Sept. 11, 2001 was one of those moments that you always remember.

I worked at Metra, and most mornings before the workday started, I’d pour a cup of coffee and flip through the newspaper. A little before 8 a.m. the phone rang, and it was my wife, Barbara, saying she heard on the news that the World Trade Center had been hit by an airplane.

Thinking it was something small like a Cessna, I asked if she knew what kind of plane. She said the initial story sounded serious, so I ran to our department conference room and flipped on the TV. It was obviously very serious. I grabbed my boss, George Hardwidge, Metra’s chief transportation officer, to tell him that something critical was happening.

After seeing the initial news coverage, George grabbed a phone and told a few of us to call each operating district and instruct them to hold all their train crews — don’t let them go home.

On a normal workday, most train crews work the morning inbound rush hour and then go off duty until returning several hours later for the evening rush hour. If there is an emergency, it’s a difficult process to get them back. But on that morning, with the rush hour still in progress, most crews had not yet gone off duty.

As more details from New York were shown on television news, of course, nobody knew what was next — were more planes headed for Sears Tower? Were other cities being attacked? The city of Chicago advised workers to leave the Loop and return home, and fortunately at Metra we were able to assemble crews and trains for a mass exodus. Managers and operating crews scrambled. There were no regular train schedules — trains were simply loaded and sent out, making all stops to the end of each line. By noon, the Loop was mostly deserted.

I was sent to Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) as Metra’s representative. There were other representatives from key Chicago departments — police and fire, along with CTA, FBI and many other offices who might be affected. Three giant television screens were broadcasting CBS news and the continuous images were numbing. I clearly remember Carol Marin, who worked for CBS in those days. She was in New York on another assignment, and had instead rushed to cover the attack. When the towers collapsed, she told of a big New York cop who shoved her into a doorway and shielded her with his body. She was emotional and her clothes were soiled with dust and debris.

It was a vivid image and there were tears in the eyes of OEMC viewers.

But as the hours wore on, it slowly became evident that no more attacks were imminent. Finally that evening, after talking to other emergency organizations and my own management at Metra, we were cleared to head for home. It was a long and draining day — but certainly trivial compared to those folks in New York and at the Pentagon near Washington D.C. 

And it’s etched into my memory.

Paul Oppenheim is a longtime resident of Oak Park and an occasional contributor to Wednesday Journal.

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