Twenty years ago, before the date 9/11 had special meaning, all I was thinking about was woodworking and new technology. I had been on a tour of advanced woodworking factories in Finland for about a week and was anxious to continue the tour in Sweden and Germany before heading home to the United States.
It had been a great tour so far with lots of amazing new wood technology such as sophisticated scanning systems to locate wood defects and cut them out to optimize yield. The tour included factory owners from the U.S. and Canada who were considering bringing this technology to their plants. By this time on the tour, we had become good friends, socializing, and discussing developments in wood products manufacturing.
Terrorism wasn’t part of the conversation.
We had all boarded a huge overnight ferry to go from Helsinki to Stockholm. We gathered in one of the little cafes on the promenade deck of the ship. Back then only a few of us had cell phones that could work internationally. One of the tour leaders, Claus Staalner, had one and it started ringing. His wife was calling to tell him that a plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center in New York.
We still weren’t talking about terrorism.
The conversation moved from thinking it had been some accident with a private plane to realizing it was an airliner. We were all abuzz and incredulous at the news.
But we still weren’t talking about terrorism.
Then the second plane hit.
We were getting the details piece by piece through relayed comments from the cell phone conversation. It became quickly apparent that this was some kind of orchestrated attack. We became aware that the previously busy promenade deck on the ferry was quickly emptying out as people rushed back to their staterooms to turn on the television and watch what was going on. We did the same and began watching in horror and amazement as the scenes of the attack repeated over and over on television.
When the ferry docked in Stockholm, we were all in shock. All the flags at the ferry terminal were at half-staff. The woodworking tour was over, and we were all wondering how we were going to get home. All flights were grounded.
I had previously made arrangements to connect with a Swedish friend I hadn’t seen in 15 years. He greeted me at the terminal, and we hugged both in the renewed friendship and mutual shock at what was going on in the world. The original plan was just to meet for lunch, and then I would continue on with my tour. But that plan wouldn’t work.
“Lasse, it doesn’t look like I’m going anywhere for a while,” I told my friend. “Any chance I can hang out at your place?”
So, we hopped on a train and headed up to his home in Soderhamn about two and a half hours north of Stockholm. At the time, he was in the midst of a massive renovation of an Empire Era home that would be his full-time residence, so he, his wife and family were making do in a little summer cottage. They somehow made room for me, and we settled into a routine of watching the news, checking return flight status, and visiting the local library so I could use the Internet to communicate with my wife. I remember struggling at first to use the Swedish keyboard. Where was the darned @ key for the email address?
It was all so surreal as we caught up as old friends amid the backdrop of a world gripped by terrorism. Always in the background was a TV screen with the latest reporting on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. From emails with my wife in Connecticut, I heard reports of people from our town who perished in the attack. It all was far away and close to home at the same time.
In Sweden, the local newspaper heard about me and sent a reporter to interview the “stranded American.” A journalist interviewing another journalist is always an awkward moment.
And all the while, I kept worrying about how I was going to get home. It seemed like being stranded forever because there was no end in sight until after about four days, we heard that flights would soon resume. I was directed to head back to the airport. I said goodbye to my friends Lasse and Pia, and their boys and caught the train back to Arlanda, the airport that serves Stockholm.
There, I faced a chaotic scene of crowds of displaced travelers surrounded by Swedish troops armed with submachine guns patrolling the airport. Everyone was on edge. When we finally went through a new boarding process, everyone’s bags were thoroughly searched. The pilot of the plane came to the boarding area to assure everyone in Swedish and English that the plane was safe despite (erroneous) news reports that an SAS airline pilot had been in cell phone contact with an Arabic-speaking caller. We were reassured, but then someone accidentally tripped a door alarm, and everyone freaked out.
When we finally boarded the plane, the door was guarded by the biggest Swedish soldier I’d ever seen. He looked a little like Jaws from the James Bond movies.
The flight home was pretty uneventful until we landed in Newark, New Jersey, in full sight of the still-smoking towers across the Hudson in New York City.
Now, I live quietly in the woods in western Maine. I’ve just watched the disaster of our departure from a wasted war in Afghanistan. As I write this, I’m in a sumptuous hotel room in between sessions at the Executive Briefing Conference at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Twenty years separates me from those events. We are once again talking about woodworking technology and not world terrorism, but we are also talking about pandemics and supply disruptions.
And I can’t forget that tomorrow, 9/11, I will go through airport security again and get on another plane to fly home.
Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.