After spending the spring and summer of 2001 teaching a new computer system to Port Authority employees in New York City, I was briefly assigned to another client in nearby Newark for a three-day class in early September. This meant that I was 25 miles from my classroom at the World Trade Center and 200 miles from my home in Washington, D.C., when the world witnessed the event that would forever change our lives.
I return in early October to help the Port Authority staff at La Guardia Airport. Most haven’t learned the new system, and those who did take the class can’t remember diddlysquat. The documentation that my team developed has, literally, been vaporized. But bills are piling up, vendors are demanding payment, and equipment must be purchased.
I spend two days with Jane, who was in my classroom on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. She and five others escaped, but two classmates went to a different stairwell and were never seen again. Three weeks after the bombing, I see that Jane is still too traumatized to take an elevator or enter a building of more than two stories.
Her husband had been on the 74th floor. He, three colleagues, and a janitor with a lunch box and cleaning bucket, were bunched in the express elevator speeding upwards from the 44th floor, when it suddenly plunged downward about hundred feet and just as abruptly stopped. Picking themselves off the floor in the pitch-black cage, they had no idea where they were. Prying the elevator doors open, they found only a dark wall.
Smoke is seeping in through the elevator cracks. Covering their noses with handkerchiefs soaked in milk, they take turns with the metal edge of the squeegee to laboriously cut through the sheetrock. They eventually bust into a bathroom, but then have to break through ceramic tiles. Emerging on the 50th floor, they walk downstairs single-file leaving room for firemen who are running up. They see the light of day just four minutes before the building crashes. If the janitor had not had a flashlight, a squeegee, a pint of milk, and the cool to mastermind the rescue, no one would have lived to tell their adventures of the morning. Was he a guardian angel in disguise?
Several days later, I am at the agency’s temporary headquarters in Hoboken sharing an office with Diane, the training manager, a delightful middle-aged woman with whom I have spent many happy hours over lunch and in meetings. But now, she’s a different person. Once attentive to her subordinates, she has morphed into a protective mother bear; determination and deep weariness have replaced the twinkle in her eyes.
I don’t know what war is like, but I have an idea of what it’s like to “go through the wars”: it is the process by which we are forced to acknowledge our vulnerability. For most of us, war is external; its “over there,” or “back then,” and it involves others. But after 9-11, war is here and now and within. The reality of who we are is struggling with our preconceptions about ourselves. Suddenly we are fearful, and we don’t like the people that we have become.
Another reason Diane has lost her sparkle is because her commute is now 2 ½ – 3 hours each way, instead of an hour previously. This means that she leaves home just before 6:00 am and doesn’t usually get back until 9:00 pm. Twice in the last week, she was an hour late because Penn Central had been evacuated for “something” (never explained); this required her to walk almost a mile to the subway and a then several blocks to the PATH station, extending her one-way commute to nearly four hours. And some of her weariness is because the computer system is often down; what once was a simple, two-minute transaction is now a cause for major celebration.
One morning, as I am reflecting on the difference between heroes (all of the people in or anywhere near that building on September 11th) and saints (those who have devoted their lives to God and God’s people), a woman enters to drop off files. Hearing her mutter “Jesus Christ” under her breath and assuming that she has just broken a fingernail, I look up to see what is wrong. Instead of a scowl, I am greeted by a warm smile and a cheerful “Good morning, sister” from a woman I have never before seen in my life.
After brief courtesies, Victoria shares her impressions of that day. She was sitting at her desk on the 63rd floor when the plane hit. Rather than run or scream, she dropped to her knees in prayer. She had a clear vision of God “sitting on His throne” looking down on her and saying, “Look at my baby girl calling on me in the midst of this terror.” Directing some unseen angels, God told them, “Go and see about my daughter.”
When the image of God’s radiance faded, she went with waiting colleagues to the nearest stairwell. Walking down, she began reciting the 23rd psalm and singing praise songs. Others joined in, and many came up later thanking her for the calm faith she radiated in that dark, smoke-filled stairwell. Is not Victoria an angel and a saint?
The next day, Don and Raoul share memories of walking down from the 70th floor. People were orderly at first, mostly because so many had survived the 1993 bombing and trusted the structural integrity of the towers. Don and Raoul were nonplussed by burn victims and others who were actively bleeding, but they never feared for their own lives until the 20th floor, when the smoke intensified, making it hard to both breathe and see. An incredible, inexplicable, rolling, deafening roar (which they later learned was the crash of the other building) made the north tower shake intensely, cutting off the emergency lights and causing people to stumble over each other. After this, it was a superhuman effort to maintain control, and some began weeping. But still, the group kept talking to each other to stay calm, groping their way down, most of them holding hands, some sobbing, but with little screaming and no pushing – just cold, stark determination.
In the middle of this horrific retelling, Raoul blurts out, “And, you know, we were the lucky ones. We had no idea of what was going on. When the south tower fell, we knew something dreadful had happened, but our stairwell was fine and our tower still stood…. Actually, people like Diane had it worse. She was walking in from the plaza and froze, not knowing whether to rush up and help people or run away as fast as she could. A policeman ordered her to leave – which was good because this was just when debris – huge blocks of concrete and metal, enough to kill you if they landed – started falling from the sky.”
Raoul feels sorrier for Diane than he does for himself…
When employees arrive for a meeting and see someone they haven’t seen since 9/11, work abruptly ends and co-workers pour out from cubicles to chat. It is like the excitement that accompanies a woman returning from maternity leave with a new baby in tow. But unlike the gushes over the beautiful child, this is a chastening calm with unspoken but clear affection. It is both endearing and terrifying.
The following week, after anthrax poisoning has replaced hijacked planes as the terror of the day, the agency conducts daily safety drills and distributes safety glasses, nose masks, rubber gloves, and flashlights to all employees. Diane is away when a flashlight is placed on her desk; within two hours, five coworkers stop in to ensure that that the batteries are installed and her flashlight is working properly.
People look around at their ordinary colleagues with their ordinary foibles and realize that their ordinary assumptions were all wrong. They now realize that they have been working amidst heroes, including the two procurement officials who returned from the stairwell to retrieve their blind colleague from the 71st floor, the ten co-workers who carried a 250-pound, wheelchair-bound man down 69 flights of stairs, and the two marketing managers who got Tina and her motorized wheelchair down from the 68th floor. Of the Port Authority employees, only 74 of the 2,000 in the building were killed (half of them the police and firemen who – according to the people I speak with – seemed to know that they were going to their deaths). In both towers, only 2,753 people were killed in the collapse. Everyone credits the low number of casualties to the fact that mutual care trumped panic and pushiness.
Returning just before Thanksgiving to my company’s home office in Columbia, Maryland, I find myself suddenly depressed. In the midst of the hell that surrounds us, I have been graced to witness the best of the human condition. For some, self-sacrifice for others was absolute and cost them their lives; for most, it was timid and tenuous – but nonetheless transforming – if only for a time.
And I know that I too am forever changed, for good as well as ill. The trivialities of life gnaw at me. After spending six weeks in the company of saints and heroes, ordinary mortals seem frivolous and self-absorbed. With the exception of faith-filled Victoria who sang and prayed her coworkers to safety, I do not know the religious beliefs of the employees at the Port Authority. But watching people show genuine care for each other, I realize that I have just witnessed the kingdom of God on earth.
I just wish it had not come to this.