I've worked for the same company for 12 years - with the exception of a few months back in 2001 when I took another job working for a family that owned hotels all over the US. I was at their office in downtown Cleveland on 9/11. All the hotel managers were in town that day for training, and as we headed down the hall to the TV in the conference room, I remember the managers scattering everywhere yelling into their cell phones - talking to their hotels because all commercial flights had been grounded and people everywhere were clamoring for rooms.
I was on the 15th floor of our office building which sat between Tower City and the Cuyahoga River. I looked out across the river and saw traffic on I90, I77 and Route 2 at a complete standstill. All the freeways and bridges were jammed. Some people were out of their cars. Our boss told us that this day was like no other day and that we all needed to be safe. To that end they were evacuating the City of Cleveland. Key Tower is the highest building in Cleveland and there was some concern about it and other high rises in midwest cities being the target of more planes. I had ridden the bus into downtown that morning, but one of the designers lived in Lake County, too. She'd been at a meeting and called to say she was just a few blocks away so I grabbed my stuff and headed out to find her. Tower City was eerily empty. Only the emergency lights were on, all the stores and shops were closed and there was this crazy horn going bonk, bonk, bonk. . . .totally creepy. When I got to the street and started walking, it was even weirder. Drivers were being courteous - letting people in front of them, waving pedestrians on, thanking each other. (I've driven in enough cities to know Cleveland's drivers are NOT the worst, but this was just weird.) I'm still talking to Carrie on my cell because I'm afraid to lose the connection, and she's in tears. I'm in heels with my bag and my purse and trying to cover six blocks as fast as I can. Busses couldn't get back into downtown so cops were directly traffic, and yelling out the locations of which busses were waiting where. People in cars were yelling out where they were headed and picking up total strangers to help everyone get home. I'd found another Lake County resident who worked in our building and she trotted along until we finally found Carrie. The trip back out of Cuyahoga County and into Lake County was surprisingly uneventful. We were glued to the radio and at one point heard that there was a plane over Pennsylvania headed west. We'd long since lost the use of our cell phones by that time so I couldn't talk to Ken or the kids or mom and dad -truly the most terrifying aspect of this whole day for me. As we got closer to Lake County, the traffic thinned out and everything started to look astonishingly normal. Stores were open. Parking lots were full. Gas stations had the typical number of patrons at the pumps. Kids were in playgrounds. For the first bit, it was all strangely reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode. Since all three of us lived in different parts of Lake County, Carrie dropped us at a McDonald's and we all hugged and said goodbye. Since we still couldn't use our cells, we used the payphone to call for someone to pick us up. When Ken came, he was mildly surprised at my panic. His world - like everyone else's - had been touched by a tragedy but his world was still operating as usual. He'd been in a small town where everyone clustered together, watching it all unfold together. He wasn't that concerned about the kids. He didn't even think Cleveland had been affected so he hadn't really worried about me. I couldn't rest until I'd talked to every family member and friend who lived out of town.
Needless to say, we were both glued to the TV for days. Some of the firefighters he knew left for NYC. We began hearing from people who had friends in The Towers. People who had friends at the NYC hospitals. Then the stories started coming in about the heroes and the victims and the near misses. The scope of the tragedy in all of its awful details finally sunk in.
After that, returning to work downtown was strange. Quiet. I thought a lot about the logistics of working on the 15th floor. I put a good pair of walking shoes and a few bottles of water in my bottom desk drawer. When I went back to work in Beachwood shortly thereafter, I moved the shoes and water to the trunk of my car. I think of 9/11 and it's victims every time I open my trunk. I've swapped them out for new shoes and fresh water over the years but they're still there.
Just in case.