It was, as Blake Hobbs understates, “a meeting planner's worst nightmare.” On Sept. 11, Hobbs, an independent meeting planner, was running a 250-person meeting on behalf of Cleveland-based Conferon Inc. for the National Association of Business Economists — in the Marriott World Trade Center.
The anything-but-normal day started uneventfully for Hobbs. It was the last day of the three-day NABE event, and 118 people were listening to the association's president speak during a breakfast meeting on the second floor of the hotel.
After finalizing a checklist of room sets, audiovisual equipment, and signage, and saying good morning to the banquet staff, he took a quick fresh-air break on the plaza level of the World Trade Center and noticed a non-hotel guest availing himself of bags of ice from the hotel's ice machine for the third morning in a row. Hobbs decided security might want to know about this, and went to the lobby to tell them. While he was talking to a guard, the building suddenly shook with the force of an earthquake.
“I looked out the lobby windows and could see in the reflection of the building across the street the fire and smoke bellowing out of the north tower high above where I stood,” he says. “Seconds later, debris began hitting West Street just outside the front door of the hotel.”
He ran to the ballroom to make sure his attendees were being evacuated, and directed people to an exit near the south end of the building. When the smoke became too much, he covered his mouth and nose with a napkin from the breakfast, still not knowing at this point what exactly had happened.
A cellphone call was put in to Conferon headquarters, asking them to get word to NABE that the hotel had been evacuated prior to the second plane hitting the tower. All attendees of the conference had been accounted for safely; two employees from the Marriott were missing.
“My fear was that one of them may have been one of the security guards that I worked next to during the evacuation of the guests,” says Hobbs, who saw the second plane hit the WTC from a vantage point on the street only two blocks away. He then spent much of the day making his way uptown to get an associate from NABE safely to her sister's apartment, stopping to make phone calls when possible, and observing the sad collapse of the twin towers.
Eventually, Hobbs made his way home to Lake Wily, S.C., after an exhausting trip via foot, ferry, and train, which included a stay overnight in Philadelphia with little more than the clothes on his back.
Bruce Harris, president of Conferon, describes Hobbs as a hero who put the safety of others first. But Hobbs doesn't agree.
“I was just doing my job,” he says.