A CEO’s reflections on the 18th anniversary of 9/11

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on September 11, 2019

Editor’s note: Today marks the 18th anniversary of 9/11, the day of the worst terrorist attack on our country. Each year, Stan Silverman writes about his reflections of that day, through the lens of another year that has passed.

No one can ever forget where they were at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. Two hijacked aircraft 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 a field 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 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.

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 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 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 of this as a small slice of America at its best – strangers helping others.

People helping other people in need: It’s one of our country’s best cultural norms.

When I arrived home the night of 9/11, 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 courage of first responders in New York and Washington, D.C. – fire fighters 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. to prevent the hijackers from destroying the White House or Capital building.

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 14 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, where 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.

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

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, adviser and nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.

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