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I was in flight during 9/11. It's an experience I'll never forget.
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I was in flight during 9/11. It's an experience I'll never forget.

From the 20 years later: Quad-Citians remember September 11 series
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Quad-City Times City Editor Liz Boardman.

Early Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, I boarded a plane from Providence, R.I., heading to Ohio — a quick trip for a sales meeting. I wasn't a journalist then, I sold barcode labels and spent a third of the year on the road.

My favorite co-worker patted a seat next to him on the half-empty flight. He knew I was a nervous flier. As I slid into a seat I wasn’t assigned, I joked that if we crashed, I would screw up the manifest.

I still think about the four planes that were lost that day and am haunted by what those passengers must have experienced in their final terrifying hour.

Sometime between 9:03 and 9:59 a.m. I walked into my field office outside Cincinnati. A large, silent group was clustered around a single TV. My flight had landed normally, but I had learned of the two planes hitting the towers from Howard Stern on my rental car’s radio.

I said hello and went to join everyone at the TV. But they were now staring at me, their faces collectively draining of color, their mouths forming “O”s — like a flash mob version of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.” One of the women started crying. “We thought you flew out of Boston,” she said, pulling me into a bear hug. “We thought you were dead.”

Later that day, another co-worker, a New Yorker, grew increasingly agitated, as he answered phone call after phone call from his wife, each with news of another neighbor who worked on the upper floors of the World Trade Center and couldn’t be reached.

Unable to fall asleep that night, I heard the cadence of someone running the stairs — hard-soft-hard-soft-hard-soft — seemingly for hours. He was an American Airlines pilot, he told me. He couldn’t sleep but couldn’t bear to watch TV.

On Friday, four of us piled into a rented minivan and drove home. With light traffic and the airspace still closed, it was eerily quiet. As we approached New York City, we could see beams of light through the haze, signs of the recovery efforts in lower Manhattan. The air grew pungent, a rancid stench of smoldering flesh, fuel, metal and paper, mixed with mold.

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