I wasn’t going to write anything about 9/11 because I figured it would be just another 9/11 post on the 10th anniversary of this incredibly historic event. But I read Marijean Jaggers‘ post about Communicating 9/11 and it sparked an idea for a different angle for me.
You see, I was there for 9/11. I worked in NYC at the time.
But I don’t have any dramatic stories, at least not of the actual events as they unfolded. I apparently stepped off of my train from CT in Grand Central at about the moment the first plane hit the towers. But I had no idea: I heard nothing, felt nothing, saw nothing.
I walked the half-mile to my midtown office, with no idea of the tragedy that was unfolding just 4 miles south of me. I got to my office at about the time the second plane hit, and I received an instant message on my computer from a friend:
Are you alright???
I had no clue what he was talking about. And then he told me we were under attack. That statement was out of my frame of reference; it made no sense. But I went to the TV and, with my coworkers, watched what the rest of us watched. We were all over the country and world, but we had this shared moment of tragedy and disbelief.
I had coworkers who lived in the World Trade Center area who were displaced from their homes, but other than that, I didn’t know anyone who was killed. I was not personally touched by the loss of life. At most, I experienced the “inconvenience” of much greater security in and around my little slice of midtown Manhattan. And I’m not going to make up any dramatic tales of horror and heroism. I was there, and yet I watched it on television much like the rest of the world.
The one thing I do have is a set of very distinct memories of how one of the largest cities in the world became a community right in front of my eyes. I’d like to share a few of these with you:
- Work stopped – we watched the events unfold, and perhaps the most horrifying moment was when the first tower suddenly disappeared in a pile of rubble. I remember coworkers breaking into tears. As far as I knew, I might be spending the night in my office as I wasn’t sure if I could get a train back to CT.
- People shared – We heard countless stories of people literally running out of their shoes as they fled the scene, and store owners opening their inventory to give them new shoes. Give, not sell. People giving out water bottles, food, etc. This is NYC, for goodness sakes, where everything is more expensive. No one gives anyone anything for free! And yet the hardness of NYC suddenly fell away to reveal real people with real hearts.
- Empty streets, packed trains – I was eventually able to head home that day. I remember walking down a deserted Fifth Avenue. No cars. Very few people. Sirens and smoke in the distance. At Grand Central they were sending one train an hour. They were jamming as many people on as possible and when the train was full, it would make every stop on the way. That meant my train ride would be at least twice as long as normal. And this was before I had a cell phone so my communication with my family was minimal. A hot train, standing room only. Normally that’s a recipe for disaster. And yet, there was no grumbling. We were in each other’s faces and personal space, but no one complained. In fact, it was silent. People were cordial and patient.
I have three other very distinct memories from the months following the events of 9/11, and all of them involve the funerals of the firefighters who lost their lives that day. I worked just a block from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the site of many of those funerals, and it seemed as if there were quite a few of them:
- Respect and silence – On the days when there were funerals, our area of Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic and people lined the streets on both sides, seven or eight deep. This left just a small path for people to walk to get to work or wherever they needed to be. But the city that is always bustling just stopped. As the funeral processions made their way to St. Patrick’s, led by the sounds of “Amazing Grace” being played on bagpipes, everyone just…stopped. Those who had to keep going in the narrow path didn’t complain. No pushing and shoving. No complaining, no griping. Silence and respect as thousands lined the streets as one community, despite the many political, religious, or ethnic differences that might have normally kept us apart. It was an amazing act of community to witness.
- Community knows no boundaries – Each funeral was attended by firefighters from around North America. As I walked to work on those funeral days, I would spot firetrucks parked on the street with their names letting me know that they had driven from as far away as California. I even saw some from Canada. Firefighters and law enforcement officers have their own community, and it was important for them to drive from all across the country to be there for their fallen comrades. I mean, who gets in a firetruck and drives thousands of miles for a funeral? And yet this happened, day after day.
- Random acts of kindness – NYC is filled with street carts selling all sorts of food. In the morning, I would pass many coffee carts. I remember one funeral morning seeing a firefighter from some other part of the country standing at a coffee cart on 52nd Street. He ordered several cups of coffee and when he pulled out his wallet to pay, the cart owner waved him away. The coffee was free. The cart owner, who was clearly originally from another country, was showing his gratitude with this random act of kindness. But the streets were full of visiting firefighters. If he offered free coffee to all of them he’d go broke, and yet, he didn’t seem to care.
In cold, heartless NYC I witnessed the power of community. I often wonder how the events of 9/11 and the days following would have been reported and experienced today, with Twitter and Facebook. At the time, most of our shared experience was through watching the events on television. Today, with Twitter, we’d have a much greater level of bi-directional sharing, as we have seen with everything from hurricanes and earthquakes to sporting events.
I pray nothing like 9/11 ever happens again, but if it does, it will be a very different event with a very different sort of community. We see this on both the small and large scale with local and global events. We now have the ability to converse in real-time with people around the world, including those “on the scene”. We can react more quickly and I believe we will see “community” forming just as quickly in these shared moments.
Do you have any stories of community regarding the events of 9/11 or other tragedies? What role do you believe Social Media will play in those events in the future?
- Communicating 9/11: How We Talk and Write About it Does Make A Difference (marijeanjaggers.com)
- Communication In the Digital Landscape (spinsucks.com)
- Gene Autry, Cowboys, and a Social Media Code of Conduct (inklingmedia.net)