to a best-selling book in France.

After the personal drama and connection described above we had tickets to fly to Israel on Thursday September 13, 2001 to spend all of the High Holidays in a rented apartment in the Old City and spend time with our niece Miriam who was on a school program and now the source of much anxiety from both sides because of the circumstances. Certainly nothing was flying right after 9/11 and it was almost impossible to get projections on when it would. Erev Rosh Hashana was the following Monday night and even a late Saturday night departure would not get there until Sunday PM. With most of the Holidays occurring midweek that year, there were very few windows of opportunity to get to Israel for an observant Jew until after Succoth.

We did find out on Friday that we could be booked on a flight from Newark at 10 PM on Saturday night and had a large prom limousine waiting in our driveway in Yardley Pennsylvania to go to the airport immediately after Shabbos. We were planning a four week trip so we filled it with me, my wife, my mother z’l and six very large suitcases.

Upon arrival at Newark the scene was utter chaos. We found almost 1,000 people waiting for two flights (one of which was a 767 holding about 265 people) each with their own personal imperative for getting there. There was much pushing and shoving. I helped an elderly lady who needed a wheelchair to get one, some assistance and relief. My mom had also just recovered from a recent hip replacement. After several hours I made a personal calculation that we were not going to make either of the flights unless we could be far more assertive in the crowd, and that was not likely to happen.

I announced to the crowd that I needed a path to the door. “I am taking my family out of here!” The sea parted and we found ourselves on the curb, abandoning any hope of making the trip and looking for two taxicabs to return home to Yardley PA. El Al apparently used the opportunity to clear the lobby so we again had much competition and things were not looking good. It was almost 2 am and my mom was starting to shiver from the cold night air.

I had surrendered to the reality that months of planning and anticipation would be in vain. I tried to keep that in perspective compared to the enormity of the tragedy that had just occurred and was still smoldering in Manhattan. But now it would take at least two taxi’s to get back to Yardley PA with all our stuff and that was now a competition with hundreds of others in the middle of the night especially since there was a frenzied attempt to get transportation to Kennedy on the rumor of another flight. I was about as frustrated, hopeless, tired, exasperated and without a plan as I could recall. I did not know what I would do next.

It was then an El Al agent came up from behind us and said: “Please take these boarding passes and follow me.” She announced “these are mine” as we were the only people then escorted back into the building through the only open door. We were quickly processed and assigned to the very last three seats on the 767. My mom was convinced it was the kindness I had performed for the lady who needed the wheelchair that attracted attention to us. She was waiting to greet us at the departure gate with the welcome: "I was hoping you would make it!"

We arrived in Israel to find a population, encircled by lethal enemies who were canceling trips to America because it was too dangerous. There were essentially no tourists so we were quite the exception. We arrived safely in our rented apartment in the old city of Jerusalem on Sunday PM. With Rosh Hashana starting on Monday night we had much to do. We had quality time at the Kotel and at Yeshiva Aish HaTorah, a personally escorted tour of the Diaspora Museum by the curator, welcomed with “brave tourist” discounts on Ben Yehuda Street, a flight in a small Cessna airplane up the coast and to look at some real estate. Sharing meals with many friends and guests in our own Succah we had one of the most spectacular and spiritually fulfilling trips to Israel we have ever made.

There are no coincidences.