Sitting at her dining room table, Debbie Hayes spread out photographs showing her husband, Bob, laughing and hugging their young sons Robbie and Ryan. The telephone rang. The answering machine took one message after another. She cocked her head to listen.
Family members and friends were calling to set up play dates, or just to touch base. Everyday life in small-town Amesbury, Mass. But real tenderness sounds in those voices, and what they really want to know is: How are you making out?
``Everyday life'' ended for Debbie and her sons on Sept. 11. Her husband, who worked for Netstal Machinery Inc., was aboard American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston. Hijacked by five suicidal terrorists, it suddenly changed course and smashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m. Eighteen minutes later, a second hijacked airliner crashed into the south tower and exploded.
Debbie Hayes said her family still hasn't figured out how to live without him. ``We're floating around. We don't know what direction to go in,'' she said.
Robert Hayes, 37, died along with more than 2,800 other people, casualties in a new global war on terror. An unprecedented attack on U.S. civilians snatched Hayes from his family's side and made the machinery executive - like the others who perished in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania - part of U.S. history.
Around the Amesbury and Newburyport area, on the ocean not far from the New Hampshire line, Hayes was known as a skilled surfer who also loved boating. He restored old sports cars and fixed up houses, renting them out. He picked up snowboarding.
Hayes was the person responsible for selling Netstal injection presses for molding compact discs and later, digital versatile discs. He joined Netstal in 1987 as a service technician, fresh out of the University of Lowell in Massachusetts. He worked his way up to manager of sales and market development of data products, becoming an authority in CD manufacturing, well-liked and knowledgeable. On Sept. 11, a Tuesday morning, Hayes was to fly to Los Angeles on a routine business trip to call on some key accounts.
His wife wants people to know him as a father, husband and fun-loving gentleman.
So how are they doing, the Hayes family members - Debbie Hayes, 32, Robbie, 5, and Ryan, 11/2? ``It's hard to say. We have a big void in our life. He was my entire life. I met him when I was 19, so really, he was my life,'' she said, interviewed in March, just after the six-month anniversary of Sept. 11. Her neatly kept, white house sits across the street from the Merrimac River in Amesbury.
She walked through the house. Everywhere are photographs of her husband, most showing the family outside, on their sport fishing boat, at an amusement park. She has on display one of those wood memorial urns from former New York Mayor Rudolph Guliani, and a small piece of the World Trade Center. Two days after the interview, local police notified her that authorities had found her husband's remains. He was cremated, and on April 10, they delivered to the house a marble urn holding Bob's ashes.
In Debbie Hayes' life, Logan Airport in Boston has played a dual role, both tragic and heartwarming. Her husband flew out of Logan on Sept. 11. But the memory she likes to focus on was a dozen years earlier, back in 1989, when they first met.
Debbie Johnston was a customer service agent for Trans World Airlines. ``His limo had gotten in an accident and he missed his flight. We got talking,'' she said. She rebooked him. He walked away. ``There was a glass wall behind the counter and I looked around and kinda gave him a little wave. He came back around and asked me if I wanted to go to lunch.''
She, cautious, said no. But she thought he was handsome, and gave him her number at the airport. He called while on that business trip. ``And we talked on the phone for about a month. And we finally went out, and we just hit it off.''
For their first date he took her on his cigarette boat to Georges Island, for a picnic in Boston Harbor. The little boat was loud. Exhilarating.
Back at Netstal, Hayes right away told all his co-workers. ``He absolutely fell head over heels in love at first site,'' recalled Barry Potter, the former president of Netstal in North America. ``He came back to tell us about this girl. We couldn't believe that she could be this wonderful.''
Potter said Hayes was not the type for machismo bragging about women. ``His feet were on the ground. He had a really strong sense of values. Even in his choice of spouse, he had very high ideals. And Debbie certainly fit the bill.''
She was young, not even 20. ``I'd never been in love before. I had dated people but, you know, just kid stuff,'' she said softly.
But this was different. ``His friends would have dates, and they wouldn't know what to do. So they'd always go to Bob. He'd decide what we were doing and we always did something fun. He was always creative,'' she said.
His sense of adventure extended to work. He often lugged his surfboard on business trips. ``We were working with a French company that had a subsidiary in Canada,'' Potter said. ``Whenever he was in France, he made sure he went surfing in the south of France.''
Debbie and Bob dated for four years, then married in 1993. Bob was a gentleman, so even though they bought a house in Newburyport, she didn't move in until after they were husband and wife.
Hayes traveled a lot. Sometimes Debbie came along, to keep Bob company or help out at a trade show. Samantha Gauld, who used to work at Netstal, said Bob kept an eye on his pretty wife while working the booth.
``So many times we'd be at a show, and Bob and I would have to work the floor, but Deb would come too. And you know, when the guys would come around, I'd say, `Bob, Bob, you gotta head over here,' '' she said.
Gauld chuckled as she sat in the living room of her Newburyport duplex, just a few miles from the Hayes home. She remembers the little details - the trade shows, listening to Bob give a sales presentation, how he still opened the car door for his wife after eight years of marriage. Another former Netstal co-worker, Dan Morris, said simply: ``They're the kind of couple that held hands.''
Remembering Hayes, Gauld said, ``Bob was one of the few people I've met in my life that I honestly couldn't say one bad thing about. And that's not an easy thing to do. It's true what they say: Only the good die young.''
The halcyon days of the CD industry
Professionally, Hayes grew up right along with the CD business.
CDs sparked a revolution after they hit the U.S. market in 1983. ``It was an exciting time,'' recalls Morris, a former Netstal sales executive, who teamed with Hayes. ``The advances in process technology were happening on a once-every-six-month basis, with advances in resin, robots and machine capability.''
Cycle times for injection molding the polycarbonate CD blank went from 20 seconds in the early 1980s to less than 4 seconds today. Morris said most of the advances happened in a breathtaking period from 1987-92.
When Hayes joined Netstal USA in 1987, the Swiss parent company, Netstal-Maschinen AG, already had been selling machines to the brand-new CD market. Potter hired him as a service technician, where he would use skills from his Lowell degree in engineering and industrial technology.
``Bob was intrigued by the music industry and the technology in manufacturing CDs, so he began to specialize,'' Potter said. ``After a short period of time - well, he was a bright guy and quite ambitious, and he came to me and suggested that we needed to have somebody that specialized in CD sales. So I gave him a shot at it.''
Netstal promoted him to market development engineer for data products, then to market development manager and finally, manager of sales and market development. A steady producer, Hayes repaid Netstal with his loyalty, according to former co-workers.
Was he well-known in the CD industry? ``Not in the beginning, but he really made a name for himself,'' Gauld said. ``And I think a lot of that was loyalty to Netstal. A lot of people move around in the plastics industry; it's amazing. He and Netstal were kind of synonymous. It was a good product and he did very well.''
Netstal became the leading supplier of CD injection presses and - to North American CD makers - Hayes was a man to trust. For makers of vinyl records and cassette tapes, it was a make-or-break decision to invest millions of dollars to get into CDs.
``Everybody in the CD industry, the replicating industry, knew Bob,'' said Doug Franzen, head of manufacturing at Eva-Tone Inc. of Clearwater, Fla. Back in 1992, when Franzen first ran into Hayes at a Replitech trade show, Eva-Tone was a cassette duplicator, cautious about jumping into CDs.
``Bob was a real down-to-earth guy. He was an engineer that got into sales, and that's what the attractive part was, because you could talk to him and he was able to give you answers,'' Franzen said. ``Bob was real laid back. He was not pushy at all. You felt comfortable with what he was telling you.''
Morris said Hayes ``did a great job of making Americans feel comfortable buying Swiss equipment. He really put a face on the company, Netstal USA.''
After the company invested in a start-up firm, First Light Technologies Inc. in Saco, Maine, Netstal was able to offer complete CD manufacturing cells.
Eva-Tone bought its first Netstal machine - part of a complete CD system from First Light - in 1993. It was a totally enclosed, all-in-one system. Before the self-contained cells came out, Franzen said, companies faced the challenging task of making CDs in batch form, under clean-room conditions.
Franzen said Bob would bring his wife along on business trips. When son Robbie was born, he came along, too.
Debbie said she and Robbie loved to travel with Bob.
``We were so, so close,'' she said. ``Every chance I got to go with him, I'd go.''
Ironically, that togetherness could have made Sept. 11 even more tragic for the family. Debbie said she and Robbie were planning on going to Los Angeles with her husband.
``My parents were going to watch the baby. But we changed our mind, because Bob and I had a romantic getaway trip planned for two weeks after,'' she said. Faced with so much packing and unpacking for the trip to Bermuda, they made a decision that, in retrospect, saved two lives: Bob would go alone on the ill-fated flight.
But even as he planned his Los Angeles trip for Netstal, Hayes confided to his wife that all the business travel was getting old. He already had started working from an office in their house on Mondays and Fridays, which gave the family a jump on weekend fun on their boat.
Family was a high priority. ``Robbie was his little shadow. It was really, really cute. He'd mow the lawn; Robbie was behind him mowing the lawn. They'd go across the street when I was cooking dinner and go fishing,'' Debbie said.
A couple of months before Sept. 11, Hayes met with Werner Christinger, president of Netstal in Devens. ``He said he wanted to think about his future, what he wanted to do,'' Christinger recalled. ``He told me at that time he was considering taking another route, because he missed his family from traveling. I told him, `Bob, I really appreciate that. You have to do what you have to do, and I would support that.' ''
Hayes owned several rental homes in the Amesbury area. Potter can picture Hayes renovating buildings instead of hawking injection presses. ``My guess is that if Bob Hayes were still alive right now, he would own a marina and would be buying and selling real estate. That was kind of what he was headed for, I believe,'' said Potter, the former Netstal boss.
Debbie Hayes recounted the last night she saw him alive. ``Every night we went for walks, as a family, down to the park,'' she said. The modest Alliance Park hugs the river, across the street from Union Congregational Church.
On Sept. 10 the pattern was broken, she recalled, taking a deep breath.
``The night before he left, he went for a walk. He wanted to go by himself, which was an odd thing. Because he had anxiety about the trip. And he thought maybe it was because he hadn't surfed in awhile. But you know, afterwards, I think it was something more.'' She paused.
``Then, when he got back he said, you know, he's really tired of traveling, and he wanted to spend more time with his family.''