David Cogswell | September 11, 2016 7:00 AM ET
Remembering 9/11 15 Years After
The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was as beautiful as a morning could be in Hoboken. The summer heat had moderated and it was a sunny, crisp morning on the cusp of summer and fall.
The Twin Towers were visible from the back window of my apartment, but by 9 o’clock I was already seated at my desk at Travel Weekly in Secaucus, where I worked at the time.
Around that time my colleague Brian Major, who occupied a desk a few feet from mine, strode purposefully by me toward his desk, pulling his earphone out of his ear. He had been listening to WINS news radio on the bus.
“A plane just hit the World Trade Center,” he announced. On silent assent we both started hastily toward the window of the office that faced the Twin Towers, just beyond the New Jersey Palisades.
We were curious, but neither of us was overly excited by the information at that point. We didn’t expect to see anything. From our view in Secaucus we could only see the top half of the buildings, and it seemed unlikely that any Piper Cub, or whatever it was that had careened into one of the towers, would be visible to us.
It seems like such an innocent time remembering it now. Looking back it seems like the last moments of an age of innocence that was soon to be extinguished.
When we rounded the corner to the big picture windows in front of the water cooler the towers came into view.
They seemed close. The towers were so vast they were like cities suspended in space. Even from eight miles away they loomed largely and prepossessingly on our horizon.
That was the moment. The instant the towers came into view I felt that my heart fell to my feet. I had heard that expression in a song, but at that moment I felt that it had really happened to me physiologically.
There was Tower 1 with a giant gash across its face and a plume of black smoke rising from within. This was no Piper Cub bouncing off the corner of the 23rd floor. It was the most terrifying sight I had ever seen. Everyone present at that window was horror stricken. Someone was crying.
We all know the story only too well. For each of us, there was that moment when the world changed. At first it was just confusion. It was just too much for anyone to assimilate. We had to just roll with it.
It was as if the world stopped. Hundreds of millions of Americans were suddenly brought in synch in a moment of terror. There were continued revelations throughout that day, each of which by itself might have been enough to blow apart your world any time before. But that day each one just piled on the ones before.
Each new shocking revelation packed the fear in harder. In the proceeding hours and days, with endless replays of the catastrophes on practically every television, it felt like the whole nation became seized with fear.
The fear settled into a national paralysis. It seemed as if no one wanted to leave their homes. Fear engendered more fear. If no one left their homes, obviously there would be no economic activity. That itself was something to fear. Without the economic activity that provides the lifeblood of the nation, how could we even hope to survive?
No industry was more vulnerable to this fear than the travel industry. It was the front lines of the economic calamity that the WTC disaster foreshadowed. No one knew how bad it could get.
As Franklin Roosevelt had told the nation in 1933, fear itself was the worst problem we faced. That was certainly true of the travel industry. Fear was the enemy.
Though much of the activity of the nation went into a holding pattern, there was one business that did not shut down, and that was journalism. On the contrary, we had to be on high alert.
Brian and I and others who were reporting on the travel industry did not have the day off. We had to stay on the job reporting what was happening as things developed, and how they affected the travel industry.
So we committed ourselves to our duties and that was how we got through the day. The next day we started again and did the same thing. Of course the attacks were the big story. And for us the effect of the attacks on the travel industry was what we had to track and watch.
We had to make the rounds and talk to everyone in the industry that we could in an attempt to find out what was happening in our various areas of coverage. For me it was the tour operators and wholesalers, and over the days to come I was on the phone with many of the top movers and shakers of the industry, finding out what they were seeing and how they planned to respond.
The terror was so pervasive at that moment and ran so deep that it’s hard to bring it back to mind today 15 years later. All planes were grounded for two days, and then the FAA allowed airports to open on a case-by-case basis.
Every day of no activity was devastating for all segments of the travel industry. Tour operators and wholesalers were particularly vulnerable as they operate on small margins and need more or less constant cash flow to keep business flowing.
They were used to operating within small tolerances, but now they were facing something unimagined; something completely off the charts in terms of the normal functioning of business.
All previous assumptions were off the table.
Beyond the damage already sustained in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there was a sense that if the psychological grip of fear that held most of the nation could not be broken, the damage would continue to escalate and multiply. No one knew how far it would go or how much devastation the industry could sustain. Could the WTC attacks throw the industry into rewind and unravel it back to nothing?
It sounds silly now, but at the time no one knew, and people were terrified.
In the travel industry, the fears were not of some intangible possibility, but were of something very real. The risk of terrorism was and still is actually remote. But the damage of the fear was tangible and immediate. Many businesses cannot sustain day after day of suspended economic activity. And that’s what many in the travel industry were facing.
Some were losing their businesses, watching their dreams of a lifetime and everything they had built for years fall to dust.
The immediate natural reaction to an attack is to hide oneself, to seek a safe place and hold still. As travelers holed up indoors, canceled trips and gave up traveling, economic catastrophe cascaded through the industry leaving many casualties in its wake.
Companies that relied on travel for their income, seeing their income streams cut off, responded by cutting expenses in hopes of holding out till the crisis blew over. But ironically, going back to Roosevelt’s dictum: if everyone stayed clenched in a holding pattern, how would the crisis ever blow over?
Companies slashed their budgets, cut their advertising and marketing activities and laid off employees. Disaster provoked more disaster. Everyone seemed to share the unspoken fear of what would happen if the pattern continued indefinitely. But who could break the pattern or turn the cycle back?
This is what I observed across the travel industry, and I observed it up close in the tour segment. It seemed that nearly everyone was paralyzed in fear. No one wanted to make a move. The whole giant structure of the travel industry seemed to be grinding to a halt.
Around and around the industry I went, interviewing everyone about what they were experiencing, how they were responding. It seemed as if we were collectively locked into a cycle no one could stop.
But then I made a discovery that was profound enough to have stayed with me until now.
There were a few companies that stepped forward, bucked the trend and took those first steps. They refused to give in to the fear and go along with the pattern. Instead of cutting back their marketing efforts, they boosted them.
The companies I saw taking these initial bold steps for the rest of the industry were, significantly, mostly privately held companies. Most notably I remember Tauck on the escorted tours side and The Mark Travel Corp. on the wholesale vacation packaging side, taking this kind of bold leadership stance.
These companies, and others like them, exemplified the principle that the future is not set in stone, but is something we make every day by our actions. They were companies who were financially strong, and could afford to sit out for a while if they had to without it threatening their fiscal stability. They could afford to make the decisions they believed were best over the long haul, and not just do what they would have to do to boost the bottom line of the next quarterly statement.
They committed themselves to the future they believed in and wanted, and by their confident efforts they helped to make it a reality.
The companies that took bold action at that perilous moment jumpstarted the industry. They helped to create an environment in which other companies could also step forward. Gradually things started moving again and money started to flow.
The world recovered remarkably quickly, actually, considering the depth to which things had fallen in the wake of 9/11.
I will always feel great respect and a debt of gratitude to those companies who went forward at that time and helped lead the travel industry back into functionality, and then gradually back to a state of health. I saw it happen. I witnessed the impact of their leadership. Their examples enabled others to breathe a sigh of relief and see a ray of hope.
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