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by Randy Keck
The Community News
This article was originally published in the Sept. 20, 2001 issue of The Community News. It is a background article to a follow-up article printed in the Sept. 9, 2011 issue.
Aledo resident Cindy Bartlett is used to the balancing act. Every day she handles those mundane daily tasks we all face. She goes to work and drives home tired. She doesn't always enjoy doing the dishes, taking out the trash or folding laundry. But those things come with the territory of domestic life.
Cindy isn't really any different than the rest of us. But on Tuesday her connection to the events in New York was a lot closer than most.
She was there.
Cindy is a Human Resources Manager for Thomson Publishing, which recently purchased her former company, Harcourt College Publishers.
It was that acquisition which was to temporarily take her away from her everyday tasks as wife and mother.
The two companies were integrating their payroll systems, and Cindy traveled to New York with her Fort Worth office companion Cherie Scott to learn the new payroll system.
Cindy and Cherie arrived in New York Monday afternoon and checked into the Millennium Hilton Hotel, across the street from the World Trade Center.
They wasted little time visiting the sights. “We had a fabulous evening - we went shopping on Canal Street,” said Cindy. After buying some purses, they visited Grand Central Station, Times Square and Broadway before going back to the hotel for a “calm, quiet evening.”
Their Tuesday agenda called for training in the Thomson Financial Building directly behind the Millennium Hotel. Breakfast was scheduled for 8:00 to 8:30. Dinner was scheduled Tuesday evening at the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of one of the World Trade Center towers.
Cindy and Cherie left the hotel around 8:05.
“I remember thinking what a beautiful morning it was,” said Cindy, “Here I am at a five-star hotel in the middle of downtown.”
She took pictures of both towers.
Cindy and Cherie began their training with 10 other students from around the country promptly after breakfast at 8:30 a.m.
The students were on page two of their training manual - logging onto the computer - when the lights blinked and they heard a “boom.”
“I wonder what that was,” said the instructor as he continued the class.
Within four or five minutes the intercom announced that there had been an accident at the World Trade Center, but that it didn’t affect their building.
Five minutes later they heard the intercom mike key on and off.
“Maybe we’d feel better if we called called our bosses and let them know we’re okay.”
The instructor agreed to a ten-minute break, and the students dispersed.
Cindy called her boss in Fort Worth, but it was 7:55 a.m. in Texas, and Cindy heard her boss’ voice mail.
She reached the boss’ husband at home. He turned on his television, and about that time the second building was hit.
“We felt that one,” said Cindy. “A security guard came in and said ‘get out - get out!’”
“I gotta go,” Cindy said as she hung up the phone.
In times of crisis we sometimes look back and wonder why we did what we did.
“I grabbed my purse. Cherie grabbed her training manual,” said Cindy.
The purses their previous night’s shopping yielded had been selectively loaded before the day’s events.
“Why did I put my address book in my purse?” asked Cindy. “Why did Cherie take her cell phone charger?”
Both would come in handy.
When the students reached the street they tried to make a plan.
Building officials moved them across the street. None of their cell phones would work until Cherie was able to reach her mother. Twelve people in Cindy’s group gave Cherie phone numbers and messages to relay to loved ones.
“Everybody at that point was just saying, ‘get out - get out!’” said Cindy.
Instructions from Corporate
One of the members of Cindy's group was Carol Wilson, a Vice President of Thomson Systems from Albany, New York.
Carol was able to contact the company’s corporate office, and the instructions were to walk uptown and make their way to the Plaza Hotel.
“We knew we had to get away from there.”
The group started walking uptown, and near 11 a.m. they found a K-Mart.
They decided to split up in the store and meet back at the front door ten minutes later.
The group, including ten women in high heels, dispersed to purchase tennis shoes, socks, back packs and bottled water.
“Not everybody bought tennis shoes - I was surprised.”
As the group was sitting on the floor in the front of K-Mart, tying their shoes, a man walked in and asked if the ATM machine worked. After getting his cash, he remarked “I have some cash, I’m alive, I’m going home.”
He had been on the 29th floor of the first tower when it was hit.
The man offered to guide the group to the Plaza Hotel in exchange for use of a cell phone.
Numerous hands with cell phones were offered.
The group decided the best course of action would be to avoid Grand Central Station and the Empire State Building.
They decided to stay together at all costs.
“Like little kids, we were holding hands, constantly counting each other.”
Fears for life
The walk to the Plaza was at least four miles, according to Cindy. There were occasions when she truly feared for her life.
The first time was when they heard a shattering roar. Only six or eight blocks from the World Trade Center at the time, they didn’t know what the noise was but were concerned it was another attack.
Cindy described the noise as “the train coming through Aledo times 100.”
The noise was the first tower falling, and the group saw the dust cloud two blocks away.
Cindy leaned against the wrought iron fence of a church as she watched the tower fall. When she saw that spot later on the news everything was covered in six inches of dust. But Cindy's group escaped the dust cloud.
Fear struck again as the group was leaving K-Mart.
The group was preparing to walk around Grand Central Station, when a group of people ran toward them exclaiming, “There’s a bomb!”
They asked themselves, “Where are we supposed to go?”
They couldn’t turn back, so they stood aside and let the crowd pass, then moved on.
Walking and wondering
“We walked and walked and didn’t stop,” said Cindy.
They continued to try to use their cell phones.
“You would dial 30 times and then one time it would connect. Whoever you were dialing when your phone went through was who you talked to.”
Doubts crept in.
“When we get to the Plaza Hotel, are they going to let us in?”
Carol Wilson kept the group together. The group’s attitude was “we must stay together - we have to stay together to get out of here.”
That cohesion was threatened when one of the young ladies in the group remembered that her boyfriend was back at the hotel. She wanted to go back to find him.
“We just couldn’t let her,” said Cindy.
Miraculously, the young lady spotted him across the street, and he became part of the group.
As they walked, in between cell phone calls Cindy said the group conversation turned to “Who’s doing this?”
“We went through all those discussions just like everyone else did.”
The main concern running through Cindy’s mind on the long journey was how her daughter, Jennifer Wilson, was going to react.
Cindy’s husband, Jeff, was on his way to El Paso, and Cindy had been unable to reach Jennifer’s father at work in Fort Worth.
One of Cindy’s co-workers in Fort Worth was able to reach Debbie LeBlanc at Aledo High School. Debbie found Jennifer during a fire drill at the school and took her to the office. Jennifer called her dad, who picked her up from school.
About 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time Cindy, standing by the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel, was able to speak to Jennifer on the phone.
“The most emotional part of the day was when I had to tell my daughter good-bye.
“I didn’t want to say good-bye but I knew I had to. It was very difficult. You don’t know if you’re going to see them again. That was my emotional breakdown of the day.”
Corp calls back
When the group reached the Plaza, the corporate office reached Carol Wilson and gave the group two options. They could walk on to another hotel, where 12 employees of a sister company were staying. They could share rooms with those 12 people.
The second option was to walk to the 59th Street Bridge, walk across the bridge to Queens, and a bus would meet them there.
Wilson allowed the group to vote. They were tired of walking. They voted to join the group at the other hotel.
“Our feet hurt. We were tired. We didn’t want to walk anymore.”
They were outvoted by corporate.
The corporate decision: “We want you out. We want you out now.”
At that point they were at 57th & 4th. They had to walk across two blocks to 59th and down four long blocks to the 59th Street Bridge.
The bridge itself looked to be about a mile long. The outbound lanes were filled with a constant flow of traffic. The inbound lanes were closed to traffic, and that’s where everyone walked.
There was to be a red and white bus, number 1001, waiting for them.
Doubts continued to creep.
“What do we do if the bus isn’t there?”
“Are we safe on this bridge?”
They heard military planes flying overhead throughout the day.
The end of the 59th Street Bridge is difficult to define. At a point it becomes a sort of overpass, and streets cross underneath.
There was no bus.
After contacting corporate, the group was told the bus was at 37th & Northern. They continued walking, and came across a group of four young people. The two males had big jugs of water on their shoulders. The girls were handing out cups of water to the weary walkers trekking across the bridge.
The good samaritans told Cindy’s group they were headed in the right direction.
“Every step of the way we felt a little more relief.”
They found the bus about 3:30, and the first thing the passengers did was make the driver turn off the radio. They drove about five miles in heavy traffic to I-495, then about 60 miles to Port Jefferson, Long Island.
From there it was an hour and fifteen minute ferry ride across Long Island Sound into Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Five limousines met the group at Bridgeport, and the small group, which had spent the day determined to stay together, was forced to split up.
About 45 minutes later the passengers were delivered to the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut. They were met by three company executives who gave the travelers bags with personal items and T-shirts. Rooms had been reserved.
A mall was across the street, and the next morning they were to find clothes and whatever they needed.
Cindy remembered she had a prescription which was left in her hotel back in New York. Somehow a person back in Fort Worth was able to reach her doctor, and the prescription was delivered to her room by 10 p.m.
As she sat alone in her room about 10:30 she saw videos on television of what had happened that day for the first time.
“I’m comforted I didn’t see that all day long and didn’t see it first-hand,” she said.
“I didn’t see any airplanes hit. I didn’t see anyone jump from any buildings. I’m thankful I didn’t.”
Remember where you were?
Although a child at the time, Cindy remembers where she was when President Kennedy was assassinated. She said her daughter Jennifer will always remember September 11.
“She’s going to remember that her mom was there and that she came home safely.”
As for Cindy’s husband, he was in a car somewhere west of Midland. With radio stations in short supply, he was not aware of the events in New York until later.
She left him a voice mail. Later his boss was able to reach him. Neighbors told him where Cindy was.
They were finally able to talk about 11 p.m.
“Communication is what we all counted on," said Cindy.
Beyond communication, though, was the question of transportation.
The question became “How am I going to get home?”
Planes weren’t flying. Even if they were, what guarantee would there be that she could fly on one?
“The fear factor was not there. What made me think I’d be first out?”
The trip home
The solution turned out to be William Cunningham. Tracy Cunningham was one of the members of Cindy’s group, and after arriving in Stamford, Tracy’s husband, William, picked her up and took her home to Scranton, Pennsylvania, a three-hour trip.
Before taking Tracy home he offered to return and drive Cindy back home.
“That’s a little too much to ask,” said Cindy, but eventually she and Cherie agreed to hire William to drive them back to Texas.
They left Stamford at noon on Thursday, and drove non-stop to Knoxville, Tennessee. Five hours later they hit the road again and arrived at Cherie’s apartment in Arlington at 5:45 Friday night.
In a 31-hour period the group drove for 25 hours.
Cindy said the road trip went by faster than the 12 hours of walking on Tuesday.
At home and thankful
When this article was written, Cindy’s luggage and a purse she bought for Jennifer are still sitting in her New York hotel room.
She returned to work Tuesday, a week after the ordeal began.
She spent Sunday and Monday catching up on some of the more mundane parts of life.
In the course of our lives there are inevitable mundane tasks we routinely face. She cleaned the house. She took out the trash. And she counted her blessings.
“I’m thankful I had laundry to do, a home to clean, and groceries to shop for.”