For Gary Pearson, director of meetings and conventions for Aon Corporation, there was no time for disbelief, no time to grieve. Eleven hundred of his colleagues were working in their World Trade Center offices in New York when the towers were hit on the morning of September 11. Some 200 never made it out. From that day until the final heartfelt words at memorial services two weeks later, Pearson and his associates Harriet Washburn, vice president-travel, and Mary Ann Knepper, director of special events, were on an adrenaline rush of activity, making battlefield planning decisions from their Chicago offices. Their first-person account follows.

Tuesday, Sept. 11

Gary Pearson, Director, Meetings & Conventions:

I got into the office about 8:05 or 8:10 [all times are Central Standard Time], and as I was going to my cubicle, a secretary stopped me and said, “Oh, did you hear? A plane crashed into the World Trade Center.” We had no idea it was a terrorist situation.

About 15 minutes later, people all of a sudden were scurrying around saying, “Get on your computers. Look at what is going on.” Then we heard about the second plane hitting tower two. Then the Pentagon was hit.

At 9:05, a voice came over the loudspeaker in our Chicago offices saying, “We are evacuating the building; please leave in an orderly fashion.” By 9:10 I was down on the street, bag in hand, walking to the train, headed home, listening with my Walkman headphones on to everything that was going on.

Harriet Washburn, Vice President-Travel:

Tuesday morning, I was at home watching TV and checking my voice messages, which I traditionally do before I come in to work. I left home immediately after the first tower went. By the time I got downtown to my office, the second tower had been hit, and our building had been evacuated.

I returned home and immediately began managing three simultaneous initiatives that would occupy all my time for the next few weeks: dealing with our stranded travelers, setting up crisis centers, and taking care of the victims' families, which included arranging travel and setting up memorial services. There were 1,100 Aon employees working in our New York offices on floors 92 and 98 to 105 in the south tower, and about 200 of them were unaccounted for.

Most of Tuesday was spent working with Carlson Wagonlit, our travel management company, on stranded traveler arrangements. We gave them carte blanche to bring people home however they could. Standard travel policy restrictions were eradicated.

Mary Ann Knepper, Director of Special Events:

I was at our charity golf tournament on Monday from 6:30 in the morning until midnight, so I actually slept in Tuesday morning. I was getting ready for work, watching the news, when they said that the World Trade Center had a major fire. Reports were that it was hit by a plane, but Charlie Gibson on ABC said, “That can't be.” Two minutes later, I saw the video and realized right away that we had Aon people at the World Trade Center; I just didn't know in which building.

I started calling people in our Chicago headquarters. But we had finished moving in to the building just six weeks earlier, and I didn't know a lot of the new phone extensions for management. Somehow, I was the one who actually alerted our chairman's office. I called our chairman's assistant, who said, casually, “How was the golf tournament?” “Fine,” I said, ‘“but have you turned on the news?” They were just shocked. I said, “I can't get hold of anyone. You need to tell the right people over there.”

Wednesday, Sept. 12

Washburn: When I came into the office on Wednesday, the first thing I did was call American Express and ask them what provisions we could make for assisting stranded travelers. American Express couldn't have been more gracious.

Working was far better than sitting in front of a TV at that point. It was distracting and it gave us a sense of being able to do some small part.

Knepper: The chairman of our board, Patrick Ryan, was supposed to fly from Monte Carlo to New York on Tuesday. All the planes in the U.S. were grounded. But he flew on our corporate jet to Newfoundland, Canada. His chauffeur drove from Chicago to pick him up on Wednesday. They got back to Chicago at 4 a.m. Thursday morning, and by 10 a.m. he was on a worldwide conference call to all of our employees after a sleepless night.

Thursday, Sept. 13

Pearson: When you heard the stories on the news, it seemed so far away. But when you put it in perspective that, “Hey, we knew people in there!” … Well, it changed everything.

About midday Thursday, our real estate division said, “We need your help getting space in three hotels in the tri-state area where employees live to set up crisis/counseling centers for families whose loved ones are lost or missing.” The centers were supposed to open just four days later, on Monday. I started calling my national hotel sales contacts: John Jeffrey, global account director insurance, Starwood; Francine Cobb, director of insurance sales and worldwide accounts, Hilton; and Denise Cmiel, director of national accounts, Hyatt. All three said they would help in any way possible and jumped right in, calling properties in the designated cities to help us get space.

I was already at home for the night when Harriet called. Our executives had decided we needed a New York nerve center immediately and wanted it to open in midtown Manhattan by first thing Friday morning — just hours away! My contact at the Four Seasons, National Insurance Sales Manager June Locke, tried to get us space, but the Pierre and Four Seasons New York were not available. Nothing came of her efforts, but June was on her home phone late at night working on our behalf and was glad to do it. There was an unbelievable level of compassion and partnership with our preferred hotels.

Ultimately, I reached the manager on duty at the Plaza, where space was available. Harriet took over, worked the rest of the evening with it, and we were ready to go the next morning.

Washburn: The urgency picked up Thursday night, and it continued until one in the morning when we made arrangements at the Plaza. I was yelling at a front desk manager at The Plaza, “This is an emergency! You need to get the convention manager in!” David Lee, The Plaza's conference service manager was out of the hotel; they rousted him at his home, and the next morning, he had everything in place. It was remarkable.

It is hard to explain. We weren't contemplating that we couldn't get it done. We were going to get it done. It was non-negotiable.

Knepper: Harriet and I are both directors of the company. We had lost our building in New York and more than 200 people were missing. I wanted to do something but I didn't know what, so I worked the phones during the night on Thursday.

Friday, Sept. 14

Pearson: When I got in to the office on Friday morning, we started putting the rush on for properties in Parsippany, N.J., Greenwich, Conn., and Long Island that could house our crisis centers. Ultimately we locked in the Hyatt Regency in Old Greenwich, the Harrison Conference Center in Glen Cove, N.Y. [Long Island], and the Sheraton in Parsippany. The other thing I was doing simultaneously was canceling Aon meetings that had been scheduled through the end of September.

In the midst of all this frantic planning, I heard from colleagues and hoteliers via e-mails and phone calls, checking to see if I was OK. When they reached me, they expressed their condolences about our employees. It was heartwarming to know that people were looking out for me.

Paying for everything was remarkably simple, thanks to an idea of Harriet's: to set up a disaster account with American Express. So whenever I made arrangements with a hotel, everything was charged to this special [non-plastic] American Express account. We told our American Express account manager the name of the property and our contact, and he sent a letter of authorization from the American Express side. American Express — which had its own offices and people in the World Trade Center — worked hand in hand with us on this.

Everybody asks what it cost. It was one of those situations where we knew we would have extraordinary expenses, but the direction from above was “Do it.” Basically, all of our suppliers were straightforward and fair. No one gouged us; no one took advantage of the situation. Some hotels did not even charge for meeting room space, and we were given discounts on phone charges. Everyone said, “We want to help.”

But in some ways it was like planning a real big meeting at the last minute — one in which everything goes wrong. Requests for meeting room space kept changing that first Friday. And at the last minute on Friday, Harriet got a call that we needed a site in Brooklyn, so we booked the Brooklyn Marriott.

Eventually our five crisis centers were each set up with two big group counseling rooms and 10 smaller meeting rooms for either family grieving or family counseling sessions. Additional meeting space was used for what we called “The Bullpen,” where we brought in computers and people from human resources handled employee benefit calls and worker's compensation situations. We also set up a “bonding room,” usually a ballroom, at each site where people could just get together and talk and console each other rather than be limited to a counseling situation.

Washburn: Friday morning, my boss Len Galla, president of Aon, called me into his office and said, “Read this e-mail.” It was from our team at The Plaza. The message was: “This space is great; there is food, all is fine. Thank you.”

We are forever indebted to David Lee at The Plaza. On a daily basis he introduced himself to the person who was in charge of each of the different functions, because the functions were unrelated and set up by different people. He went to each person and gave him or her his pager number. He was the single source who knew everyone and made sure that their specific requirements were immediately fulfilled.

Saturday, Sept. 15

Pearson: We needed to work over the weekend because there was so much going on. I came in Saturday; Harriet came in Sunday.

Things were strangely quiet on Saturday morning. In fact, Harriet called me from home around one o'clock, and she said, “If things aren't happening in another half an hour, why don't you leave?” I did, and just as I pulled onto the Expressway, an executive secretary called me. She said, “You better come back.” All hell had broken loose. The families of everyone lost or missing were being called to meet at the New York City Armory.

Aon executives who either worked in the New York area, or who happened to be in New York for meetings when the towers were hit, had been brought in to oversee our crisis centers. On Saturday, one well-intended exec started his own crisis center at the Grand Hyatt because it was the closest major property to the Armory. He got a couple of suites, grabbed some counselors from The Plaza, and brought them to the Grand Hyatt. It was a battlefield decision; he thought it would be easier for people.

Dealing with that situation kept me in the office until about 9 p.m. Saturday. There was no problem, per se, it was just an adjustment. Lots of things happened on the fly like that that we took care of.

A decision was made later that we would not continue to use the Grand Hyatt, that we would keep the Plaza as our central location. We left the Hyatt crisis center open through Sunday night and then moved the whole operation back to the Plaza.

Sunday, Sept. 16

Knepper: I worked the phone bank on Sunday for our president. My job was to answer phones and make sure the rest of the phone crew had something to eat.

Washburn: It was so busy that I was using two phones and a cell phone. That might sound impossible, but it is probably an understatement. There were calls from victims' families; calls from our travel agency saying that a certain family appeared to be in need of grief counseling; calls from hotels needing faxes for AmEx authorization and from AmEx asking where we needed authorization letters sent. Plus, facility requirements were constantly changing.

Anne Farb at the Hyatt Regency in Old Greenwich gave up her whole weekend. She worked with Gary all day Saturday setting up the Grand Hyatt crisis center, and on Sunday afternoon, I was on the phone with her saying, “We need flowers and flags and candelabras and computers at the Hyatt Greenwich.” By Monday morning, she got it all done.

Monday, Sept. 17

Washburn: By Monday, all of the crisis centers were open. Their locations, services, and hours of operation had been posted on our corporate intranet since midday Friday.

The phones continued to ring incessantly. For example, we had families who called and said, “I know my father is out there somewhere; could you check his American Express activity? I can't believe he is dead — maybe he is just wandering around the streets.”

We immediately canceled the corporate credit cards of missing employees and changed the billing addresses so their families wouldn't get bills. We also canceled their AT&T calling cards. We checked with the travel agency to see if they had any outstanding trips and canceled travel profiles.

We had in the vicinity of 200 people who were lost, and we were arranging travel for their families. That led to staggering amounts of work dealing with places that had never heard of a non-plastic American Express card, but were getting our calls asking them to honor the AMEX special account number because the charges were for a victim's family member.

Knepper: I really got into high gear the second week. On Monday the number-two man in the company, President and COO Michael O'Halleran, called to tell me we were going to do two memorials — in New York on Monday, September 24 and in Chicago on Tuesday, September 25. We set up the New York service at St. Patrick's Cathedral with His Eminence, Edward Cardinal Egan, Archbishop of New York, and five other clergy members. The Chicago service was to be held at the Holy Name Cathedral.

My initial marching orders were to do a sit-down luncheon for 1,000 people after the New York City memorial, and I kept saying, “This isn't right; we will have more than that.” The final count was 3,750. The specs kept changing. And changing. We hired Kemper Lesnick, a Chicago-based communications/special events company, to help us with planning and on-site details. They had a brigade of people ready to assist in New York.

We could fit 3,200 people in St. Patrick's: 2,200 people sitting and 1,000 standing. We were at more than capacity. Management put the word out that no outsiders were invited and no guests. It was not a media thing; it was not for competitors; it was not for insurance industry people. It was for Aon to mourn.

Thursday, Sept. 20

Pearson: Three of the outlying crisis centers — in Long Island, Brooklyn, and Connecticut — closed Thursday at 5 p.m., followed by those at The Sheraton Parsippany on Monday (September 24) and the Plaza on Friday (September 25.)

On Thursday afternoon, we were told to set up a post-memorial service New York reception at the closest hotel to St. Patrick's for about 1,000 people. The biggest, closest ballroom was at the Waldorf-Astoria.

I called Francine Cobb, my national sales contact at Hilton, and also Harriet's contact at Hilton, Director of Worldwide Business Travel Sales Lynn MacDonald. I told them, “Here is what we are doing; we need your help. Can you please call the Waldorf and tell them who we are and what kind of Hilton client we are?” Bottom line, the ballroom was available.

Then our needs grew from space for 1,000 people to more than 3,000 people. But the Waldorf ballroom could only hold about 2,200 tops. I looked at a floor plan. “Wait a minute,” I said. “They have foyers on either side, plus some other meeting rooms!” I called back and said, “Can we get the whole floor?” They moved previously booked meetings to other locations within the hotel and gave us the whole floor.

At this point, Mary Ann Knepper entered the picture. She works directly with our chairman, Pat Ryan, and knows what he likes, so she worked with the Waldorf staff to set up food service and flowers.

We originally were going to do a sit-down, plated dinner, but the company decided it wanted a stand-up reception. So Mary Ann worked out a brunch buffet. We had eight food stations, spread out over the whole floor.

Friday, Sept. 21

Pearson: We were told late Friday afternoon that the company wanted to do a reception after the memorial service in Chicago on the 25th. Mary Ann contacted the Chicago Marriott and arranged a reception for 1,800 people.

Back in the New York City, the seating at St. Patrick's Cathedral was inadequate to match the demand. Someone suggested doing a videocast of the service at remote locations. We ultimately rented movie theaters in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and 10 in New York City.

Here in Chicago, our headquarters is physically connected with the Fairmont Hotel. Because not every employee could go to New York or even to the church in Chicago, we asked the Fairmont if we could videocast the full New York and Chicago memorial services in its ballroom. Management there not only said yes, but it also picked up the tab for the room, the video equipment, etc. The only thing we had to pay for was flowers. Relationships mean a lot in this industry. This was a time when it really came in handy.

Knepper: Our company really believes in partnering with the people with whom we do a lot of business, and the Fairmont — which is attached underground to our Chicago headquarters — has become our best partner. They cannot do enough for us. When we set up an Aon Memorial Fund, they gave us a check for $5,000.

We had seating for 750 at the Fairmont videocast and very expensive AV equipment. I have no idea how much it cost them, but it wasn't cheap.

On Friday, I sketched out a design idea for an AIDS-style Aon Memorial pin with the word ‘Aon’ written on it several times, which our COO Mike Halleran loved. It was just a thought, but I felt so proud that I designed it, and that it became our company symbol of the disaster. We ordered 100,000 of them for all of our employees to wear worldwide.

Monday, Sept. 24

Pearson: The New York memorial service was packed to capacity, and we kept hearing that the Waldorf did a wonderful job with the reception afterward. In Chicago, the Fairmont videocast from New York attracted only about 100 people, because I don't think we got the word out enough. That afternoon, Aon circulated a building-wide voicemail in our Chicago offices announcing the Chicago ceremony at Holy Name Cathedral on Tuesday and the video simulcast at the Fairmont.

Tuesday, Sept. 25

Pearson: Largely unspoken among the three of us at that point was the terrible human toll of the tragedy. We knew there were more than 200 people missing but the company still hadn't released names. We didn't yet know who had lived and who had died.

Some 500 people showed up for the Chicago memorial service videocast at the Fairmont. We set up the post-memorial reception at the Marriott for 1,800; we had about 1,200.

Knepper: During the Chicago memorial service at the Holy Name Cathedral, we did a candle-lighting ceremony beginning with our chairman lighting one candle and in five minutes the entire church was lit. Two of our employees sang, and a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace.” That alone was enough to put tears in my eyes. After the service, all of our management was outside hugging each other and sobbing in each other's arms. It was so moving. It was very healing for people.

Final Thoughts

Pearson: We were on adrenaline that whole week; there's no other explanation. I wanted to do my part to help the company and all those poor people. I couldn't physically be in New York, but I could positively affect events via the telephone. We all sat back after the ceremonies ended and the crisis centers closed, and felt good about getting everything done. Later, the reality set in of how much we truly accomplished under the worst possible circumstances.

Washburn: We will deal with fewer hotel companies in the future. We learned that some properties instantly recognized Aon as a good customer, because their national sales office has a representative or several representatives who know the company — and the hotels maintain a database that instantly recognizes us as a customer of that brand.

But other hotels made us fill out credit applications in the middle of the night, when we were reacting to an emergency of catastrophic proportions — even though we have historically given their brand a lot of business. And even after going through that procedure, when we went to book space at another property in that brand, we had to re-introduce ourselves. It was a disquieting experience. Those hotel brands will be losing millions of dollars of our business. That is non-negotiable.

On the other hand, we were remarkably fortunate to have so many industry relationships on which we could rely, and the people of whom we expected great things came through with extraordinary things.

Sometimes, when a car runs over someone, bystanders find extraordinary strength and are able to lift the automobile. Our situation was much like that.