Robert Francis: Finding common ground in memories of 9/11

A plane approaches New York's World Trade Center moments before it struck the tower at left, as seen from downtown Brooklyn, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (AP photo by William Kratzke)

We weren’t three strangers, but it was the first time we had met in person. What we had in common is that we were about to take the stage to talk about cybersecurity. We also found that we were not quite strangers in terms of the road we had traveled to get to the Hurst Conference Center on Sept. 9.

I was the moderator. Though I have written reams of copy about cybersecurity, my expertise is wafer thin. The other panelists had more hands-on experience in the cybersecurity field.

Those experts included Brett Leatherman, Supervisory Special Agent in the Dallas division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He focuses on cybersecurity, and having worked with him on two panels on the subject I’ve seen firsthand that he knows his stuff.

Unlike many involved in government work, he is also an excellent communicator. That’s why he was on the panel.

- FWBP Digital Partners -

The other expert was Michael Moore, founder and CEO of managed service provider M3 Networks in Southlake. He is passionate about cybersecurity.

We had all done a webinar on the same subject earlier this year, and Michael has written several columns for the Business Press raising awareness about computer security issues.

We knew each other, as I said, but this was in person, a chance to learn a bit about each other. The panel was part of a luncheon at the HEB Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 9.

As we waited for the program to begin, slides were informing members of various events planned in the future. There was also a slide commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a day that changed the way we live. It also changed many of our lives.

- Advertisement -

The slide prompted the FBI agent to talk about how the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were a motivation in leading him to his current career. Michael and I told somewhat similar stories. Even though we were not directly involved, 9/11 did change us and the trajectory of our lives, whether we realized it at the time or not. A ripple effect with the center being the haunting image of those two burning World Trade Center towers on a bright, sun-drenched New York morning that – prior to 8:46 a.m. – had been full of promise.

I found their stories intriguing, so I asked the two panelists to share them with the audience. Brett began.

“In 2001, I was preparing to graduate college with a degree in computer maintenance systems and I had no idea at the time where that degree and the events of 9/11 would take me,” Brett said. When the planes hit the towers, he said, he was sitting in an office where he was working in IT at a nonprofit in Michigan.

A friend of Brett’s had graduated from Yale University and was working as a trader in the North Tower when one of the airliners hijacked by al-Qaida terrorists crashed into it. Several days later, Brett learned his friend had died.

- Advertisement -

“That was a catalyst to do something bigger than myself,” he said.

Brett had always wanted to be an FBI agent and he signed on when he first became eligible, in 2003, earning appointment as a special agent at the young age of 25.

Twenty years after 9/11 and 18 years after joining the FBI, he now leads the Dallas national security team.

“As we prepared for 9/11 and the 20th anniversary, I sent a message to my entire counterterrorism team reminding them of why we do what we do in the FBI and the transformation the FBI has had since 9/11,” he told the audience.

As I said, Brett can communicate.

Michael’s story was also about finding a new road that eventually led him to something he was passionate about.

He was working at American Airlines as a baggage clerk and “had an idea of working for AA my whole career,” he said.

Of course, the events of 9/11 caused massive changes to the air travel industry and Michael soon found himself without a job. He called a former roommate and the next week he had a job at an IT company. For Michael, it was a perfect fit.

“I’d been talking about cybersecurity since I was 10 years old,” he said, noting that when his parents suggested he go outside and play baseball, he insisted he was much happier fiddling with computers and considering the infinite possibilities – positive and negative.

“Computer security has always been a passion of mine, but I did not know I could make a career of it,” he said.

My 9/11 connection is somewhat similar to Michael’s. I was a fairly successful freelancer. Unlike many freelancers, I had some steady clients, among them several New York publishers and American Way, the inflight magazine of American Airlines. That wasn’t my first thought, of course, as I watched the events of that day unfold, but soon enough my editors contacted me and said all work was suspended until further notice. I’m still waiting for that further notice.

As the changes wrought by 9/11 began to echo through the economy, some publishers began shifting focus toward defense and counterterrorism. I spoke to a few editors about joining their team to cover those beats, but I just wasn’t too interested. I had traveled the world covering the computer industry when air travel was at least moderately convenient. I wasn’t that interested in resuming that routine when travel was a huge pain in the ass.

About a year or so after 9/11, I reached out and contacted the Fort Worth Business Press about doing some work for them. While my career had taken me around the world, I still harbored a desire to write about local news, which I have done until this day.

I always consider that my father, like many men of his generation, was made by his service overseas in World War II, another cataclysmic event. Such events, however horrific, can sometimes fuel our passions and lead us to reconsider and reorder our lives, often for the better. It shouldn’t take a tragic event to quicken our spirits and send us on paths that engage our passions, but it is often the case.

And so it was for three strangers who witnessed the grim horrors of terrorism 20 years ago and discovered only now that we had traveled a similar road, reordering our lives toward vocations where our passions lay.