I'll always see you soar above the sky
In my heart there will always be a place
For you for all my life
I'll keep a part of you with me
And everywhere I am, there you'll be
And everywhere I am, there you'll be
Faith Hill: There you'll be
I was in downtown Toronto with some colleagues from Ramada Hotels doing a presentation to a very large travel agency on the morning of September 11th. We had started at 8:30am as it was the only time we could meet with this very busy office.
I had left the Ramada Hotel near Jane and Wilson at 7am that morning. Not only was it the place I worked but also the place I had been living Sunday to Friday for almost a year (by the way, living in a hotel is not a life I would recommend to anyone). That morning, my job was to pick up Tim Horton's for all. Nothing makes friends faster than a little Tim's.
On the way to downtown Toronto I took a wrong turn and ended up in heavy traffic. I started to get a little anxious as there was a real possibility that I was going to be late. I fought traffic and bad drivers for almost hour but I got there on time, with a sense of accomplishment and the feeling that the worst was behind me. I went into the office and prepared to meet with the agents who were already assembled waiting for their donuts. Let's begin.
September 11th 8:46am
Our meeting was interrupted by one of the agents telling us that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Centre. Needless to say, like millions of others, we were shocked.
The presentation continued on awkwardly after minutes of junior detective theories as to what could have happened. I can remember how no one seemed to care what I was saying, including myself. I just babbled on. Blah, blah, blah. While my mouth was moving it was my brain doing all the real lifting, "What the hell was going on? How can something like this happen?
September 11 9:02am
One of the travel agents burst into our presentation room to tell us that a second plane had crashed into the WTC. Everything stopped. We were stunned.
We we're all told to leave the building. Didn't need to convince me or anyone else. As I left, I noticed that many agents in the call centre had stayed at their desk and were busy working the phones trying to contact their clients.
As we filed out of the building and into the street we were joined by just about everyone else in the area buildings - there were a lot of buildings. Everyone had the same idea, get out. On the street we met a Canada Post employee that told us that terrorists we targeting anything American and we should get away from any building that has an American office in it. People who heard the theory started to point out the buildings that had American companies inside them....cripes, that was pretty much all of them.
The crowd in the street which had now grown from hundreds to thousands all went looking for a TV or radio or informed cabbie to find out what was happening. Some huddled around cars listening to the car radio others gathered around people who seemed to know something, anything. I found a TV in a local coffee shop and stood there in silence listening and watching. No one was moving. No one spoke. There were so many people trying to get a glimpse of the news yet you couldn't hear a sound other than the broadcast itself. We just listened and watched. Hoping that we might be able to understand what is happening. Anytime they showed the time of impact the crowd cringed and looked at each other in silent disbelief.
It soon become apparent that not only was there not going to be anyone leaving the Toronto airport today but also we could expect a lot of flights might be diverted to our city. I jumped into my car and drove back to the hotel. I knew that our hotel, like so many airport area hotels in so many cities, were about to get a lot of reluctant guests.
I arrived at the hotel in 20 minutes. The first thing I did was lower the flags in the front of the hotel.
I entered the hotel. Staff were running around with chaotic purpose. You could hear the hum of the fax machines as they were busy spewing out bulletins from various agencies/experts and authorities directing us in one way or another to do this or do that; to charge this much or that; beware of this or that. Emails flowed in at an impossible pace and the phone never stopped ringing. It was truly chaos.
September 11 9:50am
After a quick strategy meeting with key managers, we all set out to do what we knew we had to do to get ready. A lot of people would be at our doorstep in a few hours. We didn't know when or how they would get there but they were coming. Lots of them.
As we set about our business of preparation, few, if any of us, knew that one of the towers had fallen.
The Ramada (400/401) had just started renovating one of it's hotel floors and all the furniture, carpet and just about everything else that wasn't nailed down was out of the rooms. The General Manager, Sonja our Front Desk Manager and myself had made the decision that we needed to have that floor back in service ASAP. It was my assignment to get whatever, do whatever the contractors needed and to help reassemble the rooms on the fourth floor. "Need a sandwich? Let me get that for you. Need a drink? Let me get that for you. Need me to move that? I'm on it. Go, go, go!!!
All through the afternoon everyone worked hard, did their job and many others as well. We did our best not to let the days events paralyse us. We worked as a team, side by side. There were no titles. There would be no union grievances or any task that we wouldn't take on because it wasn't "our job". We were like robots.
In the hotel industry we often use the term "distressed passengers" to describe people who, for one reason or another (usually bad weather) will not be flying and need a place to stay. Today that term would have a new meaning.
By the time the first wave of distressed passengers were arriving, we had just laid down the last of the carpeting and were attempting to vacuum up the mess. Housekeeping was making sure all the rooms had the basics. It wouldn't matter. No one was going to complain about our room standards tonight...they just wanted a place to sleep that wasn't an airport lounge or floor.
Somehow we had managed to put an entire floor of rooms back together within a few hours and that was nothing short of a miracle. To put that into perspective, renovations on the same rooms following 9/11 would take months to complete.
I can remember the buses arriving in our parking lot and the people flowing into our lobby. They immediately gathered around the two small TV's we had located near the front desk. Except for a quick glance at a TV in the airport as they were herded into buses from their plane, many passengers had little or no idea what had taken place. This scene was being repeated in hundreds of hotels in Canada.
Our hotel would play host to a crew from Delta Airlines and a large group of passengers from Lufthansa - many of whom didn't speak any English. Not that you could tell right away because no one was talking.
As space was at a premium and these were exceptional circumstances, many of the guests were paired up with a fellow passenger or two (whether they knew them or not) and assigned a room. One older lady who was travelling on her own cried for hours. No one recognized the language she spoke, she didn't know how to call home and no one knew how to help her. It would be a couple days before we could find a translator and someone could help her call home. In the meantime, she often sat by herself and sobbed. Many offered what comfort they could but it broke our hearts that we couldn't do more.
For hours we escorted guests to rooms. We were lucky enough to have a few people (Sonja and Malini) on staff that knew some German (which a lot of passengers spoke) and they did their best to explain the situation and make the guests as comfortable as possible. Both ladies spent hours talking to guests. They must have spoke to a couple hundred people that day. They were later joined by a translator from Lufthansa. Evenso, they were completely outnumbered and overwhelmed. I don't think they stopped the entire day.
One of the few groups that actually spoke English was the flight crew from Delta Airlines. They had flown out of Boston earlier that day. Their path took them over New York not long before everything changed forever.
They pretty much never left the lobby of the hotel. They were expecting to get the call to eventually fly somewhere else at a moments notice and they wanted to be ready. The call would not come for almost four days.
September 11 8:00pm
After hours of helping to get guests into rooms, handing out hastily prepared meals, hugging crying passengers and generally doing whatever you could, some of us gathered around the TV for the first time in hours to see what had transpired while we were running around the hotel. I cried. I wasn't alone.
September 11 10:30pm
One of the members of the Delta flight crew had asked Sonja if we knew a bar where they could get a drink. Good idea. Sonja and I decided to take the flight crew to a local bar that could be best described as a dive on a good day but it was in walking distance, the beer was cheap and that was enough reasons for us. So the pilots, flight attendants, Sonja and myself walked the kilometre to the bar on a single mission - drink.
We all sat at the one table (strength in numbers) and swapped stories. The Captain recalled how they had made a comment this morning - how bright the Twin Towers shone on this sunny day. A few of them also mentioned about knowing some of the flight crew on the ill fated flights. They talked about those flight crews that would have been following behind the carnage and would have been reluctant witnesses to the tragic results. One of those crews was apparently staying at a nearby hotel and not doing well.
The drinks flowed and sometimes the tears but mostly we sat and drank and told stories.
The table next to us, full of guys you wouldn't want to piss off, had been starring at us all night. We were pretty noisy and certainly not dressed to fit in so I had assumed that we getting on their nerves. I had kept a casual eye on them hoping that something stupid wasn't going to happen. Suddenly one of the bigger guys got up and walked over to our table. I remember thinking "Ah shit, here we go, just what we need to finish off a historically crappy day."
"You guys are pilots" the guy asked rhetorically of one of our tablemates.
"Yes sir" answered the co-pilot.
"I'm sorry for your loss. Don't worry about paying for your drinks. This is what we do in Canada. We got this." With that, he shook the hands of all the crew and went back to his table as his buddies hoisted their drinks in a silent toast to our table. I will never forget that moment.
It would be almost a week before all the guests would leave our hotel and make their way to wherever they were from. Not that they didn't try to leave earlier. People were trying to rent or access any mode of transportation they could get. They tried renting limos, small planes, helicopters, paying cab drivers to take them to a different city and hitching rides with complete strangers in the hopes of being that much closer to home. It was like watching a real life version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
September 11th changed all of our lives in someway that day. While what I experienced is not even in the same stratosphere as what played out in New York, it is one of the many stories that reflects the far reaching impact on all of us because of those events.
People are capable of doing horrible things to each other. People are also capable of showing incredible kindness. That day also demonstrated that strangers are friends we haven't met yet.
Life is unpredictable and fleeting. Embrace it, hold on to it, savour it for all it can give you. It is our responsibility to those that perished on that day, who no longer have the chance we so often take for granted.