Coping and Healing in a World Shaped by Crisis

September 8, 2017
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

A crisis does not have one story--we each experience it in our own way.

Last year, I wrote about planning a visit to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City. The memorial honors the nearly 3,000 people killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center site, near Shanksville, PA, and at the Pentagon, as well as the six people killed in the World Trade Center bombing in February 1993.

On September 11—and for several months forward—I served as the Crisis Manager for Marriott International related to the hotel they lost at the World Trade Center. I still don’t know how I would have done my job without having completed and conducted dozens of CPI training programs before those tragic events. This is not because I dealt with violence during that time, but because so many of the concepts and skills apply to a wide variety of emergency situations —and to everyday life.

Hundreds of ordinary people performed heroic tasks during the 9/11 response. They undoubtedly thought about these or similar priorities while saving people’s lives.

Rick Rescorla was one of these heroes. Rick was the director of security for the Morgan Stanley financial services firm at the World Trade Center. His extensive background in emergency response included military service during the Vietnam War. He had already lived through a terrorist attack at the Twin Towers 20 years earlier. He was 62 years old and dying of terminal bone marrow cancer on September 11, 2001. He was working on the forty-fourth floor of the World Trade Center when a plane crashed into the building.

At 8:46 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 struck the World Trade Center Tower 1 (the North Tower). Rescorla heard the explosion and saw the tower burning from his office window in the forty-fourth floor of World Trade Center Tower 2 (the South Tower).

When a Port Authority announcement came over the public address system urging people to stay at their desks, Rescorla ignored the announcement, grabbed his bullhorn, walkie-talkie, and cell phone, and began systematically ordering Morgan Stanley employees to evacuate.

He directed people down a stairwell from the forty-fourth floor, continuing to calm them after the building lurched violently following the crash of United Airlines Flight 175 thirty-eight floors above into Tower 2 at 9:03 a.m.

Morgan Stanley executives have pointed out that even a group of 250 people visiting the offices for a stockbroker training class knew what to do because they had been shown the nearest stairway.

Rescorla had boosted morale among his troops in Vietnam by singing Cornish songs from his youth. Now he did the same in the stairwell, intuitively sensing that doing so would keep everyone focused. This simple and clear step helped save people’s lives.

Rick Rescorla’s background, training, and experience enabled him to quickly jump into action. Running up and down 22 floors in the Morgan Stanley – Dean Witter headquarters, he helped evacuate 2,700 people. He was last seen on the tenth floor, heading up to find even more people, when the building collapsed with him inside.

I often think about Rick Rescorla and the hundreds of other ordinary heroes when I reflect not only on the anniversary of September 11, 2001, but on the countless world events and natural disasters that have shaped our culture.

We honor the pain of the past by forging new paths of resilience and healing in the present.

Our lives change in countless ways when something awful happens. Some of us lose friends. Some of us lose family. Some of us lose loved ones. Some of us are close to people who suffer a loss. And others of us have no direct connection at all to specific painful incidents or events, but may find it nonetheless almost impossible to escape the intense emotional fallout from the pain that may surround us.

After traumatic events like this, the pain and fear can linger for a long time. In many cases, just as the recovery and healing process begins, the “anniversary” of an event can trigger many of those same feelings.

Just as each person’s experiences with or involvement in specific painful events are unique and personal, so are our reactions. Especially as reminders of the event increase as the anniversary draws near, handling the human, emotional aftermath of this crisis might become more and more difficult.

As we approach anniversaries of traumatic incidents, we will be flooded with reminders of the tragic events. Television will remind us with news coverage, video footage, tributes and movies. Newspapers and magazines will remind us with harrowing stories, haunting headlines and graphic photographs. Requests for donations will begin to arrive in the mail. There will be special religious services and ceremonies held in our communities. Memories will surround us.

What follows are some reflections and insights that I have gleaned over the years, stemming both from my own experience in crisis response and management, and from the vast library of knowledge that we have cultivated at CPI to help understand the nature of crisis and prevent violence. Please feel free to add these resources to your own library of training tools, emotional support, and workplace safety resources. I welcome your thoughts and reflections, and would remind you that while we cannot erase—and should not try to erase—the memory of tragic events that happen in our lives, proactively preparing and dealing with upcoming anniversaries and the day-to-day reminders can make for a healthier work environment, and ultimately, a safer and more peaceful world.

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