This week, John was contacted by a reporter for the Springfield Times, the paper for our neighboring city. As per our sister-in-law, Laura's, suggestion, the reporter had contacted John to hear his story regarding our family's experience on 9/11. While I hardly find our story worthy of a front-page story, it ended up appearing that way in Friday's paper. Here's the story:
FORMER SPRINGFIELD RESIDENT JOHN RILEY SAW 9-11 IN PERSON
by Craig Murphy
Springfield Times Editor
That Tuesday morning seemed to be yet another routine travel day for John Riley.
It turned out to be anything but.
John, a Springfield resident at the time, didn't get to leave the Newark Marriott Hotel in New Jersey that day and catch a flight to Atlanta.
Across the river from John on September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center was hit by two airplanes in a terrorist attack that killed thousands.
John was on what ended up being his final business trip for Rosen Products in Eugene, a company that integrated flat panel TV's into vehicles.
"I'm getting ready to leave," John recalled this week, the 10th anniversary of the attacks. "I don't watch TV much in hotels. It was a pretty routine trip. I was across the street from the airport. My wife calls me and says, 'I'm so glad to hear your voice.' I asked her, 'What is going on?' She said, 'You don't know?' I said no. She said, 'Look out the window.'"
Unable to see anything out his room window, John went down the hallway to a concierge room.
"There were about 15 people in there," John said. "They were all quiet, staring at the TVs. I could see a bank of windows. It was a very quiet and somber mood. I looked to the TV and saw a building smoking. I looked outside and saw the exact same image."
John admits things seemed to be moving in slow motion.
"I couldn't comprehend what I was looking at," John said. "I'm trying to get my bearings. What was going on? Nobody was speaking. By the time the second tower came down, a person said 'Look!' When the second tower started to go, we were all looking at it with our own eyes. We're trying to figure out if this is real, what we're watching. The towers went down in a cloud of smoke. It was just somber."
John took some pictures out of the hotel window with a disposable camera.
"When the second tower went down I said, "Lord, I'm looking at death here,'" John said. "My next thought was, 'What do you want me to do with this information?' I didn't know why I was seeing that. Why me? Why was I supposed to be there? How can I use this to benefit others? My goal then was to share the love of Christ with anybody around me. Everybody was lacking hope at that point, no knowing what happens after death. I had opportunities to share Christ's story with others."
John's wife Stephanie was back home, six months pregnant and trying to get some sleep when her sister Michele called.
"She asked if I had spoken to John, " Stephanie said. "I said no. She said I needed to call him."*
Stephanie called and got through on the first try, which "was a miracle" due to phone lines being jammed.
"I felt terror," said Stephanie, who had to wait longer to reach her husband a second time. "I have to give my sister credit. She had both more fear and more knowledge of what was going on. She'd had longer to think about it. I had a five minute span to think about it. Nobody in America knew what to expect next. All the contingencies shattered normalcy for us. We were supposed to be in Disneyland that Friday. That was off the plate right away. Every bit of normalcy was gone."
Across the country, reality was slowly sinking in for John.
"I think it was after the tower had settled a bit that it started to become real," he said. "(The tower) was in the dust and couldn't come back. I realized it had really happened. The dust could was so massive, it covered the whole downtown area. You could barely see anything. It was so surreal."
With federal authorities suspecting John's hotel may have been used by at least one of the terrorists responsible for 9/11, the facility was closed. Those inside stayed locked up inside for three days. One person John never saw during that time span was a Middle Eastern man he saw in an elevator the night of the 10th.
Since the air traffic was closed, John began to thing about how to get home. Normally not much of a long-distance driver, John rented a Volvo and started looking for someone to share at least part of his 2000 mile trip with.
"I found a sweet lady who was 55, worked for United and didn't have any money in her pocket," John said. "I said, 'I'm a Godly Christian man. Just talk to me while I'm driving and I'll pay for everything. I can't drive cross-country on my own.' She was the best fit."
John and his companion talked for 14 straight hours, ending when John dropped her off at her home in Chicago. The next day John drove another 1,000 miles. While driving through Nebraska, John looked up through his Volvo's sunroof and saw a plane flying.
"That was the first plane I'd seen," John said. "I thought only in America that we would be bold enough and strong enough to fly so soon after what happened."
Stephanie didn't - and still doesn't - know why her spouse was spared when so many others lost their spouses on 9/11.
"It's not for me to know why," she said. "But I can tell you I spent a lot of time on my knees."
John, who took a desk job with his non-defunct company upon getting back home, said the experience reminded him of an important lesson.
"One of the things I got out of it was life is about relationships," John said, "It was not a new revelation to me, but it really hit home to me. Everything else is, in a sense, meaningless. When this happened, that really showed through. It definitely impacted me. It's all about relationships."
* What the article didn't mention was that when Michele called me that morning, she already knew that a United flight originating out of Newark had been hi-jacked. Knowing that John always flew United and was supposed to fly out of that airport sometime that day, she feared that John was on that fated flight. She implored me to contact him immediately, without giving me more details than I needed at that point, only asking that once I heard from him, I call her back immediately. It was during that second phone call with her (after I had heard John's voice) that she elaborated on all that she feared was the case for John.