Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Elizabeth Morton

Ten years ago, Elizabeth Morton ’91, who was working in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, survived the terrorist attack in New York. Here, she reflects on that day and the impact it has had on her life.

After 10 years, media enhances my specific memories of September 11 and news coverage fills the gaps of places I wasn’t—the Pentagon and Shanksville, Penn.  A plaque in my apartment reads, “Inspire.” It keeps me grounded and focused on my life’s mission to motivate others, and prompts me to live each day as if it were my last.

This September 11, as we honor the nearly 3,000 lives lost, I am reminded of my dearest friend Sara Manley who was trapped in One World Trade Center on the 93rd floor, working for Fred Alger, one month to the day of her wedding, and co-volunteer Mary Lou Hague on the 89th floor in the South Tower, bright and young, ready for her career at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. They stay with me in my heart.

That morning, I was in my Lehman Brothers office on the 40th floor of the North Tower when the first plane hit, the building twisted and then righted itself.  The sound of a plane’s engine was unmistakable. When one of the assistants told us that the building was on fire, my sole mission was to evacuate. I entered the narrow, smoke-filled stairwell helping my co-workers descend. People were screaming, “We’re all going to die, this is it, this is it!” I remained calm while raising my voice, shouting, “Be quiet. We’re all getting out of here!” At that point, people started to settle down, stopping the panic. I could not lose focus of my immediate and simple goal: take everyone within my sight down and out of that burning, crumbling building to safety.

In recounting those events, my feelings are still fresh. The first plane went straight through Sara’s office. Beyond the horror of witnessing people jumping to their death, my senses were on overload, with the smell of burning airplane fuel, metal, wires and plastic. Thousands of papers poured out of the buildings  through layers of smoke, while the sound of sirens and horns filled the air, signaling help was on the way, when there were few lives to save. I will never forget the fallout of the ash as the remains settled, while hundreds of firefighters’ Vibralerts were screeching. I can still hear the bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” at the memorial services.

On September 11, now known as “Patriot Day,” we must not forget the event that changed the world a decade ago, but we must also forge ahead in order to honor all who lost their lives on this fateful day, as well as the countless lives lost fighting terrorism around the globe.

Today, the “new” One World Trade Center is rising up from the ashes, a beacon of hope for generations to come. Our New York City skyline of the twin towers is gone forever, but not forgotten. Osama bin Laden is no more. People I meet have more significance: we add more and take less from each other’s lives. Friends and family continue to grow and keep in touch by networking through social media.

In May 2011, I celebrated my 20th Wheaton Reunion, where over 40 classmates attended. Our togetherness brought back our close-knit community as the last all-female entering class, a class of distinction. I have great pride coming from Wheaton where I learned leadership skills in the classroom and as class president (1987–88, 2001–2011). Possessing strength and resilience in moments of confusion were helpful that fateful September day. My friends and family and their prayers were with me, providing comfort and support so that I could help others help themselves.

Elizabeth Morton, an American studies major while at Wheaton, is a management consultant based in New York City, doing strategic organizational development and executive coaching, helping displaced executives establish new careers and network.