This weekend marks the 20-year anniversary of 9/11. People ask where were you? It’s not so much my story that counts. It is the stories of others and what happened next.
I was on vacation at the Oregon coast sleeping in. My boyfriend was in bed next to me, and he had turned on the TV for the morning news just in time for us to watch the second tower fall. I’m glad we were together off work that day to grieve and watch the news. Shock and then concern filled my mind because I had three instructors, my coworkers, in New York only 10 blocks from ground zero that day.
I grieved for the New Yorkers. Images ran through my head of all the people I had met in person while working and living there for weeks at a time, part of my work as a technical trainer and curriculum architect. I stayed in a Marriott hotel one block from the twin towers. I walked to work, shopped, and became connected with the community. The little Amish market. The family-run Italian restaurant. The kind and diverse hotel staff. I knew their lives were forever changed if they had escaped to safety.
But there was nothing I could do. There was only silence for a long time. No airplanes in the sky and no news about my coworkers for days. Later I heard the stories.
The Manhattan IBM office where we taught our classes was in a skyscraper 15 floors up. One set of classrooms had windows directly facing towards the twin towers. So there was direct witness of what happened only 10 blocks away as well as the large clouds of debris billowing through the streets. At first, everyone gathered in shock to watch. Together, they made a decision to wait inside the building to be safe until some of the debris settled. A few hours later, the three instructors joined forces with their students to move to safety in small groups.
One instructor lived in New Jersey, and was able to coordinate with her husband to drive their family van to the end of a bridge. She led a group of students on a long walk over that bridge so they could deliver everyone safely to destinations. It was what everyone was doing to help each other that day. No questions asked. Just stepping up, reaching out, and doing the right thing.
Another instructor realized he left his wallet in the hotel that morning, so he banded together with another student and attempted to go back to the hotel. It was the Marriott where I had often stayed, only one block from ground zero. They didn’t make it all the way there because the hotel was on fire, and the debris was unpassable. Body parts were everywhere and it was quite traumatizing. So they turned back. They formed a new plan. His student stayed with him, helped him, and vouched for his identity. With all this help, he was able to ride an Amtrak train all the way back to his home in Arizona.
In the days that followed, our business model changed. It became incredibly difficult to sell our core product of information technology training, 3 to 5 day classes in person. Who wants to get on a plane, stay in hotel, and risk being in a big city for a class? I had already started to design blended learning classes with a combination of in-person and remote work two years before. Now our customers only wanted remote training which took us a whole new direction for the coming years, just as the current pandemic has done today for the workplace.
The grief and sorrow over the loss of so many Americans cannot even be expressed in words for most of us. For the people who were there that day, the memories have changed and affected them for a lifetime.
In 2009, I was at a small local company where I met an IT administrator who was a young New York firefighter at the time of 9/11. The subject came up because he was always playing music when he worked alone in the classrooms. He told me it was because of 9/11. He had been tasked with going back after the second tower fell and searching for the victims. But he said there was only silence, too much silence. So he deals with it, and fills silence with music years later.
This weekend as I sat in my backyard watching the planes pass overhead, I remembered 9/11 and the day that all the planes stopped. Across the United States, we all stopped. When we started moving again, we remembered what was really important. People evaluated their relationships, divorced, had kids, or married. I did too. I split up with my boyfriend and started a completely new life within a year. Everyone’s focus turned to quality of life and what matters. Above all, we learned we could tackle adversity together. The power of good deeds and open minds following something so terrible has pulled us forward to a better future.