A CEO reflects on the 15th anniversary of 9/11

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on September 9, 2016

Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the day of the worst terrorist attack on our country. Each year I write and share my reflections on that day.

Two hijacked aircraft flown by terrorists destroyed both World Trade Center towers. A third aircraft caused significant damage to the Pentagon. A fourth aircraft was brought down by courageous passengers in a field in central Pennsylvania before it could reach its target, possibly the Capitol Building.

The war on terrorism has certainly changed since 9/11. Those who want to harm us no longer highjack aircraft and use them as weapons as members of the terrorist group al-Qaida did on Sept. 11, 2001. ISIS is the new foe in the war against terrorism, on the ground in Syria and Iraq as well as in our own cities, where individuals and small cells of terrorists attack to create fear and havoc.

No one can ever forget where they were at 8:45 am on 9/11. As then CEO of PQ Corp., I reflect on how that day impacted me and my employees.

I was at the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia 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 then immediately evident that the United States was under attack.

As then CEO of PQ Corporation, my first thought was for the safety of our employees and those 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 learn 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 U.S., 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 destination or home.

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. We stopped twice — once for gas and once to get something to eat.

The genuine concern and connection offered by the people who reached out to us at both stops was nothing like we have ever experienced. They 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. I thought that this is a small slice of America at its best — strangers showing concern for travelers passing through their communities.

When I arrived home that night, I learned that all PQ employees were safe. I received a report indicating the location of those employees in travel mode. Our travel department had already arranged hotel rooms for those who could not arrive at their destination.

Rental cars were reserved for those who could drive home. Two of our plant operations managers drove from Los Angeles to Chicago, where one lived, and the other continued on to Philadelphia. The administrative assistant of our purchasing manager was on her honeymoon in Europe. Our travel department was able to get her and her husband on a flight back to the U.S. a few days later.

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 all pulled together as a nation and we had genuine concern for each other.

I recall the brave first responders in New York and Washington who saved countless lives at their own peril. I recall those first responders who made the ultimate sacrifice. I recall those brave passengers who resisted the hijackers over a field in Pennsylvania and prevented an additional catastrophe.

I recall the generosity of PQ employees who contributed funds to help the victims’ families. I recall attending the hockey season’s opening game of the Philadelphia Flyers in October, where there was not a dry eye in the house when our national anthem was sung.

I recall visiting the site of the World Trade Center a month after 9/11 to pay my respects, walking on hallowed ground. I will never forget these experiences.

Stan Silverman is the former president and CEO of PQ Corp. He also is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and is vice chairman of the board of trustees of Drexel University. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.

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