Shaken to the core. Forever affected. Shocked. Overwhelmed with grief, fear and sadness. Wounded at heart. Time stood still. I’ll never forget.
Those are just a few of the phrases used by the EHS leaders who shared their personal accounts of one of the darkest days in United States history – Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists launched a coordinated attack that killed approximately 3,000 people on American soil. Many more, however, would be affected by the attacks in the days, weeks and years to come.
Thousands upon thousands of rescue workers, volunteers, office workers and residents were exposed to the hazardous conditions at ground zero in New York. Effects from the dust cloud have been linked with lung damage, cancer, heart disease, asthma and more. Some relief for responders has come in the form of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which went into effect July 1 to provide treatment and services for first responders suffering from health effects following the terrorist attacks. But the trauma from 9/11 extended beyond physical effects – psychological impacts include post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, anxiety and other mental health ailments.
When Zach Mansdorf, Ph.D., CIH, CSP, QEP, an EHS and sustainability consultant and former senior vice president of L’Oreal, recalls his experience of watching the day’s events unfold while he lived in France, the words “nervousness and isolation” were among the first to come to his mind. And every year on the anniversary of Sept. 11, Cynthia Roth, founder and CEO of Ergonomic Technologies Corp., returns to the Long Island diner she was in when the attacks occurred, where she reunites with many of the same people who experienced that day with her. Clearly, she and the other diners remain affected – and connected – by the catastrophic event they witnessed a decade ago.
Roth and Mansdorf, along with many others, share their accounts of where they were, what they were doing and how they felt on that clear September day 10 years ago when terrorists attacked. You can read their accounts below. From the FBI agent who helped with the Pentagon site response to the business traveler struggling to return home, the EHS manager coordinating an evacuation or the mother worrying over her son in the Air Force, the pain and heart shine through these stories.
Roth speaks for many in the EHS community and beyond when she says, “That day shall remain forever emblazoned in my mind.” Because the truth is, 9/11 did have a lasting impact on the nation and the EHS profession. We are different now.
I remember that morning so vividly. I was preparing to go to work when I noticed something about the WTC on the news. My wife, meanwhile, was in the process of taking a pregnancy test. I was glancing back and forth from the TV to the pregnancy test. At the very moment that the plane crashed into the WTC building, the test results revealed that my wife was pregnant with our first child. My oldest daughter is now 9 years old. I’ll never forget that morning…
North Hills, Calif.
A Distant Disaster
I was standing in the guardhouse at the Ford Maumee Stamping Plant that morning, waiting on my pass to enter the facility, when I first heard that airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center. As the story unfolded, it felt distant and perhaps a bit absent in emotion. New York City was far from Toledo, Ohio, that morning in September. Far from the cornfields, the manufacturing plants of the Midwest and far from the belief that the United States of America was under attack.
I had grown up in a military family, believing our armed forces were superior and that we were somehow protected by the stars and stripes flying on every flagpole. As the day wore on, the facts slowly sank in, along with the reality that our country had been duped and thousands of people had died.
The following days and weeks were spent focused on the implementation of multiple agencies involved in the search, rescue and command of the horrific incident. Emergency preparedness would never have the same meaning for me. Evacuation of personnel and conducting drills became a passion for me at every manufacturing plant that I entered for the next 10 years. Maybe for a lifetime.
A Feeling Not Felt Since
When the first plane flew into the World Trade Center, I was in the air. I was traveling from my office in Houston to Oklahoma City to complete a training session on hazard recognition and incident investigation. My plane was already in the landing pattern when all planes nationwide were directed to land, so we arrived as expected and without incident. We were not told anything, so I didn’t learn of the attacks until I got off the plan and called my wife.
My next few hours were spent watching TV and working the phones to find a rental car so I could get home. I finally got the last car available within 200 miles, but I had little cash for my trip back. The only credit card I carried that day was my company American Express card – but American Express charges were cleared in New York City and services were disrupted. Even so, storeowners went to extraordinary lengths to help people get home, including writing down the credit card information so people could buy gas or food.
It was a long, tiring day, but when I made it home to my family at about 1 a.m., it was a feeling like I had never felt before and have not felt since.
Joe Johnston, Safety & Compliance Manager
I was a bioenvironmental engineering technician stationed at Patrick AFB in Florida, qualifying on the M16, when someone ran out and said a plane hit one of the twin towers. By the time we secured our weapons and went inside, a second plane hit the other tower. You could hear a pin drop in the room as we watched the news. We were all in disbelief or wounded at heart.
Every day after that, it seemed like everyone was very observant and vigilant about their surroundings. During numerous commander’s calls, our commander ended with, “Be vigilant. Know your surroundings.” That stuck in the back of my mind, even until this day. As a nation, let’s ensure we don’t become complacent and ever let our guards down again and BE VIGILANT!
A Stranger in a Strange Land
I had been living in Paris just over one year and Sept. 11, 2001, was the first day of a meeting of our regional managers for EHS. We had representatives from all over the world as well as some divisional heads at this meeting, including a contingent from the New York and New Jersey area.
I was leading the discussion in the late afternoon when I received a call on my French cell phone, which I always answered because calls on this phone often meant trouble. When I picked up, my boss and mentor said, “Zack, I am very sorry for you and your country … I pray that everyone is safe.” I was stunned and did not understand what he meant. I called my wife, who was watching American channels on the satellite TV in our Paris apartment. She told me the twin towers had been hit by two separate airplanes. There, in France, I felt stranded as a stranger in a strange land ... it was a day I won’t forget.
Zack Mansdorf, Ph.D., CIH, CSP, QEP
This Meant War
I was asleep in my log house in Grants Pass, Ore., when my alarm came on to the news of something going on at the WTC. I thought they were referring to the anniversary of the car bomb. As I fully woke up, I realized it was much more serious. I felt sick to my stomach as I saw the second plane hit the towers. I called my son, who was stationed at the Air Force based outside Salt Lake City, to tell him I loved him. I was so worried about what the future would hold for him. I knew that this meant war.
My son has been deployed to Iraq twice already. I remember how emotional I became when I got a phone call from him and he said, “Mom, I’m home.” I asked if that meant back at his base and he said, “No, just on U.S. dirt.” I cried.
This date in 2001 was a glorious, sunshine-filled morning, one of the truly beautiful days in New York. As fate would have it, I was on Long Island meeting with an ETC board member in a diner, having breakfast and doing business on a napkin. The TVs were all on when the first World Trade Center building was hit. As the TV crews started filming the smoking north tower, the buzz throughout the diner was a small plane must have accidently hit the building. Not one customer remained seated. Everyone huddled around the three large-screen TV sets.
As the news coverage continued live, it became more apparent that this was no small plane. We soon discovered that American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston headed for Los Angeles was forced into a U-turn to hit the building. The diner customers were shocked and crying – we were able to see trapped employees in the north tower jumping out of the building 90 floors up.
About 2 minutes after 9 a.m., United Flight 175, also out of Boston and headed for LA, crashed into the south tower. We knew we were under attack at this point. No one in the diner could move. We were frozen on our feet, eyes riveted to the TV sets. We learned of the United Airlines Flight 93 crash, which went down 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh due to fighting in the cockpit. For me this was a double whammy as I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. When I learned that the passengers of Flight 93 had commandeered the aircraft from the terrorists, I was extremely proud but overwhelmed with grief, fear and sadness.
Cynthia L. Roth, Ergonomic Technologies Corp.
First In and Last Out
I was in Boston constructing a power plant as a HS&E supervisor. This project was next door to a facility that stores 42 million gallons of liquefied natural gas (LNG). It started out as a typical day until we heard that some sort of “accident” had happened in New York. We turned on the TV and watched in amazement the building on fire. Time stood still. Everyone thought it was just an air traffic control accident. Then, moments later, another plane crashed into the other tower.
Time did not stand still anymore. It was sucked into a vacuum.
Site management shut down all construction activities. Within a few hours, the city fire marshal and chief of police instructed us to abandon the project and send everyone home. It was a mass evacuation of the area due to the LNG facility next door. We had to account for and evacuate 1,500 craftspeople and site personnel through one access gate, have 1,200 vehicles proceed in an orderly manner from the parking lots down a one-lane paved road, evacuate personnel without vehicles by buses to a distant shelter and ensure that no vehicles were left in the parking lots. All of this with five safety people and six security personnel. It was a daunting task but the evacuation and head count was completed in less than an hour.
As with all safety and security personnel, we are the first in and the last out. Eventually, the Boston SWAT team showed up in full regalia and ordered the remainder of us to leave the premises immediately. We informed than that we were performing final sweeps for personnel and ensuring that all equipment was shut down. The SWAT team stated again that we were to leave now. It is very difficult to argue with a man holding an M16.
Wade Smith, HS&E Manager
Shaken to the Core
I was a sailor in the U.S. Navy stationed at Naval Air Station Pax River in Patuxent River, Md., when my coworkers and I heard the news and began watching the televised reports. I was glued to the set when I heard the phones began to ring and the message spread about the Pentagon being “bombed.” We were located about an hour south of the D.C. area and I remember thinking that planes were going to begin coming up the Patuxent River to take us out at any moment.
Then the ultimate horror happened for me. When the first tower fell, my heart sank to an unknown depth as I thought of all the people on the planes, inside of the tower and on the ground and what they must have experienced. When the second tower fell, I had to sit down and collect myself. I was shaken to my core. I had never before been so overcome by emotion. I felt sorrow, anger, helplessness, revenge, a need to help.
I have been changed by that day. I appreciate each day that I am given to take part in this thing called life. I have infused my safety program management with the purpose of protecting the quality of life of my coworkers. I make it a purpose to enjoy my surroundings and embrace my challenges.
Sean A. Jones, Springfield, Va.
What has this done to me? I am very cooperative when going through airport security. I also check around me on a flight to see where I am sitting in regards to exits. I have also reported unattended baggage in the airport.
The 9/11 incident has heightened my awareness of my surroundings and makes me very cautious when I travel anywhere.
On 9/11, my older son was driving to the World Trade Center to do IT work while I was taking my younger son to the doctor. As the news of the terrorist attacks reached me, I repeatedly called my older son to find where he was. Thankfully, he was caught in traffic and never made it to the WTC. The doctor’s office staff, meanwhile, continued working on my younger son while listening to the news on the radio. To this day, they still call him “our 9/11 patient.”
After that day, I was forever affected. I immediately got a cell phone for my younger son, set up a family meeting point, and we now maintain certain supplies in the house at all times, such as medicine and canned food. We are extraordinarily aware of our surroundings and people at all times. I know I will never be the same.
Gail D. Rice
A Tense Meeting
I live in central North Carolina and had gotten up early that morning for a trip to Charlotte, N.C. I had injured my back at work in September 1998 and was scheduled to have a workers’ comp mediation that day. I was in the lawyer’s office on the second-highest floor in one of the tallest buildings in Charlotte. Before our meeting, we learned that two planes had hit the WTC.
As we began our meeting in an all-glass corner office, you could feel the tension. Every time a fire engine came by, people were crawling under the tables. When a life flight helicopter flew close by our building to respond to a nearby accident, I thought people were going to have heart attacks.
In the end, my mediation was put off till March of the next year, which meant 6 extra months of personal suffering. Of course, this was nothing compared the loss suffered by so many on that day. And, ultimately, all of this led to my being in the position I now hold: safety manager.
Eric Branch, EHS/Quality Manager, Tower Components Inc.
Too Terrible to Fathom
I had just arrived at work when my graduate assistant came into my office and announced that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I searched the Internet and found nothing, so I went into a vacant classroom and turned on a TV. As the events unfolded, more faculty and students drifted in until there was standing room only.
We stood in shock as we watched the second plane crash and the towers collapse. There was no discussion and the room was quiet except for the television. I thought about my own children as well as the children and innocent people who were on those planes. As the horror unfolded, it made me very angry. I was mad at the murderers who did this and I was mad at the extremists who planned it. The events were almost beyond belief because it was still too terrible to fathom.
The next day, I received an email from my daughter who attended school in New York but was on an exchange program in the Netherlands that term. She forwarded me an email from a classmate who had gone to lower Manhattan to apply for an internship on Sept. 11. While he was waiting for the interview, he sat in an office and watched the horror occurring so nearby. “I didn’t know whether the interview was still on or not, so I sat there waiting, watching the terrible events unfold,” he wrote. “I could have lived my whole life without seeing those people jump from the building.” This friend also told my daughter that he’d had another interview scheduled for Sept. 12 – in the World Trade Center.
Mark A. Friend, CSP
I live on the west coast, so the dreadful events of that day unfolded much earlier for me. I woke up to the petrified voice of a normally cheerful radio host at 5:30 a.m. When the words “terrorist attack” and “World Trade Center” were used together, my heart sank deep. At that time, my mother worked at the World Trade Center in Long Beach, Calif. After a moment that felt more like an eternity, I realized that the attacks actually had taken place in New York City. This realization was both relieving and even further debilitating as I helplessly watched the tragedy develop. The vast geographical separation only reinforced my helplessness. For the remainder of that day and the weeks, months and years that followed, I felt a deep sorrow and emptiness. It’s a feeling that remains very strong within me today.
But that same feeling also solidified my career path in safety. I vowed from that day forward to do all that I could to never feel helpless again.
2010 Future Leader in EHS