Blog Post: An excerpt from "Pinstripe Suits to Prison Blues" Remembering September 11, 2001
September 11, 2001, Washington, D.C. Attending 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 actions affecting the franchise automobile dealers as well as 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 staffs to discuss current legislative affairs. The morning of September 11, 2001, while attending a legislative briefing at out conference hotel, after which I was to proceed to the capital . Where some of the Florida delegation were to meet with Florida Congressman, Adam Putnam. He was to have returned from Florida aboard Air Force One, riding back to Washington with President Bush, later in the morning.
To say the day dramatically changed would be the understatement of the century. The morning briefing mentioned above occurred at the convention center in the Grand Hyatt Washington, just blocks from the Capitol. There were a number of political dignitaries in attendance conducting morning briefings, scheduled to speak or meeting with their local dealer delegations. As cell phones started ringing and the word of the events in New York spread. Soon, all the political dignitaries were escorted from the building by Capitol Police, taken away by a police escort. We then received word of the jet hitting the Pentagon, some said they heard the explosion and saw the smoke. The rumors started spreading more jets were heading for the Capital, the White House, and other points in Washington D.C.
Chaos ensued as thousands of federal employees were sent out of the various buildings all around the Capital, onto the streets of Washington D.C., many without their purses, briefcases, even shoes. My friend, Steve West, 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. Informed by a number of pilots all airspace and all airports were closed. The hotel told us we could stay as long as we needed, obviously no one would be checking in. My wife, who was at home with our two-year-old baby and other two children, told me to get my suitcase and get out of the city "even if you have to walk." My friend from Knoxville, Tennessee, Steve West, spoke to his son, Charles West, who was in Knoxville, he rapidly started calling dealerships for a car. Somewhere around one to two o’clock, at a dealership in Washington D.C., Charles secured a vehicle, a Chevrolet Suburban. Part of the Tennessee delegation and I were able to proceed, slowly, in a gray-market taxicab to the dealership to buy the Suburban. By this time, the only things flying in and around Washington were Blackhawk helicopters and fighter jets protecting Washington D.C. We successfully picked up the Suburban and started making our way out of Washington. Departing the greater Washington D.C. area around 5 o’clock heading south west to Knoxville Tennessee. The plan was to drive with my friend and the other Tennessee dealers to Maryville, just outside of Knoxville, and stay the night. On the ride to Tennessee, at approximately 6 p.m., we saw Air Force One overhead returning to Washington with fighter escort. During the ride to Knoxville, I gave a number of interviews, via cell phone, to local newspapers, radio and TV stations in Florida as to my observations of the events I witnessed, the sheer panic as a result of events and the rumors. We arrived in the Knoxville area just after midnight.
The following morning I arose early. Very anxious to get home to my wife, family, and employees. I drove to West Chevrolet in Alcoa, Tennessee, just south of Knoxville, picked up a vehicle and headed to Florida. While leaving town, I witnessed the strangest sight on the tarmac of Knoxville International Airport, airplanes, private jets and commercial airlines of all sizes, parked on every square inch of the tarmac and taxiways. It was obvious all were hurriedly parked during the grounding of aircraft when the airspace above closed. I proceeded south, to Lakeland Florida via I-75 driving through the heart of Atlanta; traffic was very light, no one ever says that about Atlanta traffic in the middle of a weekday. Stopping at a Cracker Barrel south of Atlanta for a quick lunch, the place was only about a third occupied. In listening to the radio on the drive home, it was very evident our lives had changed forever. I arrived in Lakeland at 6:30 p.m. There is no place like home.