September 11, 2001, I was in Washington DC for the NADA/DEAC annual political
conference. The National Automobile Dealers Association political action committee
(DEAC) would bring together a group of dealers for briefings on current political activity and
policies effecting the franchise automobile dealers and their respective state Dealers
Associations from around the United States. We would then go to Capitol Hill and meet with
members of congress and their staff to discuss current legislative projects. On the morning of September 11, 2001 we were in briefings for our “Dealers on Capitol Hill day” at the convention center inside the Grand Hyatt, just blocks from the Capitol. There were a number of political dignitaries in the convention center, some were meeting with their local dealer delegations, and some were scheduled to speak. It became evident very quickly that the events happening in New York City were not the only concern. Soon, all political dignitaries were escorted from the building by Capitol Police and taken away by police escort. At 9:37 an airliner hit the Pentagon. We received word of this jet hitting the Pentagon and some said they heard the explosion and saw the smoke. The rumors then started spreading that there were more jets heading for the Capital, the White House, and other points in Washington D.C.
Chaos was hitting the streets as thousands of staffers were sent out, more like ran out, of buildings in and around the Capital as well as Congressional offices and on to the streets of Washington DC, many without their purses, brief cases or even shoes. My friend Steve West from Tennessee saw a staffer from his hometown and gave her money for the subway to get home, she was not wearing shoes and did not have her purse.
A number of us started discussing how we could get out of Washington D.C. At first we
were unaware of the grounding of all aircraft and the closing of airports. A number of us
started calling people we knew with airplanes to see if we could get picked up since
commercial traffic was shut down. We were informed that all airspace and all airports were closed. The hotel then told us we could stay as long as we needed, obviously no one would be checking-in. My wife at home with a two year old baby told me to “get my suit case and get out of the city even if I had to walk.” My friend from the Knoxville area of Tennessee, Steve West, spoke to his son Charles West who was at his dealership in Maryville, TN, he started rapidly calling dealerships for a car. Somewhere around noon , at a dealership in Washington DC, Charles located a vehicle we could buy, a Chevrolet Suburban. Part of the Tennessee delegation and myself were able to proceeded, in a gray-market taxicab, to the dealership and buy the Suburban. By this time, the only thing in the air were Blackhawk helicopters and US Air Force fighter jets protecting Washington DC. We were successful at picking up the Suburban that Charles West had secured for us, and we started making our way out of Washington it was shear gridlock with many walking out of the city. To the best I can remember, it was somewhere around 5 o’clock before we actually got out of Washington DC and traveling towards Tennessee. The plan was for me to drive with my friend and the other Tennessee dealers to Maryville, just outside of Knoxville, and stay with Steve West for the night. On the ride to Tennessee at approximately 6 PM we saw Air Force One overhead returning to Washington DC with fighter escort. During the ride to Knoxville, I gave a number of interviews via cell phone to local newspapers and radio stations in Florida as to my observations of the events I witnessed in Washington DC, the amount of panic that had built as a result of events and of all the rumors. We arrived at Steve’s house just after midnight. I was not home but I was safe.
The following day I arose early, very anxious to get home to my wife, family and employees. I drove to West Chevrolet in Alco, Tennessee just south of Knoxville and picked up a vehicle. In leaving town, I saw the strangest sight, at the Knoxville International Airport there were airplanes and commercial jets of all sizes, from all airlines, parked on every square inch of the tarmac and taxiways. They had hurriedly parked all the grounded aircraft where ever they could as the air space above had been closed. I then proceeded south, headed to Lakeland via I-75 through the heart of Atlanta, traffic was very light, and no one ever says that about traffic in Atlanta. I stopped at a Cracker Barrel just south of Atlanta for a quick lunch and the place was only about a third occupied. In listening to the radio on the drive home, it was very evident that our lives had changed forever. I arrived in Lakeland at 6:30 PM. Needless to say I was glad to be home.