Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The 3 Things I Learned in 26 Flights of Stairs...Aside from knowing never to wear heels when you work on the 26th floor...

As the 26th floor of the New York City Municipal Building (see tower of building pictured) began to shake earlier today, I turned to my co-worker who was already swiveling her chair around to look at me. Moments later, a third co-worker came to the doorway and said “I am getting out.” Not before long, our entire floor and the two floors of our company stationed above us were racing down 26 flights of stairs (some 28) to reach safety down below.

“What was going on? Why were we shaking? Why were people going so slowly to get to the bottom?” My cameramen were yelling at those who were taking their time on their stairs, and some of my female counterparts were kicking off their shoes to go faster. “Not too much further” I whispered to one of my friends and mentors, “We got this.”

In three weeks, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 will be upon us. While I may have just been thirteen years old at the time of the attack, sitting in a middle school code of conduct assembly in Pennsylvania—many of the people beside me, ahead of me, and behind me were New Yorkers at the time of the attack. Many of these people had an itch of terror scratching their backs as their right foot landed and then their left on the steps below.

Again questions knotted themselves together like loose cords thrown into a bag. “What news would we learn at the bottom?” “Was everyone with us?” “What was happening?”

It wasn’t until 26 floors later that I received a text from my best friend, in Pennsylvania, asking me if I had felt the earthquake that she had just heard from a police officer had rumbled through New York City.

I turned back and looked at the building which I felt as though I had conquered and breathed deeply, my adrenaline still driving hard through my veins. I thought to myself, “I felt it…I felt all of it—the shake, the terror, the adrenaline…I felt all of it.”

The whole experience reminded me of TED video entitled “The 3 Things I learned while my plane crashed.” During this intense and vivid talk, Ric Elias discusses everything that crossed his mind while the plane he was on crash landed safely into the Hudson just a few years ago.

His three lessons?

1. Everything changes in an instant—our bucket list—the things we want to do in life—we should no longer postpone any of it.

2. Regret existed in his life.

3. That dying is not scary—that he just wanted the chance to see his family again—to see his kids grow up—to be a good father.

And I get it. Before today, I had never experienced, head-on, a terr-or-ific occurrence. I didn’t inhale the smoke from the Twin Towers, I didn’t feel the wind, rain or devastation from Hurricane Katrina.

And while a 5.8 magnitude earthquake, that caused little or no damage to the city, compares very little to the tragic aftermaths of either of these happenings, I did learn some of my own important lessons.

1. I learned that it’s important to experience fear—that it’s important to know how you will handle yourself in the moments that will test you and your strength—the moments that will ask you to be a teammate—the moments that will challenge you and teach you—the moments that will define you. Today, I learned that what was important to me wasn’t just myself, but those people who have been around me for the last year and a half—who have pushed me to be the best I can be at work and that have taught me how to exceed in this working world. Like high school field hockey, I cheered on my teammates to safety and quickly make it to the bottom. From my head-on-encounter with fear, I learned that I don’t panic and that I can lead.

2. I learned that material things don’t matter—and that when a unforeseeable accident is lurking, it’s better to just go, get to safety, and concern yourself with missing items later—that the wallet with your ID, the credit cards, and the social security card mean nothing if you aren’t there to claim them—that if there is less than 10 minutes to leave a space that could fall to the ground, then you better leave the rest behind so you don’t get left behind too.

3. And finally, I reaffirmed exactly what was most important to me. Twenty minutes before the floor began to shake, I emailed my mother who I hadn’t heard from in several days and asked if everything was okay? It is odd to go half a day without an email, let alone three. As I reached the 13th floor of the building, my body felt as if it had just received a direct IV of adrenaline and my family’s picture flashed into my foresight. Now, the bottom of the building didn’t look like the plaza I normally come up off the subway into each day. No, it instead resembled my home, in Pennsylvania, which I remembered vaguely shaking during a terrible storm when I was younger. During that storm, my mother, my brother, and I sat and watched as things fell from shelves, but after a moment, the shaking was over. Now, I hoped that when my right foot hit the last step, the shaking would be over—the storm would be passed—and that I could call my family to let them know that I was okay—that it was just a building malfunction, that the construction work on the 25th floor caused something awful to happen on mine—that 9/11 hadn’t just happened all over again. As I neared the bottom, it was less important what was happening—than who I may not get to talk to after it all happened.

Sunlight began shining through the doors as we passed under exit signs to the outside world. It had felt like we traveled through a warp hole, as people were leisurely sitting and speaking to one another outside. “Did we just all imagine the building shaking?”

I was thankful to see a calmness in the world. It was an instant relief that nothing serious was happening—that my race down 26 flights of stairs wasn’t one that was with a collapsing building—that there was no attack—and that what we had experienced was a minimal natural disaster.

I reached for my cell phone, which I had fortunately kept in my pocket for the majority of the day. I quickly learned that cell phone calling service was down, texting worked, and that email was functioning.

Rushing across traffic, still a bit nervous that the tower of our building may collapse due to some sort of after shock, I emailed my family, counted my lucky stars, and breathed a sigh of relief.

“Did you feel the earthquake,” my best friend texted me.

I sure did.


  1. This was a phenomenal post, loved the video, and had to share the sentiment on Facebook!