Pamela Stennis-Wilkins holds a degree in liberal arts from Mississippi State U, where she was initiated into Phi Delta Chapter. Living for 14 years in New York City, she spent the first four working in marketing and public relations for the luxury-goods market and the next 10 working for investment banking firms. Today, while still working on marketing and public relations projects, she has designed and is launching a furniture line with her firm, stennis and co., and penning a novel of comedic fiction set on the Gulf Coast. Her charitable passions include Great Dane and giant-breed rescue dogs. When not juggling projects, the rest of a waking day is spent pursuing exciting adventures with her young son, Stennis, and husband, Clay.
I am a Chi Omega
by Pamela Stennis-Wilkins, Phi Delta/Mississippi State U
How Crisis Management Preparation Saved My Life On 9/11
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001. I had lived in New York City for 14 years doing public relations and marketing for investment banking companies on Wall Street. In April of that year, the financial services firm Morgan Stanley offered me a job with more regular hours and a slower pace than my current employer. I was ecstatic about the job but hesitated about accepting the position because of the location of my new office, which was high in the sky on the 59th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. But I shoved that concern aside, looking forward to a new job that would provide me an 8-to-5 schedule.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was running late and had only been at my desk for about three minutes when the first plane hit the North Tower. The impact sounded like a supersonic jet screaming right next to the window, only 10 times louder. Peering out the window, I instantly knew I was 59 floors higher than anyone would want to be.
My co-worker, Karen, and I zipped down the emergency stairwell, two and three stairs at a time. The whole time, I could hear my father’s voice in my head saying, “Just get out — focus — worry about what happened when you get home.” I tied my jacket around my waist and ripped off my dress shirt (I had on a T-shirt because the office was always so cold), tearing it in half to wrap around my hands as they slid down the railings, or for us to use as face masks in case we came upon smoke.
When we reached the 38th floor, a now-controversial announcement was issued: We were instructed to either return to our office or exit on the nearest floor, but to stay in the building because the falling debris made it unsafe to be outside. No one in the stairwell stopped.
Karen and I raced down 59 flights in 17 minutes. We exited from the emergency stairwell into the first floor lobby at the same time the second plane hit the 78th floor of World Trade 2. Suddenly, I found myself looking at a chain reaction usually only scripted for Hollywood.
We watched the ceiling shift a foot in each direction and could feel the explosion roaring down the inside of the building. Within seconds, a tremendous fire consumed all the oxygen inside, putting us in what felt like a vacuum pack—even sucking the air out of our lungs.
Marble popped off the walls of the lobby, chandeliers crashed and shattered on the floor, the ceiling fell in, and pipes burst over our heads. The full force of the explosion crashed into the lobby at about 50 miles per hour, pulling metal, glass, and building material with it.
When the dust settled, the state of the lobby was mind-boggling. Everything looked like it had been in a blender on puree. Making our way to the revolving doors leading to the underground mall, we were met by a fire fighter who instructed us to make our way to a connecting building for a safe exit.
After wading through blocks of airplane and building debris, we finally got to City Hall and saw a full view of the World Trade Center standing for the last time. We quickly assessed that the fires in the towers would have to burn themselves out; however, we never imagined the buildings would come down.
As we walked north, we had to stop to get Karen some practical shoes. My brother, Todd, later joked that only I could find an excuse to go shoe shopping in the middle of a terrorist attack. It was no sooner than had we purchased the shoes, that we found ourselves racing up the street, being chased by our falling office building.
It took several hours to get to my apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Somewhere along the way we stopped in a deli to watch the news coverage unfold on television. Oddly, I remember overhearing a young woman standing next to me telling someone she was a Chi Omega from Vanderbilt U. Though I never found out her name, it’s interesting to think back about the different ways September 11 brought people from different walks of life together—including Chi Omegas.
When we eventually arrived at my apartment, getting in touch with family was nearly impossible. Once we were finally able to make contact, we then began to absorb the enormity of what had occurred and how fortunate we were to have escaped.
Looking back, if there was a hidden blessing on that day, it was that Morgan Stanley had a good evacuation procedure in place for emergencies and made it a priority to ensure that its employees were well-prepared by going through evacuation and safety protocol every quarter. The company’s emergency procedure paid off: Only six of the 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees in the South Tower died that day—far fewer casualties than many companies.
There really is nothing that can prepare anyone for a 9/11. However, I attribute my escape that day to a combination of a solid emergency procedure, common sense, self-assurance, and determination mixed with a healthy sense of humor and, as Mrs. McGonagall said in Harry Potter, “sheer dumb luck.”
Reflecting on the day ten years later, the only event to which I can compare September 11th is the loss of someone close; the scar will always be there but the distance of time has helped heal. Besides a wonderful family and a strong underlying faith, the most significant thing that has contributed to moving forward for me are the friendships I have forged and maintained throughout my life.
I returned home to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2002 looking forward to a change of scenery and pace. Little did I know that four years later I would experience another tragic event: Hurricane Katrina. My mother used to say, “When God closes a door he opens a window.” While this might be true, at the time, I just thought that God didn’t have to open so many at one time.
Surviving two very different major disasters prompted me to add “crisis management” to my resume. Sadly, in this day and age, it is a degree everyone should be required to obtain. Both September 11 and Hurricane Katrina are prime examples of the importance of thinking ahead, paying attention to your surroundings, and having an evacuation procedure in place—putting into action the words of our Symphony:“ to choose thoughtfully that course which occasion and conscience demand.”
Thankfully, I’ve experienced many joys since both of these events. I met my wonderful husband shortly after Katrina and we had a beautiful son in 2006 who has brought endless joy, laughter, and inspiration to every aspect of our lives. Additionally, the support I have received from friends, including many Chi Omega Sisters, has been incredible. I have been and continue to be ever grateful for my Sisters keeping my welfare “ever at heart.”