Saturday, September 13, 2008

Where were you on September 11, 2001?

Jen of a2eatwrite asked where I was on Sept. 11.

Just looking at this picture makes me sad:

Most people have touching, heart rending Sept. 11 memories, myself included.  Mine's about leaf springs. While leaf springs might not tug on your heartstrings like they do on my cold, logical, engineering heart, they really are the perfect symbol to me about how life changed as we knew it on that day. Sept. 11, 2001 marked the beginning of the end for leaf springs, and life as we knew it then.

I was at work, just getting ready to start a weekly meeting I led at the time. It was called "Leaf Spring Forum" then - the same meeting still happens today at my work 7 years later and it's called "Leaf Spring Tech Club". It's a much smaller meeting than it used to be. There's only a handful of leaf spring engineers around anymore, largely because of what happened that morning. I no longer design leaf springs myself, but 7 years ago, I was up to my neck in the design of them. Leaf springs were then commonly used on truck suspensions, and back then, we made lots of trucks. Lots of work trucks, in fact. There are less people driving trucks these days for fun because of gas prices, but there are also less people working and building things because of the economy. So, now we make less trucks and therefore, there's less discussion about leaf springs at work anymore.

Steve, who now no longer works on leaf springs either, came up to my desk and said that his wife just called and said a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. My first thought was that it was an accident. I looked out my window at the beautiful day we were having in Detroit and wondered if it was rainy and foggy in New York City. Steve and I went to the conference room to start the meeting of all the leaf spring engineers and our suppliers. Back then, we didn't have work cell phones, we all had pagers that had a news feed on them. We started the meeting.

I remember people that were there - and very few of us design leaf springs anymore. There were some senior engineers that were offered early retirements because of the downturn in the economy because of what happened that day. They no longer work as engineers. There was a couple young engineers who no longer design leaf springs because they have since left the company because of what happened on that day. If you are a young engineer with no ties to Michigan, you think your opportunities are better in another place and career than automotive. So you go back to Seattle or Pittsburgh or where ever you came from and start anew. There's lots of jobs in the defense industry now. Why not be a part of the "war machine"?

There were a couple engineers that weren't at the meeting because they themselves were in an airplane, flying out to the test track we used to have in Arizona. We don't have it anymore, because of what happened on that day. Because of what happened on that day our country ended up in a war that we didn't need to get into, which led to a downturn in the economy, which led to us selling that facility. Out of all the 15 people in the room that were there that morning, only one designs leaf springs today.

We tried to start the meeting, but we kept reading our pagers and it said that a plane crashed in Pennsylvania. Now, that seemed kind of odd. Two big plane crashes this morning? Something was up. There was a commotion in the hallway; we tried to ignore it and talk about leaf springs - plate stresses, u bolts, leaf clips and tip liners, just like we did every week. Leaf springs have been around since the time of the Model T, but we are still working on making them better. Curiosity got to the better of us so we went out into the hall. Back then, we had TVs in the hallway that usually projected "good news" stories about our business, but usually no one paid attention. Now there were easily a hundred men (and a few women; there's not many women automotive engineers) in the hallway watching the screen. The channel was switched to CNN and we were watching the footage of the plane crash in Pennsylvania. That was interrupted by the news about the other tower at the WTC. There was a mild panic that spread through our group huddled in the hall. What was going on? We thought of our friends who were flying west then - could it be possible it was their planes?

We gave up on leaf springs that morning. We went back to our desks and tried to do our work. So many of us were checking the internet, the traffic on our T1 lines slowed to a crawl. I got my first ever email from school that day - it was from the principal of my daughter's school, telling me that they were in lockdown mode for the first time in their history. Students would stay at school until the normal dismissal time, and they weren't told what was happening. My daughter was in her first few weeks of kindergarten. To this day, the clean and shiny newness of the school year is forever marked with the memory of this day. People started to get a little edgy at the office. It was rumored that they were evacuating the north side of our building and our headquarters because of a bomb threat. My friend Sharon was puzzled when I told her this - after all, she was in NYC on Sept. 11, and she thinks it's odd that we would think that terrorists would go after us in Midwest. But no matter where you were on that day, the terror came from not knowing what was going on.

People wanted to go home, but were unsure of whether they should go. We were not yet dismissed by upper management, so we kept trying to work. Engineers, who don't normally get emotional were getting a little frantic. It was worrisome to see them freak out. I kept telling them it was okay to go home, and that I would cover for them. It was then my 3 year old son's daycare in Ann Arbor called. They said he was the last kid left at the center - all the other parents had picked up their kids, but they would stay with him until I could get there. It was then that I started to panic. What did they know that I didn't know? Was something happening I wasn't aware of? I called my husband on his cell, and he was locked in a government building in Lansing. No one could leave. It was then that I decided I had to leave to get the kids - it was about noon. I didn't ask for permission, I just told my boss I was leaving and he said "Do what you have to do."

It was eerie driving past the airport on my way home. When you drive west on I-94, there's normally a bunch of planes landing and taking off over your head. Instead, on this day, it was quiet. There were a bunch of planes parked all catty wampus over the runways. The radio news said planes were being forced to the ground. I kept thinking about my two colleagues flying to Arizona. It was later I found out that they were forced to in Albuquerque, NM. One had forgotten his wallet that morning, so he had no money or ID. Do you remember when we could fly without ID? The other was a Mexican immigrant, and since he looked like he wasn't "American", he was hassled constantly for the days that followed. No one could fly anywhere for quite a while. It was impossible to get a rental car for a week after that day - they finally got one and were able to drive back to Detroit from NM weeks later. It took them weeks to get home.

I picked up my son and went home and put him down for a nap. It was a beautiful day - the sun was shining. I tried do some work at home, but couldn't keep my mind on it. Finally, it was time for the school bus. The bus driver opened the door and said "The kids don't know a thing" and one of them piped up "Don't know a thing about what? The bad guys that crashed the airplane?" Evidently some of the middle schoolers didn't get the message that they weren't supposed to share that info with the elementary schoolers. I spent the rest of the night watching CNN and explaining to a kindergartner about the bad guys.

So, 7 years later, I don't design leaf springs anymore. My work is a much different place than it was back then. Most of the guys that I worked with that day are no longer there. Because of what happened on that day, I felt compelled to sign up to be on the evacuation team for our building and we're all trained on what we're supposed to do when there's an emergency. Every time an alarm goes off, some folks get really scared. I think it is our own little midwestern PTSD. Because of what happened that day, we are at war and that made gas prices go up. People don't want to buy trucks anymore, and so we don't have that many leaf springs to design anymore. There's only a handful of guys that design leaf springs now for automotive applications.


Anonymous said...

That's one of the best things that I've read about 9/11, as it deals with the aftermath (war, gas prices, economy, etc.)

It is amazing how that one thing changed so much. And it is also amazing that bombs go off in other countries almost on a daily basis...we hardly ever hear about the aftermaths of those, though.

Shayne said...

you really captured a lot in this post. All so true and this post really brought back memories and emotions from 7 years ago.