The Skies of Sept. 11, 2001

I’m a few days late posting this reflection I wrote two years ago, but I wanted to share as it continues to be cathartic insight into my motivation for diving into the world of emergency communications.

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“Oh no, oh no,” she exclaimed, arms out and palms up.

That September sky remains seared into my mind. So blue. So crisp. The clouds so white.

I vividly recall walking to work 10 years ago at The George Washington University. Before I entered our office building, I duly noted the deep shade of blue hanging above my head. What could ruin such a sky?

I paused in the lobby with a few coworkers and students gazing at the TV as one of the networks reported on a plane crash, most likely a small aircraft that veered off course. That sounded odd, I thought, but how unfortunate. I hoped for a low casualty rate and minimal building damage. I continued my day.

I wrote for the faculty/staff newspaper and that brilliant sky Tuesday was deadline day. The editor furiously poured over the final details of the pending issue.

I visited my media relations colleagues to probably chat about fantasy baseball, as we did nearly every morning during the season. While there, the first details made it clear this was no ordinary day.

That September sky is seared into my mind, this time with an airplane.

The red/orange flash. The immediate impact. The smoke.

That September sky remains seared into my mind.

GW is located in the Foggy Bottom section of Washington. As with everyone else around the country, we heard reports of fire at the State Department, just two blocks away from campus.

My anxiety level rose.

I walked back to the editor’s office and reported another plane hit the World Trade Center. Ever the diligent worker, he was shocked, but forged ahead with meeting our deadline.

As I shuttled back to the media relations gang, it became clear that DC skies were now impacted – not just New York. As smoke billowed from the Pentagon, I meandered hurriedly to my editor and shared the news. He paused and was stunned, but continued meeting the deadline. We weren’t sure what to make of all of this, so why not continue being normal?

I returned perhaps 10 or 15 minutes later and told him the World Trade Center towers collapsed.

He stopped cold. Nothing was normal anymore.

Our deadline no longer mattered as smoke, debris and death filled the air of New York and two subway stations away at the Pentagon.

That September sky, now covered in smoke, remains seared into my mind.

Many of us left work early. The National Guard now stood watch under that September sky less than one block from the front steps of my office building.

The subway ride home was a desolate, isolating experience. Ghost faces. Empty expressions. Would this train and its passengers even make it home alive? What was next?

Hours later, my wife of two months finally made it home from another part of DC. We hugged long and hard, with tears in our eyes. As we now know, DC’s skies could have been darker if not for the courage of another plane full of patriots.

That September sky remained blue, but it rained tears and destruction.

I wrote this article describing GW’s campus the days after the attacks:

http://www.gwu.edu/~bygeorge/sept25ByG!/vigil.html

I write this not just for catharsis, but like so many other people, I was inspired and motivated. I don’t have the courage to join the military. I probably wouldn’t make a good fire fighter. But how could I translate my communications skills into something more useful, more purposeful after Sept. 11, 2001?

The first hints of a path came on Sept. 12 when I realized GW educated emergency managers. I wrote this article a few weeks later describing how alumni responded that brilliant blue day:

http://www.gwu.edu/~bygeorge/nov6ByG!/crisis.html

I was inspired by their work and while I never intended to become a full time emergency manager, I wanted the skill set to help save lives through communications.

In 2001, I finished my one master’s degree in communications and shortly thereafter, pursued a second master’s in homeland security and emergency management to fuse with my communications background.

Those classes opened my eyes to a whole new world that I admire, respect and am proud to be a tiny sliver of today. I’m no hero for the work I’ve done in the last decade – not even close – but disasters strike and I feel more prepared today.

Today, 10 years later, my wife and I have two beautiful daughters not shaped by 9/11, but the scenes and skies of that September day are not lost on a 2-year old.

“Oh no, oh no,” our oldest daughter exclaimed Saturday afternoon as an image of the World Trade Center collapsing appeared on TV in the distance. It caught her young eye a room away and she couldn’t stop watching. “Oh no, oh no, building broken,” she said.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. It affirmed that what happened 10 years ago will always remain a powerful example of pain, evil, destruction and sadness — even for a little girl who’s lived on earth a mere two years.

That September sky remains seared into my mind.

–9/11/11

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