12 years ago, I was a thirty something employee working for Bell Canada. It wasn’t a great job, by any stretch of the imagination, but it kept me fed and clothed
Most days, I’d go in, do my work, and clock out. There was hardly anything remarkable to report, and for that I was grateful. Anything out of the ordinary while working at Bell was rarely welcoming to any one of us in their employ.
It was a mundane morning, as I recall. Life on the floor generally consisted of an influx of anxious callers, followed by monotonous stretches of silence. This day was no different from any other. That was, until someone punctuated a statement that forever etched that day into my memory.
“The World Trade Centre just collapsed.”
Now, what you have to keep in mind is that in a call centre, any sort of disruption is not tolerated. Those of us that heard this woman cry out were wondering why she’d risk her job on the floor that way. None of us actually absorbed what she was shouting about.
When a supervisor quickly came over to her, he realized something was wrong, and ushered her off the floor, while those of us on the phones shook our heads in confusion.
It wasn’t long before someone else came into the room uttering the same thing, that the buzz started spreading from station to station, ear to ear. When the word finally reached my desk, I remember that I stuttered momentarily while replying to a customer. I admit I was still in a state of disbelief. I mean, it was a bit of a tall tale, pardon the unintended pun.
By the time my break time came, I sauntered off towards to the smoking lounge. You had to go through the break area to get to that nicotine stained room.
Something caught my eye as I progressed across the floor, and I turned to look. What I saw broadcast across that flat screen in the corner stopped me dead in my tracks. Images from CNN of a plane slamming into the tower, and that same tower on film fast forwarding to its collapse. Needless to say, the cigarette was forgotten.
There were a lot of shaken employees sharing that moment. Most of us were suddenly locked in a state of terror, while others were sobbing, uncontrollably.
The world was coming to an end.
It wasn’t long before many of us started panicking. We were all working in the tallest office building in downtown Ottawa, right near the Parliament buildings. There wasn’t a one of us that wasn’t thinking “when was it going to be our turn”.
During the course of the day, the company had let all the other divisions go home, except for ours. The fact that we were the “money” floor was the reason for that. There were employees that were too shaken up to continue working, yet, with the threat of a reprimand heavily weighed down on them, they pulled it together.
I remember thinking to myself about those ridiculous nuclear films I’d seen as a child, where we were always told to get under a desk. I didn’t think that was going to work too well back then…imagine my thoughts that day.
Later on, mercifully, my shift ended. Hours of fielding calls from customers complaining that certain websites weren’t working, and having to repeatedly apologize for not being able to fix the issue dug a groove into every one of us.
Some demanded an explanation. All we could offer was that the entire planet was logging into the affected sites, and overloading their prospective servers, and to please try again later.
Hour upon hour of trying to assuage the fears of worried callers wore on all of us still toiling on the 19th floor of 160 Elgin Street. I was deeply relieved to finally leave my desk, my headset, and my responsibility behind for the day.
As I sped out the office doors, I couldn’t get down to that elevator fast enough. During my descent, I prayed that everyone was going to be alright.
When I got outside, the thing that hit me was that I was literally standing in a ghost town. Not a car nor person was about. Normally bustling streets intersecting my place of work were silent. All that was missing was a tumbleweed rolling by to complete the scene.
I walked the few blocks it took to get home. The silence was deafening, yet welcomed, all at once. When I opened my front door, Robb, my partner at the time, was in the kitchen, preparing dinner.
We were in each other’s arms within seconds. As Robb started crying, he told me he hadn’t heard from his sister.
Colleen was working in Manhattan that day, a mere few steps from ground zero.
No matter how many times we tried to call, we could not get through to her phone. Email was no better.
As we sweat through that dinner in silence, the two of us prayed for not only Colleen’s safety, but also for the families that were sick with worry, not knowing where their loved ones were.
Like most Americans that lived through the Cuban missile crisis, we here in Canada understood the pain that was suddenly thrust upon those who did not know if their spouses or significant others would be coming home that evening of September 11, 2001. Canadians have suffered tragedies of our own in our nation’s brief history.
Robb and I thought about (and worried with) those families in crisis. Day after worrisome day passed, hope quietly slipping away for so many, until finally the news came that those missing were forever lost in the dust and rubble at 1 and 2 World Trade Centre.
We knew how close we had come to losing one of our own, and shed grateful tears when we finally learned that Colleen was ok.
There were those Canucks up in Newfoundland that housed America’s children when the airports in New York were suddenly closed; the residents of Gander only too happy to lend a hand, never once asking anything in return. It was a privilege to know that they could be there when needed.
Canadians realized how those planes could have easily made quick work out of us. Anyone working in an office building, or a place of governmental importance lived in terror in the days that followed.
Air travellers were living in fear that their Airbus or Boeing would be used to target some structure, and those that walked the streets below flinched every time an airliner passed overhead.
Time has since healed most wounds, but the image of that day is forever etched in the minds of Canadians, from coast to coast.
So, on this September 11th, in the year 2013, I’d like to offer my American friends a word of comfort.
You are not alone.
We up here on the 49th parallel will always embrace you in your hour of need. We offer this to you, our neighbors to the south freely, and without condition.
May you never know pain this deep as a nation, ever again. However, if tragedy ever strikes, just know that we here in the true north will stand by you, ready to offer whatever it is you need to ease your burden.
We will never forget.