Eight years ago today our college was going through enrollment confirmation before the first day of classes. At that time we did this in one location, in a large auditorium, where representatives from my office, the student accounts office and the registrar were available to meet with students, resolve unpaid balances, missing documents etc. I sent my assistant director and our work study student over to handle that part, and I stayed in the office, to answer questions for people who showed up there. The student accounts office was a one person office at that time, so she was over there with everyone else.
At some point in the morning the assistant registrar came barreling back into the building, all in a tizzy because she had been on CNN.com or MSN.com or one of those sites, as she always was, and had seen the report about a plane hitting one of the twin towers. She is a person who, at the time, went from not worried to freaking out in about 30 seconds about almost anything. I tried to get online to see what was going on, but the sites were all being overwhelmed, so I went old school and turned on the radio. That was when they reported the second plane hit and reports were surfacing that the Pentagon had possibly been hit. Of course the assistant registrar began to freak out, declaring that we must be under attack.
A little while later, my assistant director called me from registration. She told me that the student accounts director, we will call her Lola, had just gotten a call from her brother who lived in Manhattan. Turns out her father worked in one of the twin towers. Lola didn’t know this, as her father had started this job recently and she was unclear on the details of where he was working. Her brother had been sent home from work and was now on his way to see if he could get closer to the towers and find out where their father was. It was another 5 hours before Lola had any idea whether her father or her brother were alive.
She kept doing her job. She knew there wasn’t anything she could do, and it kept her distracted enough that she didn’t lose her mind. On the other hand, the assistant registrar was almost incapable of doing her job. She didn’t have anyone in jeopardy, although her husband did work in a building in downtown Boston that was evacuated because of the government related businesses that were located in it. But she was convinced that doom was on the horizon.
The difference in how these two women handled this day was striking. The good news was Lola’s father got out. He was on the 51st floor of the second tower, and had ignored the instructions of the manager of his office to go back to his office, that everything was fine. He helped a woman down all 51 flights of stairs who was having difficulty, and got out as the building was hit by the second plane. He witnessed people jumping and falling to their deaths. But he survived. Her brother eventually connected with him and they eventually were able to get through to family and let Lola know all was well.
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Lola’s dad, in my mind, was a hero. He helped someone who might not have gotten out on her own. Lola was a hero for continuing to do her job despite the crisis happening in her life. No one would have questioned if she had chosen to leave. We would have figured out how to cover her responsibilities, but she kept on doing her job.
I can’t read stories, see videos or hear about this day in history without tearing up. I am grateful for the people who survived, grateful for those who gave their lives to try to save other people, and for those who rose to the occasion and did what had to be done that day. I am constantly impressed by the strength of my friend Lola, and that day, only a year into our working relationship and friendship, was just the start.