From 9/11 to charity for our heroes

9/11 pin

9/11 pinTen years ago I didn’t know that I would ultimately launch and manage a charity to honor our nation’s heroes: our veterans and service members. Like tens of thousands of New Yorkers on September 11, 2001, I was on my way to work on a spectacularly beautiful early fall day.

At the time I was a senior strategist for an international brand and marketing consulting firm. I took my usual 6:43am train into the city and emerged from the subway struck by the incredible majesty of the day. The Crayola blue sky, the occasional white puffy cloud and the crisp air of an early autumn morning. One of those days when you’d rather be anywhere, but at work.

My day started like every other. I was one of the early birds, using the time before the “official” work day began to answer late-night emails and do a few mindless tasks. I remember thinking that I wasn’t supposed to be in New York at all; a previously scheduled September 10 meeting in Denver  had been rescheduled as a conference call in an effort to cut down on travel costs.

Finally it was 8:30; I dialed into the conference call. After exchanging the usual pleasantries we all got down to business. We were barely 15 minutes in when one of my clients said she just saw a news flash that a plane crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. As a slightly cynical New Yorker, I assumed it was a little puddle jumper that lost its way, maybe clipped a wing. No one else on the call thought anything different.

A little more than 15 minutes later our world changed forever. A second plane crashed into the south tower. We abandoned our call immediately.

Most of my coworkers were just getting in, grabbing coffee from the pantry, firing up their computers and getting ready for the day. I told them what I had heard; we all fanned out to scour news sites, live television feeds – anything that could explain the inexplicable. By that time most of the communication systems were overloaded; we couldn’t even get on the internet and we had no TV.

A colleague, who has since become one of my dearest friends, left the office with me on a mission to find out just what happened. We went across the street to a nearby hotel, thinking they would have TV in their main lounge. As we crossed Lexington Avenue at 51st street, looking south we saw plumes of dark black smoke sullying the once perfect blue sky. This once beautiful, but otherwise ordinary Tuesday in September instantly became “9/11.”

We returned to the office to bear witness to what we had just seen. People were frantically trying to call loved ones to let them know they were safe and check in on family members who were in the city. I tried to reach my brother who worked in Manhattan as well, to no avail – and only later learned that he never made it in. By the time he was ready to take his train all traffic into the city was banned except for emergency personnel and first responders.

The still of a once peaceful morning was replaced by a never-ending blare of sirens as fire trucks, ambulances, police and other emergency vehicles screamed down Lexington Avenue on their way to the disaster. This incessant cry lasted for nearly three full months, an ever-present reminder each day of the unfolding tragedy less than a mile south of our office. A firehouse on 51st Street, just off Lex, became an eerie shrine. Locals, office workers and even visitors stopped by to offer any form of solace. Flowers. Cookies. Prayers. Wordless faces unable to mutter a single word as they looked upon the heroic group of men who looked so utterly broken.

Back at the office, our marketing director – another person who has since become a wonderful friend – took the initiative to make sure that everyone who lived outside the city had someplace to go. Hours later she and I decamped to a Chinese restaurant on the corner. We ordered a drink and watched the news in near silence, along with a few other lost souls. After a time, we walked back to the apartment she shared with her husband on the Upper West side, where I would stay the night.

A few hours later we got word that some trains were leaving the city, and I desperately wanted to go home. We walked over to the Westside Highway with the hopes of finding a cab and instead caught a bus going south. No fares were being collected and everyone sat in numbed silence. Just before midnight I made it to Penn Station, got on a train and tried to process everything that happened that day.

Several weeks later I was on a business trip to Atlanta. While I still had a nagging desire to nest and stay close to home, at the same time I was grateful to leave the office and the constant blare of sirens outside our windows. A Delta flight attendant came over to ask what type of beverage I would like and I noticed a simple, yet beautiful pin on her lapel. It was an American flag made out of beads and strung together on a safety pin.

She told me that she bought the pin from a troop of Girl Scouts that was raising money for the firehouse at 51st and Lex – the one just down the street from my workplace. When I told her that very same station was half a block from my office she removed the pin from her uniform and gave it to me to keep.

I don’t remember the name of that flight attendant, but I remember her in every way that matters. To this day I wear the pin every time I travel and think of how her simple act restored something that, til that day, felt forever lost.

Ten years on I have since started my own consulting practice and in 2010 launched Pets for Patriots. I don’t pretend that starting the charity had anything to do with 9/11, because it didn’t. But it does attempt to honor those who serve and have served our country – including the tens of thousands that were pressed into service post-9/11 – by giving them the opportunity to save a last-chance pet.

I’ve learned something from the now dozens of honorable adoptions we’ve made to date. These once unwanted dogs and cats are like the simple beaded pin given to me: a restoration, a new beginning, a reclamation of things and feeling once lost.

1 Comment

  1. Janice

    Eloquently written. Thank you.

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