World Trade Center
Gene Boyars/AP File Photo

One normal Tuesday morning 16 years ago today, I sat on a commuter bus, bound for Manhattan. I heard the following from a row or so up from me, “…something about a plane crash.”

The initial opinion of the bus was it had to be some idiot crashing his private plane into it. Seemed plausible and I thought no more of it.

Walking to my office, I heard a man, visibly agitated, exclaiming to two police officers about terrorism. “Welcome to New York,” I thought. Again, this was just another normal Tuesday morning.

At the elevator bay in my office building, I met a friend and co-worker. With eyes overflowing with fear and paleness washed over her face, she asked, “Did you hear about the plane crash?” It was about 8:30 a.m. on September 11, 2001.

In my office, I watched the horror of the day unfold on TV. “This CAN’T be happening!” was a common refrain. The Twin Towers simply could not collapse. Yet they did.

Many of my colleagues had worked in “The Towers” at one time. Most of us knew people who worked there. Concern shifted to dread after the towers fell. Everyone had but one question: Did they get out in time?

A phone in the cubicle next to mine rang. I knew my colleague was in Atlanta in training. Thinking it might be her, I answered. I have never smelled fear in a person’s voice before that call. Yet when she said, “…my husband works in Tower 2,…can’t reach him…” Again, the brutal question, “Did he get out in time?”

He did.

The rest of the morning was a blur, a potent and vile cocktail of equal parts rumor, anger and fear. We kept slamming them back and ordering another round. It was the only thing to do. I was fortunate that our desk phones worked and I was able to call both my mom back in Iowa and Dawn, my wife in New Jersey, letting them know I was OK. I told Dawn I was not sure what was going to happen but that we were perfectly safe. Well, physically at least. Emotionally, that was a whole different story.

I had forgotten my cell phone that morning. Yet it did not matter as the cellular network was effectively shut down. This was before texting and instant messaging. I think about how many people would have lived if they had gotten the word/text/tweet/instant message/snap chat to “RUN!”

A group of us talked about walking up to the local hospital to give blood or volunteering to help, to do anything. Our company’s leadership was terrific during this time, encouraging us to stay put, stay together. They ordered pizza and it was promptly delivered. Even at the height of the uncertainty, the city kept humming. I remember needing a napkin and grabbing a paper towel from the bathroom. 

Eventually the word was passed that leaving New York City was permissible, even encouraged. I was at my desk, silently fuming, incapable of doing much more than cursing under my breath at the (expletive-deleted) terrorists who had done this act of war, this crime of mass murder.

It was then that my friend Ken came over to me. What unfolded, simply put, is one of the finest examples of leadership I have ever seen. Sixteen years later, I recall what he said to me: “I have a plan to get out of the city. I’m leaving now and I think you should come with me.” This was no rah rah, “Win one for the Gipper,” speech. It was instead a calm and measured appeal to endorse this course of action. His words were the plan. His eye contact and low, measured, calm voice was the assurance to trust his plan, I did.

About an hour later we were at the Hudson River. Ken, my boss Dror, and I stood in line with thousands of others, waiting to board a ferry for New Jersey. A grim-faced police officer walked up and down with a video camera, capturing images of us. No one mugged for the camera or protested. We all were too focused on getting the hell out of New York City.

Then a sound from above caused me to jerk my head up and stare at the sky. Overhead, fighter jets roared, scouting the Manhattan skyline. A voice proclaimed, “Holy sh**, we’re at f****ing war.”

And we were. For the first time in 189 years, the Continental United States was under attack from an enemy few of us knew existed from a country fewer still could find on a map. The normal Tuesday was no more.

“Is this ferry going to Weehawken? I gotta get to Weehawken!” The older lady in front of us obviously wanted to go there and kept repeating her question The Port Authority Police Officer firmly, yet with as much courtesy as he could muster under the circumstances said, “Ma’am, if ya wanna get to Jersey, get on the ferry. We’ll get ya to Jersey, they’ll help you from there.” She got on and so did we.

As the ferry sailed towards the Jersey shore, I could not help but acknowledge the beauty of the day. I could not figure out if this was a comfort or just part of the absurd terror that was 9/11. I suppose it was a little of both.

I do know that once we got to New Jersey, we all breathed a sigh of relief. “Never been so glad to be in Jersey,” someone commented. The sentiment was shared by many. No matter what the rest of the day brought, at least we were off Manhattan. Still, we had a walk in front of us. Ken’s car was at the North Bergan Park and Ride. In our dress shoes and suits, we walked.

At one point, we had to scale this massive metal staircase. When we got to the top we were met by a few local municipal employees. They were handing out cups of water from gallon bottles likely purchased with their own money. It was a simple and so appreciated act of kindness. Kindness needed, demanded actually, on a day otherwise dominated by brutality. As I drank my water, I looked down and saw dozens of ambulances and other first responder vehicles. Here were first responders, willing, wanting, demanding the opportunity to help others…and there was no one left to help. All those in "The Towers" were gone.

We kept walking. Jackets were thrown over shoulders, blisters formed on our feet, yet no one complained. It had grown warm and no one had the desire or energy to talk or even crack gallows’ humor. It was all about getting back to the car.

Sometime late that afternoon, we were in Ken’s car, heading home. By this time, the bridges and tunnels were closed to traffic from New York City. On a day and at an hour when we should have been inching along in rush hour traffic, we were instead flying down the road, one of only a handful of cars. It felt like we were in a Mad Max movie. The radio was turned to 1010 WINS and we learned for the first time the brutal details of the horror this day had brought.

Around 6:30 that evening, I made it home. Ken stayed for dinner. We grilled. It was a form of mild therapy to flip burgers. It was the first thing I felt truly in control of all day.

It is proper to reflect on the events of that day, forever seared into our collective memories. We should remember those who died that day. One may also ask: “What have we learned?” A fair question and one for which I have neither an easy answer nor a poignant comment. All I do know for certain is this was the last normal Tuesday morning I would ever know.

Davenport-based attorney Jeno Berta lives in Bettendorf. On Sept. 11, 2001, Berta was working in Manhattan as a financial adviser.