The Unthinkable. September 11, 2001
At 7:45 on the morning of September 11, a picture-perfect late summer day, I walk the four blocks from my corporate apartment in nearby Battery Park City to the South Tower. I arrive at the WTC at 8:15 in hopes of getting a toehold on my impossibly dense schedule and a week full of deadlines. To brace myself, I grab a Starbucks extra large coffee in the 43rd Floor Cafeteria. As I gaze out at New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty, I wonder why we are all working on such a gorgeous day. I also think: I will never take this view for granted.
At 8:40 I unpack my computer bag, sit down at my desk on the 62nd floor, and call home to wish my family a good morning and send them all off to school and work.
My office faces east, looking away from Tower One, but we hear and feel concussion from the crash. We look out and see the air filled with paper, like a winter snow globe. My heart is in my throat. At that very instant, we are instructed to begin the evacuation of Tower Two. I sweep through the 62nd floor, looking for anyone who missed the evacuation order. I take a deep breath and, remembering a recent fire drill, head in the direction of the stairs and begin the long descent. Pay attention during “routine” fire drills!
At the 30th floor, we hear another huge explosion and are thrown to the side of the stairwell as the building lurches. People scream “...our building!” But after the immediate shock, we carry out the evacuation we have practiced before, in a deliberate and calm two-by-two procession, even while hearing the creaking and cracking as our building is breaking.
It is now about 10:00. I am doubling back across lower Manhattan in an attempt to find a working telephone and a radio or television at my apartment to help me get a grip on what the hell is happening. From a block and a half away, I hear screams and then a rumble. I turn to see a pillar of smoke as Tower Two, the building I’ve just escaped from, crumbles. It tilts, twists and then falls in on itself. Unthinkable!
Less than 30 minutes later, in the midst of a north-bound refugee march on the West Side highway, I watch in disbelief as Tower One also collapses.
As I walk the ten miles to our headquarters near Times Square, I am obsessed with quenching a powerful thirst and thinking bizarre thoughts like if I ever have to do this again, I'll be in better shape. (Weird thought—doing it again—but I make a silent promise I long remember.)
At last, soaked with perspiration, I arrive at our headquarters only two hours removed from my epic escape, and turn to the task of helping organize a search for the missing. How surreal the streets are—empty and quiet! Some people gather at Times Square, watching the ABC TV monitor and hoping for news to help make sense of it all.
Fall came early this year. Sunday, June 8, 2003
The task at hand is to spray the mud off the shingles of our new house in preparation for the arrival of the painters later this week and to clean out the debris hanging from the rain gutters. I lean the ladder against the gutter and try to brace it securely on the asphalt driveway. As I reach the roof and shift my weight to climb onto it, I hear the ladder scraping/slipping against the asphalt. I glance behind me quickly to gauge the distance—this is going to hurt.
There is only one Level 1 trauma hospital in the area, so there is no negotiating with the EMTs about our destination. They estimate I fell 12 feet. That’s Level One trauma by the book.
The emergency room staff take a dozen X-rays without even unstrapping me from the stretcher. “Open your mouth! That will let us take a picture of your cervical vertebrae.” I am in awe.
Soon the frenzy passes and they wheel me into a quiet, darker space. “Can we do anything to make you comfortable?” “Yes! Take this neck brace off; it’s digging into my chest!” “I’m sorry, Mr. Lukas, the doctor that needs to see your neck pictures is in surgery, and the brace has to stay on until he tells us it’s OK to take it off.” At last, two familiar faces, as Karin (my wife) and her sister, Cindy, arrive to stand at my side.
Later that evening, they wheel me into a semi-private room. The resident arrives and updates me as to the extent of my injuries: I have SEVEN fractures.
A stroke of luck? Thursday, June 12, 2003
“Wake up Mr. Lukas; it’s time for your MRI.” “MRI? I thought we established that I have seven broken ribs!” “Yes, Mr. Lukas, but you had a stroke last night.” A Stroke?! The news hits me like the impact from the fall. Strokes are something really old people have, there must be a mistake.
The nurse and an orderly slip a large sheet of plastic (which I called the human spatula) under me and slide me across it from the bed to the gurney. As they wheel me down the corridors, I track our progress by counting ceiling tiles. We stop at a waiting area outside the MRI room. The MRI technician performs the human spatula transfer unassisted (I’m impressed). Next, I hear the MRI mechanism hum into action.
Once back in my room, I’m handed a clip board, “What is this?” The white coat tells me it’s a Do Not Resuscitate order. “Why?” “They’re going to do surgery to remove your clot.” I sign it. More human spatula and ceiling-tile counting. “My name is Dr. Mikesell, I’m your neurosurgeon.” He is entirely too cheerful about the situation at hand. “Show me your teeth!” I later learn he is trying to assess the impact of the stroke on my facial muscles. After showing him my teeth, I can tell the left side of my face is impaired—that and the fact that I sound like Ozzy Osborne when I talk.
On Saturday, a white-coated speech therapist introduces herself. She is assessing if I have any diminished motor skill for swallowing and if there has been any cognitive impact. Over the next several weeks, she will continue to test her initial diagnosis. My biggest fear is that I’ll be found lacking mentally. It is only now, several days later, that I’m coming to grips with the fact that the left side of my body is paralyzed; I’m resenting the white coats for making me realize this.
On Sunday, I awake to find the minister sitting next to my bed. Oh, no! Things must have gotten worse. But this visit is part of the normal services provided at Lutheran General Hospital. The minister performs communion, and my spirits are lifted.
Two days later two young therapists greet me: “Hi, Mr. Lukas, we’re Kerry and Terry.” I chuckle wondering, Who is writing the stupid script for this hospital stay? “We’re here to help you stand up.” Right! Over the next few days, I learn to transfer from bed to wheelchair. With some embellishments, the transfer from the chair to the toilet follows. Progress is being made. But I vow that the need for the wheelchair will only be temporary.
I look at the sullen, grumpy faces of the other patients. I am going to have a smiling face. I try this out as they wheel in a guy in a halo, a device screwed into the skull that prevents head and neck movement. He really looks like shit. I cheerfully ask, “How are you doing?” “Better than you look!” comes the unexpected response. This may be harder than I expected…
Blessings discovered. November 2003 through November 2005
Preparation for the Sears Tower
I flop down on the gym floor in frustration after falling short of my trial-run goal—20 round trips! Lana, my trainer, points out, “Wait, Paul! If you did 17 round trips, you have climbed enough steps to exceed the height of the John Hancock building!” I have been training on the tallest staircase I can find at work; it’s 5 ½ stories, and I am routinely making more than 10 round trips now. With Lana’s encouragement, I feel certain I will fulfill my promise to climb the Sears Tower as my contribution to a charity event!
The Ascent, November 13, 2005
At 7:15 am, on a chilly and windy but clear day, I stand at the base of the Sears Tower. Can I really do it? Maybe 103 floors continuously straight up are different from 17 round trips of 5 ½ stories? There’s only one way to know for sure. The goal isn’t speed; it’s just to complete the climb.
I pause on the 62nd floor and remember that beautiful fall day four years before. After 75 stories, I am fatigued. At 80, two firemen from Kenosha pass me in full gear, with oxygen tanks on their backs. “What brings you here from Kenosha?” (Kenosha is a 90-minute drive north from Chicago and the tallest building there is four stories high.) “We’re paying our respects to our brothers lost in 9/11.” “Me too!” We resume the climb. It’s like 9/11 but has an entirely different feeling and different direction: UP!
This all seems familiar. March 28, 2007
Three and a half years after the 9/11 epic, a wholesale management change results in the elimination of the department I worked in at that time and eventually the elimination of my own job. I am now making a weekly trip to downtown Chicago to visit the Outplacement Service in the 500 West Monroe Office Tower.
Ignoring the sound of too many sirens down below as just a routine matter of life in the big city, I prepare to leave for a lunch appointment on the other side of the Loop. “Mr. Lukas, you won’t be able to take the elevator.” “Why not?” “Because the fire department has turned them off. You’ll have to take the stairs.” I look to the left, seeing the fire escape doors on the 37th floor. Upon entering the stairwell, I see that the stairs are the same width and color as those of the WTC, and I have the same resigned feeling that I just have to focus and descend. After descending five flights, I let some people pass when I reach a landing, as I sense I am setting too slow a pace for them. We pass floor 20, then 17 and the 10. At the fifth floor, the stairs change from metal to cement and we pass through a fire door. At the bottom of the last flight is a fireman in full gear, watching us attentively. Much like I did six years earlier, I thank him. I cross Canal Street where a large crowd stands gazing up. I walk half a block away before turning and directing my gaze upward.
As I turn and look up, my legs almost give way, partly from fatigue, partly from the vertigo of shifting my point of reference. I don’t want to see that gaping, black-smoke-belching hole. Not nearly as dramatic as the World Trade Center, it is still startling to see gray smoke pouring out of the 40th floor.
By the time I am four blocks away, I realize the people around me are totally oblivious to the drama I have just experienced. It dawns on me how different this is from September 11, when the attention of the entire nation was riveted on the dramatic events. Here, four blocks removed from “Ground Zero,” life is going on as normal. Suddenly it is very clear to me: The top priorities and worries of daily life differ in comparison to the issues in a moment of truth. Whatever you think is the worst problem you face at the time, just a few steps away is somebody facing a far worse problem. Keep your perspective and stay tuned in!
In the Final Analysis
Many people have suggested to me that I survived all these events because there is a greater purpose for me that I have not yet completed.
I avoid this notion for two reasons:
More Searching for Meaning
After pondering the meaning for several years, I’ve come to believe that we are all selected to carry out a greater purpose. The fact that I survived some especially bad things does not make my purpose more important or meaningful than the purpose of any other people that I pass on the street.
The Accidental Lessons
After relating this story recently to a close friend, I found myself extemporaneously summarizing my accidental lessons: