Sunday, September 11, 2011

Our flag was still there

It's hard to believe that ten years have passed since that fateful day in world history. I say "world" and not just U.S. because the incidents of September 11, 2001 impacted us all. I wasn't in New York City or Washington, D.C. or Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I wasn't on a plane or traveling. I didn't know anyone who perished. But everyone who can remember that day has a story. Here's mine.

I was in my second year of working for a company in Indianapolis, and as a member of a business unit training team, was responsible for parts of a new employee orientation program. We had about a dozen new employees in for training that week, from all over the country. The first day, Monday the 10th, had been their broader company orientation, which my group wasn't responsible for. So on the morning of Tuesday the 11th, we were all meeting each other for the very first time, and orientation started at 8AM. I typically didn't get to work until 8:00-8:30, but of course, I had to be there earlier that morning.

It must have been around 7:30-7:40 when I arrived in the parking lot. I remember thinking as I walked into the building: What a beautiful day this is! The skies were perfectly blue, and the air had the first feel of autumn crispness.

I went on inside, got my coffee, and headed to the orientation room. My coworker, David, was the facilitator for the day, and he led the introductions. People went around the room and introduced themselves, giving their names and roles. Most were from places outside of Indy. I specifically remember three new colleagues from southern California, Atlanta, and northern New Jersey. They would all be working home-based jobs in their respective towns. After the introductions, David asked everyone to turn off their cell phones, which was the common practice during training (and why we didn't know what was going on sooner than we did). Then he handed the facilitation over to me, and I began teaching my class. It was a class about the importance of training and how to find out what training you needed to take and the importance of always taking your training by the due dates. I remember feeling a bit nervous about teaching the class because it was only my second or third time.

My session was supposed to end by 9:15AM, followed by another session taught by someone else starting at 9:30AM. I finished just a few minutes early and was about to excuse everyone for a bio break when David came back from running an errand. As people were standing, headed out the door, stretching, whatever, David said: "Um, I don't know if you've heard but there was just something on the news about a plane hitting the World Trade Center." The lady from New Jersey said she was really surprised a plane hadn't hit any of the skyscrapers before, since there was so much air traffic over Manhattan. However, at the time, we were all thinking (assuming) that the plane was a small plane and not a passenger jet.

During the break, a couple of people walked out into the hallways and saw that crowds of people were gathering near the many televisions throughout the building, including the one by the front entrance. As I headed back to my desk, I ran into another coworker. She was looking up at the TV and it was about that time the second jet hit and we all saw it live on TV. At that point there was a collective gasp in the crowd, and my coworker said: "Somebody's gonna get their ass kicked." Even though everyone was still confused about what was going on, I think we all knew at that point that we weren't talking "accident" here.

The live news story mentioned an American Airlines flight and a United Airlines flight, and that sent me in to panic mode because I know someone who is a pilot for one of those airlines. Instead of going back to my desk, I walked over to another part of the company to check in with Sandy. We found out that our pilot friend wasn't working that day, which was a relief. But our level of concern was still very high, and a collective panic had set in because we didn't know what else was going to happen.

Returning to my desk, I expected my supervisor to say something about what was going on. Instead, she clapped her hands together and said: "Business as usual! Business as usual!" But it wasn't business as usual. How could it be? I remember feeling disappointed in what I considered to be her lack of leadership during what was clearly a time of crisis. (To her credit, she wasn't getting much direction from her leaders at the time. But still.)

Most of us "office workers" ended up leaving early for the day. I don't know what time it was when I got home, but I remember walking out into the driveway and looking up into the sky. It was eerily quiet, because all the planes had been grounded. It was . . . surreal.

I went inside and collapsed on the couch in front of the TV, and stayed there, watching CNN as the talking heads analyzed everything, until I couldn't take it anymore. It was like that every night for at least a week. I can't even estimate the number of times I watched the second plane crashing into the tower, or the towers falling down.

In the days following September 11th, there was a change in how people at work behaved. People who were normally competitive became more collaborative. People who normally got angry and upset over the slightest thing were quiet and subdued. People were . . . nicer. And not just at work. The Indy Irish Festival was supposed to take place the following weekend, and I'd signed up to be a volunteer. My orientation was supposed to be on Thursday the 13th. I really thought it would be called off, but it wasn't. So after work on Thursday, I drove over to the building on Massachusetts Avenue where I was supposed to pick up my packet. The traffic on "Mass Ave" during rush hour is typically bloody awful, and turning left is next to impossible. Even drivers were nice, and when someone waved me to turn left, there weren't even any beeping horns or anything.

The new employee orientation program officially ended at noon on Friday, and people were supposed to return home that afternoon. I found out later that most of them (including the woman from California) had to stay until the following week because they couldn't get flights back home. I heard that the woman from New Jersey had hooked up with some people in town for a sales meeting, and they rented a car and carpooled back East, stopping in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and eventually Connecticut where the last person lived. The woman from Atlanta had family in the Chicago area, and decided to go up there for the weekend. When I heard these stories it occurred to me how selfish I had been. I should have been more sensitive to the needs of the out-of-towners. I should have invited someone into my home, where at least they could have had a "home-y" atmosphere, some good home-cooked food, and most importantly of all, someone to talk to. Even now, I feel bad that I was so into myself that week, I didn't even think of it.

This morning we've been watching the 10 year anniversary coverage on MSNBC, which started with a childrens' choir singing the national anthem. Although I've heard the national anthem thousands of times, there was something about the line "our flag was still there" that spoke to me this morning.  Francis Scott Key was inspired to write that line (and what would become the U.S. national anthem) during the War of 1812 while witnessing an all-night battle at Fort McHenry, Maryland. In the days following the collapse of the twin towers, someone found an American flag at the rubble. It had been burned badly, but it was still there. One of my cousins, a professional framing artist in Philadelphia, had the honor of working with the New York State Museum to preserve this flag, and I'm told it now hangs in a permanent exhibit in Albany. I've never seen it, but someday I hope to.

But let's never forget that this day ten years ago had a global impact. Some say it's "my generation's Pearl Harbor" or "my generation's Kennedy assassination", but I think it's much more than that. September 11, 2001 changed the world. We aren't the same. We'll never be the same again. As to whether that's a good or bad thing, I'll have to leave that up to history to decide.