A lesson learned from 9/11...
Crying at work is not acceptable. Or so I always said. I suppose there is an exception to every rule and here is mine.
I had the privilege of working for the American Red Cross as an employee and a volunteer for a total of 10 years. It was incredibly rewarding professionally and personally. Effective disaster response requires gathering pertinent information quickly, rallying an exhausted team, remaining calm under pressure and making quick decisions. I’ve used this training in one way or another in all of my subsequent jobs. Personally, my disaster assignments showed me that there is nothing stronger than the human spirit and that we need one another.
As a volunteer on the American Red Cross (ARC) Rapid Response Team, I was “on call” one month every year and served as a spokesperson on large-scale national disasters. During my month, my bags were packed and in my trunk so that I could be at an airport within an hour of a catastrophic event (thanks again to my understanding employers). I generally had a head’s up about hurricanes (I really did love chasing those up and down the East Coast with the Weather Channel!) but tornados, train accidents and the hideous Oklahoma City Bombing meant dropping everything to get to the scene. My response was somewhat mechanical – notify family and employer, get to the airport, find any flight that would get me close, check in with ARC disaster headquarters, get my supplies, and head out to the field.
When I woke up on September 11, 2001, and saw coverage of the towers, I leapt out of bed, brushed my teeth and headed for the door. While everyone was trying to get out of New York, I was trying desperately to get in. I got on the first flight out of LA. When I landed in New York I checked into headquarters then went immediately to the pier where families were gathered, then I headed to Ground Zero where we assisted relief workers. For two days I avoided the pictures of missing people, personal conversations and sleep. My job was to speak to as many national and international media members as possible to get the word out about how people could best help those affected by the tragedy. I was on a mission.
My mission changed on September 18th when I met Robert. CNN requested an interview with a family member of a missing person. I understood their need to interview a “real person” (as opposed to a spokesperson), but since it was also my job to protect those affected, I had to tread lightly. Robert volunteered because he was desperate to find his brother, Stephen. As Robert and I prepared for the live interview I spoke with him about Stephen and his close bond with him. He shared childhood memories and gave me a glimpse into Stephen’s personality. He also told me that Stephen made it to the bottom of the building but went back up because people from his firm were missing.
I told Robert that he still had reason to hope that Stephen would be found. At that moment, we inserted our ear pieces and heard a replay of Mayor Giuliani’s press conference wherein he said, "We don't have any substantial amount of hope that we can offer to anyone that we will find anyone alive."
Right when the Mayor told us that there is no longer reason to hope, Robert and I were live on CNN (I found the transcript through a Google search. My maiden name is Giallonardo). Miss Calm and Cool left the building. Through Robert I became personally involved and was devastated for all of the people who would lose hope. I fumbled through the interview, hugged Robert goodbye, turned off my phone and headed to the wall of missing people.
People were eager to show me pictures of their loved ones. “Have you seen my wife, she’s six months pregnant.” Have you seen my daughter, it was her first day of work.” Have you seen my son, he is my only child and means everything to me.” And then a young girl said, “Please, please, tell me you have seen my mom.” God, I wish I had.
After hearing so many gut-wrenching stories, I walked slowly down the street with no particular destination. The New Yorkers were amazing. Just because I wore a Red Cross shirt they wanted to know how they could help me. I was offered meals and bottles of water everywhere I turned. One lady, however, had a different approach. She screamed at me and said, “We are New Yorkers, we don’t need you. Go home!” I responded with, “Where were you when the planes hit?” She crumbled in my arms. Two strangers hugged and cried on a New York street corner for thirty minutes. It turns out that despite our tough-girl demeanors, we both needed to cry.
Robert, the people I spoke with at the wall, and the lady on the street corner taught me that even in a professional situation, it’s not only okay but sometimes necessary to have emotion. I think this is particularly important as a manager. Everyone on my team is a unique human being with his or her own story. I try to slow down long enough to understand their stories and manage with compassion.
I pulled myself together on September 18th but I was never again the same. The events of 9/11, and the people who had the courage to hope, will always be a part of me. I’m grateful for it.