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.

The Unbroken Continuity

There is absolutely unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner.  -Unknown

For those of you who actually know me, you probably know that I lost my cousin when I was 12. He was barely 20 years old. 

 He was the older brother I always wanted who looked after me, protected me and even kept me around even in his teenage years with his friends in tow.  I was the baby sister that he always wanted, even wanting to follow my parents to the hospital as my mothers water broke in their kitchen, who annoyed him on occasion – especially the relentlessly cheering for him during his countless baseball games, the baby sister whose older brother was deployed overseas during Desert Storm that had a full blown panic attack at 11 years old in Science class while the teacher had the news on the radio reporting on the war while the air raid sirens wailed through the radio waves.   While we were the only children from two brothers – we were bonded from the beginning.

It has been 25 years that I have lived on this earth without him in the physical realm.  I've lived without him physically twice as long as I was able to physically touch him.   It still never ceases to amaze me how much I can miss someone who was only in my life for such a short time, but who in life and in death had such a profound effect on me and my life.  I look at my son, who has a cousin of his own and their relationship mimics my own relationship with my late "older brother".

There isn't a single day that doesn't pass that I don't think about him – whether intentional or something catches my eye that reminds me of him or a song comes on the radio – it's just become a part of my existence.  He even still manages to piss me off – not because he died, but because like many people who experience what I will call an unnatural or untimely loss, I feel he should still be here to help me to tend to our aging parents or to give me older brother advice – even though I know he's still with me every step of the way.  The moments I look forward to the most is the very rare occasion when I'm with him in my dreams – it's an experience that to me is the next best thing to having him physically here.   I think we always have that one person we lose that really stays with us.  He's my person.

I've experienced my fair share of death, I've gone to countless funerals, I've carried caskets and sung their praises in heartfelt and honest eulogies, but one thing that has always bothered me is when people say time heals the wound that is left when our loved ones leave us.  I've had plenty of loss, and I couldn't disagree more with that statement. 

I think that we live in a death denying culture where we just don't talk about it – we don't want to think about it.  We avoid it.  We keep putting off our wills and talking about final arrangements, aside from telling our nearest and dearest  I want to be buried, cremated, etc.  In our culture most of go about our daily lives assuming we will be here tomorrow.  We tend to think we will die when we are old and gray.  

Then when the unimaginable happens – children die before their parents, people take their own lives out of such a deep profound desperation that they only see one way out of their peril, freak accidents happen, yet our culture takes these untimely deaths as a blow to our hearts and souls in such a way that people think it shouldn't have happened the way it did.  Guess what… tomorrow is not a guarantee. Death is ugly, it is unbiased and is unpredictable.  But one thing I've learned personally – it doesn't mean it's the end.  As long as they are in your heart, they live.  Maybe you can't hug them or feel them, but they hear you when you talk to them and they comfort you when they pop into your dreams.  And when it's your turn to walk over that threshold – they will be there waiting for you and your heart will once again be whole.

Do yourself a favor – have those conversations with your loved ones, tell them how much they mean to you and hug them tight.  You never know when it could be the last.

Happy 46th Brother, I wish you were still here, but I know we will see each other again.