When the plane hit the Pentagon, Cheryl Thompson was a mile and a half away in the middle of a meeting in her Virginia office. But she was thousands of miles from her home and family in St. Louis, Mo. Thompson is on a nine-month assignment to the Washington, D.C., area to develop training programs for the U.S. Postal Service, where she is a retail operations analyst. She is also the president of the Society of Government Meeting Planners.
After her building was evacuated that day, Thompson returned to her hotel, where she watched the carnage on television with other stranded travelers in the concierge lounge. “Hearing the constant sirens, the fighter jets overhead, it was…eerie. I felt tremendously disconnected, not being with my family,” she says. “The phones were not very reliable. I tried to reach my husband at work and he wasn't there. Normally, I would have tried to reach him at home at that hour, but you do silly things when you are in an emergency.”
As there were no flights out, she rented a car and drove for two days to get home. It was a period of quiet, a time to reassess what she was doing so far from her husband, James, and nine-year-old son, James Michael.
That was before the anthrax-laced letters began arriving via the U.S. Postal Service.
Returning to the Scene
She spent a week at home, discussing the future with her husband and son. “We decided that the right thing to do was for me to return to my job. I write training programs. That's what I do, and this is where I need to be — and it isn't forever,” she says. Her assignment will end in January.
The anthrax situation has further tested her resolve, but has not sent her packing. Instead, she has helped develop new safety training programs for postal workers and customers in light of this new threat. Her office is not in a postal service building but is in secured corporate office space. She still shops and dines in D.C.
“Since September 11, the postal service has delivered three billion pieces of mail and confirmed that three pieces were contaminated,” she states. “Everything possible is being done to reduce a very, very limited threat to no threat at all. The latest Gallup poll found that nine of 10 Americans are going about their business as usual. You can count me in that group of nine.”
As this year's SGMP president, she signed a letter to President Bush in October supporting his leadership, and encouraging government meetings to continue. Here's an excerpt: “Government employee travel and the resumption of governmental meetings provide a wonderful example to the American people.”
After hearing from members, SGMP moved one of its board meetings from September 20 to 22 to early November in Norfolk, Va. There was no drop in attendance at that meeting of about 75 people, and the airlines and hotel were great about rescheduling, Thompson says.
“Living at the hotel, I've seen what the downturn in travel is doing to our supplier partners,” she says. “We must support them by continuing with our meetings.”
Are government meetings more of a target for terrorists? “The thought has crossed our minds. But we're being vigilant, and we're going to be revisiting security issues at our annual meeting in January. Maybe we were too complacent about security in the past.”
The Society of Government Meeting Planners includes nearly 3,000 federal, state, and local government employees and suppliers of services required to conduct government meetings. SGMP is located at 908 King Street, Lower Level, Alexandria, VA 22314. Phone: (703) 549-0892; e-mail: email@example.com