Editor's Notebook: September 11 changed the auto world, too

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, I was thousands of miles away, trudging through the exhibits of the Frankfurt auto show. It was mid-afternoon in Germany, and most of the automakers already had held their press conferences.

As word spread, journalists and auto executives crowded around television sets, trading rumors about the day's tragedies. I took a bus back to my hotel and holed up in front of my television set for the night.

Like most others, I was stunned and fearful. I was born and raised in New York's northern suburbs, and I went to high school in the city. None of my family or friends worked at the Trade Center, but I feared for the safety of several high school classmates. I called my family to find out how they were doing, but the phone lines were jammed. A half-hour later, I tried again. And again and again and again. No luck.

The next day, automotive suppliers were scheduled to hold their press conferences. Several canceled their events, while others halfheartedly went through the motions. Frankly, I was grateful for the distraction. Sometimes one can take refuge from grief in routine activities.

But the disaster would not leave us alone. A bomb threat emptied the hall that housed Ford, Volkswagen and Nissan, and the industry's top executives soon began their exodus. However, departure was not so simple. Following the shutdown of all air travel in the United States, a wave of flight cancellations left us stranded in Frankfurt. We remained in our hotel, trying to book alternative flights.

Thanks to the Herculean efforts of General Motors, a couple of hundred company employees, journalists and suppliers were able to board a weekend charter flight to Detroit. Despite a monstrous bottleneck at the Frankfurt airport's metal detectors, nobody seemed inclined to complain too loudly.

The events of September 11 demonstrated the auto industry's vulnerability to terrorism. The destruction of the World Trade Center offers us a certain crude symbolism. Before the tragedy, we had begun to think of the world as a borderless market. This is especially true of this magazine's readers - auto executives who crisscross the world with each new assignment. The auto industry has learned that it can't take such freedom for granted.

(For additional disaster coverage, see Postscript on Page 50.)

E-mail Editor David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com

You can reach David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com

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