Ramcess Jean-Louis is an attorney and HR/Labor Relations professional. He has over 20 years experience as a change agent and delivers human capital and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) solutions in media, tech and biopharma. He is the Global Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer at Pfizer. He was previously the Global Chief DEI Officer at Verizon Media.
In my world, the month of September always represented a few things: Labor Day, the first day of school, the Caribbean West Indian Day parade and my birthday, which would sometimes overlap with one of those days. As I celebrate the blessing of spending another birthday with my family, I think back to 20 years ago.
The morning of September 11, 2001, I was in a rush to get into the office. I had just come back from a business trip abroad. I had some catching up to do, and it was the first day of a big industry conference that I was scheduled to attend — The Risk Waters Financial Technology Conference. I was working on Wall Street at the time, at the intersection of tech and finance. The conference was being held at Windows on the World, on the top floor of the World Trade Center.
I was always one of the first to get into the office in the morning, and that morning was no different. As soon as I arrived, I jumped on my computer and started plugging away. After a while, a few of the other early birds came in, walked over, and we started chatting. We were all very excited about the conference, and my co-workers invited me to walk over to the conference with them so that we could register early and beat the long lines. The plan was to register, return to the office to get some more work done and then head over later that morning to run our demos at our booth and orchestrate the rest of our conference activation.
Before leaving for the conference, I worked on my expenses — a task I dreaded — and responded to a few important emails. My friends went ahead of me. I would still be able to avoid the long registration lines as long as I made it over there within the next 30 minutes or so. If I finished up fast enough, I might still be able to meet up with everyone over there. It was a short walk to the World Trade Center.
‘I suddenly felt the earth rattle’
While I was quickly plugging away, a few more folks started coming in. Then I suddenly felt the earth rattle, and I thought it was an earthquake. I had experienced an earthquake once before living in Brooklyn, but it had been a while. When that earthquake happened, I was a kid, and I had a couple of parakeets. The parakeets started going crazy right before the earth shook. That was my first time experiencing an earthquake. When I felt the earth shake, I thought of my two parakeets – Lovely and Pet. (I admit, I wasn’t the most creative when it came to naming my birds.)
As those random thoughts ran through my head, while I was still plugging away at my computer, I noticed light, pretty snow flurries outside. I thought that it was interesting to get snow so early in the season, but it was September — my birthday month — and I had seen it before. Again, with my head down and focused, I tried moving quickly down my to-do list. Then out of the corner of my eye, I could see folks rushing to the front lobby. I assumed my colleagues were leaving for the conference. Then I heard a loud scream and a gasp, and someone yelled, “Oh my God!” I stopped typing.
‘That wasn’t an accident’
I rushed toward the lobby. Everyone was standing in front of the TV in disbelief, and I searched their faces for answers. I asked what was going on, and folks explained that a plane had accidentally crashed into the World Trade Center. Many of my colleagues let out more screams as the earth shook again. I missed what they had seen on the screen. One person yelled that another plane had flown into the other Tower, while others argued that it was just a replay. Immediately, someone said, “That wasn’t an accident. That plane deliberately flew into the World Trade Center.” None of it seemed real. Some of us ran to the windows. We were on one of the top floors at 44 Wall Street. As we looked out the window, we noticed pictures, papers, folders and other office supplies on the rooftops of buildings. Then we heard news that the Pentagon had been hit by a plane and that another plane had been shot down. At that point, I quickly thought to myself, we are at war.
My friends who had walked over for early registration came back to the office. They had looks on their faces that I had never seen before — and that I’ve never forgotten. They explained that they had made it up to the top floor of the World Trade Center and gotten registered. As they were walking out of the building, the earth shook and they could see where the plane had flown into the building. Then they started seeing people jump out of the building all around them, crashing to the ground.
I quickly went to my phone and made as many calls as I could to let my family know that I was safe, until the phones didn’t work anymore. We were trying to figure out the safest course of action. Is it safer to stay in the building, or should we try to leave the area?
I left the building in search of answers, but I couldn’t find any. While I was out, I felt the earth rattle again, and I suspected the attacks were continuing. A cloud of white smoke completely filled the air. I was no longer able to see where I was going. I took off my white shirt and held it over my head and tried to concentrate on just looking at my two feet and slowly moving forward. One foot in front of the other. I walked in front of a CVS that was packed and not letting anyone else inside. I asked for masks, but they were out. I started to walk back to the office, and I noticed that the fruit stand where I used to purchase my fruit was covered with a thick layer of dust. It looked like a scene from The Day After, a movie I had seen as a child that showed the aftermath of a nuclear war. Then I saw a few government workers in full hazmat outfits covered from head to toe with oxygen tanks. When I saw that, I was convinced that I was already dead or soon would be. The smoke was so thick, and I could barely breathe.
Walking over the Manhattan Bridge
I made it back to the office with no answers or masks — just a look of disbelief. We stayed in the office a while longer, and we decided to take our chances and leave the area. We walked as a group toward the Manhattan Bridge. The Brooklyn Bridge wasn’t an option for us.
All I remember as we walked over the Manhattan Bridge back into Brooklyn was people of all backgrounds rushing to the bridge with bottles of water, chairs and towels. They embraced all of us who were coming over the bridge. While the recent Labor Day parade had celebrated many flags, that day on 9/11 I only saw one flag waving — the flag of the United States of America. As we walked across the bridge into the embrace of American humanity at its best, I also remember seeing school buses and regular buses both full of police officers and firefighters packed like sardines going over the bridge, rushing to help others.
I never stopped walking. I walked all the way home to Ditmas Park. I turned back and looked at the smoke that continued to bellow over Manhattan. It felt as if that smoke lasted for weeks and that the trucks removing the fallen debris and remains lasted for years.
A nation in mourning
I mourn the lives of all of those who were lost on 9/11 at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on United Flight 93. My thoughts, prayers and love remain with them and their families. We lost a lot of friends and colleagues in the industry that day. I also lost my college friend from Cornell University, Albert Balewa Blackman Jr. I mourn for everyone who has ever lost anyone in any terrorist attack.
I honor and pay the utmost respect to all of our fallen brothers and sisters in uniform who sacrificed their own lives to save others. And for all of those men and women in uniform and our allies that continue to sacrifice and fight to protect our freedoms and our way of life each and every day.
I am thankful for my leaders at Javelin Technologies for remaining steady and keeping us safe on 9/11. I am thankful for my friends who made it back from going to early registration.
Twenty years later, I think about the children who witnessed what took place that day, who then joined the military and dedicated their lives to fighting for a stronger America and a better world. I thank them for their commitment to honor, liberty and country. We see you and we thank you for all of the countless sacrifices that you and your family make for us each and every day.
I still keep replaying the image in my mind of people from all walks of life running to the bridge to help us. When I think of that, I think to myself, that is America. When I remember the images of our men and women in uniform rushing to danger to save others, I think to myself that this is my America. When I walked over the bridge and saw the American flag waving and saw it over the next year on almost every car and store. On that fateful day, I remember the foggy faces, seeing that flag and the “forever feeling” I had. I knew that this was truly our America.
We have collectively experienced trauma together, mourned together, embraced hope together, quarantined together, and we will continue to overcome obstacles together and rise together.
My prayers go out to all of the victims of the 9/11 attacks and their families. I am forever grateful to those who fight to protect our freedom, liberty and those values that we aspire to and that we hold dear each and every day.
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