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.