Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was a beautiful clear, crisp morning in New York City.
The summer’s heat had dissipated, replaced by fresh and invigorating breezes from the north. The character of daylight had changed, too, as it always does after Labor Day. Gone were the sweltering chords of sunlight at some Godforsaken hour. Sol’s light had already become softer, later in the morning, and more diffuse. The canyons of Manhattan transformed that reduced lighting to shades of blue and grey between brick, glass, and steel.
Everyone was back from summer vacation. The streets bustled again with the kind of frenetic activity you remembered from before the summer.
Part of that hustle was getting kids back to school, like every September.
My wife and I had a simple morning routine. Get the children up and dressed. About half the time, I would be the one to take them to their schools. In Manhattan, this meant a twenty-minute walk through the gently-brightening neighborhood at around 7:45AM.
Above is a picture of Celine and Grant on a typical morning of that era. Our walk that day was very much as depicted, yawns included. After a quick breakfast in the school cafeteria, I dropped them both off and walked over to Fifth Avenue to grab a downtown bus. Normally, I would have walked to the office but I had an early morning Japanese language lesson every Tuesday and I needed to get there quicker. At that hour of the morning, traffic still moved smoothly, and my bus flew down the avenue to my office building on Fifty-fourth Street and Madison.
Like other people, I had no idea of the impending doom already in progress in the skies over the Northeast. No one did. Except for those unfortunate passengers in four planes out of Boston, Newark, and Dulles, Virginia.
My lesson began as planned at 8:30AM for one hour. Ichi – ni – san. When it broke up at 9:30AM, I walked out to my cubicle a few feet away, illuminated by the light from the southern-facing windows.
The scene this morning was unusual in that no one was at his or her desk. That was noticeably strange. In any event, I sat down and booted up my desktop. My first action, like most mornings, was to crank up Yahoo for a first look at any news (Google hadn’t yet taken over). That morning, the site loaded painfully slowly. After a weird delay and a couple of refreshes, a story finally appeared about a small plane crashing into the World Trade Center. That caught my eye and I clicked on it. Nothing doing. That damn story wouldn’t download, no matter how many times I tried.
I was staring at a blank screen, frustrated, when my desk phone rang. I picked up and it was my Dad. He was going to be the one to tell me.
“James,” he said, omitting a morning greeting, “do you know what’s happening?” His voice was upfront and center, no need for pleasantries. The tone was agitated. I was a little on edge.
“I saw a story about a small plane hitting the World Trade Center,” I responded. It was all I knew.
“No!” He half shouted into the phone, as if he were reprimanding me. “It was not a small plane!” I didn’t appreciate it straight away that my Dad, with his office on the cliffs of Weehawken and an unimpeded view of the entire NYC skyline, had actually seen firsthand the aftermath of the first impact at 8:42AM followed by second impact at 9:02AM. Directly, from about five miles away as the crows fly. In other words, Dad didn’t watch the tragedy on TV – he saw it it with his own eyes.
“What is it like?” I asked.
“It’s horrible!” he exclaimed. There was pain in his voice, which shook me up even further.
“Is there smoke and fire?”
“Hell, yes!” Dad let that sink in before he continued. Then he lowered his voice. “You know what this is, don’t you?” Dad never revealed secrets to me. The question was ominous.
“No,” I answered. I wasn’t going to play a guessing game.
“It’s terrorism.” he stated flatly.
I was dumbfounded. On this beautiful morning? I turned around to look out the window. Unlike him, I worked in a midtown skyscraper. My view was principally either of rooftops of low-rise buildings or the eighteenth floor, like mine, (more or less) of other high rises. Not that much sky was visible, unless you looked straight up. Here and there, I could see a vertical stretch of it. I caught one such stretch to the south and saw a thick, dark plume of smoke floating in a horizontal column from west to east, between two unremarkable tall buildings. Not good, not good at all.
With Dad’s heads-up, I knew it was time for me to investigate the situation locally. I thanked him for the call by noting that I needed to figure out what was going on for me. I hung up the handset and walked into my manager’s office where I found a few remaining coworkers (as the others had already left). On the TV was the horrific repetitive image of the second plane crashing into the South Tower. It was captured from a variety of angles owing to the developing story from the crash into the first tower some 20 minutes earlier. There were additional reports of other possible hijackings, some false and some unfortunately true. Everyone was speechless.
I heard from my wife that the children were on their way home. Not knowing what else to do, I decided to stay at my office and work. An e-mail circulated to the effect that employees could leave if they wanted to. Many did, mainly those who had a commute off Manhattan. Since I lived only a short walk away, without a burdensome commute, I decided to stay in the office.
It was impossible obviously to concentrate on work. I stepped outside to take a break around 11:00AM and walked back over to Fifth Avenue where I had stepped off a bus in a normal world some 4 hours earlier. A clear sight line to the World Trade Center was possible looking down the Avenue. Well, not anymore. Now, there was that ominous plume to the south where the Word Trade Center used to be visible. A burnt-metal smell hung in the air, like an oven that had just run through its self-cleaning mode. A TV in a restaurant was on and a White House Press Conference was broadcast live. Two other planes had crashed, one into the Pentagon, the other into a field in southwestern Pennsylvania. First class passengers from Saudi Arabia on the doomed jets were the subject of intense scrutiny.
I walked back to the office and shortly thereafter, an announcement was made over the building’s P.A. system that the building was closing. Accordingly, I walked back home in dazed anger that my city had been attacked. As soon as I got to my apartment, I took the children with me to the gym downstairs. They ran around and played while I stewed on the treadmill, watching the images over and over again as they etched themselves in my consciousness.
My Dad, for his part, was in touch with one of his overseas colleagues that day. This was with a Mr. Anton Blijlevens, a patent attorney across the world, I mean all-the-way overseas, in Auckland, New Zealand. The same Mr. Blijlevens found me a few months ago this year by virtue of this blog and was kind enough to send me the following cryptic e-mail out of the blue:
hi, I was just searching for an old case I was involved with here in New Zealand and it caused me to look up Bernard Olcott on google. I have nice memories of working with (albeit on the other side of a case) Bernard that he was managing here in New Zealand for Americas Cup related inventions and NZ patent NZ337467.
https://app.iponz.govt.nz/app/Extra/IP/Mutual/Browse.aspx?sid=637372472399416459 [Search for patent no. 337467]
I recall him calling me on the day of 9/11 and we had a very engaging and comforting chat about the world and the confusion that was brought upon us on that day. I understand he called me from his office where the tragic scene was unfolding on the NYC skyline.
I had never heard of Mr. Blijlevens before. But I was touched by his thoughtfulness. Particularly as he found me through my blog (from whom I have found numerous interesting people in my Dad’s past). When I wrote Mr. Blijlevens back for more details, he elaborated on his conversation with my Dad that afternoon while I was working out in my gym:
Thanks for your reply. I was not sure whether the enquiry through the website was going to reach you so promptly but glad it did.
Bernard and I were on the opposite sides of a case involving New Zealand patent application NZ337467. A copy is attached. Bernard had filed this application at IPONZ himself and without using a New Zealand patent attorney. Given his experience this was a perfectly fine strategy and no doubt helped keep costs down. As you’ll probably know, foreign patent applicants tend to use local agents to represent them.
The timing of the NZ patent application raised quite a few concerns to a number of organizations in New Zealand. Whilst the rules of the Americas Cup prevented syndicates obtaining and asserting a patent position, 3rd parties were not so restricted. The patent application was accepted a few months prior to the Americas Cup being held in Auckland. Acceptance is a step prior to grant here in New Zealand. Bernard’s patent application was of concern to a number of Americas cup syndicates, one of whom was my client. I was never privy to the keel configuration on some of the yachts but I believe that one or two syndicates were concerned enough to have the patent application opposed.
Given that a NZ patent application could not be enforced in court until it got granted, I was instructed to commence a pre grant opposition. The duration of an opposition procedure can last for months if not years and in this case was it drawn out long enough for the Americas cup to pass. Once the Americas Cup had been held in Auckland, I was instructed to pull out of the opposition. The patent was in the end granted and it looks like it was kept alive for a number of years after.
Whilst I am sure Bernard had quite easily pursued the patent application to acceptance, following a patent examination process akin to the USA, the opposition process was not that easy to understand. Bernard sought guidance from IPONZ and myself on several occasions about opposition procedural matters. Whilst I had no obligation to assist him with his questions, given I was on the opposite side of the case, Bernard really struck a chord with me when he called me the first time. I hence helped him out by sending him copies of our patent legislation and patent office manuals to help guide him. It was on the day of the 9/11 events (12 September here) that he called me for the 3rd time, not to talk about the patent and the opposition but about what he had just witnessed, live in New York.
It was early morning here in New Zealand and early afternoon in New York so a lot had already occurred yet the news was very fresh for us here in New Zealand. Given the enormity of the events we were all shellshocked here, as was much of the rest of the world. The news we were seeing on the TV was just unbelievable. But my strongest memory of that day was the call from Bernard, and strangely enough to hear from someone so close to the events and who had seen it live, being so calm and collective. He explained what he had seen, from his office I understand, and he was very reflective and this was very comforting to hear on such an impressionable day when so much confusion entered world. I am still not sure why he made that call to a virtual stranger on other side of the world, other than out of genuine kindness and concern. Perhaps it was of mutual benefit. Regardless your dad made a memorable impression on me as a kind and caring man.
Out of this terrible tragedy, I am heartened to have received this warm and thoughtful tribute to my Dad as one “virtual stranger [to another] on the other side of the world”. That’s just the way Dad rolled around the world.
In closing, I would like to thank Mr. Blijlevens for both his kind words about my Dad and for reaching out to me personally to share it.
One small way that the writing of this blog has paid big spiritual dividends. Even, based as it was, on one of the worst days in modern history.