30 West 3rd

Very Early Stage Technology Investing

8 Years On…

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Eight years ago I boarded the 8am US Air Shuttle from Washington National Airport to La Guardia for a weekly trip to NYC.  With me was native New Yorker and colleague Chris Adamson.  Leaving at around 8am from Dulles to La Guardia was another of my managers, Jim Hadley.  Both flights left around 815 and were scheduled to arrive in the NYC area around 9am.

As our flight approached NYC from the south, we angled farther out to the east than usual. I was sitting on the right side of the plane and couldn’t see Manhattan.  But after we landed and turned to taxi south the dark plume of smoke from the North Tower of the World Trade Center was clear.  From a distance the scale was hard to understand.  It seemed like a small, dark smokey plume.  At that time I would have not guessed that an airliner had been flown into the building.

I called my wife, who was at home in Virginia with our infant son.  My oldest daughter was off at middle school just a few miles from CIA headquarters at Langley.  As my wife described the news reports to me, we turned back east to the Shuttle gates.  So as she watched  the second plane hit the South Tower on live TV, I was unable to see anything.  I knew what was happening, but I didn’t process the implications.

My first thought was for Jim, who was on another flight.  But he phoned us as we deplaned to report that he was OK.  Chris and I met up with Jim in the terminal and met our car service for the planned trip to Midtown and a day of meetings.  Again, we all knew something terrible and unprecedented was happening, but we were still unable to absorb that our day could simply not continue as planned.  As the driver made his way toward Midtown, we became hopelessly bogged down on the BQE.  We could see both towers directly ahead, and we listened as the chaotic, often hysterical coverage of events unfolded on WINS.

As we sat stuck in traffic, and all crossings to Manhattan were closed down, unmarked cars and SUVs filled with police and firefighters pushed through.  I’m sure that some of them made it in time to sacrifice their lives in the doomed rescue effort.  I felt utterly helpless, especially with the wild reports of events in the Washington area, where my wife and kids felt farther away than ever before.  In fact, the depth of helplessness I felt for those first few hours will never leave me.  It was as primal a moment that I can remember in my life.

With Midtown beyond our reach, we finally realized that we needed to get out of New York and get home.  We had the driver exit and wind his way through Queens back to La Guardia.  There we found pandemonium inside the Hertz counter, and the radio made it clear that no flights or trains would be leaving anytime that day.  As we sat on an overpass near La Guardia, we watched the South Tower fall in the distance while a reporter shrieked hysterically on the radio.  Chris said, in a trailing whisper, “That’s thousands of people…”

Chris was a native of Manhattan and it was clear to him that this was an unprecedented tragedy. We were all terribly shaken and confused, but I was determined to get back to my family.  We tried to talk our driver into taking us back to Northern Virginia, but his wife wouldn’t allow it.  He found a fellow driver in Stamford who would take us back for less than the price of a small car, but he had to take his wife along.  On the way to meet up with him, we watched the North Tower fall in the distance as we headed northeast on the Whitestone Expressway.

The surreal journey back wound through New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  We made it back to Northern Virginia that evening to meet up with our families.  I had to wait several days to retrieve my car from the National Airport parking garage.  In the midst of a flurry of company-related activities, I found myself shaken, saddened, angered, and generally in shock.  And I wasn’t even in Manhattan.

I was back in New York late the following week.  I took the train, and in the past you would see the towers from Jersey after leaving Newark Station and before heading north toward the tunnel crossing to Penn Station.  Of course the towers were gone.  The train was full, but it seemed the passengers were very different than the usual crowd.  I felt like an intruder, as if the roster of participants in city business had changed and I had not been told.

After we reached Penn Station I walked through the arrival level, up a half-floor escalator, and east down the exit corridor to 7th Avenue.  There were storefronts under renovation and plywood covering some of the facades.  On every vertical surface were the home-made, ink-jet missing posters for the victims.  Each  posting told a separate tragic tale about someone whose family was utterly lost and broken, pleading against the reality of what had surely happened.  I wept as I came out onto 7th Avenue.  It was the first time I really let the enormity of the tragedy break through.

Those next few months I spent going back and forth between NY and Washington and California, helping retool a start-up technology company for a new reality.  But I was also retooling myself for a new reality.  I take no day for granted now.  I think of how that day affected me, and I never even got to Manhattan, was never in any real danger at all.  I know a handful of tragic stories from that day from people I knew, although none terribly well.  I will think of the victims today, and always of the NYC firemen who drove past us that day on the BQE.  And I will feel some guilt for the terror that I felt from a safe distance, as I surely watched others die.

For me, 9/11 is never 8 years away.

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Written by Mike Venerable

September 11, 2009 at 9:00 am

Posted in New York

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