With this past weekend marking the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on our country, many people have taken time to reflect and remember. This month’s Benefitness Blog takes a look back from my personal perspective, and provides what has for me been a reason to have faith in the power of people who pull together for common purpose.

9/11 is one of those days that for most of us will be forever etched into our consciousness – one of the few days in your life when you likely remember exactly where you were and what you were doing. For me, I happened to be in the air on a United Airlines flight when it all went down. While my experience was nothing special, what I witnessed that day was. But first, a little background: I’ve spent my entire adult life living in Colorado, and in 2001 was responsible for selling investment products to institutional and professional buyers across roughly one third of the country. That meant very simply that I spent most of my weeks living out of a suitcase, racking up an obscene number of frequent flier miles. I had gotten to the point that getting on an airplane felt no different than getting into your car to make your morning commute.

A Normal Start Gone Wrong

The morning of September 11, 2001 was a very typical travel day for me. I had rearranged my schedule that week so I could go to the Denver Broncos season opener, a Monday Night Football game that also happened to be the first regular season game held at our newly-opened version of Mile High Stadium. But I also had a commitment at noon in Chicago on Tuesday the 11th, so I was booked on the 6:00 am flight that morning from Denver to Chicago. Driving to the airport long before the sun came up, I happened to have a random thought about a colleague who had survived an incident on a similar Denver-Chicago flight years before – you might remember it as the flight that lost hydraulics and cartwheeled in for a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa. While I pushed the thought out of my head quickly, I remember feeling a little rattled by it… I flew every week and never gave it a second thought, and yet something in my gut felt strange about that day.

Fast forward a few hours, and everything about my flight had gone very normally. It wasn’t until we were on the ground in Chicago and taxiing to our gate that there was any indication of a problem. Just as we pulled into our parking location, the captain made a very short, but ominous announcement over the PA system, telling us: “Folks, we’ve just been informed there has been a national ground stop placed on all travel today. It’s going to be a long day.”

As cell phones began coming alive, it was possible to get whispers of what may have caused the captain’s remarks, but there was nothing concrete – just something about a plane crash in New York. As we exited the plane and entered the terminal, things were calm, but employees made it very obvious that something big had happened and that we should leave the concourse. The other thing I remember noticing is that all of the television monitors throughout O’Hare had been turned off – the normal babbling of CNN was nowhere to be found. What we did not yet know then was that our flight had been one of the last to land at O’Hare that day.

Fear of Not Knowing

I began immediately trying to reach my wife, Kim, to make sure she knew I was OK. You see, as often as I traveled, she typically knew when I was coming and going, but didn’t always follow where I was going. On this day, all I was certain of was that she knew I was on a United flight somewhere. Suffice it to say, however, that cellular technology then was not what it is today, and with everybody trying to access the same systems I couldn’t even get an open line to place a call. When she was finally able to reach me, I had made my way to baggage claim (where no bags were being off-loaded), and she brought me up to speed on what was being reported: at that point, two planes had struck the Twin Towers, it was believed that one had struck the Pentagon, and at least one other was still in the air. There were fears that more could be coming, and media was reporting that most major cities and major airports were potential targets. While still on the phone with Kim, we decided the best option for me would be to get away from O’Hare as quickly as possible. Since I had already reserved a car for my trip, I figured no problem, just hop on the Hertz shuttle, pick up the car and get to my hotel.

That’s when the immensity of the day began to take shape.

Strangers Helping Strangers

By the time I could get on the shuttle to the Hertz lot, all of the rental car agencies had pulled their employees out of the airport. This meant that anybody wanting to get away from the airport was simply getting on the rental car shuttles and hoping to get a car. When we arrived at the Hertz lot, the scene was crazy. Two lines had formed, one for people like me who already had Gold reservations, and one for people without reservations. My line, for those of us with reservations, was probably 400 people deep. The other line, for those with no reservations, had to be at least 1,000 people. I looked around the lot and did a rough count… there were maybe 200 cars there. And that’s when something happened that I almost couldn’t believe. As word spread about more of the details that were emerging from the east coast, people began to band together. Collectively, we all just wanted to get home. When one person managed to get a car, they would call out a destination – the first one I heard was Omaha, then Philly, and so on. The first time I heard someone shout Denver, I raised my hand, and hopped in with 3 total strangers. We literally introduced ourselves to one another after the doors were closed, and proceeded to spend the next 16 hours making our way back to Denver.

The trip itself was surreal. While most Americans remember the events of 9/11 unfolding on television, our band of travelers tuned to NPR and listened for hours as details of the images we are all now so familiar with were brought to life on the radio.  We saw Air Force One over the skies in Iowa - it and its fighter escorts were the only aircraft flying at that point, and I didn’t see any of the pictures or video of the day's events until arriving back home about 4:00 am the following morning. And as tightly bound as our group was through the necessity of the day, that was the last time we all spoke to one another.

Lessons Learned

There were some important lessons for me that day. First and foremost is the healing power of people who come together around a common purpose. The resilience of the American spirit is real, and I was fortunate to get to see exactly what that resilience looks like as I witnessed total strangers coming together to help one another. The second lesson for me is the importance of taking nothing for granted. I feel lucky to have my health and my family, and have chosen to take every opportunity to savor both.

What does this have to do with you? If you have a leadership position in your company, why wait for an unplanned extraordinary event to see what kind of strength your employees exhibit by banding together? Why not give them something as a group to work toward? If you believe like I do that there is power in pulling together for a common purpose, I suggest creating a positive purpose – be it a charitable cause or an athletic event – to rally around. Explore what happens when you give people a non-work related cause to get behind. The results may surprise you.

And if you are not in a leadership position, think about how you choose to approach each day and your interactions with others. You have the opportunity to take nothing for granted, but you have to choose to participate – whether in family, in your work, or in social circles. It seems so simple, but living life to the fullest requires both choice and commitment.

I will never forget the tragedy that was 9/11. But I will also remember vividly the power of total strangers coming together to help each other, and the importance of living each day to the fullest… I owe that to the memory of those lost. 


About the author:

Corey Dillon is Chief Engagement Officer of Benefitness Partners, a Denver-based company committed to the health and wellness of companies and their employees. With a focus on event-based coaching, Benefitness Partners gets employees moving in a fun, educational, and inclusive manner, helping companies develop a healthier, more engaged workforce.