9/11 – 20 years later

On September 11, 2001, I was in an elevator heading to our “turnover” meeting at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. (Every morning, the IT group got together to discuss any issues encountered overnight or not resolved from the previous day. Today we would call this meeting a morning standup.) On the way down to the interstitial, someone in the elevator said they heard something about a plane hitting one of the twin towers in NYC. At the time, we all assumed it was a Piper or small plane, and continued over to the meeting.

Once in turnover, the meeting began as usual, but shortly after all eyes were on the TV in the corner of the room. (All conference rooms in the CME had TV screens tuned to one of the financial news channels.) Once he saw what was happening, Jim Krause, who was running the meeting, spoke up and said, “Everyone over to ops, NOW!” and the entire room emptied out and headed back through the interstitial to the operations room (the NOC).

The NOC at the CME in those days consisted of a dozen operator stations lined up in front of a wall of monitors displaying various system performance meters, and a few big screen TV’s displaying the news. There was also a “squawk box” – a party-line type phone that was connected to all the other exchanges.

I was standing near the center of the room, directly across from two of the big screen TV’s, which were displaying the events in NY. One tower was engulfed in flames, but the second had not yet been hit. The squawk box was buzzing with other exchanges trying to ascertain what was happening at the NY Merc, which was near Tower 1. At the time, before the first tower fell, trading on all exchanges had halted, and the NY Merc was evacuating. While upper management at the CME (Maz Chadid and Jim Krause) were talking with them, we saw the second plane hit. We could hear the impact and screaming through the squawk box. There was a lot of commotion and screams in the room. At that moment, we all realized this was a planned attack, not some random issue with a single plane. Some folks in the room pointed out the people that were leaping to their death out of the upper floors of the tower. Reports started coming in about other planes in the air with similar intentions. Jim made an announcement that we should start evacuations of our building. We were located one block from Sears Tower (now Willis Tower), and there were some strong concerns that might be a target.

Around this time, the first tower came down. I remember Maz, who was standing next to me screamed out, “Oh my GOD!” Nobody was expecting that, and the crumbling of the tower seemed to take forever. I can see that in my mind to this day. Again, there was focus on getting the building evacuated, but reports of the train stations being like cattle pens left little opportunity to make it out of the city. News of the Pentagon impact was coming in, and there was talk of another plane over Pennsylvannia that jet fighters were scrambling to intercept. (I heard this on the radio.)

The second tower fell, to more screams and sobs of anguish in the room. There was little that could have happened to increase the sadness, shock, and sorrow in that room. The realization that thousands had just perished violently in the collapse of those two towers swept over the room. Then there was just the sound of sobbing, tears, and those folks trying to console each other. We watched and listened as Bush spoke, then as Congress sang “God Bless America” on the steps of Congress. https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4816002/user-clip-congress-spontaneous-sings-god-bless-america-91101

Maz and Jim asked a few folks to stick around and help shut things down, and told everyone else to try to find a way home to our loved ones. I was asked to help out, which I did. I had no way home, anyway, and knew that I wouldn’t be able to get in touch with anyone as all the cell circuits were jammed.

While trying to get things shut down, Maz, Jim, and my boss, Joe Panfil, were on the phone with the CEO of the NYMEX. They were reaching out to offer CME support for their loss, and to inquire what CME could do to help. Over the next several hours, several things were decided:

  1. The CME would build and infrastructure out to trade the NYMEX contracts – not to steal the contracts, but to allow the NYMEX to open within two days. (Yes, essentially we were building the NYMEX at the CME in less than two days.)
  2. The current CME disaster recovery plans was not realistic (called “tower redundancy” because our DR site was in the north tower, at 10 S. Wacker, while the primary data center was in the south tower, at 30 S. Wacker). A new “Remote Data Center” was needed to provide true disaster recovery.
  3. Our existing NOC was insufficient to allow operations to effectively monitor and track world events. The NOC would need to be included in the revised DR plans.

The events of that day and the focus on these three decisions turned out to consume my life over the next three years. In the short term, I was called upon to lead the team in building out the NYMEX infrastructure. By 9/13, we had accomplished that task, and I was on my way to California with my family, as our daughter was scheduled to start classes at Cal Poly the following week.

Originally scheduled to fly, we had traded our flight for a cross-country road trip. As we headed west, it was amazing to see the traffic. There were no flights in the air, and it was clear that there was a sense of patriotism awoken in everyone on the road. Prior to 9/11, it was rare to see an American flag on a car. Every time we stopped for food or gas, I would search for a flag I could put on our van. I felt it was important to find one, but everywhere I looked, there were none to be found. It’s not that the store was out of stock, it was just something that wasn’t available. I finally found some red, white, and blue streamers that were meant to be inserted into a bicycle handlebar, and attached them to my radio antenna. It was the best I could do. Folks would see those streamers when passing me and honk and give me a thumbs-up.

The patriotism fueled by the events of 9/11 was amazing. I think every American felt the same, we were in sorrow for the loss, and united in anger for bringing those responsible to justice. We saw trains moving military gear toward the ports in California, and knew what was coming. By this time, it was well known that Osama Bin Laden was behind the attacks, and we were going to hunt him down. News reports came in with details on how the terrorists had infiltrated our flight training schools, and used the aircraft as weapons of mass destruction against us. The country was united in the need for some form of justice, but little did we know at the time how long it would take to finally make that happen.

Now, twenty years later, and the divide in this country is deeper than I’ve experienced in my life. It’s so sad that it took such a devastating act of terrorism to unite the country, and twenty years for it to all fall apart. Twenty years ago, the flag flew as a sign we were all united against the acts of terrorism that we had just lived through. Over just a few weeks following the events, you could walk into any convenience store or gas station and find an array of American flags, where there had been none before. Today, if you display the flag on your car or home, you are labeled a “white supremacist”, a “racist”, or even “domestic terrorist”. Are we in Oz? In what state of reality does this make sense?

I fly my flag with pride in being an American, in memory of the day terror struck deep on our soil, and stand with those that believe that the freedom granted to us by the U.S. Constitution is still the law of this land, protected by those that have served to defend it, to whom I cannot show enough respect and thanks.

I will never forget.