I was really excited on the morning of September 11, 2001. It was a gorgeous, sunny day in New York City as I headed into my job at ClubMom.com.
My CMO with an impressive MBA from an Ivy-League school forced me to pause the affiliate program for the summer, even though it was cash positive with every lead and doing great. But that’s a discussion for another day.
Anyhow, September 11, 2001, was the day I was tasked with resurrecting the affiliate program. It was on Be Free (a popular affiliate network at the time) and I had an email scheduled in BFAST (their technology that had to be installed locally!) to hit all the affiliates that afternoon announcing the return of the affiliate program.
As I was finishing up my everything bagel and strawberry Yoo-hoo I got an email from one of the IT guys. It was sent to the whole company and it was a breaking news alert from CNN about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. The idea of that was impossible in my mind and I thought he must have been trying to make some bad joke.
But no, it was real. Somebody wheeled out a TV on a cart to a conference room and turned it on. It was reminiscent of 15 years earlier when a TV cart was brought into my class in high school for coverage of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.
One big difference, though. The Space Shuttle was way far away from me when it exploded. The World Trade Center was a couple of miles away. I was in shock. We all were. I alternated between watching and chatting with friends and family on AIM. Then I saw a plane hit the South Tower on TV.
The bosses were telling us to stay calm and stay put. Then the South Tower collapsed before my eyes on TV. I needed to get out of there.
I chatted with some people and then gathered my things to try and make my way home. In addition to being totally freaked out, my now 17-year-old daughter Lexie was due to be born on September 27, 2001, and I wanted to live to see her birth.
That might sound overly dramatic now, but nobody knew what the hell was going on then, except that this was apparently terrorism. And our office was a couple of blocks from the Empire State Building. I figured that could be the next target and I didn’t want to be there to find out.
So, I headed over to my supervisor’s office to tell her I was heading out. She said, “No, you can’t leave.” It was at that moment that my fight or flight instinct kicked in. My first thought was to fight, and I was going to do that by saying, “Fuck you.” But I chose flight and just left.
As I headed down Fifth Avenue towards 34th Street, where I was going to hang a right towards Penn Station, I heard thundering noise across my whole body. People in the street were screaming and running.
I looked up and right there in front of me, the North Tower was collapsing. I froze. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. It was too much to handle. I watched the whole thing crumble and I was in shock. Shortly after, I snapped out of it and started running towards Penn Station to escape from New York by way of an NJ Transit train.
It was all a blur. Some people were walking There was screaming and crying in every direction, and I was running as fast as I could in jeans. Finally, I got to Penn Station and sprinted down to the tracks to jump on the next Jersey bound train. I got a seat and about 30 seconds later the doors closed, and the train began to move. The train erupted in cheers that lasted about ten seconds. Then it stopped.
We sat there for a while and they wouldn’t let us off. Finally, they announced that there may be explosives in the tunnel, and we should safely evacuate the train. I’d like to say I sat there and did the women and children first thing. But a few years earlier I saw those guys die in the Titanic movie. I broke out ahead of everybody and ran all the way to the Hudson River to get away from buildings and people and everything.
I tried frantically to make a phone call and say I was on the way home, but there was no getting a phone signal. I walked into a line of people about ten blocks long waiting to get on a Circle Line Cruise boat to cross over to New Jersey.
When I finally got on the boat there was an eerie calm. We started moving south towards lower Manhattan before cutting over and pulling into a dock in Weehawken, NJ. I didn’t know what to do and wandered off the boat until I saw an NJ Transit bus. I asked the driver where it was going, and he said they were taking everybody to Giants Stadium. I just wanted to get away, so I got on board.
After they brought us to Giants Stadium there wasn’t a plan for moving on from there. Bus after bus unloaded people and we all walked around confused and flustered and hot and thirsty. They were not allowing traffic in – only out. So, I got an idea – I took a piece of paper out of my bag and wrote the name of the town where I lived: MILLBURN.
I stood along the road hoping to hitchhike. And I was ecstatic that a car pulled over within ten minutes. It was a station wagon that already had like ten people in there and they let me jam in with them. The driver was some guy who worked for the Giants. We rode mostly in silence while hosts on the AM station WABC tried to make sense of things for themselves and us. There was all sorts of confusion and misinformation.
The highways were empty, so we made good time. I was the third or fourth to be dropped off and they let me out at my local train station where I’d parked that morning for the commute. There were literally no cars gone, yet. The lot was packed. I am pretty sure I was the first one to make it back. I wondered how many of my fellow commuters weren’t making it back that day or any day. I learned later that eight guys from my town were killed.
Over the course of the day, I was thinking a lot about how I was told I couldn’t leave. I had to leave, and I really didn’t like that feeling of being told I couldn’t. It weighed on me and I just couldn’t shake it. I spent the rest of that fall in a daze, except for the birth of my daughter, Lexie, on October 2, 2001.
I was so wrecked by the whole thing that I was asking the obstetrician, during the birth of my daughter, about the risks of Anthrax exposure, as there was some monster mailing it to places in NYC after 9/11.
I started to get a grip on things in 2002 and figured out my first step in leaving the company. I started my own OPM company on the side to see if that could take off and replace my day job. The affiliate program management gigs started taking off, and then a random conversation with Missy Ward turned into us starting Affiliate Summit. We registered the .com on May 19, 2003.
That was the final thing I needed to leave my job for good. We held the first Affiliate Summit on November 3, 2003, in New York City. It was 783 days after 9/11. Shortly after I quit my job.
Know when it’s time for you to leave and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t.