Sunday, September 11, 2011

A decade isn’t long enough

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Ten years ago, I was taking auditions, performing in shows and holding down a day job as a system administrator in the Customer Relations department of United Airlines. The day started off like any other. I got into work, stashed my stuff in my cube, revved up my PC and waited for my mother (who still works will United) to come downstairs so we could go to the cafeteria for our morning beverages. My coworker in the next cube over had her radio on low. That’s when I heard a voice report a small plane hit one of the World Trade Center Towers.

Working in an airline means everyone stops for a moment when they hear an airplane has had trouble – regardless of what kind of plane or what airline runs it. The news reports claimed the plane was a small, private one.

We now know they were wrong, but then we didn’t. We assumed the reporter knew what he was talking about. For the next few minutes everyone went about their jobs while keeping one ear peeled for news about the accident. When the second plane hit the World Trade Center my heart stopped. The ability for anyone to work ceased even as the phone lines lit up. And even then we didn’t know how bad it was. That one of the planes belonged to United. The other to American. And that two more planes were circling the clouds with men aboard waiting to do more harm.

Everyone remembers where they were when 9/11 occurred. I was inside United Airlines World Headquarters under lockdown. Phone usage was cut to a minimum because of high call volume. Emergency teams were assembled to answer media inquiries in PR and to talk to concerned family members who wanted to know if their loved ones were on those planes. TVs were set up in conference rooms for those who needed to watch the reports as they aired. I avoided the televisions. Too many of my friends had gone in to view the replays of the planes hitting. They watched the towers fall. Their eyes showed the horror that they had seen. I knew by the hopelessness in their faces that I would fall apart when I saw it. I stayed in my cube and shuffled papers while listening to the radio.

There were rumors of more planes missing. A colleague seated nearby who used to work in reservations let her fingers fly across the keyboard to check one flight status after another. I still remember the intake of air when she found one plane whose flight status was unavailable. United Flight 93.

So much of that day remains a blur, but I remember the faces of my friends and coworkers as we mourned the loss of life and our sense of safety. I worked the phone lines from midnight to 8a.m. and talked to media outlets as the world began to awaken on day two of the tragedy. It was good I didn’t sleep. I don’t think I could have. By then I had seen the news reports on television and knew those images would follow me into my dreams. When I went home sometime late morning, I leaned I was right.

I didn’t work the phone lines again. Instead, I helped assist the company’s communication with the victims’ families. I still remember dozens of the names of those who died on the planes. I also remember many of the names of those left behind.

For the next week, the skies above O’Hare were quiet. For those of us who grew up around the airport, the lack of noise in the skies made us even edgier. The absence of engine roars and soaring planes was proof that the world had irrevocably changed.

The following Tuesday, a week after 9/11, United Airlines held a memorial to remember those who died. Wreaths were laid by friends of our coworkers who were on the fallen planes. I sang God Bless America and watched thousands of colleagues in attendance raise American flags as they cried. I can still feel the way my chest tightened. The equal parts of despair and pride I felt as from the stage I watched a sea of flags rise toward the sky.

Sitting behind my computer today writing this, the emotions of those days come storming back. Ten years later and the tears fall just as quickly. The pain and horror have not lessened.

And I’m glad. Some things are not meant to fade or be forgotten.

Today, I ask you to take a moment to remember those who died and all that was lost. Share what you felt and what you remember here or with someone you talk to today. Ten years have passed—movies have been made, memorials have been erected, but none of those matter as much as us sharing what we saw, what we felt and what we learned.


Anonymous said...

So thankful we were together during this incredible time in history. Thank you for sharing this proud of you. Love, Mom

Angela Suzuki said...

September 11, 2001 - Naval Air Station North Island, Coronado, California. The morning was beautiful. I put on my uniform, rolled my hair into a bun, and put on my boom dockers. As I made my way into work from the barracks, I heard someone say a plane struck the WTC - I did not believe him. At 0603 PST I watched as the 2nd place hit. At that moment, my life changed forever and my role in the Navy became important.

I will never forget that day, nor the lives lost. I am thankful for the all the firefighters, police officers, etc. I continue to honor those who serve in our military. My brother Gunnery Sergeant Popejoy is currently in Afghanistan - I pray that he comes home safe everyday.

Debra St. John said...

I think we all remember where we were when we heard the news. And it's important that we never forget the way our nation changed that day...

Barbara Weitz said...

I'll never forget this horrific day. I worked at the Sears Corporate offices where many nationalities work in harmony. Together, in silence, we watched the live news stream being piped into every available TV monitor around the complex. There was a collective gasp when the second plane hit. I can still feel the pain and shock of that day, along with the aftermath of working with many fellow associates with a Middle East upbringing. Good people who had nothing to do with what happened but you saw the fear and uncertainty in their eyes when you'd meet in an elevator or in the halls. This was an event with ripple affect that still exists. I pray we never see another such horrible act of senseless destruction, but somehow know we must stay diligent.

Thank you for this chance to publicly remember those who lost their lives and give honor to the many heroes of the day, seen and unseen, while holding close those we love with a prayer of thanks on our lips.