Hey, Listen, Did You Hear The One About The...?

I was standing in the back of the room in the dusk-like semi-darkness that seems to permeate all hotel conference rooms. In front of me I could make out the backs of the heads of approximately 150 people, and in front of all of us on the brightly lit stage a woman was sharing one of her credit union's successful growth strategies.

The whole meeting-in fact, the world-began to change when the door behind me opened and a friend of mine from a credit union stepped through the bright light from the conference center hallway. He stopped next to me, not offering a "good morning."

"Did you hear about the airplane that hit the World Trade Center?" he asked in a somewhat hushed tone.

I thought it was something of an odd time to tell a joke, because that's precisely what is sounded like the start of. "Hey, did you hear the one about the...?"

I didn't respond, still giving most of my attention to the speaker. We were in the second session of the morning at a hotel in Bal Harbor, Fla., for what was then known as the Credit Union Journal's SEG & Business Development Conference, and which is now better known as CUJ's Grow Show.

This person repeated himself. "Did you hear about the plane that hit the World Trade Center?"

'I'm Serious'
I gave in. "No, tell me about the plane that hit the World Trade Center," I replied, using the tone one would when you know you're being set up for a joke.

"No, I'm serious," he answered. "A plane flew into the World Trade Center in New York. It's all over the news."

I gave it a moment, and then slipped out of the meeting and walked to the hotel lobby where a group of people was gathered around one of the TV monitors that have become ubiquitous in our world, with CNN broadcasting coverage of events developing in New York. The crowd was simultaneously silent and buzzing, if such as thing can occur, and a person who was watching informed me a second plane had since hit the other Twin Tower.

Soon we were all hearing words that felt so completely out of context inside the marble coolness of a beach resort hotel lobby: "terrorist attack" and "oh, my God," and "we're at war." I watched a while longer, and then my cell phone rang (I would only learn later how fortunate it was a call had gotten through); it was my sister, a travel agent at the time, who knew I traveled often and wanted to know where I was and making me aware all U.S. flights were being grounded. I waited a moment, and walked back toward the Credit Union Journal conference, slipping back in through the door and again standing near the back.

In 2001 cell phones had become common, but not yet Blackberries and iPhones and Androids and the whole electronic buffet of devices that were still to come and keep us all connected 24/7. Most in the room had not yet heard the news and I had decided I would let the speaker finish before taking the stage and updating the audience on what had occurred.

And then one of the attendees, a woman I would find out later was from a credit union in Northern New Jersey, rushed past me, crying, and I knew I would have to make an announcement.

That seems so obvious now in retrospect, that I would even give a second thought to interrupting the meeting, but in those early hours Sept. 11 was not yet 9/11.

Everyone has there "where were you" memory of that morning, and for me the most memorable is the expression on the speaker's face as I took to the podium. I could tell she was thinking, "What in the world are you doing? I still have time left here."

Silence, And Then...
I don't remember exactly what I told the audience, other than there had been what appeared to be a terrorist attack in New York (I didn't know of the Pentagon or the Pennsylvania field yet) and that all flights were being grounded, and that we were suspending the meeting so that everyone could check on their own travel plans. There was silence in the room, and I recall clearly an anonymous voice in the darkened audience finally calling out, "Are you serious?"

I was, and it was. The confusion and chaos and the kind of nervousness not felt in a generation inside that hotel that morning was mirrored in a thousand other hotels across the country.

Everyone was fearful; perhaps more eager to get home than they had ever been, and finding it nearly impossible to get there. I was fortunate; Bal Harbor was less than an hour's drive from our offices in West Palm Beach. I offered to drive people to the airport, to a bus station, to... where?

One conference attendee resorted to buying a van, filling it with other attendees and dropping them off along a route that would stretch from Florida to Texas; the credit union later sold the van. Attendees who lived locally ended up providing housing to those who couldn't find a way home.

Did you hear about the plane that hit the World Trade Center? I did. We did. And 10 years later, we still do.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.