We were all affected by the tragedy of September 11, 2001 in some way, regardless of where we were living at the time. As you might suspect, a number of us at Mockingbird were living in Manhattan; some of us even experienced the tragedy through our concern for individuals and/or loved ones who were working in the World Trade Center that day. One such individual had gone to work at his office on the 73rd floor of the south tower that morning. Mockingbird is extremely fortunate that the man in question, who wishes to remain anonymous, has been willing to share a reflection with us of what happened, and how he has, by God’s grace, been able to piece it all together over the past ten years.
First let me say that I am rather uncomfortable doing this. I am uncomfortable discussing my experience. I generally do not speak about living through September 11. My current co-workers do not know that I was in the building or anything that happened, and generally my newer friends find out from my older friends who were with me during that time. I was encouraged to take this anniversary as a time to reflect, so I reluctantly agreed to speak a little to you all.
I worked on the 73rd floor of the south tower and had just arrived at my desk when the north tower exploded into flames. We saw this out of our windows facing west. It seemed surreal to me, and I was stunned. I watched the manager dash out the exit before anyone else reacted, and was soon grabbed by a friend, and we went to the stairwell to leave the building. The stairs were small, each step about wide enough for two people standing side by side, and were already packed full of people. Another co-worker was trying to push through people in a mad panic, not realizing that all of the steps were occupied, and there was no place to go. I relate this because the event was terrifying, and people were reacting to the fear that suddenly invaded in different ways. I do not mean to denigrate them, as my own reaction of shocked disbelief could easily have been seen as a casual indifference. We discussed how this was no accident and dryly mocked the loudspeaker telling us to return to seats. We were leaving. The initial panic subsided mildly and a steady New York pace ensued down the stairwell.
I was around the thirtieth floor when the plane hit our building. The whole stairwell wobbled like a rope, and everyone fell onto each other backwards with the violent motion. I felt certain that the building north of us had collapsed into the south tower and ours was about to go down as well.
This is when the fear of the event took hold of everyone, myself included. I remember feeling mentally at peace, thinking that I had had a pretty good life. A co-worker a flight above me spoke up loudly, telling everyone that everything was okay, we had to get up and keep moving, and the crowd slowly rose to their feet. My knees told a different story than my brain, shaking so badly that I could barely stand on them. The brisk New York walk down stairs full of chatter and speculation was replaced by a dead silent crawl by all of us.
At the 15th floor I ended up behind an older woman who was being helped by two large men. She was having real difficulty with the stairs. I was right behind them and was confused about what to do. The distance between them and the people below them was growing to almost two flights of stairs, and the line in back of me stretched as far as I could see. Part of me wanted to help them help her, part wanted to yell at them to get out of the way. I started to become nervous as did the people in back of me. Before I could do anything, the woman said to the man to step in front of her, so she could hold his shoulders and the bottleneck was released.
Upon getting to the ground floor the scene was horrific. Leaving out the details — we could not exit onto the street. There was a security guard standing at the south exit telling everyone to go north, where there was another security guard blocking us from the plaza exit and directing us down an escalator to the east exit towards Broadway and into the subway tunnel. I watched as the firemen were rushing in and swarming the building, preparing to go up the very stairs I had just come down.
I spoke [at my parents’ church] one year later, recounting this story and my gratitude for life and hope for the future. Upon reflection the only thing I want to say today regards the people I talked about. When something so terrifying and horrific happens, it is hard to imagine what your reaction will be. I have no anger toward those that panicked. It is a completely understandable reaction. I think it is the natural reaction.
Looking back however, the people who deserve my respect and honor, are the people who walked through that fear and remembered what is really important.
The man who shook us out of our shock to continue moving. The men who helped that woman on the 15th floor. I do not know if those men made it out of the building or not. They could have walked out like the rest us. Instead they helped someone not as healthy as themselves. The firemen, while trained for disaster and rushing into danger, had certainly never experienced anything like this on the job before. Even the security guards; These were not high paying positions of public trust. These were the men who swiped our badges going into the building. No one would have faulted them for leaving that scene. But they stayed and help strangers get to safety.
When I think about the heroes of September 11th I think about the people who, when faced with unthinkable terror, were able to act in in this manner. They risked their lives for acts of charity. It is hard to imagine a better portrait of the love that we Christians speak of.
When I think about myself and my life, and my community and my country, I ask myself: Are we able to take the moral path, the path of love and charity? It is an easy thing to go down an easier path, driven by fear, justified by self preservation, forgetting or dismissing as quaint and irrelevant the morals and values that we know to be true.
These people, faced with imminent death, took the path of charity and service to others. I hope and pray that we can learn from their courage.