The Most Inexplicable Thing That Has Ever Happened

In 2000, I left my job as the head of marketing for Whole Foods Market, in Austin, TX, and “returned to civilization” to take a job with (the Website of Discovery Channel) back in Bethesda, MD.

I began work on April 2. On April 13, NASDAQ crashed, falling 355.49 points in a single day. The dot com bubble had burst. Within days, my grandiose $25 million marketing budget had been frozen. Within weeks, it was cut back. By the summer, it had been more or less eliminated. And by the fall, we laid off 75 workers. Fortunately, the Powers That Be liked me, and created a new position for me within the company, as Vice President of Consumer Marketing within the retail division. Discovery had recently acquired The Nature Company, which was based in Berkeley, CA, and had also opened a lot of Discovery Channel Stores in malls around the US.

By the summer of 2001, I had settled into this new job and was planning to attend an important meeting in Berkeley, which was scheduled to begin on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 11.

Right around this time, Discovery had switched from using an external travel agency to an online one. Employees who needed to travel had to log in and book their own flights and hotels. As I began to plan my trip, the online service opted to avoid more expensive direct flights, and routed me to San Francisco via Los Angeles. I booked a ticket on American Airlines flight 77 from Dulles to LAX, and then another ticket on the United Shuttle from LAX to San Francisco.

As the trip approached, I began to regret the timing of it, since it would take me away from my girlfriend, Julie, who would be celebrating her 29th birthday on September 12. So I asked her if she wanted to come along — we had always liked San Francisco — and then bought her a ticket as well. I booked us a reservation at a nice seafood restaurant in the Marina District.

The trip was still a week or two off when it occurred to me that I might be able to avoid the connection through LAX if we flew out of Baltimore. It would be too expensive to book regular seats on such short notice, but luckily there were frequent flyer seats available on a non-stop flight from BWI to San Francisco for the same day, September 11. So I cancelled the reservations for the American flight out of Dulles.

On Monday, September 10, I had to stay in the office late to prepare some last minute materials for the meeting in Berkeley. I got home after 8pm, ate dinner, and then worked on packing my bag while Julie pegged away at something or other on the computer in the other room.

But something was wrong. I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, yet I had a palpable sense of nervousness about the trip.

This was highly unusual for me. In my job at Whole Foods, I had been an extremely frequent flyer, and the jobs at Discovery had also involved considerable air travel. Just a few weeks earlier, Julie and I had flown from New York to Copenhagen to Stockholm to Latvia and back. I never particularly liked flying, and had always had a grim fascination about plane crashes, but I was certainly used to it and almost never became unnerved by it.

This was different. Very different. Uncomfortably different. There was something about this trip, this flight, that felt foreboding. And so I did something I had never done before. I went into Julie’s office. I grabbed a piece of paper out of the printer. And I proceeded to write the following note — for all intents and purposes, a will:

11:30 p.m.
I’m not sure why I am still so fearful of calamity during my travels. You’d think after all these flights, after all these years, I would have gotten past that. But I haven’t. I guess the older you get, the more you cherish those you love and the dwindling time you have in life.

Anyway, if you’re reading this it is a sad occasion indeed. But you should know with confidence that my life ended up being a happy & content one. Surprise, surprise. Also, take heed of that line by John Irving about how a bad ending doesn’t erase a good life. Or something like that.

Amalfi [my cat] is my most important concern. What an incredibly loving beast. Find a home for him he will like, with someone who will walk him and play with him. I have no will — I guess the house will have to go into probate, but at this point I think Marty & his kids need the money most. Find a way to sell the house and get it to them. In the safe you’ll discover some paperwork, plus a key to my… safe deposit box. I have life insurance, some Whole Foods stock, another stock certificate on the way, & various other financial accounts….

Also, there are copies of my written journals in the… filing cabinets, original copies in the safe deposit box, and taped journals in the basement, my office, and even in the tape recorder in my briefcase. Maybe there are some moments of wisdom or enlightenment therein. Doubt it, but it’s all I have left.

Live your lives, and please don’t dwell on this.

— Joe


I threw this note into the safe shortly after midnight, without saying a word to Julie, and went to bed.

On the morning of September 11, United Flight 297 was scheduled to leave very early, so Julie and I opted to take a car service to the airport. We dozed in the backseat on the way to BWI, boarded our plane, and went back into our groggy daze while the plane took off and rose into the sunny morning sky.

A couple of hours later, the pilot came onto the intercom.

“Uh, ladies and gentlemen, because of some… incidents… around the world today, we have been requested to re-route our flight and land at the nearest suitable airport. And in our case, that is going to be Lincoln, Nebraska. And, uh, that’s all I choose to tell you at this time. Please don’t ask the flight attendants, because they don’t know anything else.”

Julie had been three-quarters asleep, but she and I looked right at each other, suddenly fully awake, minds racing.

“What was that all about?” I said.

“I’ve never heard of anything like that. That’s very strange.”

“Sounds to me like the FAA has grounded all airplanes. I’m not sure that has ever happened before. There must have been some hijackings or something.”

She and I immediately hatched a plan. We figured we were about to get seriously inconvenienced, and that whatever had happened it might mean we were going to have to stay over in Lincoln. Everyone else on the plane would be in the same situation. So as soon as the plane landed — we wouldn’t wait for the pilot to tell us it was OK to start using our cell phones — she would begin to call local hotels and I would begin to call car rental companies.

The passengers were all buzzing, talking to each other, speculating about what might be going on. The flight attendants swore they knew nothing. The plane began an extremely rapid descent, and minutes later we were on the ground. Julie and I had our cell phones in hand, and began trying to dial the hotels and rental car companies. But we couldn’t get a signal. We had no idea why. We were instructed to get off the plane as fast as possible, and we did.

Now, the airport in Lincoln, Nebraska was not a very big one. As the passengers walked into the gate area, we were all looking around for a TV set to try to figure out what was going on; there were none. We tried our cell phones again and again, without success.

At length, some passengers were able to reach colleagues or family via phone, and only at that point did word start to spread, passenger to passenger, about what had happened, or what they thought had happened.

“A plane hit the World Trade Center!”

“There’s been a bombing at the State Department!”

“A plane went into the Pentagon!”

“We’re at war!”

None of it made much sense. Julie, ever calm and resourceful under pressure, left the gate area and made it to the lower level of the airport, where she was already in negotiations to get a hotel room. I finally reached my boss, Keith, in Berkeley, mostly to tell him that I didn’t think I was going to be able to make the meeting that afternoon.

“Keith, what the hell is going on?”

He explained everything to me, in a remarkably quiet and reassuring voice. But moments later, I followed some fellow passengers over to a small airport restaurant, where a lone TV was playing out the horrific scenes. I think at the time I crowded into that restaurant, the television showed one remaining tower of the World Trade Center, on fire. It didn’t last long.

From there, things moved quickly. United officials came out to tell us that they were going to get a bus to take us to the local Red Cross Center, and that we would have to leave our luggage behind for now. They were still indicating hope that the flight would resume later in the day, but they didn’t know for sure.

Julie and I decided that that was not going to happen, so we told them we were terminating our itinerary and gave them an address back in Maryland to ship the bags to.

We decided we would spend the night in Lincoln, and then start driving home on Wednesday. We booked a hotel room, got a rental car — for some outrageous amount like $400 a day — and left.

As we were driving away, I felt something hit my gut like a cannonball. I started tearing up, and breathing fast. Only then did my mind clear enough to realize what had happened — to me. I told Julie about my intuition from the night before — just a few hours earlier, really– and about the note in the safe. She just stared at me.

And then I really connected the dots.

The flight that hit the Pentagon had departed from Dulles. It was an American Airlines plane, en route to Los Angeles. It was flight 77.

We went to a mall to get supplies. All the stores were closing early, pulling down their metal gates as if they could somehow shut out the world. We wandered into some department store to buy clothing, and a TV in the men’s department was blaring away with the gruesome footage, already seen too many times.

We were able to return to the airport later that day to reclaim our luggage. There was nobody on hand except National Guard troops.

We sat in a hotel room that night and cried.

We pointed our expensive rental car eastward the next morning, and spent Julie’s birthday driving all day. Des Moines. Davenport. We tried to break out of the torpor by stopping at a riverboat casino. We switched rental cars in Peoria, and again somewhere else. We stopped to see friends in Richmond, IN. We made it home in three or four days, comforted to see our house and our cat, yet also aware that a piece of paper was sitting in the safe that was radiating some kind of magical forcefield in our now changed lives.

We learned that one of our neighbors, Todd Reuben, had been on flight 77; and that one of my Discovery colleagues, Elizabeth Wainio, has been on United flight 93, which went down in Shanksville, PA.

The note still sits in my safe. It is one of my most treasured possessions.

I have told this story to a select few people over the years. It never fails to leave people open-mouthed, awed, questioning whether this was some sort of miracle, or evidence of a higher power. Or simply the most inexplicable thing that’s ever happened.