Bonded In Grief – My 9/11 Story

September 11th, 2001

A day that began like any other. It was 7 am CDT and I had just started my shift at the Aon Helpdesk in Glenview, Illinois. There must have been 12-14 of us manning the helpdesk and we all became close.

Aon was a global insurance company that had offices just about everywhere – including 2 World Trade Center where they occupied floors 98-105. They had a data center there and a local helpdesk to manage end user problems – except hardware calls.

Those would have to be resolved using a 3rd party vendor. Every single day, multiple times a day, we would receive a call from their helpdesk manager Michell Robotham to open tickets for their hardware issues and dispatch the 3rd party to their location for resolving whatever issue it may be.

All of the agents in Glenview got to know Michell very well. Originally from Wisconsin, she had just been divorced and had a 6 year old daughter. We would all chit chat with her as we filled out the work orders about the day and other normal conversations. I even remember the first time I took a call from her – I remember telling her the view they had must be incredible.

The day began like every typical day. Our floor supervisor Frank was on duty. Frank was a older man compared to the rest of us as most of us on the helpdesk were in our 20’s, maybe early 30’s. He had a no nonsense attitude but also had a sense of humor, so it was awfully difficult for me to distinguish when he was serious and when he was pulling our legs.

It was 7:46 in the morning. He announced that a light aircraft had hit the Trade Center and we were trying to determine if it was North or South. I initially thought Frank was kidding. By the time Frank confirmed it was the North tower, and that our people were fine, the South tower was hit.

We all were just stunned and immediately tried to pull up CNN on our computers which either timed out or took forever to load. It was like our phones went dead – there was no one calling. Which was odd because there would be times a Lotus Notes server would go down (which was a daily event since we had so many), that sometimes we’d have over 100 calls in queue waiting to be answered. But the phones remained eerily quiet as everybody was watching this horrific event unfold. But the one question on everyone’s mind and was asked was: Is Michele ok?

The only voices we heard was our own shouting out the latest event when one of us was able to pull it up on our computers. Then the Pentagon got hit, then there was speculation that the White House was next.

Then the FAA grounded all planes. And then the hardest thing to watch was the towers falling. We knew we just lost a lot of people but didn’t know how many. Around lunchtime I remember going to Subway with Mylite and Lisa in Mylite’s minivan and there were no planes in the beautiful blue sky which was so unusual as Glenview seemed to be in the flight paths for take offs and landings.

Not long after lunch I remembered they pulled a few people including Lisa off the phones and they manned the emergency number from a conference room for Aon employees to report that they were ok. Again, we were all waiting for Michell to be ok.

I was tasked with creating PAL Ids for disaster recovery which was our form of VPN at the time because back then it was still dial up service. This would take me a day or two but the roller coaster of hell from that day was finally over and I left work not knowing what happened to our friends – especially Michell.

My first husband, who was my boyfriend that I was living with at the time, who worked at the same building and company as me never made it into work – even though we only lived a mile away from the office, was glued to the television with his best friend.

The following week the emergency line was continued to be manned in rotation with still no word from Michell. But we were told by some of the survivors that when the first plane hit the North Tower, our people were sent back up to their office space being told the problem was contained.

When it was all said and done, we lost 176 of our fellow employees – some we knew vaguely and others like Michell we knew very well. Her remains were recovered and she was laid to rest in her native Wisconsin. Every year I think about Michell and her daughter that she loved so much and it’s hard to believe her daughter is now 22 years old, and I’m sure she would be so proud of her.

9 years later I became a helpdesk manager for a subsidiary of Aon that broke off and formed a new company. I was already managing Desktop Support but would also be taking on moving and managing the helpdesk into our Chicago office. It was then we were in the heart of the financial district in the middle of 3 targets for terrorism – the Willis Tower, the Board of Trade, and the Federal Reserve of Chicago.

I immediately had zero hesitation on joining the evacuation team. I drilled the emergency procedures into my teams head – because I had remembered that day. I remembered the chaos and confusion not only from where I sat at the time but also the stories from our survivors. I remembered Michell. I remembered that your team and their safety is your responsibility. I imagine that’s why she didn’t make it out, as well as other IT management that we knew.

The personal irony for me is that the worst 2 days of my life were 11/9 – the day my de-facto older brother would be taken from me, and 9/11. But most importantly the biggest thing that I would do – is just remember, and I will always continue to tell those stories.

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