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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

WE WILL NOT FORGET - in 100 LIFETIMES

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How do we reconcile the tragedy of September 11th in our brain?  In our lives?  In our hearts?  We don't .  I don't think we ever should, really.  This is not going to be a fact driven post - you've read it all a thousand times.  This is not going to be a post that even mentions the names or shows the images of the demons that perpetrated this horrific death on innocent human lives.  It is just going to be a memory.  My memory - and story too, as I would like to share how blessed I am that my husband is alive today and not a statistic of that impossible day. 


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And, this is a tribute, to the men and women who lost their lives, who almost lost their lives, who lost a loved one, who lost a child, who lost a friend, who were a friend,


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who counseled the grief stricken, and who lived this tragedy with ever-present strength.


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It was a beautiful morning in Maryland as it was in New York, that Tuesday morning in September.  The night before, Bob (aka Big Bear) had packed his bags as he usually did the night before a business trip.  He worked for Compaq at the time and he traveled often.  The week before, he had traveled to NYC and called me from the foot of the World Trade Center and said:


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Bob:  "Susan, I have really got to bring you here, honey.  You won't believe how tall the WTC is.  I'm standing at the foot of it right now and when I look up I can't even see the top.  It is incredible."

Me: "Sounds like fun sweetie.  Take pictures if you can and show me what you see.  Be safe."

Bob:  "Kiss the kids for me"

Me.  "Promise.  Have a great day and knock 'em off their feet up there!" 

Bob: "I will, the meeting is going well. I'm on my way to lunch."

Me:  "Enjoy your lunch.  Love you baby."

Bob: "Love you too."


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Bob's position with Compaq was that of Director and Managing Principle of the Network and Wireless Mobility Practice.  His team was presenting to the Port Authority on September 11th on the WTC 105th floor in the Cafe.  The presentation was going to be about a document management system that the Port Authority was looking to enable with mobile access.

Bob received a phone call at 10pm on Monday night by one of his colleagues who told him that he would cover the meeting in NYC if Bob would cover the meeting in DC with Nextel, in Roslyn, Virginia, near the Key Bridge.  And that is where Bob was that Tuesday morning when the attacks happened - Not in the WTC.  Not on the 105th floor.


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Bob and everyone in the meeting at Nextel left immediately after hearing the news.  It was chaotic at Nextel.  Everyone was thinking "Look over your shoulder, duck and cover" and there was no reliable information.  So his decision was to get everyone in their cars and to leave Virginia via Interstate 66 (a direct route out of DC from where they were to the Dulles access road).   By this time, the Pentagon had been hit.


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F-15s were flying overhead as there was information that another plane was headed to Dulles airport.  Bob and all those in the Nextel meeting headed out the Dulles greenway to get as far away from DC and the airport as possible.  Nobody even bothered to pay the tolls.  They just blew right through the toll booths, and headed towards Front Royal, Virginia.  Then when they were feeling a little better about distance they then turned back towards Frederick, Maryland and ate together at a small restaurant before coming home. 


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Bob literally lost track of some of his team members on that day that were in and around the WTC.   He had a colleague who was working on Wall Street in one of the buildings adjacent to the WTC plaza and they lost track of her for over 4 days.  They thought that she had been lost in the attack and that more of their colleagues who also worked on Wall Street were gone for good. 


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In some cases, some of Bob's colleagues walked out of the city for miles on foot because they couldn't get to their cars or a taxi.  Anything to get out of the city.  They just wanted to go home.


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When they finally got in contact with her, she explained how she saw the entire thing unfold.  She saw the first plane hit and stood at the window in her office and watched it all.  She said that the explosion from the first plane rattled her building.


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She said that everyone in the office stood in disbelief with the first plane explosion, but when she saw the 2nd plane approach she knew that they all needed to get the hell out of there.  And they did.  They had no phone contact as all the cell phones were impossible to use.  No communication with anyone in NY was possible.  Everyone was frantic.  She was grateful to be alive and home when she contacted Bob.


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The colleague who called Bob the night before?  I'm sure you are wondering about him.  Well, his is an interesting story too.  Bob's entire team was on the WTC 105th floor and had been preparing for the meeting with the Port Authority.  The guy who had called Bob the night before had been at the WTC in the Port Authority offices and was preparing the presentation in the Cafe since about 6am.  He wanted to make a good impression.  The presentation was scheduled to begin at 9am.  By 8:30, Bob's colleague realized that his dress shirt was now wrinkled and didn't look good for the presentation, so he told all the members of the Compaq team that he was going to run across the street quickly to have his shirt pressed and would be back in time for the presentation - he was the lead presenter. 


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It took him almost 10 minutes to get to the main level of the WTC.  He walked out onto the street, preparing to cross, when the first plane hit.  As he looked up he realized that the plane had hit the floors he just came from.  He called his team frantically and to no avail.  They were all dead.  So were all those from the Port Authority who were to be at the meeting in the WTC Cafe.  All lost.  Except for Bob's colleague (whose name I am intentionally not mentioning).  His wrinkled shirt saved his life.  He was the only survivor that day from Bob's team and from the members of the Port Authority who were waiting for the presentation.


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Bob lost his entire team that day, and a few other colleagues who were flying across the country to a Compaq convention in California from Boston. 


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They were on the 2nd plane to hit the World Trade Center.


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I couldn't believe that the Pentagon had been hit and that another plane had crashed in Pennsylvania too.   I thought the world was ending.  I was on the phone as much as possible that day keeping in touch with my Big Bear.  He's my whole life.  He's my man. 


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He's my hunk-a-burnin' love.  He's my hubby.  He's my everything.  I'd die if I lost him.  We would all be lost without him.  All I did was hold my children ever so close to me.  Poor things, I thought the world was not going to survive this.  Their world was a scary place.  I just wanted all of this to be a bad dream.


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I had driven to Olney, Maryland (about 12 miles from our home in Woodbine and 30 miles from the Pentagon) to pick up some of Bob's dry cleaning when the tragedy began to unfold.  It was a beautiful morning and I recall listening to the music with the windows down in the car.  The children were comfortable at home with my mother.  All seemed so good that morning. 


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I never made it to Olney when I heard the news on the radio.  I raced home like a maniac and cried and screamed all the way home.  I think I even showed dramatic signs of road rage as I got behind some slow-poke on Rt. 97 in Brookeville.  "Get off the road!  I've got to get home to my children and call my husband you fool!!!!  Don't you know the world is ending!!!  I want to be with my children!!!  Get off the road if you are so damn slow!!!" 


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I remember vividly sitting right on top of my steering wheel with my foot to the floorboard racing down the 2-lane back country roads to home and praying I didn't hit a damn deer in the process.  Deer are everywhere in Maryland.  They're even in bank lobbies and fast-food restaurants.  I've had a number of run-ins with deer in Maryland and this was not going to be one of those days.  Come hell or high water, I was determined to get home to my children and hide in a closet until my honey got home.  "God, please bring Bob home safely." 


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Bob made it home hours later.  It was the longest few hours of my life.  I couldn't stop hugging my children.  I think I left permanent arm and hand prints on their faces and bodies from hugging them so tight.  Our tears  and our fear made a river that day.  We were all to be forever changed.


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A few days after the attacks, members of Bob's team went into several of the condemned buildings that were still burning in an attempt to recover vital systems for the financial markets.  And, one case in point was the bond markets. 


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Some of the systems were very old and antiquated and had no replacement systems on standby.  They managed to salvage some of the systems in the financial district in the buildings that surrounded the World Trade Center.  They were rummaging thru the garbage and debris to recover as much as they could to get the bond market up and running. Wearing hazmat outfits to protect themselves, they worked every daylight hour to salvage what they could find.   It was back up and running in 2 weeks.  Amazing work from those guys.


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Bob's colleague who saw the attacks unfold from her window in the Wall Street building quit Compaq and decided to be a stay-at-home mom.  I congratulate her on that decision.


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Bob's colleague who had the wrinkled shirt was unable to return to work at Compaq for 6 months.  Compaq took care of him too.  Why isn't corporate America like that now?  His job was waiting for him when he returned.


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Two months after the attacks, my brother, Mike, sent me a silver band with the name "Kevin James Hannaford" inscribed on it.  I had to know who he was and send condolences to his family.  This is what I learned: Kevin was a commodities broker for Cantor Fitzgerald, also on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center.  His wife, Eileen, who was expecting their 2nd child in January, got up that early morning to hug Kevin goodbye.  This was unusual as Eileen usually stayed in bed when Kevin left for work.  "We hugged each other and told each other how much we loved each other.  He touched the baby and said 'I love you, baby.'  I'm just so grateful I got up and hugged him that morning."  Eileen said.


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I  not only got to know Eileen Hannaford, Kevin's beautiful wife, but I got to know their son Patrick too.  Eileen was 5 months pregnant on September 11th with their son, Kevin James Hannaford, Jr.  and on January 9, 2002, their son Kevin, Jr was born. 


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Bob had meetings in New York City on January 10th, and so his limo driver took me to the hospital where I was able to meet Eileen, Patrick, and gorgeous baby Kevin for the first time.  With gifts in hand, I offered to also give Eileen the bracelet that bore her husband's name.  She said "No.  I'd rather you keep it and remember him, Susan."  And so I did just that.  I still have that bracelet and cherish it.


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Eileen has survived this horrific experience with grace and dignity.  Her boys are so handsome and smart.  I think Patrick looks a lot like his Daddy, and Kevin, Jr. looks like his Mommy.  We have kept in touch all these years and I am honored to call her "friend."  She has a picnic every year in May in celebration of Kevin's life and she has created a charity, the Kevin James Hannaford Foundation,  which is a non-profit, charitable organization contributing to the educational needs of children who have lost a parent to death.  You can visit her website at: Kevin James Hannaford  Sr. Inc.


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Bob is home.  He is my everything.  His life was spared by a phone call just 10 hours before the attacks.  I don't ask God why.  I only know that I am grateful, and blessed beyond measure.  I know how precious life and love really is. 


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I am only grateful for the people in my life and I cherish them all - friend and family alike.


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A year later I created an oil painting for a Remembrance exhibition in Greensboro, North Carolina at the Marshall Gallery.  My painting depicted the men of the USS Theodore Roosevelt preparing to be the first ship to leave the US to fight the war on terrorism one week after September 11th.  They are lowering the flag just before leaving Norfolk, Virginia.  My painting has won numerous awards, but none that are as important as the reason for my painting - to remember.  To remember the sacrifice.  To remember the lives that have been lost, to remember that on that tragic day and every day after as we fight overseas, we need to remember and be grateful for our blessings, and for our freedom, and for those service men and women who are fighting for our continued freedom and the freedom of others around the world. 


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I feel a little better being able to share.  I think I'll go hug my Big Bear one more time today, and again - and again - and again.  He may just be hugged skinny today. 

Still...


Susan

Note: I have been receiving some beautiful emails and incredible stories.  Please share your memory and your 9/11 story with me.  I would like to post your story on Raisin Toast.  Please include pictures if you can.  If not, that is okay too.  You are  in my prayers today.  ([email protected])