Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
I was glued to the TV a decent part of the weekend watching special coverage of 9/11… and as I write this on Sunday night, I’m still half watching National Geographic 9/11 specials. Any time there are scenes of the old World Trade Centers or the Pentagon with billows of smoke and debris flying… I am stopped dead in my tracks. And I can’t help but to watch, mouth slightly agape. Then my chest begins to feel tight. My heart aches a bit. My eyes well up without fail. The gravity of 9/11 is still overwhelming. I can’t fully comprehend the devastation.
I wasn’t living in DC when 9/11 happened. Some of my family was. My now husband was. But I can’t claim to ever understand the terror and fear felt, being there in the thick of things. I remember it still from where I sat in Seattle though, where I lived when it happened. I remember it vividly. The decision making at 7am we went through as an HR team about what to do and how to respond given our company’s operations and employees were nationwide. An HR team conference call on one line. And concurrently, I was trying to get through the jammed phone lines to get a hold of my sister who was living in DC. Busy tone. Operator message that my call couldn’t go through. Busy tone again. Operator message again.
For everyone, 9/11 stung. And still stings. Even ten years later.
It’s a particularly interesting dynamic in DC, the lasting impact of 9/11. Like the other week for example, we had a modest earthquake, totally uncharacteristic for our region. As I sat in my office talking to a colleague, the floor all of a sudden started shaking. The items on my shelves rattled. And having grown up in California, I knew the feeling. Instinctively, I knew I should have gotten under my desk and covered my neck, or I should have gotten into a doorway.
I called out to my manager who sits next door to me to ask her if she felt the shaking too… and she did. But she didn’t think it was an earthquake. A DC native, and someone who lived through 9/11 in DC ten years ago, the first thing she thought? Terrorist attack. So we ran out of the building. Quickly. And the stairwells were filled with hundreds of people. We couldn’t get to the ground floor quickly enough. My heart was pounding and my mind was racing.
We got outside and there were thousands of people littering the sidewalks. I looked West a few blocks to the White House. There wasn’t smoke anywhere. Buildings seemed in tact. Nothing visible seemed wrong. It was just loads of people on the streets. So we all stood there, looking around at each other trying to figure out just what had happened. Earthquake? Terrorist attack? Who knew? Later, I learned from others I work with who have been in war zones that the feeling of an earthquake was exactly like the rattling from a car bomb, so they too thought terrorist attack. No one knew what had happened. And we were just a few weeks out from the tenth anniversary of 9/11. It was a chaotic and confusing scene.
Once outside, like any evacuation or drill, our staff members were looking to my team for direction. Members of our leadership team were emailing and calling me. I tried my best to stay calm and be even keeled as I quickly realized staff were looking to us to tell them what to do next.
So, on the night of the tenth anniversary of 9/11… I’m deep in thought. About where I was. About what on earth I would have done if I were in DC or NYC ten years ago. And about what happens following any kind of disaster in the workplace. About how we react after something small like that earthquake. We remember 9/11 vividly. We don’t ever want to forget. But this all also reminds me that people take our cues. In critical situations, in even what may seem like menial situations in the workplace – people are looking to us for a cue. They look to us for answers. And let’s not forget that. It’s one of the reasons why our roles are so important. And it’s one of the reasons why our every action and reaction matters.