This past Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of the attack on America that would change the way we live forever. Instead of getting up to take my usual morning walk, I had my coffee and turned the television on to watch the memorial ceremonies taking place in New York, Shanksville and Arlington where the attacks occurred that terrible day. I observed the moment of silence like millions of other viewers at 8:36AM when the first plane flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. And at 8:47AM with my eyes filled with tears, I started writing this piece to share with my audience here and on my Linkedin page.
Saturday was the 20th anniversary of the most tragic day in the history of my lifetime. I recall how beautifully clear the sky was on September 11th, 2001 as I arrived in Grand Central Terminal and walked down Park Avenue to my office at 33rd Street. I had just started my new job a week before at Coty Beauty to work as the fragrance designer for various brands such as Calgon, Healing Garden, Rimmell and newly-licenced celebrity brand, Celine Dion Parfums. I was at my desk getting ready for a meeting with a fragrance supplier to present a reworked fragrance formulation for a liquid soap when at 8:47AM, my manager came to my office with a very strange look in his eyes and said "a plane just flew into the North Tower at the World Trade Center." I thought I was hearing things, and I thought, how in the world can that happen? It took me a while to understand it, but I did no t panic, but at 9:03AM, we heard that a 2nd plane flew into the South Tower. My mouth fell open, and tears came to my eyes. My nose stung from the shock of this event, knowing it wasn't just a coincidence. I immediately picked up the phone and called my mother in the midwest to tell her we were under attack and that I would keep in touch with her. My second call was to my friend Diane who lived in Greenwich and asked her if she could pick up my girls from school and keep them with her until I got out of the city. At this time, the sales person I was to meet with at 9:30AM was traveling across the George Washington Bridge into New York from New Jersey, and then down 5th Avenue while clouds of smoke from the towers billowed into the clear September blue sky. When she arrived for our meeting, we looked at each other in mutual disbelief. We did not have to say anything to know what we were both thinking, but the first thing that came to my mind was that this meeting would be like no other, because that liquid soap product suddenly became meaningless. We proceeded delicately with our meeting and I went through the typical evaluation process for this type of product: Evaluating the diffusion of fragrance from the sample jar, then during the washing and lathering process over the sink with running water, the scent's after-effects on skin, and retention of scent after a few minutes. I then gave feedback for what I determined that the fragrance was not good enough all-the-while knowing how idiotic it sounded at that moment, but we are trained to be as efficient and as professional as possible and then added, "you had better get back over that bridge in case they decided to close everything down." And they did. If I recall, about one half hour later, the mayor of New York shut down all bridges, subways and trains in and out of the city. No one had any idea what to expect next. Later, when we were told that transportation and bridges would be reopened (while so many were already walking over the Williamsburg Bridge downtown), and my station - Grand Central Terminal - reopened, I started walking up Park Avenue alongside the throngs of people walking uptown from the World Trade Center area--their faces and clothes covered with ashes and no one spoke. It was the first time I could remember New York City being so still and silent. I was on the first train up to Connecticut and it was standing room only. People packed in tights to leave the city to be reunited with their families and I recall on young woman speaking loudly about the people in the towers say "that sucks for them." I looked up at her from my seat, and responded "you know, you could be more empathetic and careful how you say things like that. There could be someone on this train who knows someone in those buildings." She stopped talking, and the train was silent all the way up through Westchester County and into Connecticut where I got off. When I decended the train onto the platform, I couldn't help but notice a woman waiting anxiously for her loved one to get off. I distinctly remember her crisp white cotton shirt and blue jeans...her hair beautifully styled, long and blond. That night, I took my girls to Christ Church for a prayer session, and the same woman was praying on her knees a few pews in front of us. She was still alone.
After the tragic events of 9/11, I began to question my purpose in life and what I did to make a living that like in a snap of the finger, seemed so insignificant. I could not help but ask my self "what else can I do to give more to humankind and serve more purpose?" For the weeks following that awful day, I shared my philosophical dilemma with an industry colleague about how I felt my job was irrelevant in the scope of what had transpired on September 11th, and she responded, "but Ruthie, you help people feel good with the fragrances you develop." These words helped me continue my work, but it just did not seem to be enough, and I still felt a huge void in my heart, knowing that I had to find something that would help my heart heal.
I've always done a lot of volunteer work, so I decided to search various organizations that were setting up triage and relief centers near Ground Zero, and was fortunate that someone in my church was organizing a team of volunteers to go to a relief center being set up inside St. Paul's Chapel on Broadway near where building #7 once stood. I immediately signed up for a shift and and asked a girlfriend to stay with my girls for when I worked the night shift. I took Metro North to New York, then hopped on the subway for Vesey Street and walked just 2 blocks to the chapel. St. Paul's is a historic Episcopalian church where George Washington went to worship, and there is even a special section within the pews where he sat...cordoned off so as to preserve the history of that special place for our first President. Upon entering the chapel's left door, tables were set full of donated items and provisions for first responders: Hand warmers, socks, first aid, handbooks, shoes (the steel was still so hot that it was melting the bottoms of their shoes), pamphlets and guides for spiritual support and overall wellness, as well as other helpful items that came in from donors to support the the police, fire, city morgue, forensics, OSHA, EPA, steelworkers, mayor's office and other organizations involved with the recovery efforts. Food and drinks such as water, juices and coffee were placed on tables in the back and all tables were manned by volunteers like me. The team leader directed me to be at the front entry to greet the workers as they came in and to help direct them to the various locations in the chapel for food ...or answer any questions they had. The opposite side of the chapel was set up for wellness stations where podiatrists, massage therapists, spiritual clergy and wellness coaches were stationed, and the choir and parishioner sections on the second floor were lined with cots where the first responders could get some rest.
On one of the evening shifts, a few of us were able to peek through the back door of the chapel that looked out onto the chapel's historical cemetery, and beyond, we could see the piles of steel that was once building #7. I can still vividly recall the surreal, eerie smell and images of the debris of smoking steel under the bright flood lights above, and the odd and unfamiliar smell of wires and heat emanating from the metal. That image and smell will forever be etched in my mind and will never be forgotten, and I hope to never have to experience that smell again. But if I do, it will bring me right back to that very evening at St. Paul's Chapel.
All volunteers had one core responsibility: To help in any way we could, and one very important responsibility was to be an ear...the empathetic ear and listener to anyone who just wanted to let go of what they had experienced out there that day. I heard stories about one fireman who told me about finding a finger...another found a body in a car in the basement garage, and another fireman who came to New York from Santa Barbara, CA told me on his last day at the site that he was returning to California after 3 months of grueling work. When I asked him what his plans would be back home he said: "I've never driven up the coast of California, and so I'm going to do with my wife." I still remember that fireman, and I hope that he and his wife fulfilled his dream and that he is doing well. I also recall the young fireman from Germany who came to Ground Zero to help with the efforts and how he seemed to lift spirits of his fellow first responders. The last day he was at the site, he came in to say his "goodbyes" and left with a big smile on his face....most likely feeling fulfilled that he had helped us in more ways than one with his generous spirit. One day, I was stationed outside (a cold but sunny November day) to give markers to the hundreds if not thousands of people from all over the world who lined up to sign banners that hung from the chapel's wrought iron fence. I was hugged and thanked for what I was doing, and no one held back their tears as I handed them the magic markers to sign their condolences to the victims of this horrible tragedy. That afternoon, a woman came up to me and said she had driven up from Virginia with her entire family --all equipped with shovels to offer help dig through the smoking steel and debris alongside first responders. I told her that it was improbable that she would be able to go out there, but said I'd put her on the list of volunteers anyway. Again, this is another perfect stranger during that fleeting moment in our lives that I will never forget, because she was so passionate about trying to help. She was an emblem of a compassionate gesture for how people can come together in times of turmoil. We should never forget how to be compassionate and empathetic to others - whether or not it is in time of need or during tumultuous times.
I'm particularly proud of my volunteerism that helped me recover from the events of that day, and of the Coty colleagues who eagerly signed on to join me after I persuaded the company to allowed me to form a group of volunteers representing our company. I am especially thankful to a woman from our operations department who was able to find a sizable stock of Healing Garden lip balms for first responders because we were headed into the cold winter months, when lip balm would be a perfect first aid item. My last day for volunteering at St. Paul's Chapel was in early March, 2002 when we were told that our relief center would be closed due to the end of the intense part of the recovery efforts. It was the volunteer work that did at Ground Zero that perpetuated me to lead a more purposeful life, and is why my motto is "Humanity vs. Vanity."
(Photo image (my own): A remnant of a column from one of the towers now being preserved at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum)