On September 11, 2001, I was supposed to be on Flight 77 on the way to guest on ABC’s Politically Incorrect in LA that night.
Even though the appearance conflicted with a conference I was hosting in DC with a colleague, my partner said, “Go – have fun.” Initially I said yes, then later realizing I should fulfill that commitment, I cancelled.
In the meantime, a fax had come from ABC/Disney travel confirming me in the First Class cabin of Flight 77 on That Day.
When the news reached us that morning during the event, we ended immediately. The story of my next few hours is the same as everyone else’s – unspeakable grief, terror and horror. All I wanted to do was call my children back in Texas and tell them I was okay.
Cell phones were hopeless. Finally, I used a hotel phone to call The Winston School in Dallas where both kids attended. The staff tracked down Caitlin, (17 at the time) and I was able to speak to her. She then went off to find Connor (9) to let him know I was safe. The support they received from teachers and friends that day was nothing short of amazing.
The last thing Caitlin said to me was: “Thank God you weren’t on one of those planes, Mom.” That was the moment I first realized I could have been, should have been. I remember sobbing at the phone bank, saying over and over, “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Soon after, a good friend called and said “are you alone?” and I assured him I was not. He said, “I’m so sorry to tell you this, but I don’t want you to find out on TV – your friend Barbara Olson was on the plane that hit the Pentagon. She was going out to fill in for somebody on Politically Incorrect.”
I don’t remember much after that, except thinking “oh my God, its my fault!” For days, I believed Barbara went to take my place because I cancelled. Later that week I blurted this out to one of her closest friends who said, “Oh, Kerri, no – she was going anyway! When PI called her she accepted as she was already heading to LA.”
Although its not about me at all – it’s about Barbara – I did learn what it’s like to feel responsible for the life of another. A gift or a curse? It depends on what you do with it.
Desperate to get home, we were stuck in DC waiting for planes to fly again. My colleague and I were on the first flight out. At the ticket counter, we met up with a Dallas Congressman, a dear friend to both of us. The ticket agent said to them – “I can put you in 10A and 10C if you’d like to sit together.”
To me – “Ma’am, where would you like to sit?” I said, “10B.”
She replied, “but the plane is wide open, ma’am, I can give you your own row.” I said, “10B.”
Barreling down the runway, just about to take off, the pilot jammed on the brakes – it was terrifying. The pilot came on and said warning light, nothing to worry about, back to the gate for a check, everything fine. The three of us looked at each other and the Congressman said, “maybe we should just rent a car.”
That week, abject, immobilizing fear was not the fleeting feeling it usually is, but the norm. We made it home with no further trouble, and I’ll never forget exactly what my kids looked like when I picked them up.
I’ve never publicly told this story before, and I’m not telling it now for attention, or sympathy, or to pretend that my experience is more traumatic than those of others, because it absolutely is not. But I do feel a silent kinship with the Flight 77 families, and when I see Debra Burlingame, sister of 77 pilot Chic Burlingame, and the extraordinary leadership role she has undertaken for the 9/11 families, I want to whisper to her words of comfort that don’t exist.
Attending the first Pentagon memorial in 2002, I realized it could have been my kids standing there reading my name. But they weren’t. It is a mix of grief, gratitude and guilt that hits when I think of the families and friends of the lost.
My gratitude to God is immeasurable, changing my life and direction. I felt I had received an invisible directive to try to be a force for good – and freedom. Sometimes when I get feisty with someone who, in my estimation, doesn’t have the proper respect for liberty, I feel a little Barbara coming out of me. I picture her in Heaven wagging a long red fingernail at someone, and it makes me smile.
I do my best to fulfill the commitments I made to God and to myself on 9/11. Every anniversary, I remember to honestly evaluate how I am doing. I have often failed miserably, but I always thank God for letting me stay here with my children when thousands did not go home to theirs.
Say the things you need to say to people you love. Apologize to those you’ve hurt. Make a difference in a tiny corner of your world — or even a big one. Ask God for His guidance. I have read Psalm 32:8 every day for 10 years. Its taped to my laptop.
There are many things we should do together as Americans. We should have public memorials to grieve for the lost, pray for the families and honor first responders and our military. But the true legacy of September 11th comes alive in the choices we make as individuals, as demonstrated that day by acts of selflessness in the towers, at the Pentagon, and above the field.
We are still here; the 9/11 victims are not. The greatest honor we can give them is to first let their deaths change our hearts, then put that into action in the best and most positive ways we can.