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  • Writer's pictureJeff Matthews


Updated: Sep 12, 2021

It doesn’t matter, but here’s my story.

I was swimming laps in the pool in the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, and thinking tech stocks, when the first plane hit. I didn’t know what had happened until I came out of the men’s locker room around 6 a.m. PST and somebody—somebody in the hallway—said a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

There was a Bloomberg terminal nearby—this was a tech conference, and the hotel was full of Bloombergs—and checking the top stories, sure enough, a plane had hit the towers.

So I got in the elevator with another guy and we speculated about whether an airline was involved—with not a thought about the human tragedy—because the mentality of this business, sick as it can be, is to calculate how a given event will affect a given stock. And all we knew was a plane had hit the towers, and the first word was it was a small plane.

When I got in my room and turned on the TV, the second plane had hit. So of course everything changed, and I decided to leave. Since they’d closed the airports, this meant driving cross-country. No big deal—I’d had dinner the night before with a bunch of friends, some from the New York area. We’d drive together.

The strangest part came next: leaving my hotel room (it was maybe 6:30 a.m., California time) to walk to the lobby, I saw nobody else—only the newspapers hanging on all the doorknobs—and so I thought, “Am I over-reacting? Am I the only person here who thinks this is as bad as it is?”

I decided I wasn’t. I’d worked at One Liberty Plaza, across the street from the towers, early in my career, I’d been to meetings at Windows on the World, I’d watched the tall ships from offices in the towers, shown our two daughters the view from those floor-to-ceiling windows. I had to get home.

The hotel lobby was weirdly quiet. I went to the concierge, told him I wanted to rent a car, he said “Certainly, where will you be returning it?” I said “Connecticut,” and he didn’t bat an eye. I waited for him to call and book the car, and then made him make sure the car was going to get to the hotel, and I was going to get the car no matter what. Then I checked out.

I packed while calling people to tell them I was driving. At the same time I realized I didn’t know where anybody else was staying in San Francisco, so I’d be driving alone. A West Coast trader trying to be helpful told me the market opening would probably be delayed, and I told him he his was out of his mind and this was the worst thing to happen in our lifetimes and the markets wouldn’t open for a week, and I was going to drive home…but not that calmly.

I used really bad language.

Then I left the room and now the hotel lobby was pandemonium, total pandemonium, hotel people rushing around, phones ringing, people talking. A young woman was on her cell phone trying to locate a friend who worked in the towers. I regretted checking out before the car arrived, because there was a line at the concierge desk of people stuck in town by the flight cancellations desperately looking for rooms.

Waiting for the car, I talked to my wife, our older daughter and friends, while young men and women from the conference huddled together, discussing whether to cancel the day’s events. I couldn’t believe they even thought what they decided would matter: everything was over.

Then the car came—but I remembered Bella.

Bella was my pal who worked in the gift shop. I went in to say goodbye to her: I was driving home. She said, “Do you have water?” I said no. “You need some water,” she said, and went into the back room to get me a bottle of water. It seemed important that day to help others: it was somehow up to her to give me something for the trip. She returned with a bottle and pushed it in my hands, and I gave her a hug and left, got in the car, drove down California Street, turned right and got on Route 80 East and started home.

I drove all day, from darkness to darkness, for three days and never watched TV and never saw anyone I knew. What I heard about 9/11 came from listening to a.m. radio and from calling friends during the day. Also, I bought local newspapers at every stop along the way. There were American flags across every overpass and people were polite, kind, eager to make contact. The drive was easy: nobody tried to cut you off, nobody honked.

On Friday I pulled off Route 80 somewhere in New Jersey, and went to a church for the noon service that was being held everywhere at that time. And that’s when I really saw what it meant: the church was packed, and when the priest called for names to pray for, the names went on and on and on. A woman in front of me who reminded my of my mother-in-law called out, in an anxious, quavering voice, two names, “Ken and Dan.”

A couple hours later I pulled into my office and then stopped by the Greek diner next door to see how everyone there was doing. A friend was standing at the cash register, waiting to pay. Just by the expression on his face I could see he was devastated. Instead of saying hello, I just said, “Ed, who did you lose?” He said, “Jeff, we lost our whole New York office.”

When I think of that week, I think of Bella pushing the bottle of water into my hands, of the young woman trying to track down her friend by cell phone from a hotel lobby in San Francisco, of Ed’s face, and of “Ken and Dan.” God bless them all.

JM 9/11/11

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