My Mistake at Ground Zero, and the Business Lesson Learned

No matter how long you looked, your brain simply could not process the scene.

I started writing a piece about the time I spent working at Ground Zero, but it was sounding very dark and whiney. It was all wrong. So instead of walking you through the story, I’m just going to get to the point.

The point is this; my time at Ground Zero is one of the biggest regrets of my life.

Not the time I spent there, I regret the time that I didn’t spend. The time I didn’t spend because I thought it was more important to go back to work.

Opportunities Lost

You may recall—or you may have never even known—that within days of the tragedy, Ground Zero was cordoned off and heavily guarded. Not just from the enemy, but from everyone.

Journalists were not allowed in. Good people who showed up to help were turned away. Neighbors and local restaurants bringing food for the workers were sent home.

No one was allowed access to the site except the official rescue workers and people approved through the Red Cross who had undergone background checks.

Because of a business connection, I was lucky enough to be included in the second group.

Because of my connection to my business, I only stayed one day.

What an idiot.

A simple piece of plastic that I'll keep forever.

People across the country and around the globe were itching to help in any way they could. A week after the attack, New Yorkers still lined the streets holding signs and cheering as we drove in an authorized car in the lanes dedicated to Ground Zero traffic.

These people stood for hours on the side of the road just to wish a moment of thanks and encouragement to the passing workers. They did what they could to contribute.

And I flew back to my job after just one day.

Misplaced Mind

Only someone who has worked in a company in startup mode can understand what was going through my head. In September of 2001 I worked for a startup that was fast growing and exciting and stimulating. It was also understaffed and disorganized and unfocused. We had a constantly shifting vision that kept us all running in circles.

And despite what was going on around me, on any given day, during any given event, my mind spun around those circles like a dog chasing its tail. Very little could break that focus.

Apparently not even one of the biggest tragedies in American history. I had to get back to work.

Blech. That’s all I can say.

Words of encouragement and thanks from kids to the workers were posted on nearby buildings, telephone poles and mailboxes. Everyone did their part.

Of course, no one told me I had to get back to work. Startups don’t work like that. You just know. In fact, looking back now I’m sure the entrepreneur I worked for would have been there in a flash to help if he could have gotten credentials.

But that didn’t occur to me then. Then, what occurred to me was everything that wasn’t getting done while I was away. If you’ve worked for a company in startup mode, I know you’re nodding your head right now.

What Mattered Most

I met amazing people on my one day. I met Tommy and Paulie and Johnny and Jimmy. Apparently all New York City firefighters have names ending in ‘ee.’ They were handsome and heroic and tired and strong.

I served them Uncle Bens rice bowls and the best coffee at Ground Zero. They came to take a break and to talk, for a jolt of caffeine or just for a quiet place to sit.

Everyone of them, without fail, asked first about me. Had I lost someone? Was I okay? I hadn’t, and I was.

Except that I needed to get back to work.

And so I did.

After just one day – one of the most amazing days of my life – I raced back to a job that in the scheme of things was as important as an extra toe.

It’s a mistake in priorities that I’ll never repeat.

The Sights of the Day

During the days following 9-11 no cameras were allowed at Ground Zero, but for some reason the workers let us capture the moment. We were asked to keep the pictures out of circulation for a while. I don’t think that applies anymore.

It’s the memories of the people of that day that I’ll always cherish. The sights of the day that I’ll never forget. And the business lesson learned in hindsight that I’ll take with me moving forward.

I don’t have permission from the Johnny’s and the Jimmy’s to show their faces, so I’m keeping those pictures to myself.

This is what else I saw, and for reasons I’ll never repeat, walked away from the week following 9-11. Don’t follow in my footsteps.

View from inside a neighboring building.

One of the few remaining walls, captured in many pictures.

That iconic facade from farther away.

View from the corner.

Everything from sheet rock to iron scraps looked as flimsy and fragile as paper.

View from the other side of same building.

The buildings beside the towers were scorched.

Flags hung on the buildings surrounding the site.

9-11 business lesson

They waved from every available surface.

9-11 business lessons

And in every conceivable size.

18 Comments

  • Keller Hawthorne

    Reply Reply September 8, 2011

    A huge reminder of all the things I’ve put business over in the last decade (though none as heroic as your experience). The entrepreneur’s focus can be a fault with all things non-business related… family, friends, moments lost. Really makes you think about what’s most important. Great post Kathy.

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply September 8, 2011

      Thanks Keller.
      (Though I hope I didn’t sound like I think my experience was heroic; it wasn’t. I was lucky to have been able to go. And stupid to have left. Lesson learned, years later.)

  • Benny

    Reply Reply September 8, 2011

    I can’t believe you had access to Ground Zero days after it happened. Like you said, only certain people could get through.

    Hope it’s okay but had some questions to claify. So you had a business connection ( a great one obviously) that got you access. Was it cause you wanted to help out?

    Were you living in NYC at the time or did you fly in after 9/11?

    Thanks for sharing the post with me. Definitely something I know you’ll never forget.

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply September 8, 2011

      Hey Benny:
      My connection asked if I wanted to come up and help. He was being nice because my boyfriend lived in the city (I lived in Atlanta) and believe it or not, because he was also short staffed. I have family in the city as well, and between my boyfriend’s connections and my local family, they staffed the bus for the next month. They were all obviously smarter than me.

      I flew in, and that was a very odd experience. That’s where the post originally started, but was getting long and felt dark. The flight in was terrifying at first and odd in that everyone (the few of us who were willing to fly) talked to everyone else on the plane. I think we felt that if you got to know the other people, they couldn’t possibly turn out to be evil. All conversation stopped as we made our descent into the city. It was nighttime and ground zero was lite by construction lights. It was still smoldering. it was awful.

      Thanks or reading Benny, I think this is right in line with your blog-Get Busy Living. In this case, Get Busy With What’s Important!

  • Birney Summers

    Reply Reply September 8, 2011

    Outstanding post. Sometimes it is hard to understand that we should put all else on hold and focus on what is right before us. At times we feel like we are drowning in the rapid flow of the river of life. For many of us September 11th was and can still be a reminder to take care of each other first and then take care of business. For some, taking care of business is seeking out and destroying evil in the world, for others it is moving ahead with our lives. Thank you for a reminder of that day.

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply September 8, 2011

      Thanks for reading Birney, and for putting your perspective on it! You’re right. Sometimes, obviously on that day for me, it’s easy to miss what’s right in front of your face.

      Kathy

  • Evan

    Reply Reply September 8, 2011

    Thanks Kathy. One typo. I think you meant 2001 not 2011.

  • lizzie

    Reply Reply September 9, 2011

    Wow, Kathy. What an incredible story.

    In a much sillier way – not comparing at all – I felt a similar thing about the things I’ve rushed away from in life. I used to get to the airport hours and hours early for flights to meet the people – many solders flying into Fort Worth, many moms and harried people trying to get home…all of them had amazing and transparent stories to share and I hoarded them all. But now – in a rush to grow up or something, be less fascinated with life for whatever not-okay reason, I arrive just on time, if not late and plug in my laptop in some kind of inflated gesture of self-importance. Like the company I contract for would just collapse if I wasn’t accessible.

    That’s how I’ve felt working for start-ups so far, at least – and who knows how much of it is misplaced perception and how much is real, but it can feel like if the team solves a problem without you..if they grab drinks without you..if you miss a crucial email, they could decide you’re dragging down progress or not offering anything to build the new incubating baby.

    So I understand the feeling – even if in a much smaller way. Don’t beat yourself up, the day you spent there meant something…taught you something and got you to see further into a tendency to rush back to work that you might have otherwise ignored if it was just a softball game here…a Thanksgiving dinner there…

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply September 9, 2011

      LIzzie:
      You’re exactly right about how long it may have taken to learn the lesson. Though it was still years after the fact that it finally sunk in for me. Imagine how long it would have been if it had been softball.

      Your airport story if very interesting. I completely get it. I never arrived hours and hours early, but I used to enjoy the time at the gate watching people. Now I’m frustrated with every extra minute I spend there that I think could have been spent…doing what? Who knows. I wonder if this is partly a factor of age (not calling you old by any means!) or if it not living in the moment. Whatever it is, I’m adding some extra time before my next flight to sit at the gate. I’ll have a coffee and give a toast to Lizzie while I watch people. You don’t think they’ll think I’m crazy do you?
      Kathy

  • Corinne Edwards

    Reply Reply September 9, 2011

    Dea Kathy –

    Although brief, you will never regret that day.

    What you don’t give yourself credit for is how you helped more in that one day than the rest of us who were sitting stunned in front of our TV sets.

    What a contribution to have these unique photos.

    I only wish I had that one day to help. The whole world wished it.

    Don’t minimize it.

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply September 9, 2011

      Hey Corinne:
      I don’t mean to minimize it. I am so glad to have had the time. I was thrilled to have had the time even then. It just took me years to realize, wait a minute, why didn’t I stay? You sum it up completely when you said that “I only wish I had that one day to help. The whole world wished it.” Yeah, I know. And I had such blinders on that I sucked up that one day, and then …Went…. Back…. To…Work. Ugh.

      Thanks for reading Corinne! Kathy

  • Debbie @ Happy Maker

    Reply Reply September 9, 2011

    Hi Kathy,

    No regrets please. You did what you could at that time. No one can say what they will do in any given situation until you have been there.

    Thank you for sharing the pictures and your story.
    We have people in Washington D.C. that can help solve our problems today are they going to have any regrets 10 years from now

    Question I do ponder is: “Is the Country crumbling like the twin towers did? And do our leaders in office have the courage to put there difference aside and find the right answers?

    SorryI go off track a little, but you did what you could that day Kathy and we thank you.
    Blessing to you.
    Debbie

  • Andrew @ Blogging Guide

    Reply Reply September 10, 2011

    Kathy

    Great story and thanks for sharing. How you helped sounds truly amazing. I visited NYC in the February after 9/11 and went to Ground Zero. I do remember the flags being displayed everywhere…I do remember the quietness around the church railings as we read the messages…I do remember the dust and devastation.

    Good on you for helping out.

    Andrew

  • David Stehle

    Reply Reply September 19, 2011

    Catching up in my Google Reader and didn’t see this post until now.

    Great story and lesson! Just the type of reminder I needed to hear given the fact that I’ve been entirely too caught up in my own work lately. I’ve noticed my start-up life taking a front seat to other things, more important things in life…which is wrong. And I’ve been feeling bad about it.

    Kathy, please don’t beat yourself up about this and have regrets about not doing more. Even if it was only one day, you made a difference. Helping sift through the rubble made a difference. And sharing some coffee and a much needed quiet moment with workers made an even BIGGER difference.

    I was one of the people that was “not allowed” to help at Ground Zero. We all wanted to help! So take pride and comfort in the fact that you were given that opportunity and you took it.

    Also, it may be 10 years later, but I want to thank you for your work.

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply September 19, 2011

      Nice to see you back David!

      Just the fact that you had noticed that your startup is taking a front seat means you are far more aware than most! That’s a good sign. Also, you’re the entrepreneur. It’s your business. Sometimes it can’t be helped. Just don’t let it stay that way forever!

      Thanks for your thoughts on post. I appreciate it, in particular coming from a New Yorker. Thanks David.
      Kathy

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