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Elisabeth Joy LaMotte, LICSW

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Yesterday's Earthquake: The Kindness of Strangers

Posted: 08/24/11 07:24 PM ET

I remember Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001 as if it happened yesterday. The sky was crisp and clear, and the weather was unbelievably humid free. I was seeing a therapy client at my office in downtown Washington, D.C., and my colleague noticed a plane flying too low (it went on to crash into The Pentagon).

I learned of the attacks when, between sessions, a distraught client left a message on my office line just as the first of the twin towers was hit. I raced home to my 3-month-old daughter, and my husband biked home from the State Department, where he worked. Before doing so, I knocked on all the closed doors in my office, interrupted the various therapy sessions, (a major taboo in my field) told my colleagues what had happened, and said I thought we should evacuate. Tragically, the client I met with just before the attacks left my office only to learn that she lost an immediate family member who was working in the south tower.

When I was sitting in a downtown municipal building just before 2 p.m. yesterday (it turns out Washington, D.C., is requiring all social workers be fingerprinted) and the floors started rumbling as the walls began shaking like crazy, I was certain it was a bomb. Sept. 11 is ingrained in my consciousness, where it will likely remain. I ran hysterically outside along with only a few others (whom I assume were also waiting for fingerprinting appointments) fearing the building would explode and crumble any second. Most people smiled, chatted and took their time.

When I made it to the plaza and many outside seemed relatively calm, I felt somewhat embarrassed about my speedy, stressed reaction. I traded stories with strangers about our experiences as everyone tried, and failed, to use their cell phones. One woman said she was in a meeting with her boss and wanted to be sure that his voice would not be the last one she heard, so she ran, too!

Driving home I wove through CNN cameras filming the crowds near Union Station and was struck by how calmly and politely we all drove. I parked mid-journey and tried to find my husband in the crowds outside his evacuated office building on I Street -- a displaced Circulator bus drver helped me look. With no email or cell reception, I eventually gave up and headed home.

As the various parallels between yesterday and 9/11 hit me -- the gorgeous weather, the fear, the universally lost cell phone reception, the common urge to connect with strangers, the total chaos, the crazy traffic in which everyone drove respectfully -- I was overwhelmed with gratitude for how kind people are to one another in a crisis. I felt incredibly lucky to be alive. I picked up my now 10-year-old daughter, along with her 8-year-old sister, at their soccer camp, hugged them with joy, and could not wait to get home.

 
 
 

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