Brian Robinson was hiking the backcountry of the Colorado Rockies. Fred Goldsmith was at a dear friend’s funeral in North Carolina. Amy Evans was joyously beginning her Semester at Sea on the Pacific, miles from her first port in Japan.
They didn’t know for hours, or a full day, that terrorists had destroyed the World Trade Center and hijacked planes that flew into the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. They missed Sept. 11.
“I walked by a newsstand and saw an orange fireball on the front of the newspaper, and I asked somebody what happened and they looked at me like I was a Martian,” said the 50-year-old Robinson. He emerged from the Continental Divide Trail in Silverthorne, Colo., on Sept. 12, 2001, saw flags flying at half-staff and didn’t know why.
Others were stuck in libraries, working on research papers. A college kid who partied hard the night before rolled out of bed at the crack of noon. An American couple with an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, within sight of the World Trade Center towers, wandered the streets of a small town in France near Nice on a long-overdue vacation.
In a technology-saturated world, would it be possible today to remain oblivious to such a shattering event for hours, or even days? Mobile tech was just coming into its own. Facebook and Twitter weren’t even glimmers in the eyes of consumers, let alone iPhones, tablets or widely available Wi-Fi.
In early 2002, 64 percent of U.S. adults owned not-smart cell phones, 16 percent had pagers and 11 percent had some kind of PDA, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project. Today, 83 percent have cell phones, including 42 percent with smartphones.
According to a May survey from Pew, 29 percent of cell owners said they had turned their phones off in the previous month for some period of time just to get a break from using it.
Robinson does that sort of thing, then and now, with his phone, and that’s how he missed Sept. 11.
The former Silicon Valley engineer chucked his 17-year career in 2001 to become the first person to thru-hike the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails all in the same year. That’s 7,400 miles in a sport that takes participants from one end of a trail through to the other.
When he emerged from the Colorado wilderness after the attacks, it had been several days since he bumped into any other hikers.
Robinson, of Monterey, Calif., recalled a sponsor had given him a satellite phone during his quest for thru-hiking’s “Triple Crown” back in 2001, but he couldn’t recall whether he had it with him in those few days leading up to Sept. 11, and likely wouldn’t have had it switched on anyway.
“That’s not why I go out in the woods,” he said.
Fred Goldsmith, 67, was teaching civics and coaching football at Franklin High School, 70 miles southwest of Asheville, N.C., on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. A golfing buddy, Norman Seay, had just died of a heart attack so Goldsmith started the day in class, then hustled to his car for a short drive to the funeral. He left the radio off, choosing to pray for his friend in silence.
“We had to be at the church by late morning,” Goldsmith said. “I just rushed out from teaching and went to the church. We all sat down and the pastor said something like there’s going to be a lot of funerals in the next few days after this morning. I turned to the fellow next to me and I said what’s he talking about? He said, ‘You haven’t heard?'”
Amy Evans, 31, was on a cruise ship as part of the Semester at Sea program, which offers college students a variety of itineraries worldwide while they study and soak up experiences traveling from port to port. Evans, who now runs a jewelry and accessories business, was a student at Montana State University in Bozeman in 2001.
Her group had left Vancouver, British Columbia, on Aug. 31, 2001, and was due to arrive in Kobe, Japan, on Sept. 13. That put her in the middle of the Pacific when the world changed for the worse. The planes had already struck when she woke up that morning.
“I went to the gym to work out and found it to be closed with an uninformative sign,” Evans said. “Later that morning, they announced the news to us as a group, after they had first informed students and staff who had family members working in the towers and Pentagon. The first newspaper we saw was in Japan a day or two later.”
Anne Maxfield, 56, calls herself a serial entrepreneur. Her latest venture is the Accidental Locavore, a website about cooking and eating local and fresh.
Back in 2001, she was providing freelance talent to the apparel industry in New York and living in the West Village with her husband, just a block from the now-defunct St. Vincent’s Hospital.
When terrorists brought down the World Trade Center towers in her own backyard, Maxfield and her husband were in France.
“Jetlagged, I was wandering through the old town of Vence, listening to what I thought was a workaholic Hollywood type on his cell phone, pitching a bad movie about planes flying into the World Trade Center,” she said.
The couple returned to their hotel that evening. The concierge asked the couple where they were from; Maxfield said New York. She was told that night.
“I’ll never forget going by the American Consulate in Nice the next day, where there were flowers and a sign in French that read, ‘Today we are all Americans.'”
Like other business people, Maxfield had a cell phone, but she didn’t think much about not using it on her much-needed vacation. What she didn’t have was the social media that’s ubiquitous now, a factor that would make it unlikely for so many to manage a 9/11 miss today, said Aaron Smith, a senior research specialist at Pew.
“That’s the difference,” he said, “along with widespread adoption of smartphones and more advanced mobile devices. Somebody today doesn’t have to explicitly tell you what’s happening.”