Birmingham to Columbus by
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Sorry, I can’t think of a song for this story, it’s too solemn a subject.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in Birmingham, AL, for the quarterly meeting of the Environment Sector of the Electric Power Research Institute.  After breakfast at the hotel, a group of us piled into a van to travel to a power plant, I believe it was in Gadsden, AL to look at a renewable fuel project there.  They were investigating harvesting switchgrass, chopping it into small pieces, and blowing it into the furnace of a coal-burning generation unit.  About an hour into the trip, one of the men in the van got a call from his office, and told the person driving to turn on the radio.  That was when we learned that a plane had flown into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.  Of course, we assumed that it was an accident, like the time a military aircraft flew into the Empire State Building.

Then we heard that a second plane had flown into the other tower, and we knew that this was no accident.  We still assumed, though, that although there would be damage to the towers, there was no way they would be completely demolished.  When we got to the power plant, we went to the control room and watched on a television there as the towers did, in fact, collapse.

At that point, I went out of the control room, phoned the travel office in our company headquarters, and asked them to rent a car for me, which they did.  When we got back to Birmingham, I immediately went to the airport to pick up the car.  When it arrived about three hours later, it turned out to be a mini-van, far more vehicle than I needed, but it was the only one available.

I had several reasons for getting back to the house, primarily to be there for my wife and daughter, but also because I had a colonoscopy scheduled two days later, and I just wanted to get that over with.  So I headed north out of Birmingham, intending to get as far as I could before I had to sleep.  I made it as far as Louisville, KY, and was lucky to be able to find a room for the night.  The following day, I drove on in to Columbus.

As I was leaving Birmingham, I had the radio turned to the local NPR station.  They were carrying the latest news about the terror attacks, and at one point interviewed the congressman who represented that area.  He said that he was sure that Birmingham would be the very next target, because of the steel industry there.  I really doubt whether Osama Bin Laden had any idea where Birmingham was, or Alabama for that matter.

When I checked in at the hospital for my procedure, they told me about a doctor who was out of town when the attacks took place, and could not get a rental car.  He pulled out his credit card and bought a car in order to get home to his family and his practice.

My wife and I had dropped out older daughter off for her freshman year at Harvard about four or five days earlier.  She emailed me, alarmed about the fact that some of the planes had left from Boston, and asked me what was going to happen.  I told her that I didn’t know for sure what would happen, but that we needed to watch John Ashcroft in particular because it was certainly that the Republicans would over-react to the crisis. As it later turned out, it was not Ashcroft whom we had to watch, it was Dick (Darth) Chaney.

That’s all I can really write about this topic.


Profile photo of Jeff Gerken Jeff Gerken

Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Marian says:

    Thanks for adding your perspective to this difficult topic, Jeff. What a ride you had back to Columbus.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Jeff. On that traumatic day, all any of us could think of was getting home to our loved ones. Two of my kids were in college also, Harvard and Brown. I’m sure they felt frightened to be away from home that day.

  3. Like us all Jeff, you remember so vividly what you did and the decisions you made on that harrowing day.

    Glad you and yours were safe!

  4. Suzy says:

    No apology necessary, Jeff, I’m GLAD you didn’t use a song for your title. You do NOT need to use songs for your titles! Thanks for telling us your story of that day. If you are curious about mine, it’s on the previous 9/11 prompt, but I link to it in my RetroFlash on this prompt.

    • Jeff Gerken says:

      I know that I do not need to link a song to my story – I just like emulating you! And I have read most of the stories on this prompt, but I was at work and sneaking them in as I supervised groups of French language students today.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Your story paints a clear picture of the disbelief, the realization and the action that the events of 9-11 provoked—from Birmingham to Boston. Everyone experienced those in their own way, but
      there was a common essence—a lesson that echoes in the pandemic is how quickly the everyday routines can change. And thank you for reminding us of some of the domestic villains who set the stage for the ugly sequelae.

  5. John Shutkin says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Jeff. Amazing how, in the most horrible moments like 9/11, we can all remember where we were and everything seems so magnified. Some trip!

    And, yes, it was Cheney — and Rumsfeld — we needed to watch out for.

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    Your experience is your own, but so similar to others. My husband was a mile from the Pentagon that day, also rented a car and drove north, dropping colleagues along the way until he got back to Logan Airport where his car was parked (he flew out on Sept. 10). Fascinating that your doctor BOUGHT a car when he couldn’t rent one. Everyone felt the need to get home and be with their family. Boston was evacuated on Sept 11. They were sure that the Hancock Tower would be a target too. Scary times for all of us, Jeff. Thanks for adding your story.

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