What 9/11 Did for Me
by Sandra Crawford Williamson, May 2014
Well, I was raised by scrappy, hard-working parents in South Louisiana who to this day have never had anything given to them. All they have ever had in life was earned by their own blood, sweat, and tears. They were not given a lot of opportunities by others and knew that I wouldn’t have any free tickets either. Soooooo they manifested itself in a household of hard knocks where A's were expected and not rewarded. In fact, I can remember being asked why there was no + behind the A in Honors Physics once by my Dad. Oy vey!
Well, that upbringing of course, had me work hard to please my parents and attempt to make them proud. The outcome was a college scholarship, and paired with my savings from starting work at 14, I went off to school. I will spare you the details of college, but let’s suffice it to say I always worked at least one job at a time to have spending money, went
to school, and had a full social life. I was busy, and busy was my normal. So, I land my dream job with Procter & Gamble out of college and apply my same learned techniques. Work harder than everyone else, have no hobbies, and tirelessly strive for what’s next. I did just that for over ten years, at all costs at amazing companies like Nabisco and Universal
Just some of the costs were that I stopped being a regular church goer, even though I grew up in church and was there any time the door was open. I walked away from amazing friendships because they were not as driven as me. I was single and scared away several serious suitors because they didn’t want to be Mr. Crawford (my maiden name, which implied they didn’t want their career to come second to mine).
So, now fast forward to 2001. I am 34 years old and now am weeks away from having my MBA. I am the President of a multi-national company, traveling the world with offices in multiple countries. Under my leadership, the firm became the category leader in our field and we were on the cover of the Wall Street Journal, among other recognition. At first glance, I had everything I thought I had ever wanted. I had an amazing home with a pool that was professionally decorated, a European company car, a beautiful wardrobe and jewelry collection, hot dates when I needed them for events, and THE fantastic job where I earned an amazing living and traveled the world…..with my fancy luggage, of course.
And then in 90 minutes all of that meant absolutely nothing and I was standing alone and lonely before the Lord.
You see, even though my home was in Florida, my business brought me to my office in New York quite often. On this beautiful Tuesday morning in September, I was walking down Fifth Avenue with several members of my team to meet a client for a big 9am presentation. We noticed a plane flying pretty low overhead but we walked right into to the building and
jumped on the elevator quickly, clueless that the American way of life was about to change.
When we emerged from the elevator on our floor, there was the buzz of chaos. Not the buzz of busy we were used to…..it was different. We walked into our office and others were wide-eyed and their voices were high pitched. You see, the plane that flew low over our heads was American Airlines Flight 11 that had hit the north face of the World Trade
Center North Tower (1 WTC) at 8:46am when we were on our elevator ride to our floor.
The next hour and fifteen minutes are crazy. My first instinct was to call my mother, which I did. I was on the phone with her while she was watching live TV from her home in South Louisiana. She was glad to hear my voice but at that time, we all thought it was a small civilian plane that had hit the North Tower. As we are talking, she starts screaming that a second plane hit the “other tower”, which I quickly dismissed. I clearly remember saying, “Mom, you are seeing a replay.” She replied “No, I’m seeing one tower on fire and a plane hit the OTHER tower.” She, as millions of other people did, had seen United Airlines Flight 175 hit the south side of the Worth Trade Center South Tower (2 WTC) at 9:03am.
At that moment, it occurs to us who are all either on the phone with loved ones or watching the tiny TV in my office that this situation is now different. Panicked thoughts go through our minds. Could our high rise building be at risk? Is NYC under attack? Then shortly after the second plane hitting the second tower, our mobile phone calls disconnect due to the
tremendous volume of calls at the time. A group of us huddled together and prayed.
Everyone reacts to crisis differently. Some people just left the office, alone, with no plan. The core group stayed together. We gathered our things and left the building. My instinct was to head to Lower Manhattan to help so a group of us started the walk. Of course, it didn’t occur to us that it was about a 40 block walk…..we just felt the sense of urgency to get there. It is now about 9:45am.
So as we get outside of our building, the first thing I am struck by is that the city is silent. I mean eerily silent. I have lived and traveled in and around NYC for years and this moment was like out of a movie. There was no traffic on the streets. Everyone that could get off of the island did so before the tunnels and bridges were closed at 9:21am. There were people
standing on the streets, others were rushing south like us…..but everyone was quiet. There was also no air traffic at all because about that time the FAA gave the order to completely shut down all American airspace.
The second thing I am struck by is that while there is not the usual con trails in the beautiful, bright blue, cloudless sky, there are F-15 fighter jets flying over Manhattan…..something many of us had never seen before. The jets had been dispatched from Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts once it became clear that American Airlines Flight 11 had been hijacked. As someone who has always been fascinated by aviation and loves the military, I remember staring at the sky in amazement, while we were
As we are walking, we are hearing snippets of information…..some of it accurate, some of it scary, and some of it downright incorrect. It is ironic, as I have looked back upon that day, that the people closest physically to the awfulness were the ones that knew the least. We had no idea terrorists had also hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 and flown it into the western side of the Pentagon. We had no idea who Osama Bin Laden was. We had no idea planes across the country were grounded and that all international flights into the U.S. had been diverted to Canada and Mexico.
God created us in a miraculous way. Our brains are designed to protect us from things that are so awful, and rather than be hit with the enormity of what was going on around us, we were gradually realizing the size of the disaster. As we were walking, people were huddled together in groups crying, praying, telling bits of information they had picked up, etc. We got close enough to see far off what looked like paper flying out of the buildings as if to mock the people who had neatly stacked their work and turned off their computer before beginning their descent. But there were other, heavier things coming out of the tops of both buildings and we thought it was furniture or computers. It took a passerby to tell us that those were people. People that were trapped above the impact zone that could not escape the raging fires and smoke. The fire pushed them out. Over 200 of them. I thank God He spared me from seeing and hearing what others did at the end. Humanity should not have to experience or witness such horror. Oh the evil. To this day, those people
stick with me the most for some reason. Yet others refuse to talk about them, much less name them.
Then, the unthinkable happened. We heard an enormously loud rumble at 9:58am that sounded like a bomb going off in slow motion, but for a long time. It sounded as though it was coming from underground. I remember thinking that there must be a bomb going off in the subway. And then it was silent again. And then the cloud came. Gigantic grayish
clouds could be seen up ahead rushing toward us. We thought it was from another explosion. We were not some of the millions that saw the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapse to the ground on live TV.
We had no idea water taxis were being used to get people off the island or that thousands and thousands of people were walking out of Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge. And we certainly had no idea that at 10:03am, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. The world didn’t really know until later that because passengers had heard from loved ones via mobile phones that three planes had been used as weapons against our country, they bravely fought back. The black box later revealed the hijackers decided to crash the plane before the passengers breached the cockpit door.
But we were some of those that saw the gypsum and pulverized concrete cloud coming at us like a creepy ghost. And when it got to us, we realized the cloud had substance. It wasn’t a dust cloud. It was a floating mass. We turned and went back the way we had come. We were still blocks and blocks north of the Financial District so we were able to quickly get
out of it.
Then we were shocked to see people begin to emerge from the cloud covered in the thick dust. People in suits with no shoes or one shoe and people holding bags and briefcases that were open and empty…they all slowly inched north. Some people just stared straight ahead and never slowed down. Some people had blood trickling down their face, arms, or
legs. And most had dark streaks down each side of their faces…..tear strains in the concrete dust.
I was struck later by the fact that the concrete dust had concealed our differences. It didn’t matter if we were executives, taxi drivers, boutique owners, hot dog vendors, or waiters. The awful dust covered up all of our titles and status and labels. Our business cards were blowing in the wind.
Our pay stubs and ATM cards were lost in the street. We were just people…..people on the street trying to help one another. We offered people water, hugs, paper towels and napkins, and even shelter inside our building once we got back there.
The most incredible thing that happened is we could offer the use of our mobile phones that would work every now and again. I heard nameless people use my phone that day to call their closest loved one to say “Yes, I got out.” And I heard many say, “But so and so didn’t” or “The last I saw she was in the stairwell” or “All of those firefighters passed us going up and there is no way they got back down in time.” My heart wrenches, my stomach twists, and I weep to this day thinking of those calls and the calls that were never made.
As we began to hear the details of what had happened, we couldn’t believe it. A modern 110 story building didn’t just disintegrate into dust…..did it? It had.
We helped everyone we could. We were then told by the very few police officers we saw to get off of the street and head north. Luckily our hotel was north. So we started that way and then it occurred to me that there must be thousands of injured people that would need blood. “Let’s get to a hospital and give blood,” I said. I can’t explain the helplessness you feel as a human being, knowing thousands of people need help but you can’t personally do anything for them. So we headed north and followed signs and directions to St. Vincent’s Midtown Hospital.
When we got to the hospital, we were surprised to see a M.A.S.H. type triage unit set up in the street. I remember they had blocked both ends of the block and had set up beds and all of the things that go with emergency medicine there in the street. They too were expecting lots of patients that would need their expert care and our blood. In fact, there was a line to give blood that extended outside. You see, cataclysmic crisis seemed to bring out the best in people that day and the following days. But no patients came. It was quiet. The only noise was the security people talking on radios.
Then we heard another low rumble. There was a quiet discussion throughout the medical personnel and then they began to wheel all of the medical equipment inside with heads hung low and tears on their faces. The security people then confirmed the worst to us. The North Tower of the World Trade Center had also collapsed at 10:28am with an estimated hundreds of first responders missing along with estimates of thousands of civilians.
By this time the United Nations complex on the East Side of Manhattan was being evacuated. The Sears Tower in Chicago was evacuated. The IDS Center and Mall of the Americas are evacuated in Minnesota. Of course, the White House and Capitol Building were evacuated and closed. Our country was in chaos, yet we had no idea. We didn’t know
any of these other events, yet we were so afraid. Afraid of the unknown. Afraid the attack was going to continue. Afraid of what we didn’t know. Fear is not of the Lord. I know that fact. Yet, He uses it. I felt the fear of death seeping through me and was surprised to find it was followed closely by loneliness and regret. On the surface, I had everything I thought
I had ever wanted. Yet there I was, standing in a street in Manhattan thinking I could die right now, and all of those client meetings I am missing today would not matter one bit. What title was on my business card and the number of digits on my paycheck would not matter at all. It was then that the security people gently nudged us to go because they had all of the blood they could handle at the moment.
So, we headed to our hotel. It was a long, quiet walk. There were still no cars on the street. There was concrete dust on everything. When we had left our hotel that morning, it was a normal business hotel. When we returned three hours later, it looked like a military zone. There were suited up, battle ready soldiers with M16s, bomb sniffing dogs, and all sorts of
armored vehicles stationed at every entrance and exit of our hotel. There was a meticulous process to get into the hotel where you had to show a picture i.d. and be checked against the hotel’s guest list. One of our team members had left his wallet in his room because he didn’t like carrying it on the street. One of us had to get into his room and bring it back down.
So now it is midday. I am finally alone in my hotel room. I turn on the TV, call my parents, and lose it. The awfulness of the day’s events hit me like a ton of bricks. The Twin Towers, the Pentagon, another plane crash, thousands of victims, people trapped in the rubble. I thought of the day care center in the World Trade Center, the mothers with babies on those
planes, and all of the firefighters’ children who would not see their daddies that night. I wept. I cried out to God. I asked Him repeatedly why there was such evil in the world.
I spoke with our board members in Europe, gave them our update. I spoke with my parents, sister, nieces, and nephew. I talked with our office in Orlando. Then at 5:20pm, I watched on TV along with millions of others as 7 World Trade Center also came down. I wanted to stop watching the live coverage, but I didn’t.
I actually remember trying to fill my mind with work and study. But none of it worked. I had often thought I would continue my corporate climb, adopt a Chinese baby girl, have a Manny, and live the high life in a big glamorous city. Somehow, on September 10, 2001 that had seemed just right, enough, and awesome. By the evening of September 11, 2001 it
seemed like a caricature, a joke, pitiful. Nothing felt the same.
There was another part of being there, in the city that evening and the next day that was gut wrenching. You see, there were over 2,700 people killed at the World Trade Center that day but no one knew for some time who got out, who didn’t, who was injured, and where people were. This limbo time then emerged because 30,000 survivors DID get out of harms
way and 500,000 evacuees were sent all over New Jersey and other Burroughs on various types of boats. Add to that the spotty mobile phoneservice, along with the fact most survivors lost their personal effects, and you get limbo.
So that evening and the next day, the city was filled with devastated loved ones looking for their lost. The city was covered in Kinkos and home printed flyers asking for anyone with information to please call. It wasn’t just a plea for their loved one alive, it was a plea for anyone with any scrap of information on where their loved one had been, what they had
done during the moments after the planes’ impact, and what they had said in those moments. The local TV stations ran individual pleas nonstop in their attempt to help reconnect people. Many did reconnect over those next few days, but nearly 3,000 did not. Some families lost multiple members. Many wives that were expecting babies never saw their husbands again. And many to this day, never received any evidence of their loved ones death. Limbo. Awful.
Wednesday was all about trying to get my team members off of the island and back home. It was about not crawling up in a ball and giving in to the hopeless despair that was creeping in on me. What am I doing? Why am I here? What is God’s purpose for me? Between those thoughts, I was on with travel agents, car services, airlines, railways, and the office. Over all of Wednesday and most of Thursday we got everyone at least out of the city and en route to home. That left me and my right hand person who had to get back to Orlando. Her to a lovely family, husband, children, pets. Me to my empty home with “no pets, no plants” to better facilitate my rise to the top.
Finally late on Thursday, September 13, I bribed a taxi driver to take us over the George Washington bridge into New Jersey and to get us as close to Newark airport as possible. He was kind and gracious and understood our need to do something. But Newark airport was barricaded with concrete walls. He got us as close as he could and we dragged bags
through streets going to every off-airport rental car place we could find. By the grace of God, we were able to rent this tiny car that was one of the last rental cars in New Jersey. We loaded up and began our drive home to Orlando.
We drove until late in the night, getting a speeding ticket in Virginia. I remember trying to talk my way out of it by telling him we had been in Manhattan on Tuesday and he answered “So was I.” I then realized emergency responders from all over had gone to Manhattan that day and tens of thousands people had gotten out. I was nothing special. He gave me the ticket. We crashed for a few hours, drove more, trading off the driving responsibilities. We are both very chatty people but we were mostly silent. I felt with every mile closer to my home I was reaching the height of my loneliness.
We made it to the office late on Thursday and our team was waiting with open arms, hugs, disbelief, and questions. To this day I find it hard to talk about. It is as if it happened yesterday. Over the coming days and weeks, I went about my business as normally as I could. I boarded a plane to Europe just a few days later, when most Americans swore they would never fly again. On the outside my life looked the same. But on the inside it was crumbling bit by bit.
You see, we spend our lives putting on masks, labels, and layers to cover up who we really are. I really am a small town girl from South Louisiana that was raised with chickens, tractors, hand-me-down clothes, and insecurity that I was never good enough. So, I layered on degrees, job titles, stuff, awards, name plates on doors, more stuff, successful projects
and companies, news clippings, cars, beautiful men who I would never commit to, but who would gladly show up at fancy events as my dates, and more stuff. I layered all of these things over my real self like Joey did in an episode of Friends when as retaliation he put on ALL of Chandler’s clothes and came out wobbling like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Oh I
had some layers. I was a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Woman stumbling through life.
Then the layers started to fall off at first. I cut off my back and forth with a long-time date that always swooped in when I needed a date. I started going to different churches. Now don’t get me started on this one. Remember, I was 34 years old so I didn’t fit into the unmarried singles, the young married's, the divorced group, or the students. So, I became the person that comes in late by herself, sits on the last row and then leaves. No one spoke to me. No one invited me to their group or to sit with them or to eat lunch with them after service. So as an aside, if you EVER see someone at church alone, show them the love of Jesus.
I stopped shopping and while that might sound small, it was no small thing to me at that time. When I traveled, I shopped in my spare time, looking for good deals with currency exchange, finding the perfect collectibles for my sister’s children, and making sure no Duty Free Shop went unvisited. After September 11th, I had no desire for more stuff. To this day, I am not a big shopper and do it only out of necessity.
Next, I began to rekindle the close relationship with my family. We had always been close, but they were still in Louisiana and couldn’t help me put on any layers. I loved them but they were somehow separate. Now I needed them. I needed to hear my mother’s voice. I had to open the hand drawn pictures of my 10 and 6 year old nieces. I remember they
sent me pictures they had drawn of tall buildings on fire and of me getting out. I still have them. I longed for my own children to comfort and to comfort me.
Over time other labels began to fall off or be ripped off. You see, it seems September 11th had also stripped me of the thrill of the hunt. Up until that point, I loved to win, at all costs. I would literally work 20 hour days and expected those around me to do the same. I had been disgusted to those who did not subscribe to my “no pets, no plants” policy of
dedication to the soulless pursuit of success. Now I wanted to be one of those people that went home to a family. That came to work with a lunch someone else had packed. To get a call during a staff meeting and whose face lit up when they answered.
October 2001 through June 2002 was a time of change in my life. I no longer wanted to go out on the town and make a big show. I’d rather stay at home and watch movies with friends. I craved connectedness. I craved human interaction. I wanted to know people and their real selves, their real stories. That was all that mattered to me. Who were they really
under all those layers, because if they were ok under there, then maybe I could be too. Over those months, I began to become more comfortable with who I really was. The real me, the young girl me, the bright eyes me began to emerge again. I was getting really comfortable in my own skin, without all of the layers.
Now I won’t mislead you…..some of those layers fell off easily on their own. Others came off like quick Band-Aids being peeled off fast by a tough love dad. Others came off slooooow and painful like a toddler trying to remove a Band-Aid by herself. What emerged was a young peacock that was proud of who she was and that she was different. She wasn’t a
penguin who worked really hard to dress like others, talk like others, walk like others, and dream like others to just fit in to their club. Vulnerability wasn’t a dirty word for me. I let others in and I liked it.
I did go through a phase where I was determined to get married to end the loneliness but that soon passed. I remember going back through old boyfriends in my mind trying to pick THE one to call with which to rekindle a romance. Then, miraculously, God gave me peace. Amazing friends, some of which I had spent September 11th with in Manhattan, took me hot air ballooning for my 35th birthday at sunset and I remember thinking, “I’m SO blessed.” Peace settled over me that June that I would never be alone. God was with me. He would direct me. There was to be new things to come. But I had no idea how quickly they would come. That summer, God worked again so obviously. My best friend from high
school who was also my college roommate and I had lost touch a few years back due to both of our career commitments. But that July, she called my mom, who called me, who gave me her mother’s number, who gave me Judy’s number. I called her and it was like we had seen each other the day before. And amazingly, God had orchestrated that she and her husband move within 75 miles of me in Tampa. She wanted me to come over for a weekend but I had trips planned. I told her I would get back to her.
I could go on and on with all of the miracles God put in place over the next 10 years to bring me to you today. Let’s just say one of my trips just happened to cancel at the last minute and I drove to Tampa on the same weekend Judy’s brother was visiting. I eventually became confident enough to stop going to school and dropped out just a few classes and my dissertation of my PhD. I survived cancer and four miscarriages along the way. Jeff and I have now been married 10 years and have three amazing children that are the light of my life. I eventually became confident enough to walk away from big business and corporate
American and start my own firm, which is what led me to 4word.
Now this peacock knows herself intimately, what makes her tick, what she loves, what are gifts, how she can best serve others, and especially how she can best serve the Lord. She has worked hard to know her Ephesians 2.10 calling and to try to remain true to it daily. She still strives to know others intimately, to know their story, to lift them up by reaching out to the inner person INSIDE all of the layers society tells us to put on to cover up our imperfections and insecurities. This peacock is still a work in progress. She will always be a work in progress. She is still lonely some days. People don’t always get her or appreciate her. BUT the difference is that she is confident that she will never be perfect, will never be what she is not, is completely flawed…yet God loves her, and that is enough.
Now He has blessed me with a role where I get to share this story and hopefully encourage others to remove their labels and stand confident before the Lord in all of your imperfection and all of His love.