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My 9/11 Story — From Tragedy to Transformation

Friday, September 10, 2021

By Jennifer S. Bankston

Illustration by Rebecca de Araujo

I learned early on to build walls and protect myself. My childhood was defined by my parents’ major physical illnesses, and the daunting financial struggles that followed as a result of medical bills.

That fundamental insecurity taught me to control my environment to avoid pain and danger. I became an expert in making people believe I didn’t need them and tried, in vain, to make that true.

By my late 20s, I was a New Yorker. In the center of my social circle, I was friendly to everyone, but I kept them at arm’s length. I was always arranging communal connections with people even though I wouldn’t quite “let them in” emotionally. Friends would ask me questions about myself, and I would always deflect to help them with their challenges and struggles instead.

Professionally, I was determined to stay in control. Restraint and reserve seemed to be assets in the workplace. At twenty-one, I earned a sought-after position over five hundred other candidates, working with and learning from world leaders. I knew I was fortunate, but inside I felt a nagging emptiness.

While I seemed to be on an upward trajectory career-wise, my aloofness and distance were misconstrued in the workplace. I had earned a leadership spot in the workforce, but something was amiss. I later understood that the team I managed found me unapproachable because I shared so little about my personal life. But I had no idea how to fix my situation.

And then came one bright Tuesday morning in September.

At sunrise, I ran six miles along Riverside Drive and by 8:30 a.m. I was already in a meeting in midtown.

At 9:07 a.m., people interrupted our meeting screaming that both World Trade Center Towers had been hit by planes: a potential terrorist act.

My colleague turned to me and said, “we were supposed to be there.”

It was true: We were supposed to be at One World Trade Center on a very high floor. Only hours earlier, I was out late with colleagues watching the New York Giants lose to the Denver Broncos at an Upper West Side sports bar. Instead of traveling the extra 45 minutes to get all the way downtown during rush hour that morning, one colleague asked to shift the meeting location to midtown.

A minor, random, life-saving detail.

I had cousins and friends in the towers, including several firefighters. Not all would make it out. But that sense of loss would be postponed. The next forty-eight hours were spent helping set up a command center at a midtown hotel for the employees and families of a company headquartered at the World Trade Center.

On the third day, as hope waned, I looked around the hotel ballroom among the photos of loved ones missing from the towers. One caught my eye — it was the captain of my high school football team, the father of a two-year-old boy.

Over the next few weeks, I helped plan the first televised memorial service for the families at Ground Zero.

I had been on autopilot since 9/11 but during the ceremony, something inside me shifted. I was confused and unnerved. All these people, who had others depending on them, were gone.

Why had I been spared? Me — mostly unattached, no children.

The emptiness of my measured and controlled life washed over me completely. I suddenly knew the life I had built wasn’t quite working. I felt a new overpowering desire to be part of something larger, to connect on deeper levels than I had ever before.

Agitated and restless every night for weeks, I gathered with others at John Lennon’s Imagine Memorial in Central Park, singing and talking. Until one evening, I didn’t go to the Memorial. I sat alone in my Upper West Side apartment and — for the first time in my adult life — I cried. I felt a deep realization: the walls I had carefully constructed prevented me from what I wanted most — to belong.

I felt loss, and I felt lost.

Since 1998, I’d had one good friend. I had never called him my boyfriend — that was against my rules. But we spent a lot of time together. We would ride his motorcycle and go on long weekends away, out of the city.

But after 9/11, the dynamic shifted. He started calling me every day to check in on me. Sometimes it would be five minutes, sometimes thirty, sometimes an hour or more. Incrementally, I started letting my guard down.

And then one day at work, I saw this friend at the reception desk, waiting for me. He took my hand, got down on one knee, and said:

“I wake up every morning thinking of you. I think of you during the day and every night before I close my eyes, you are the last voice I want to hear. Whatever days I have left, I want us to be on the same adventure together.”

I was in my early thirties and, for the second time in decades, I shed tears. I was beginning to love another person. Although it would take more time before I said yes, it seemed that a door had opened for me.

It’s now been twenty years since my journey abruptly changed course on September 11th, 2001 — the day I was spared.

That awful day took so much away from me and countless others, but it also forced me to look in the mirror and take apart my fear and shame. I became a more authentic person — more open and trusting, more sincere and present.

I now relate to my child, husband, and friends in ways I never imagined, let alone understood as a young woman. Through that inconceivable tragedy, I became a more effective and humane leader. I can sustain both my professional and personal relationships with warmth and grace, and navigate difficulties with reserves of kindness and understanding that I simply could not access before.


Jennifer S. Bankston heads Bankston Marketing Solutions, a strategic marketing and communications company.