Last night, I watched several television news anchors try to describe what it was like to be live on the air when the second plane hit the World Trade Center. They each sifted through their memories with the facial expressions of victims recalling a crime. They described how their minds fought to process the events as they unfolded and how there was no frame of reference to tie it all together and make words come out – words which didn’t reflect their inner turmoil and dawning terror. Handling media and public relations for clients in Orlando and beyond, I’ve stood countless times before news cameras. I know what it’s like to suddenly have your words fail on live television or radio. But I doubt I will ever feel the weight these journalists felt trying to make sense of something so outside the realm of our then reality.
Like most people, my eyes were glued to the television that morning, horrifically mesmerized by the repetitive images. The skyscraper burning. People leaping for their lives. Another plane strikes the towers. Then something else hit: the realization that I needed to respond to the roles in my life: employer, consultant, mother.
I gathered CBR’s employees around the conference room table. People of various faiths joined hands and our agency vice president led us in prayer for the victims, for our country and for our families. We had never prayed together before, and I glanced around the table to make sure everyone was comfortable with this. We were all in unchartered waters that day. Prayer did help. We caught our breath and talked next steps.
First, we reached out via email to our fellow IPREX partners around the world. If this was the beginning of a war, how many of my colleagues would be impacted? If I sent the staff home, was it more dangerous on the streets? Reasonably assuming that Maitland, Florida, was probably not on the top ten list of targets, we then offered our assistance to our 60 fellow firms on six continents. We offered to handle forwarded phone calls and emails, draft press releases, serve as a check-in office for their employees, to assist in any way we can. We thought about our friends at Makovsky & Company, our IPREX partner with offices in Manhattan. We prayed for a client with offices in the second tower.
Then we thought about ourselves.
Calls to spouses and children lit up the outgoing phone lines. I jumped in my car and dashed off to my daughter’s high school across town while my husband sped to our twins’ preschool, only to be met at the door by a team of heavily armed police officers in flak jackets. Yes, the war had touched down in our small hometown. Attacks by unknown forces required that Maitland’s finest immediately protect the building where our children attended preschool: the Jewish Community Center.
I found the halls and classrooms at Trinity Preparatory School to be eerily empty and quiet. I tried to calm myself as I searched for my 13-year-old daughter. Nearly out of breath, I finally found all of the students and faculty in a packed auditorium with the headmaster, alone on stage talking in a calming voice. Frantically trying to locate Christi in the crowd, my eyes set upon a slightly built small boy, probably a sixth grader, wearing a silk white yarmulke. On the other side of the auditorium was an older child wearing a white, cotton turban. The school represented a cross-section of the diversity of our community.
The lone voice of reason from the stage was saying things like, “What happens today, right now, defines our school. We don’t know who was responsible, but we know it was not the people in this auditorium. We are Trinity Prep. We are this school, this community. Do not make rash accusations and speak from hate or we are no better than the people who hurt our country today. We are better than that. We are still the people we were yesterday. We must join together and remember who we are and stand together as our nation and our school deals with this tragedy.”
The scene was eerily familiar. It reminded me of that poignant scene in the old Charlie Brown Christmas show, with Linus standing under a single spotlight on an empty stage reading from the book of Luke. It was that quiet. That moving.
Until I noticed that the same little boy’s shoulders had begun to shake as he sobbed. Sniffles erupted throughout the auditorium. Teachers tried to hide their own tears as they forced assuring smiles to the students who looked to them for strength.
And there was Christi, who seemed to sense that I was nearby. She turned to the back of the auditorium and all was right with her world, and mine, for one brief moment that only a look between mother and daughter can bring.
Lori C. Booker, APR, is founder and CEO of CBR and is a respected media commentator.