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9/11: Stranded on a Ship with 100 CIOs

My 9/11 experience was spent in the company of nearly 100 CIOs, stranded and cut off from most communication aboard a cruise ship that had left NY Harbor on the evening of 9/9. The occasion was a CIO conference run by a British company, set aboard a Norwegian-based cruise liner.

As executive editor of CIO magazine, it was a great opportunity for me to meet with CIOs and hunt for story ideas. We left New York Harbor at sunset for three days of stimulating sessions, scheduled briefing with sponsors, casino gambling and great meals. I remember watching the Statue of Liberty as we sailed past; I did not notice the World Trade Center.

Monday the 10th was a typical conference day in an atypical setting. I noted with some annoyance that all channel signals were blocked on the TVs in our staterooms, a deliberate discouragement to blowing off the sessions. Cell phone signals were spotty, unless you roamed the deck.

On the morning of 9-11 I eagerly grabbed a seat in a CIO discussion on the future of the role, moderated by the head of the Research Board. We were interrupted by the captain's voice interrupted over the ship's PA system. In an apologetic and somber tone he informed us that two planes had hit the World Trade Center "in an apparent act of terrorism." We looked at each other. Our moderator broke the stunned silence -- "In light of what's happened, I think we should end our session." We got up and staggered out on deck.

The CIOs immediately tried their cell phones. Most couldn't get signals. Patrick Thompson, then CIO of Turner Industries, got through to his wife. I watched him as he sat on a bench struggling to convince her that he was alive and unharmed. What must my mother be thinking? I didn't have a cell phone.

Thompson and a few other CIOs had some sort of new-fangled news-feed function on their phones (something called a BlackBerry?), and were getting sporadic real-time headlines. CIOs gathered around desperate for news. "One of the towers collapsed!" I pictured it toppling from its base like a giant tree, leveling blocks of lower Manhattan. My brother-in-law works at Bear Stearns. How close was he to the tower? Was he in the Tower? I didn't know.

I have never seen a group of CIOs come closer to devolving into an angry mob as I did when they confronted the conference organizers to demand that the TV signals be unblocked. We needed information. We needed to be connected. For some reason, it couldn't be done instantly. They were trying their best, but it would take some time (hours in fact). We were seething.

More cell phone snippets of news and/or rumors came in: Smoke was rising from the Capital in Washington. A plane crashed near Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh? Why attack Pittsburgh? More planes were still in the air. Would they go after Boston?

That's when I said aloud to no one: "My country's under attack and I'm trapped on a f-----g boat."

David Foote of Foote Partners had reached his wife and was trying to make sure his daughter, who may have been in Manhattan, was safe. His phone battery was dying, but he let me use the last of its juice to call home. No one was there. I left a 10-second voice message for my wife Carolyn. "Call my parents and tell them I'm OK. I hope your brother is alright. I don't know when I can get home."

The TVs were finally liberated and we gathered in the lounges to watch the projection screens. Few one spoke or even looked at each other. The only channel we could get was the BBC News Service. They had no reporters on the scene. There were no images of Rudy Giuliani leading people down the avenues, or of the first responders. We got nothing but a five-second video of smoke pouring from a tower and a body hurtling out the side of the building. It showed over and over. Then for a brief second, we saw the image of ABC's Peter Jennings at his anchor desk, but it was extinguished as the feed cut back to the BBC.

Our isolation got worse. Military helicopters had been buzzing the ship repeatedly, checking us out as a potential threat. The captain announced over the PA (we had not seen him in the flesh since dinner the night before) that we'd been ordered to move further off shore because the ship was of foreign registry.

One CIO, who had once been with the NSA or some other security agency, was fuming as he stalked back and forth on deck. "If they'd only let me talk to them, I could convince them we're not a threat!" Everyone wanted to do something. No one could do anything.

I had been able to see the distant skyline of Atlantic City during all of this (and had checked it repeatedly to make sure it was not going up in smoke). Now we would be out of sight of land. Out of range of cell towers. And of course, there was no returning to New York Harbor.

I spent the rest of the afternoon on my own, between the lounge and my room, thinking. I thought about the time, in 1977, when I was 11 and my dad took me to New York and up to the Trade Center observatory. I took photos up there with my first camera. It's all gone now. New York will never be the same. No one will ever think of Manhattan without this tragedy being front and center in their minds. Thousands dead. It's all over.

That night we gathered in the ship's restaurant for dinner. There was little chit chat. The Indian nationals, who served silently as the ship's stewards, waiters and bus boys, looked at us with sympathy in their eyes as they brought out the dinner service. That's a humbling turn of the tables -- foreign people pitying Americans. It's startling to think how quickly the world's sympathy for us evaporated.

In the middle of dinner, President Bush's address to the nation came on. He vowed to get the culprits. He named the targets and the country. He was coming for them. This bolstered some of the CIOs' spirits, who agreed there was serious hell to pay and it was headed to Afghanistan. The speech didn't do much for me. I didn't think it would be easy to catch the bastards. And even if we did, it wouldn't undo what happened.

The next day as we bobbed there out at sea, forbidden to return to any port, the conference tried gamely to continue where it left off, but I attended none of the sessions. I couldn't. Later that night, the captain told us we received permission to put ashore in Boston Harbor, and we were heading there immediately at full power. I was going home.

The next morning I woke to see the little islands in Boston Harbor gliding by as we made our way to Black Falcon Terminal. I was never so happy to see them. I had my bag ready and I was the second person off that ship. I got a taxi and went straight to the offices of CIO magazine. I learned that one of the magazine's writers had a brother who'd been in the Tower on a floor above the impact zone. He got out miraculously. One of our senior editors had a family friend who'd been on one of the two planes that had left Boston. He took time off to attend the funeral and memorial service. My brother-in-law was OK; he'd had to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to escape the devastation. He still lives in the Borough. As I anticipated, my mother had been hysterical, but Carolyn had calmed her. She still worries when I travel.

Our first 9/11 magazine story was about how Gregor Bailar, then CIO of NASDAQ, was thrust into the position of making the decision to shut down the markets. I wrote it in a tag team effort with Senior Editor Tom Field, and it ran on Friday on cio.com, the first time a CIO story appeared on the Internet prior to coming out in print.

A lot has changed in 10 years. Too much hasn't.


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