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A cross-country road trip had been Lew Freeman’s dream since he was a 14-year-old at camp in New Mexico. Last week, the president of Coconut Grove, Fla.-based forensic accounting and consulting firm Lewis B. Freeman & Partners accomplished that dream by traveling from San Francisco to Miami in a white Cadillac, together with Charles Harper, the former regional chief of the Securities and Exchange Commission and now an executive at Freeman’s company. The cross-country trip was a first for Harper, who has not driven north of Orlando in 15 years. The 70-hour trip could have easily been another Steve Martin comedy or another buddy movie. But the trip was part of a nightmare. On Sept. 11, Freeman and Harper were in San Francisco for the North American Securities Administration conference. As the conference concluded, the two partners went to the airport in San Francisco where they were scheduled to take a 7 a.m. American Airlines flight to Miami. But when they showed up to check in at the counter, an airline employee told them that an airplane had crashed into a World Trade Center tower. The two business partners went to the Admiral Club in the airport, puzzled as to how such an accident could have happened. “When the second plane crashed everyone knew it wasn’t an accident,” said Harper. When a third plane plowed into the Pentagon, the San Francisco airport was shut. That, in turn, had Harper and Freeman heading back to downtown San Francisco, scrambling for a rental car. Other executives and securities regulators — in town for the securities conference or other business — began to combine rental forces. Strangers formed car or van pools to different regions of the country. Donald Saxon, chief of Florida’s Division of Securities, hopped into a car with Doug Wilburn, a former securities regulator for Missouri. Their trip began on Wednesday afternoon and Saxon arrived home in Tallahassee on Sunday morning after dropping Wilburn off in St. Louis. Flags and patriotic signs were everywhere, even on mountainsides. For example, in one small city in Alabama Saxon and Wilburn drove through a one-mile stretch of flags. “It was refreshing to see how America was standing up to the situation,” he said. David Nelson, the regional chief for the SEC, who was at the same conference also made the cross-country trek by car. Some executives opted to wait a day or so to see whether commercial flights would soon resume. But Harper and Freeman doubted that the airports could be made secure on such a quick timetable. They hit the road instead. Not surprisingly, the roads out of San Francisco were congested. The partners drove until they reached a Family Inn in Arizona, not far from the Grand Canyon. In Pyler, Texas, they spent the night at the Hampton Inn, and on the third and final night of the trip, they got rooms at the Comfort Inn in Marianna, Fla. Along the way, they stopped once at a Kmart to buy underwear and a charger for their cellphones, which they used frequently during the trip. And they bought junk food. Lots of it. Harper and Freeman snacked their way across America with a steady diet of fruit, gum, peanuts, licorice, Cheetos, mints and lots of bottled water. When they ate yogurt, their “rule of road” was simple: “keep your own spoon,” says Freeman. The back seat became a trash bin that was emptied about once a day, sometimes longer. And while driving and eating, Harper and Lewis listened to the news and talked about the horrific events, which became an obsession as the 5,200-mile trip continued. “In the beginning, it was just complete shock,” Harper said. “We were just numb over how something like this could happen.” The two men — who professionally pore over documents looking for clues about missing funds or financial missteps — spent hours trying to figure out the mechanics of the terrorist attack and accurately calculated how many terrorists, including pilots, were involved on each plane. Freeman spun his obsession into numerology. Sept. 11, he figured, translates into 9-1-1, the number to call in times of emergency. Harper — who worked for years as a regulator in the securities business — was especially consumed with concern about a friend who worked in the compliance department of Salomon Smith Barney, which is housed in one of the buildings at New York’s World Trade Center. Harper repeatedly tried to call her on his cell phone. Still in shock, she finally called back from a friend’s apartment in New York. Her story was one of the disaster-related miracles. Because of commuting delays, she was not on site for the attack. In between the calls and the miles, the white Caddie became a think thank on wheels. Freeman and Harper came up with a pro bono “triage business” scheme. They plan to volunteer their audit skills to state officials. Their pitch: The team wants to audit the balance sheets and verify the credibility of the various companies soliciting money for victims. Apart from high-minded ideas on the tragedy, everyday concerns continued to creep into their car. “He made me shower and shave after two days,” Freeman complained about his traveling companion. Meanwhile, not all differences were so easily handled for a pair of lawyers who were also traveling across country. Miami lawyers Chris David — of Hall David and Joseph — traveled from Portland, Ore., to Miami by car with his opposing counsel in a lawsuit, Mike Ehrenstein of Kluger Peretz Kaplan & Berlin. The two South Florida lawyers were in Portland on Monday for a deposition. After the attack, David, stranded at the airport, called Ehrenstein and discovered that his opponent had rented a Ford Focus. “Pick me up at the airport,” David requested. “And, no, we did not settle the case,” David said. Meanwhile, Harper and Freeman neared their destination, with a new view on traveling by road and by air. As they pulled out of a Florida Turnpike toll plaza near Jupiter, Harper said, “Air travel is not going to be the same in this country.”

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