I know that today everyone is remembering what happened in 2001, and I don’t want to fatigue you, but here is my recollection of 9-11 in Arlington, Va., where I lived and worked at the time, only 3 miles from the Pentagon and how I learned an important lesson about public service.It was about 8:45 a.m., and I was running late for work, the television blaring in my apartment (map) that was located across from Ft. Myer. (As an aside, the map I link to doesn’t label the location of the Pentagon, I wonder if this an post 9-11 precaution? The Pentagon is between the Arlington National Cemetery and the Reagan National Airport.)
I can’t remember which station was on, but I do remember they were airing a segment on fashions for pregnant women. Suddenly, the picture cut to a shot of a building with a gaping hole in the side. As we all know, it was the World Trade Center, and it was nearly 9:00 a.m. I almost immediately grasped the implications and quickly grabbed my briefcase and ran to the office. I lived only a 10-minute walk away. The sky was blue and calm, and didn't belie the horrors that were taking place a few states away.
When I got there, no one had clued into what had happened, so we turned on the television in the conference room and saw the second tower had already been hit. Sometime, as we watched this, only 3 miles away, the Pentagon was hit at 9:37 a.m. The screen flickered and suddenly the scenery was familiar. We ran to our 6th story window to see what we could see, which wasn’t much except for a wisp of grey smoke floating up the Potomac River.
A decision had to be made. Frankly, no one felt safe in our office towers, and many of my colleagues were concerned about family members that worked downtown. One worked in the Capitol, which we later learned was the target of the 4th plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. We all went home, taking care not to ride the Metro, which we felt could be a secondary target.
Once I got home and finally reached my family via e-mail, phones and cellphones were jammed for hours, I was restless. Here I was, a public relations professional trained in crisis communication, surely I could help out somewhere with something. My friend Diana joined me after she walked to my apartment from her office. She couldn’t get home since many roads were blocked in our area.
We ended up at the Arlington County Red Cross office. We asked if we could give blood and they asked if we could help. Thus began my affiliation with the Red Cross that continued on with the San Antonio Red Cross chapter when I moved.
That day I helped with in-kind donations, setting up appointments with local grocery stores (inside the zone where traffic could move) and picking up carts full of food for the volunteers that were supporting the effort to feed rescue workers and provide support for the families as they awaited word on survivors.
After the disaster I helped the Public Relations Society of American launch the Power of Two program, designed to marry the skills of public relations practitioners with their local Red Cross chapters. I helped organize a training session in Washington D.C. with Darren Irby, which was attended by over 25 public relations professionals.
Shortly after this, in 2002, I moved to San Antonio, where I was called on to assist in floods, hurricanes and house and apartment fires. Something that people don’t know about the Red Cross is that many chapters respond to EVERY house fire, sometimes as many as three to four a day, and provide assistance to these families (feeding them, clothing them and helping them find a place to stay). There is something very satisfying in being a part of that.
So, today, I remember that on a clear day all those years ago, I learned the real meaning of public service, which is simply to be available when needed.
What does 9-11 mean to you, and has it changed your life in any way?