By Tim Donner
For most of us in the baby boom generation, there are two dates that will forever be seared into our memory: September 11, 2001, when America came under terrorist attack, and November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But listen to a truly incredible personal story connecting those two tragedies.
It is a tale worthy of The Twilight Zone.
My wife Leesa and I travelled from our home in northern Virginia to New York on September 10th for a video shoot with a major client. Perhaps it was an ominous portent of things to come when we dined at my favorite Italian restaurant that night, and after my then-usual martini and dinner, I hit the sidewalks of New York and suddenly felt weak-kneed to the point of collapse, as if the one martini had been four or five. I never did figure out why. We staggered back to the Regency Hotel, fell into bed and awoke the morning of September 11.
We organized our equipment and rolled it down to the lobby, where the doorman informed us that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. We figured it was probably a light plane like the one that had flown into the White House months before and did not amount to much. So, we set out for the short walk to our client’s residence, where we proceeded to watch the second tower hit by another plane on live TV. It was then we knew America was under attack.
As we watched in horror, I came to a sudden realization that literally sent chills up and down my spine. Thinking back to the Regency Hotel, where we first learned of the attack, I remembered being there perhaps three or four times in my life – and that the first time was for lunch with my grandparents, when the waiter approached our table with an ashen look to announce that the President had been shot. It was November 22, 1963.
I was in exactly the same place for these two history-changing days of infamy! See if that wouldn’t send chills up and down your spine. The odds of that happening are so long as to be incalculable. The message, if there was one, I may only know once reaching the presence of God himself.
I have related this story a number of times in the last 17 years, but only to people I know well, because strangers or casual acquaintances are likely to think I’ve employed dramatic license to spin a compelling yarn. But honestly, who would even make up something so preposterous? Most people respond by advising me not to return to the Regency Hotel. Really, you think?
Trying to process that mind-bending coincidence while witnessing the horror we were watching in real time, was paralyzing. Finally, with all routes in and out of New York closing rapidly and phone lines overloaded, I got it together and set out on foot to arrange a rental car to get us out of Dodge as soon as possible, not knowing when that might be. On the way, I saw a man walking in the opposite direction with an ashen look not unlike the one on that waiter’s face on 11/22/63. I asked him if he was OK, and he replied, “The World Trade Center just collapsed.” It was the first of the two towers to fall.
Working under a deadline, we somehow completed our video shoot, frequently interrupted by all manner of sirens on nearby streets and in the distance. I then went out for a breath of air and witnessed something entirely unprecedented: Madison Avenue, the very embodiment of American capitalism, was empty. 1:00 on a Tuesday afternoon, and no cars, no people, nothing at the very heart of American commerce. The only thing missing was the tumbleweeds. And the backdrop was the smoldering ruins of the once-mighty World Trade Center 60 blocks south, the smoke rising to the sky like a mushroom cloud.
Having already checked out of the Regency, and with every hotel room full within minutes of the attack, we were fortunate to find refuge at my parent’s apartment. But there was the issue of my children, left at home under the care of my mother-in-law. They were both within a few miles of the Pentagon, which had also been hit, but were rushed home from school and were holding up well.
So, we were near the site of one attack, my sons near the other 200 miles to the south. Not a coincidence of Regency Hotel proportions, but notable nevertheless.
Incredibly, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani permitted the opening of Penn Station the next morning. And as we raced to jump on any train that would get us out of town amidst a mass of people crowded together like proverbial sardines, I looked around at all the luggage people were carrying. Though hardly a paranoid sort, I could only think that any one of those bags might have explosives which could eviscerate hundreds of people in one fell swoop and blow up the train tunnel under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. It wouldn’t even be that hard to do, I thought. There were no security measures in place.
Such was the level of unbridled fear among those of us living through an event we never thought possible.
Once on the train, Leesa noticed something different about the ticket-takers. These are jobs ordinarily filled by normal-looking older men, but on this day, they were all young and built like Navy Seals. It seemed there actually were security measures in place, unbeknownst to the passengers.
Finally, we arrived back at home sweet home. An hour or two later, trying to unwind from the harrowing experience, I jumped into our newest acquisition, the hot tub. And as I was soaking, I heard a thundering sound overhead, looked to the sky and saw F-15 fighter jets roaring by. It was in that moment that the final reality hit home. Our lives – framed by the before and after of a leisurely soak in a hot tub and fighter jets patrolling the skies – would never be quite the same.
But even though we are now almost two decades into the post-9/11 world, I still harken back to that time, to being present in exactly the same place for two historic tragedies 38 years apart. And I shake my head in wonderment at something which defies all explanation.