Photo credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

A CEO’s reflections on the 20th anniversary of 9/11

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on September 7, 2021.

Later this week, we commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Each year I write about my personal experiences that day.

No one will ever forget where they were at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. Two hijacked aircrafts flown by terrorists destroyed both World Trade Center towers in New York. A third hijacked aircraft caused significant damage to the Pentagon. A fourth aircraft was brought down by brave passengers and crew members in central Pennsylvania before it could reach its target, possibly the White House or Capitol building. A total of 2,996 innocent people were killed and over 6,000 were injured.

As then-CEO of PQ Corporation, I reflect on how that day impacted me and my employees. I was at the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, W.VA., attending a board meeting of the American Chemistry Council. After a staffer entered the meeting and handed a note to the chairman, his face turned white as he announced that a plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

We all gathered around a TV just outside the meeting room and watched with horror as a second plane hit the South Tower. It was immediately evident that the United States was under attack.

My first thought was for the safety of our employees traveling away from home. Our company operated in 19 countries, and it was not uncommon for many of our employees to be traveling within their respective countries and between countries around the world.

I called my executive assistant and asked that she find out if any of our employees were on those four flights or were visitors to the World Trade Center towers or the Pentagon that day. I also asked for a list of employees who were on trips to or from the United States, as well as employees on flights scheduled to pass over the continental U.S. I knew that it would be days before these employees could reach their business destinations or homes. Fortunately, all of our employees were safe.

I wanted to return to corporate headquarters as soon as possible. Since all flights were grounded, my wife and I drove our rental car seven hours to Valley Forge, PA. We stopped twice – once for gas and once for food.

The genuine concern and connection offered by the people who reached out to us at both stops was nothing like we had ever experienced. It seemed as though everyone wanted to know where we had started our trip and where we were heading. They provided advice on the route we should take, and long-haul truckers made recommendations on the best places to eat along the way.

Photo credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

I thought of this as a small slice of America at its best – strangers assisting others. People helping other people in need. It’s one of our country’s best cultural norms.

I recall President George W. Bush pushing back against those wanting to lay blame against an entire religion, telling us we are not at war with Islam but with terrorism, attempting to avoid internal U.S. conflict that would have inflamed our country. That day we needed to be united, and Bush was the leader that united us, regardless of our political party. That’s the kind of leadership I miss today.

What do I recall as the best personal experience of the horrible tragedy of 9/11 and the days that followed? It’s that we were united and pulled together as a nation, and we had genuine concern for each other. 

Looking back, I recall the courageous New York and Washington, D.C. firefighters and police officers who saved countless lives at their own peril. I recall those first responders who made the ultimate sacrifice and did not return home to their families.

I recall the two F-16 combat pilots, including the first female pilot of the 121st Fighter Squadron of the District of Columbia Air National Guard, who were ordered to intercept and ram the fourth hijacked aircraft flying toward Washington, D.C.

There was insufficient time to arm the F-16s, so this was a suicide mission for these courageous pilots. However, they did not need to complete their mission. Forty brave passengers and crew members on that aircraft resisted the hijackers and brought the plane down themselves, preventing an additional catastrophe.

I recall not having the American flag that I had proudly flown off the stern of my sailboat for 13 years, regretting not keeping it when I sold that boat in August 2001. Flying a new store-bought flag at my home a month later was not the same to me.

I recall the generosity of PQ employees who contributed funds to help the victims’ families. I recall attending the Philadelphia Flyers season opener in October, during which there was not a dry eye in the house when we all sung our national anthem.

I recall visiting the site of the World Trade Center a month after 9/11 to pay my respects, walking in silence on hallowed ground with thousands of other visitors.

One of the most moving tributes to those who perished at the World Trade Center on 9/11 is a short, hauntingly moving YouTube video (courtesy of Steve A.) that I often watch in remembrance of that day.

I will never forget. None of us will ever forget.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.

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