My 9/11 Experience

Originally written September 11, 2013

I’ve gone through the day barely thinking about the 9/11 attacks. It’s not that I don’t care, I’ve just been very busy with work stuff all day and I finally have the chance to sit down to reflect. In a lot of ways, it’s a perfect parallel to the day of the attacks.

The day started like any other…

I woke up, poured some cereal, grabbed my laptop, and sat down in front of the TV to watch the news. It was right after the first tower was hit. The newscasters were commenting on how the Empire State Building was designed to withstand a 727 accidentally crashing into it when the second plane hit the second World Trade Center tower and we knew it wasn’t an accident.

On to work

I listened to the news on the radio during my commute and texted my girlfriend to make sure she was ok. We were miles away from downtown Chicago, but I wanted to be sure she was holding up ok in light of the news.

The dot-com IT department at the giant flower delivery company was in a state of chaos. The attacks had shut down a large portion of New York City, so we had to act fast. We got a list of affected zip codes and activated a website feature that was normally only used twice a year: Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. It let us shut down individual zip codes and display a message explaining why we couldn’t accept any orders for that location. Usually, it apologized for limited availability right before a holiday. But this time, the message was much more somber.

Of course, a lot of people saw that notice and decided to call in to see if there really wasn’t a way to get that last-minute birthday present delivered. At the time, I assumed it was just people being self-centered, but now I have to wonder if they weren’t just grasping for some sense of normalcy amid all the confusion, some feeling of control.

That list grew throughout the day, and came to include zip codes in Pennsylvania and the Washington, DC metro area. As more zip codes shut down, fewer orders could be delivered, and we started producing reports of all the orders due for delivery in the affected areas over the next week. The call center staff started canceling orders by hand, but was quickly overwhelmed by all the phone calls and everything else going on. So, my team wrote code to cancel those orders automatically, notifying florists they no longer needed to deliver them. Not that anyone in New York was even thinking of looking at their order system that day.

And then there were the roses…

New York City is a major air and sea port for this country, and planes full of highly-perishable roses weren’t able to make their scheduled deliveries once the White House ordered the skies cleared. This meant a ton more deactivated products on the web site, more reports, and even more canceled orders.

These customers were even less understanding. Their loved ones were nowhere near New York, yet their anniversary or birthday gift wasn’t going to make it when someone special to them needed an extra reminder that they were loved. I’m surprised none of out call center staff walked off the job that day. I wouldn’t have blamed them.

I spent the whole morning running reports, activating emergency features, and running hastily-written scripts on a production server to update live orders. I’m amazed everything worked as well as it did, but we were a good team, and we kept each other focused.

A thousand miles away

A thousand miles away, the Twin Towers burned. Our corporate Internet connection was saturated with orders, reports, and people refreshing their browsers over & over. Every once in a while, someone in our department would get the CNN home page to fully load and update the rest of us with the latest news.

With the rose situation taken care of, and no sign of further attacks, my boss told us to drop whatever we were doing and drive down to a restaurant/bar just up the road.

We watched footage of the first tower falling over & over until the second tower fell as well. None of us had the chance to properly process what was happening yet, and a lot of emotions were finally let out. We grew as a team that day, showing extreme competence in the face of a crisis, and the strength to support each other in a moment of weakness.

We ate our hamburgers, drank our beers, and sat there for almost two hours watching the aftermath on TV. Then, we went back to work to clean up our own mess and call our own loved ones. We visited with the call center staff and made sure they were ok. And we went home early, because there was no way to salvage a normal day out of 9/11/2001.

When I think of 9/11, I immediately picture my cubicle wall. That was 9/11 for me: answering emails, taking phone calls, and trying to stay cool under pressure. The World Trade Center is like an icon of some other thing that I never really got to see.

But what I did see was strong Americans digging their way out of a mess. They weren’t first responders or anything nearly as noble. But they were my team. They were my friends.

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