I stood in the lobby talking with Shelly, a colleague who had traveled up from Quincy, IL for a meeting in our Chicago headquarters. We stood chatting about what was new in our lives when my boss, Ray, walked up to us with a dazed look .
“Did you hear? A plane just hit the World Trade Center.” His face showed disbelief.
Looking around, I saw dozens of people standing across the street of our building on cell phones. Many of them were looking skywards. Other people knew what I did not.
I ran downstairs to the coffee shop, the only place in the building I could think of that had a television set. When I got there, I joined a group of maybe ten others around a small, black and white set the owner kept behind the counter.
“What’s happening?” I asked Aahil, the Muslim shop owner.
“I do not know,” he said, shaking his head. “But it seems that two large planes have stuck the Twin Towers in New York City.”
My cell phone rang. It was Ray. “Scotty, come to my office.” Click.
The 15th floor of my building housed the senior leadership of the organization. Everywhere I looked, people were scrambling, speaking loudly on phones, and, in some cases, heading out the door.
When I walked into Ray’s office, I saw that he still wore the overcoat he had on when I had seen him earlier in the lobby. His eyes were dark.
“No one knows what’s going on. But two planes have slammed into buildings in New York, and one of the administrative assistants heard from her mom that all air travel will be grounded. But there are a lot of planes up in the air, and Chicago is a big city. If these are terrorists…” his voice trailed off. “For the safety of our employees, we are evacuating the building immediately. Before you go, I want you to call all of our regional offices across the country. Tell them that we are closing our building. And let them know to use their own discretion to shut down their offices if they think it’s best.”
Ray tore in half a list that showed all of our offices and the phone numbers of the manager or director in charge. “I’ll take half, you take the other half. You can use my conference room next door.” As I turned to leave, he said, “Call your people downstairs first, and tell them to get out of the city. And Scotty, as soon as you’re done, get out of here.”
For such a seemingly simple task, these calls were difficult. Not only did I need to pass on information, but in the end I absorbed the emotions and fears of about 15 leaders across IL, TX, and NM. Everyone wanted to talk about IT, what IT meant. Some of them had been glued to a television and had much more information than I possessed.
Exiting the building to walk to the train, I felt like I were on the set of a Hollywood movie. I could hear no traffic. Replacing the angry taxicab horns were the sounds of a nearly silent throng of thousands and thousands of people walking down the center of the streets. Some were crying. Others kept their heads skyward.
Elbow to elbow, kneecap to buttock, we pressed on, heading to our chosen escape routes from the madness. Instead of shoving and shouting, our group of strangers shared a solidarity of purpose. All became friends and neighbors, allies and countrymen. A woman stumbled in front of me. By the time I reached her side to pick her up, three other men joined me to lift her to her feet. She hugged me instinctively, pressing her mascara stained cheeks into my pressed white shirt.
Chicago has incredible mass transit. Tens of thousands of commuters embark from Union Station, the rail line that connects multiple suburbs to the city. Union Station sits two blocks away from the Sear Tower (now the Willis Tower). As an icon of the city skyline, each of us knew that we needed to walk next to Chicago’s own version of the World Trade Center to reach the station. All eyes kept a nervous glance to the sky.
The cacophony of the train car revealed a cross-section of all human emotions. Some sat quietly, staring straight ahead, cans of beer in hand. Others tried with desperation to find a signal on their cell phones, to check on families and loved ones, or to gain some access to the information that the outside world already knew. Others talked loudly, saying little, burning off nervous energy and tension. More than a few sobbed.
When I got home, I held my children for a long time. They cried because I cried. At ages 4 and 6, they knew nothing about the horror playing on the news in the background. They couldn’t have known that my tears were for the dead, certainly. But my tears were also for the living, those of us who had the illusion of our safety and security stripped from us.