Crews searching the rubble at Ground Zero in the months following the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, errected this cross made from the beams of the fallen World Trade Center Buildings. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
By Mable Chan AM '93
Founder/President, One in a Billion Inc.; Mable Chan & Company LLC; Podcasts: China Personified, “One in a Billion.”
Have you ever found yourself caught in a stampede? You were pushed to the ground, face down and flat on your belly, you almost didn't get up. Well, I almost didn't get up from Ground Zero, September 11, 2001. Ninteen years ago today, I was a producer for NBC News in New York. I was getting ready for work when I saw on TV, the two planes had just crashed into the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. I called into the office checking to see if they needed me to head down to the disaster zone, the answer was a resounding yes. I got my marching order from a supervisor to connect with another NBC News producer, our job was to start interviewing and shooting as soon as we could.
As the buildings were burning, orange fireballs were exploding, black smoke was billowing, a huge thick cloud of dust and debris began gushing out. I was standing and watching just a few blocks away, but I was so immersed in interviewing a married couple about what they saw moments earlier and taking notes that I was completely unaware that the South tower was collapsing before my eyes. I froze, trying to make sense of something else that caught my eye. Why was there a helicopter flying so close to a burning floor? Was it trying to get close enough to rescue people trapped inside? Which hospital would it go to? Where would it land? How would I find out? A million questions raced through my mind. I tune out the screaming as my head was crowded with these pressing questions. But when everyone started turning towards me, as if they were going to run me over, I had no choice but to quickly turn around.
At that point, someone's hand hit the back of my head. I tripped and fell face down to the ground. I cut my lips and elbows, I got kicked in the head and neck a few more times. I got the wind knocked out of me. Lying flat on my belly actually felt good, I could breathe a little. "Is this it?" I asked myself. It suddenly hit me that this was big enough to kill me, but I didn't answer that question. Instead, I felt a sudden surge of energy pulling me up. I jumped to my feet, I ripped a huge hole around my left knee cap and blood was seeping out of my tight jeans. I looked away and prayed to God, "Help me, God." Like everyone else, I started running for my life. It was like a race without a finish line. Where was I going? Where was everyone else going? No one knew. We only knew to run forward and never look back. It would eventually take me four hours of running, walking, and limping with a bloody knee and a pounding headache before I arrived back at the NBC News headquarters in Midtown Manhattan.
As I reflect on that day, as I do every year on September 11th, this question always comes back to me, is this it? Well, when you feel down, when you feel the wind sucked out of you, how do you know you can survive? How do you know you still have it in you to get up and run? How do you know? Well, I didn't. I just knew that I hadn't finished the job I was sent to do. I had responded to the call of duty just like so many other first responders, from journalist, to police, and firefighters, and emergency rescue workers. Many had lost their own lives in the line of duty. I was still alive. I sensed unfinished business. My work wasn't over because my life wasn't over.
Looking back, I've come to see life as a test, a test with many questions that will pop up at different times whether I'm expecting them or not. It is also a test without clear answers. It is not a test one can pass with brains, but only with guts, having the courage to take a leap of faith into the unknown, living the questions that challenge one's commitment to the mission that one has already started. When the going gets tough, well, you know the rest, the tough keep going. When I keep going, putting one foot in front of the other, I keep discovering the answer one step at a time. So long as we're alive, we must live with many questions that have yet to be resolved, even as we're eager to know the answers. I've learned not to be too eager to know or to get the answer. I let the hard questions come up to present me with choices and to motivate me to choose to live fully and dare greatly.
Is this it, as I've come to realize, is really not a question, but a challenge. Over the years, it has challenged me to be honest with myself and make some hard choices. How do I want to spend my time, money, and energy? What's worthwhile? What really matters when in an instant my life could be over?
Having survived that day at Ground Zero, I constantly refresh and renew my commitment to making a difference in the lives of others. Even though I'm not a TV network news producer anymore, I care about the next generation who are struggling for a sense of purpose or meaning with the work they have to do or the lifestyle they want to lead. So three years ago, I launched a nonprofit multimedia platform, One in a Billion Productions, to give voice to Asians and Americans with personal experiences and insights that could help us understand one another's pain points, touch points, and turning points. Our mission is to build bridges between people from different cultures and backgrounds. Our vision is a culture-conscious America where we can live well together and help each other succeed.
When I was a graduate student at Harvard, I didn't see where my degree was going to lead me or what my dream job was going to be. I had no idea I would end up working in network TV news for decades, but I tried to focus on opportunities that would align my goals with my values. At every step I often asked, is this it, to check my commitments and my desire. The answer is yes, it is for now, and no, there is more down the road. As a Christian, I often pray that I can see clearly my next steps or to know my path ahead, but my near death experience on 9/11 taught me to set aside doubt and to look up when I'm down, put my trust in God, take a leap. Take a leap and I will see that net appear. It is okay to have questions, lots of questions, but so long as we keep asking them, we keep living with the chase, and the chase is the mission, the day's demands or a different calling for our future. Let's keep the fight in us, keep the faith in the power that made us will raise us, even when we fall flat on our face.