How do people keep going after an event shatters the workplace and the lives of everyone in it? How does one return to workplaces that no longer feel safe? How do we cope when coworkers are missing, whether through trauma or by choice?
Although the September 11, 2001, attacks were a one-day event, the effects on survivors – and the rest of us — deepened for months, just as Covid and our societal blows have been doing. There are lessons survivors of the 9/11 attacks have for us today as we return to our workplaces during and following the Covid pandemic.
This is the first in a series of interviews with people who were personally caught up in the September 11, 2001 (“9/11”) attacks on the New York World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and U.S. airliners. Each interview includes not just that individual’s experience but also how they recovered emotionally from it and what lessons they have for us today. We will be sharing these interviews throughout 2021, as we approach the 20th anniversary of those attacks.
Jessie worked in Two World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I interviewed her about the experience, how she managed returning to a workplace that had been totally changed, and what she learned that can be relevant to people dealing with Covid and changed workplaces today. Self-effacing, she says she just worked to keep calm and carry on. Her story brings more detail to that. As you will read, she had a purpose bigger than herself — something unrelated to 9/11 to do for other people. She also set clear actions she took to achieve that purpose, imposed structure on her life, and developed deeper connections with coworkers. As I said, she doesn’t see herself as different from anyone else and so she prefers to remain anonymous; we agreed that “Jessie” is a favorite name for both of us and to use that rather than her own.
I’ve used those themes to organize what she talked about. Therefore, you will find that the chronology jumps around. Jessie wants me to assure you that she is not this disjointed!
Here is her story, in her own words, organized by themes.
JESSIE’S EXPERIENCE ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: “LIFE AS I KNEW IT WAS NEVER GOING TO BE THE SAME AGAIN.”
I worked for the New York Stock Exchange, the Enforcement Division. We were based in Two World Trade Center. We went after the bad guys, bad brokers, bad firms.
We weren’t that high up in Two World Trade. We had parts of Floors 28, 29, and 30. I was on 30. I always liked coming to work early and did so on September 11. Not that many people were in yet. I was in my office and I heard this loud Bang!
I went out of my office and the head of Enforcement, three doors down, was just outside his office wildly looking around. From the windows of his corner office, you could see all this debris flying round in the sky. Another guy down the hall from me the other way was running towards me shouting, “Get out of the office, get out of the office, immediately!” I left and without thinking used the elevator. Shortly after I left, the Building staff started announcing over the building loudspeaker system, “Don’t leave your offices, stay there, we don’t know what’s going on out there, just stay in your offices.” Most people on our floors followed these directions.
So then I was down on the main floor of Two World Trade by the elevator banks. People were crammed together, none of us knew what to do, and the Security people didn’t know what to do. People were trying to use their cell phones because we didn’t know that the closest cell tower had been destroyed. Finally the Security people said we could go out this one door but to be careful, only go out this way.
So I went out that door. World Trade Center is on Manhattan’s extreme West Side, not far from the Hudson River and the policemen were saying, “Go East, just go across, go East, you’ll be safe East.” I walked outside, looking around, and then walked out across the street and stood looking at the World Trade Center. A policeman was there. He was saying, “Move! Don’t you realize what happened?” He said, “Look, there’s a hole in this [Tower 1] building,” and he repeated, “There’s a hole in this building, you’ve got to move.”
As we’re looking, I see a plane headed for my building, Two World Trade Center, I saw the plane go into my building. At that point we all ran toward the street, we went East and uptown. It was a sea of people making their way uptown. It was dusty. It was like out of a movie. There were cars parked along Broadway, their doors were open, and all their radios were on, and all the radios were saying, “A plane just hit the Pentagon.” It was like the world was ending. Like a science fiction movie. We just kept walking.
We heard this big roar. Someone said, “Look!” We turned around and looked, and my whole building just crumbled. Two World Trade Center crumbled.
Thank God, I didn’t see what some people saw, the people jumping from windows, I didn’t see that. Some people did, they used to talk about it. I would have had nightmares. Just the thought of it is horrifying.
The woman walking next to me and I started talking. She worked for a charity non-profit further up Broadway and said I could use their phone to call my husband. The first thing Luke said was, “I thought you were dead.” He also told me to call my stepmother who had been calling to find out if I was OK.
I continued walking uptown to a friend’s office on 55th Street. I didn’t have a cell phone then. I stopped at my hairdresser on 21st street to call the friend and I walked in there shaking. They looked at me weird. They had no idea what had occurred. I said, “Don’t you know?” I said planes just struck the World Trade Center.
I reached my friend on the phone and walked up to her office. I called my stepmother from there. We then walked uptown to the friend’s apartment where I could spend the night.
When I called Luke from there, he said, “You have to come home.” I said, “I can’t. The ferries were closed, the subways aren’t working, the roads aren’t working.” So I stayed with my friend , and the next day the subways were running again, so I headed home. People still didn’t know. I was walking downtown and crying, tears were coming down my face. You looked up at the skyline, where you always saw World Trade and there was nothing there. That was so bizarre. I just felt sadness. Life as I knew it was never going to be the same again.
The First Theme. JESSIE HAD A REASON TO KEEP GOING: PURPOSE — SOMETHING MEANINGFUL TO DO — AND CLEAR ACTIONS TO ACHIEVE IT.
After about three weeks, we went back to work, in offices at 30 Wall Street, the other side of Broadway from the World Trade Center. We were there for a while, I remember walking around, kind of thinking, “Okay,” and I’m realizing I’m supposed to have a trial in Philadelphia very shortly.
It was a usual case in the sense that it was a bad broker who had cheated investors, and I had solid witnesses. I had already done a big analysis of the documents and had found an extra witness who could testify about the documents. This broker was a jerk, another one of those guys who thought he was brilliant, so brilliant he’d never get caught.
Of course we had an adjournment of the hearing. All my documents got destroyed in the blast. The bad guy who did all the crappy stuff, who had cheated all these old people, he was excited because he thought I wasn’t going to keep going after him because there were no more documents. So once we went back to work I spent my energy on trying to replicate the documents as much as possible. I had to talk with the witnesses again, trying to get their documents from their old brokerage firms but even some of these had been destroyed. I was just concentrating and focusing on going to trial.
So there was that going on. I just tried to keep going every day.
I liked a lot of the witnesses, who were older investment customers. Being that we weren’t a government agency, we couldn’t subpoena someone to cooperate with us. You can hear a person’s voice was on the phone and you learn how to talk to them, to try to get them to comply. “We want this guy off the street and we really need your help to do that.”
One of the witnesses was this man, about 88, a sweetheart of a guy, he died a couple of months after the case. I remember talking with this sweet guy. I said, “Aren’t you angry that this broker stole your money?” He said, “When you get to my age, you realize getting angry about something isn’t worth it.” I said, “He took your money.” He goes, “It’s not worth getting upset about.”
The Second Theme. JESSIE GAINED SUPPORT TO KEEP GOING, ESPECIALLY BY CONNECTING WITH COWORKERS
So for three weeks after September 11, I was home. I can remember being at loose ends, not knowing what to do. Friends and family were calling me and wanting to know what happened. I didn’t want to talk about it.
I used to get angry at my husband. We‘d be someplace and he’d tell someone, “Jessie went through the World Trade Center attack.” And then somebody would come over to me, “Oh! Luke just told me you were there.” To them it was incredible I was there at the World Trade Center. To me it wasn’t incredible that I was there. It just was. I happened to work there.
A lot of people weren’t in the office when the planes hit. Some people happened to have a doctor’s appointment. Or they were on the bus on the way there and got stuck. Or some people got stuck in the tunnel in from New Jersey and they turned everybody back at a certain point. And other people did happen to be there. The only person I knew who died was someone I had worked with and had changed jobs a couple months earlier to another organization on a top floor. He happened to be in the office when the plane hit. Everyone that was in his office at the time the plane hit was killed.
So I didn’t want to keep telling the story to other people. But there were some women I was friends with at work, we never really communicated outside work and all of a sudden we were. We were calling each other and staying in touch. I’m still really close friends with one of those women. Guys are more like buddies. I think the women got a lot more intense attachments to each other during that time.
Some of us didn’t know how to get hold of other people outside work. We saw them all day at work so why would you call them at home. And at first we couldn’t use work email because it was all broken so we couldn’t even email each other.
We were just trying to find each other. We did a lot more talking and got closer, got a lot closer friendships during that time.
The Third Theme. JESSIE HAD METHODS TO KEEP HERSELF TOGETHER: STRUCTURING AND CALMING
It was a very surreal time in my life. Once we went back to work, I was working hard to keep it together. That’s looking back. I wasn’t thinking then, “You have to keep it together.” I remember It was just instinct. I was thinking, “You have to get to get these documents and get those other documents. You have to go to trial against this bad guy”
And around February 2002, I found out I had an illness not related to 9/11. The doctor put me on these horrific drugs for a year.
I kept going into work. Because I didn’t want not to go to work, because the doctors were saying, “You could stay home.” I needed the structure, to get the trial together. My mind was so fuzzy and dislocated from the drugs. But I just needed to go to work. “I’m at work, I can do work.” This was pure instinct and not done mindfully. I learned that I needed to set up a structure to my day and my life to stay sane.
I was thinking, “Wow, you’re really suppressing the World Trade Center disaster. Maybe this is going to come back and haunt me someday. You’re not supposed to suppress emotions.” I wasn’t in denial. I was just ignoring it. That’s basically it. I was just ignoring it to keep going day by day.
The Stock Exchange secured space for us at 30 Wall, two doors from the Exchange. So we went back to work, they had these cubicles from the 70’s that were so bad. There was no such thing as soundproofing at all. I got headphones and I listened to classical music. I just got through it somehow.
I don’t know how mentally healthy my response was. But it worked for me.
JESSIE’S EXPERIENCE OF GOING BACK TO THE WORKPLACE
A couple days after September 11, someone called from New York Stock Exchange, from Enforcement, just checking to be sure everyone was okay. I think we were home for 3 weeks. Then the heads of the Stock Exchange called us in for a meeting over at the Exchange itself.
So we had a meeting. I remember going outside with a friend afterwards. The streets and sidewalks were all rubble and dust, everything was covered with this layer, this heavy layer of white dust over everything. I just remember my friend Sherrill and I having to walk over blocks of cement and blocks of everything. This is when New York City was saying to everyone down there, “Oh it’s safe to breathe down there, you can go there, don’t worry about it.” We didn’t have masks.
Management might have helped us cope but I don’t remember that. If they did, it was a nice thought but not well executed. They had meetings and we talked amongst ourselves. Everybody was shell-shocked. Everybody was just still like, “Okay, I’m here.” We had to get used to being in these 1970s cubicles. I don’t remember management really trying to do much. They were kind of inept. No one had been through this before. They tried but it didn’t work that much.
LESSONS FOR GETTING THROUGH COVID: CONTRIBUTING TO ACHIEVE A PURPOSE, STRUCTURING, CENTERING, AND CONNECTING
Basically, my response to COVID is the same as it was to September 11: Throw myself into work and helping others. Keep too busy to dwell much except when I stop. Give my days structure.
I’m working on a major Literary Festival that raises funds for a non-profit that helps low-income kids in my county get a leg up in life with tutoring, enrichment classes, STEM workshops etc. The Festival was supposed to be in mid-March but we had to postpone it because of COVID so now we’re crazy busy transitioning some of the big name author talks to virtual. And I started a Saturday morning children’s story book series. I love this work and I’m finding things that I’m good at that I never knew I could do. The wonderful thing about that is I can get an idea, I can work on it a little bit, tell the others, and they say, “Oh sure. You want to do that? That sounds good. Go for it.” We don’t just sit there and have meetings all the time. I can’t stand that. I need to do things.
So the literary festival gives me a purpose bigger than me. Rather than think, “Oh I’m depressed, what am I going to do about this,” I think, “Get over yourself!” and think about the big thing. I guess that still works for life too. The whole thing is having a purpose, doing something for someone other than yourself.
And I learned from September 11 that I needed to set up a structure to my day and life to stay sane. This time, with Covid, I did virtual yoga classes from the first day and nearly every day. I still do this. It’s helped enormously. I had done a lot of yoga usually but not daily. With Covid, I started the day with yoga class as my structure and went on from there, while with September 11 it was re-gathering documents for a trial that I had been ready to begin.
That’s what helped me this time: going on-line for virtual yoga, seeing people I knew from my class and the instructors. Just doing it, having that structure. “9:30 Monday Wednesday Friday I have this class and Tuesday Thursday this other class.” I’m doing it every day, which I had never done before. I even developed yoga muscles!
So tell people, “Go to yoga!”
Structure helped me another way, just like after September 11. My brain wasn’t wacking out so much because I was able to have my lists of things to do. I started with weekly lists. Then I made it into my daily lists. For a while there I got really wacko with colored pens. I stopped doing that part. I’m not so wacked out anymore. I still do my daily list. I need that structure, just to do that. It was amazing how it helped.
AND OUT THE OTHER SIDE OF THE EXPERIENCE: LEARNING WHEN YOU REFLECT BACK
An experience like September 11 really lays bare your emotions and your insides. And I think that at the time you don’t really know what’s happening, what you’re going through, but you learn a lot about yourself when you reflect back. Because at the time you don’t think about, “Oh I didn’t know I did that” – you don’t think about that. I think it’s afterwards you start thinking about how you reacted and what happened, and do you like what you did, or is there something about it that you would change. It’s such an emotional thing, that I really thought I would suffer some psychological collapse down the road. But I never did. I kept it in mind, and there were occasions where it got in my mind more than others. And when I thought about it, I could get temporarily emotional about it.
But like the English, I believe in, “Keep calm and carry on.” With September 11, all I remember thinking is, “Carry on. That’s all you have to do. Just carry on and get through it.”
Someone famous said, “The only way to deal with a terrible time is to get through it.”