Like many people, I always reflect on the things that I'm most thankful of this time of year. This year, I'm honored to have an outlet to deliver these thanks to a larger audience than just those I'm fortunate enough to share a Thanksgiving table with. I thought it would be most appropriate to share a short story from my upcoming book, When Turtles Fly, that represents something most of us are thankful for: people that willing to risk their lives for our personal safety. There are few people I've met who have completely blown me away with their actions. Major Thomas Sullivan is one of them...
As you read my blogs, keep in mind that these stories, anecdotes and tools are all based around my philosophy for success: THE TURTLE EFFECT. The Turtle Effect was taught to me by my mother when I was a young girl. She told me that I could achieve anything I wanted to as long as I remembered to have a soft inside, a hard shell, and be sure to stick my neck out. I hope this amazing story will inspire you on that path to find your "stick your neck out" in order to reach your goals....
As usual, I arrived at work at 7:30 a.m. that day and made my way up to the Fiduciary Trust International offices. I couldn't wait to tell my coworkers that my wife and I were expecting twins. I ate breakfast at my desk and waited for my boss, Anthony, to arrive.
I marched into Anthony's office at 8:40 a.m. and eagerly sat down to tell him the news. He shared in my obvious joy and we went on chitchatting for another five minutes. His office window looked north over Manhattan, so my gaze wandered to the view as I listened to him speak. My jaw dropped and my eyes must have popped out of my head when, in my peripheral vision, I saw a large airplane careen into the north tower next to ours.
The date, as all the world now knows, was September 11, 2001. At the time, I didn't know why it happened or what more was in store for the World Trade Center. There was nothing signifying that our tower was next and I never for the life of me thought another jet would be coming. But seeing with my own eyes the plane strike the adjacent highrise, I was fearful that our building could also catch on fire. I just knew we had to get out.
Our offices were on the ninety-fifth floor, and being the deputy warden for the floor, I made the decision to tell everyone we should evacuate. Anthony quickly rushed out the door. I later found out that he had run up the stairs to our other offices, on the ninety-seventh floor, to warn the others. He was one of many friends I never saw again.
I warned everyone on the floor, did everything I could to convince them of the urgency of evacuating fast, and then made my way to the stairs. With the chaos I had just seen, I expected the stairwell to be clamoring with frantic people. Eerily, everything was very quiet. I quickly made my way down to the seventy-eighth floor and the main elevator banks. The frantic mobs I had been anticipating were all stacked up and pressing against the elevator doors. Since using the elevators was hopeless, I jumped back into the stairwell and continued down the staircase, several steps at a time.
At around the sixty-fifth floor or so, we heard a loud crash and the floor beneath us shook. The wall beside me split open and I would have found myself upside down on the staircase had I not been holding on to the railing. Within seconds, the stairwell doors flew open and people started yelling about a second plane. I took a deep breath and calmly made my way down the stairs with hundreds, if not thousands, of other World Trade Center employees. I knew there were still many people in the tower's top ten floors, so my heart sank when I looked up and found that I was one of the last individuals descending the staircase. People were terrified, but I don't think everyone experienced the fear I felt, having witnessed the impact firsthand. I was just fortunate enough to have seen the plane explode, and to have had that fear thrown into me. It was like a force pulling us down the stairs as we made our way to the tower's lobby. Along the way, many of us assisted those who were in more obvious immediate distress. It was a group effort, and no one wanted to leave anyone behind.
When we reached the main lobby we were ushered back into the stairwells, through the basement and out onto Church Street, because of the falling debris. I followed the mob of people hurrying away from the towers. One after another, we would turn and look over our shoulder at the horror behind us. Both towers were now engulfed in flames and people were leaping from the blazing windows to a terrifying death. Uncontrollable sickness pooled in my gut. It was like a scene from hell, and one that will live with me until I die.
While I was getting my bearings, I heard a horrifying noise that seemed to start far below my feet. I immediately thought that another plane must have slammed into the buildings. I never imagined the towers would come crashing down. But as we looked up, a flood of debris came rolling off the south tower as each floor sank through the ones below it. Everyone around me must have had the same fear of the buildings toppling over sideways, for on cue, we all set off, running away from the destruction as fast as our legs could carry us. The full weight of the situation came crashing down on me. I'd been in that building just minutes earlier.
When the dust and debris started to settle and the cloud hanging over Manhattan lightened, we all looked around to survey the damage. Shops were vacated. The ferries were closed. And everyone was covered in a layer of dust. People were handing out water, brushing each other off and trying to come to terms with what just happened. Then the second tower came crashing down. Once again, the collapse shook me to my soul.
I felt that if I didn't try to get out of the city right away, I never would. Along with tens of thousands of other New Yorkers, I made my way on foot over the Brooklyn Bridge. I was headed for home, now eleven miles away. About two miles into the walk, I realized that I had torn my pants and was missing a shoe. I was at the end of my rope, and had to find a phone to let my family know that I had made it out.
I joined an ever-growing lineup at the phone booth, and when I finally dialed, I couldn't wait to hear the voice on the other end of the line. My lifeline. Before the second syllable was out of my mouth, a cry shot through the phone, "He's alive!" Though I knew I meant a lot to my family, the cheers I heard were unbelievable in that moment.
I walked another couple of miles before my brother finally picked me up and brought me home to my family. I don't think I have ever been happier to see them. As I walked in the front door, my father looked as if he'd seen a ghost, and grabbed me to make sure I was real. My wife gave me one of the biggest hugs I had ever felt. And I realized how lucky I was.
The phone rang off the hook every day for the next couple of weeks. So many people wanted to ask me about family members who didn't make it out. Had I seen them? What were they wearing? What were they like the last time I saw them? Were they in a good mood that morning?
I went to a great many funerals over that time. Occasionally, I would hear someone say he or she was so happy I had gotten out alive, and one man even gave me credit for saving his life, because I'd convinced him to evacuate when he didn't think it was necessary. But on several occasions there were questions, and even harder, accusations. Why couldn't I help them? How come I couldn't save more people? My wife decided she wasn't going to any more funerals, and wanted to know how I tolerated the insults. I told her that I had to go. I told her those people were just struggling with their loss. We were all struggling.
It was for a time just like this that I had remained active with the Army Reserve--even when my obligation of service finally ended, one year before. I had stayed on in case of a national emergency. In case my country needed me. Then, in January 2003, I was called up to go to Iraq. I understood that they needed me. And to be honest, I also needed them. I needed to feel a mutual support system.
To my disappointment, that deployment didn't go through. After nearly being deployed several times after that, I was finally given my chance to go overseas to serve my country in January 2006, and I joined the Iraq war unconditionally. Whether or not I agree with the war was irrelevant to my service. It wasn't a question; I was in. I just wanted to be a part of helping my country, and I'm proud of my service. I felt I could finally give all the 9-11 mourners answers to what I did for my country. Especially after my country had done so much for me.
I often look back and hope that everyone finds peace somehow...myself included. I still struggle to find it. Sometimes I get quite angry. There is no closure yet. There are those moments when I think what if? I see the way my mother looks at my children, and I know she's thinking the same. What if?
I always wonder what tomorrow will bring. But life has to go on, and we need each other to make the best of every day. I hope I've done so.
September 11 affected us all in ways we never imagined possible. I became a part of history that day...whether I wanted to or not. There were horrific things that came out of that experience. But it really helped me realize that we won't get anywhere in this world without sticking our necks out for each other. We have to supply support for others if we're ever going to expect it in return.
My life as a citizen soldier let me find the support I could give other people. I'm not a doctor, so I can't save lives on a daily basis. I'm not a teacher, so I can't bring up the citizens of the future. But if I can work to preserve their freedom, then I've found my way to give back.
My thoughts and prayers for the hundred and four friends and colleagues who perished on September 11, 2001. You will never be forgotten.
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