Published in the September 2007 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Most people know exactly where they were and what they were doing at 8:46 a.m. on 9/11/01. I was reviewing facilities drawings and org charts in a small conference room when a hijacked Boeing 767 slammed violently into the World Trade Center’s North Tower (1WTC).
A human resources VP and I were watching news coverage on a small television at 9:03 a.m. when a second jet collided with the South Tower (2WTC). In a state of disbelief, we quickly realized this was no accident.
As burning jet fuel engulfed offices, elevator shafts, ducts, and stairwells in two of lower Manhattan’s most renowned landmarks, telephones in our South Carolina office began to ring off the hook. Our organization was in collective shock, and everyone wanted answers from facilities and human resources. Here are some of questions we had to field:
Are you watching the news? Were any of our people on those hijacked flights or in New York? Who is working in high profile cities this week? What is a “high profile” city? What should we tell clients in town from New York and New Jersey? Should we let staff stop working to watch the news? Do we have adequate security today? Are we in a high risk industry? Could the local Air Force base be next? How many TVs do we have? Should we make an announcement? What should we do?
It seemed like an eternity passed before we accounted for business travelers and helped anxious clients obtain access to telephones, bus stations, and car rentals. The skies were frozen in a virtual lockdown, and no one was flying anywhere.
As televisions were placed in several gathering areas, it felt like the planet stopped rotating. Emotional shock waves were rippling through our office long after the initial explosions hundreds of miles away. Even folks without loved ones in New York instantly became New Yorkers cycling through feelings of rage, anxiety, pain, and sorrow.
A third jet crashed into the Pentagon at 9:43 a.m., requiring reporters to alternate attention between two cities. As we wondered aloud, “What ELSE could possibly happen?” the Twin Towers’ structural steel succumbed to the inferno. Millions watched in horror as 2WTC collapsed on live television at 9:59 am. 1WTC suffered a similar fate 29 minutes later.
A fourth flight ended dramatically as passengers overpowered hijackers and crashed the plane in a Pennsylvania field. I was feeling sick and wondered if this is how my grandparents felt when they heard the news about Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Before the towers fell, building occupants situated above the planes’ impact areas were breaking windows and jumping to their deaths. Some clung to each other for comfort as they fell over 80 stories to avoid suffocating in the smoke or burning in the flames.
Electrical risers, sprinkler mains, and elevator and ventilation shafts were severed and rendered useless—deluged with jet fuel, flames, and acrid smoke. People in stairwells were thwarted by smoke, heat, and doors that couldn’t open because of stressed jambs and shifted walls.
It must have been a hellish nightmare. Hundreds of selfless rescue workers and facilities staff responded. Many didn’t survive.
I spent the following weeks reading survivor accounts, looking at photos, and watching analysis specials that included commentary from civil authorities, architects, and engineers familiar with the buildings. As I learned more, I developed increasingly empathetic feelings for the brave first responders who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The facilities people in those buildings were our brothers and sisters; they did what we do every day. I uneasily wondered if I would have responded so courageously while facing an incredible catastrophe.
I also wondered if anyone could have really been prepared for such an attack and if/when/where it might happen again. I thought about the families and organizations that had been devastated, and I recalled the eighth grade research paper I did on post traumatic stress disorder, wondering how survivors were coping with the nightmares and flashbacks that often accompany trauma.
I was recently in Manhattan for an international conference and saw 9/11 memorials at St. Paul’s Chapel and Fire/Engine Company 10’s “Ten House” (home to some of the very first responders that day). I finally got the opportunity to visit Ground Zero and pay my respects to the 2,973 victims of the 9/11 attacks.
As I stood silently behind a chain link fence surrounding the construction area, uncomfortable feelings returned. I contemplated what it must have been like standing at this very spot that fateful morning. The terrified screams, wailing sirens, flashing blue and red lights, falling chunks of stone, showers of glass shards, and reams of shredded paper—the sheer chaos of the moment must have been surreal. I’ll never forget what we saw on television and in photos: men and women in black and white business attire running from the collapsing buildings; bright yellow and red flames; the black swirling smoke.
Even today, my mind’s eye can envision courageous fire fighters, police officers, and Port Authority and facilities staff members all struggling in vain to start emergency generators, ventilate smoke, extinguish flames, open elevators, assist the injured, comfort the dying, communicate with one another, and guide people to safety. When I think about those collapsing towers and the billowing gray cloud of pulverized concrete, steel, flesh, and bone that could be seen from satellites miles above the Earth it still chokes me up, even six years later.
When my children are adults, I hope my family can visit Pearl Harbor, Auschwitz, and Normandy to pay our respects to those victims and better relate to history. Just as Holocaust survivors and WWII veterans have done an enormous service to humanity by sharing their experiences, we must help our children and grandchildren understand world changing events taking place during our lives.
I hope we never forget the atrocities and selfless sacrifices that took place that horrific September morning.
Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast