There are points in history they say you’ll never forget. Until that one fateful morning, I hadn’t found one moment that I would never forget.
It was a morning, just like any other morning. In the corporate communications office of Merrill Lynch bright and early, readying for the day. I changed from my sneakers into my pumps, grabbed my wallet and was about to head down to the cafeteria to grab some breakfast when we noticed a plane coming awfully close to the building and then CRASH!
Everyone froze and many scrambled to turned on their televisions in their offices. It was business as usual on TV and one of my co-workers muttered, “What an idiot, how did he not see the building.” A bunch of us stood by the window gaping, wondering what to do, if the people in the plane and building were okay. The news had now picked up on the crash but still, no one knew what was going on. Then my boss said, “There’s another plane. Why’s he coming so close?” Another co-worker wondered if there was some computer malfunction and then the second crash.
My boss grabbed me by the back of my shirt and I fell out of my shoes, I quickly lunged to pick them up as he dragged me towards the stairs, he said to me, “That was NOT an accident.” Everyone was running towards the door. While the alarms had sounded, it was eerily quiet, mixed with a few sniffles, as everyone filed orderly into the stairwell and down 32 flights of stairs to the streets. My shoes were still in my hands as I stared up at the two burning buildings. My co-worker came up next to me and said, that’s not rain and we both turned away in realization. As we were directed to walk north along the west-side highway up to a satellite office, I kept wondering what movie this was. Unable to comprehend what was happening. I held my co-workers arm tightly as we wept and walked.
There was silence, until the screeching and screams, we turned around to see the first building falling down and ran as the smoke started coming towards our direction. We ran and ran and ran until we reached our satellite office and were ushered right in, I had no more breath. We all sank to the floor unable to process what had happened and I still was trying to figure out what movie this was, because this couldn’t be happening. Even the most collected of people seemed turned around. Some people went into crisis mode, following company protocol, and others like me, just didn’t know what to do. We all wanted to call someone, anyone, but all the phone lines were down. As my colleague started to take a head count we realized one of our own was missing. He wasn’t in his office, he wasn’t on the streets, we tried calling his cellphone, no one could remember seeing him. Then the realization hit, he was at the World Trade Center. He was suppose to be delivering a press conference on the 106th floor of 1 World Trade Center when the attack occurred. We all hoped and prayed he wasn’t in the building. Maybe he was late someone said. We all knew better. Robert, fondly known as “Bob”, McIlvaine was never late. Everyone gave each other hugs and parted to find their loved ones. Still in a daze, I headed north with some of my co-workers. My feet were blistered from walking in heels and I took them off and started to walk uptown barefoot. For the most part it was a quiet walk, bidding well wishes and farewell to co-workers at different points. Storefronts along the way were passing out water. Parked cars had their windows open with their radios turned up so we could hear the news as we walked by. By the time I hit 34th Street and the west side, I was by myself. My mom’s office was still another 25+ blocks away. A middle eastern man asked me if I’d like to walk along with him and I said yes. He stopped by a nail salon and purchased me a pair of $5 slippers to walk in. He told me he was trying to get to his daughter’s school and then to his wife’s office. He told me he would walk with me as far as he could which was about 20 blocks. I was so grateful for his company. We didn’t say much else to each other but it was still comforting to walk together. I’ll never forget his kindness. The rest of the days and weeks were a blur.
I remember the sickening feeling I had when my boss announced that we were going to back to the World Financial Center as one of the first companies back. To show America and the world, that we would not be broken. I remember walking into our building, which was once alive with thousands of people chattering away and the now eery silence and the elevator that only went to 2 floors – our floor and ground floor. I remember being one of the first to walk through those elevator banks and back into our offices, now cleared of old breakfast trays and coffee cups. My sneakers still under my desk and the September 11th New York Times and Wall Street Journal, yellowed with age, sitting on my desk. I held back the tears, as did my coworkers, but I could see we all had that same watery glint in the corner of our eyes. I remember my co-worker walking over to Bob’s office and closing the door. I remember thinking, it will never be the same again.
Many people assumed when I left my job at the World Financial Center, it was to move onto the next step in my career. While that was true, I had also imagined myself with a long career at this company but the memories of that day haunted me at every turn. In the years since I’ve left, I’ve never gone back to the site, averted my eyes when I’m in the area. With every thought, the emotions were overwhelming. If I didn’t look, if I didn’t think about it, it would be okay. My whole life changed on that fateful day, as many others would also say.
In honor of those lost, make your life have meaning. Give someone a hug, help a stranger, share the love. Give a smile.[image from: http://www.theharrowgroup.com/articles/20020401/WTC_facts.htm]