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updated: 9/6/2011 12:45 PM

West Chicago counselor recalls events of Sept. 11

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By Katherine W.
Special to the Daily Herald

Editor's note: A former executive, now working as a counselor in West Chicago, recalls the events of Sept. 11, 2001. At the time, she was living in Carol Stream and working in the Chicago office of Carr Futures. The company had 141 employees based in its World Trade Center office; 69 were at work on the 92nd floor that morning. No one survived.

Heartbreak everywhere we looked
I had just dropped my daughter off at day care so that I could work from home and hopefully finish my budget that was already overdue. At the time, I was the vice president of human resources for Carr Futures and our budget planning cycle was coming to a close. After I arrived home, I turned on the "Today" show and was absolutely dumbfounded by what I saw.

I immediately called our office in the city to make sure someone there knew what was going on. I tried unsuccessfully to reach anyone that worked on the 92nd floor of World Trade Center, North Tower.

My husband called home to see how I was doing and if I knew anything more about the situation. He stayed with me on the phone as I watched the towers fall, knowing full well that I was supposed to be there, staying at the Marriott, which occupied the lower floors of the South Tower. I was at a complete loss and unsure what to do, what to say, or how to react.

Somehow, instinct kicked in and I did what I knew how to do -- organize and plan. I called our company travel department and secured conference rooms where grieving family members and surviving employees could meet and take comfort with each other. I contacted our Employee Assistance Program and deployed counselors to our Chicago office and had them on standby for our New York employees and families. And, I continued to reach out to our staff in New York but no one answered.

Now I had to get into the city so I could work with the rest of the management team and figure out the next steps, but that would prove problematic as the police were trying to get everyone out of the city in case Chicago was next. After a few phone calls, the only way into the city was to send a car for me. So I packed a small overnight bag and patiently waited for my limo to arrive, leaving my husband and daughter to cling to each other.

At the time, we lived in Carol Stream, right in the flight path to O'Hare. The silence that afternoon was deafening. I was so used to hearing planes fly overhead and now there were none. I can recall closing as many drapes and blinds as I could out of pure fear now that I wasn't being distracted by the details of organizing and planning. I remember thinking, "what about our daughter -- how could we bring a new life into such a scary world?" You see, she was our first and wasn't even a year old yet. "What were we thinking?"

Soon the limo arrived to take me downtown; the streets were empty. I've never seen the West Loop so empty -- it was a ghost town. The next 18 hours were spent determining how we would take care of our remaining employees in New York and Chicago, as well as the families who lost loved ones on that horrible day.

The entire management team felt an intense sense of responsibility for the families in New York. We all took turns answering the phone through the night as family members called the Chicago office hoping that we had somehow heard from their missing family members. Wives would call desperate to talk to their husband; moms called looking for their sons.

I can recall one in particular that touched my heart and truly illustrated the grief felt by many. She called looking for her son and I had to tell her that we had not yet heard from him. We talked for a while as she told me all about him. I assured her that I would call her as soon as we heard from him. She called back not five minutes later asking if we had heard from him yet, as though she and I had never spoken. Her grief was all consuming and she so desperately needed to connect with him and those who knew him.

On Sept. 12, a number of us boarded a bus that would drive a portion of our management team right into Manhattan. We drove through the night so that we could get there and be with our grieving employees and surviving family members first thing in the morning. It was more emotional than one could ever imagine -- you truly had to be there to comprehend the depth of pain, grief and despair.

I recall one employee in particular; he had been with Carr for a number of years and he had just witnessed the birth of his first child, a son, only four days earlier. His son will soon be 10 years old and he never got to know his father.

Another employee had recently been married but never made it to her first wedding anniversary. There was heartbreak everywhere we looked.

The days were long, but we knew that was where we needed to be. Some of us were content to sleep in Manhattan at the same hotel where we spent our days; some of us were too uneasy and we made the trip on and off the island every night, staying across the river in New Jersey, hoping for a sense of peace, looking back to see smoke rising from the pile of rubble.

I can't say the days got easier, but we knew what to expect and we had a better idea of how we could support each other through the chaos and grief. We knew when to give each other space and when to give a hug. We knew when to stand up for what needed to be done and when to back off. We knew that eating and sleeping were very important even though it felt inconsequential at the time, and there were many sleepless nights.

When it came time to leave Manhattan and return home, the airports were again open and we were given the choice to fly home. Some did but many more drove home. I think some made the choice to drive out of fear and anxiety, some made the choice out of a desire for peace and solitude after a rough 10 days in the midst of chaos. Regardless of the reason why, the choice was theirs and each did what felt right.

I recall the drive home. Flags were everywhere and traffic was almost gentle -- there was no road rage or cutting other cars off. People were patient and kind to each other. We took turns. We said "hello" and smiled at those we met in our path. Where has that sense of togetherness gone? Why did it disappear?

I, too, was supposed to be in Manhattan that day, as my job required me to be there on a monthly basis, but I've been given a second chance and significant changes occurred in my life as a result of that horrible day. I left corporate America, had a second child, and opened Lifetime Behavioral Health to provide help, hope and healing to those in need.

My daughter was just 10 months old on Sept. 11, 2001. She is now old enough that she's starting to ask questions about that horrible day and I'm not always sure what to tell her.

I have shown her my washroom key to the women's bathroom on the 92nd floor of the North Tower, and she sees me wear my red, white and blue ribbon pin that a co-worker made for all of the survivors, but I think it will be a long time before she will fully grasp the significance of that day for the world as we knew it.

If she ever does ask me what I learned about myself or my world as a result of Sept. 11, I will tell her:

• Don't take anyone for granted. Tell them that you love them every time you say "goodbye" because you never know if that will be the last time you get to tell them how you feel.

• Live every day as if it were your last. Live without regrets.

• You are always stronger than you think you are.

• You have the power to do amazing things when times are dark and scary.

• Believe that those around you are kind and be kind to them.

• Be patient with yourself and others following a traumatic situation.

• It's OK to grieve and be sad because that's part of the healing process. Those feelings won't stay forever. I promise.

• New and good things can come from tragedy.

• Pray.

-- Katherine W.