Editor’s Note: To commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Bridget Hayman, Director of Communications at Access Living, shares a personal reflection about where she was that day, her resulting experience with emergency evacuation as a wheelchair user, and how easily the needs of disabled people can be overlooked or forgotten in a crisis.
Security is serious business at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, A.K.A. The Fed.
I worked at The Fed right out of college, and the fire drills the guards orchestrated during that time were as carefully regulated as the interest rate.
The drills came unannounced, and we groaned when the loud speaker sounded, the strobe lights flashed, and we were instructed to make our way to the stairwells for a long trek down.
No one dreaded this more than my co-workers and me in the communications department. I was told to transfer out of my wheelchair into a contraption called an “evac-chair,” and they were told that they were responsible for pushing me safely in that contraption down 15 flights of stairs.
The guards timed us. We had less than 10 minutes to get from my desk to the lobby.
The evac-chair was essentially a furniture dolly with a plastic canvas seat attached. Evac-chairs are designed to “glide” down stairs when positioned just right and steady pressure is applied to the handle in back.
A colleague who volunteered was left to balance my weight and steer me to the staircase. Then, they lined me up, tilted me back precariously, and pushed me over the edge.
KUR-THUNK! KUR-THUNK! KUR-THUNK!
I bounced down the concrete stairs, hugging my elbows, sweating through my blazer, and resisting the urge to reach out and grab something. For a moment, I’d wonder — if the person pushing me either lost their grip or snagged something left on the stairs we didn’t see — would it be better if the flimsy seatbelt held? Or not?
About halfway down, the ride would smooth out a bit as my driver got the hang of things. My anxiety would fade, replaced with deep gratitude. I wasn’t left behind.
My first day at The Fed was September 11, 2001. The first media call I took was from The Wall Street Journal.
“We can’t get ahold of the New York Fed,” they shouted. “What’s happening?”
“I’ll have to get back to you,” I stammered.
We couldn’t get ahold of them, either.
In the following weeks, I would read news stories with brief mentions of people in wheelchairs waiting in the stairwells of the World Trade Center for a rescue that would never come.
When I moved on to other jobs with offices in some of Chicago’s most iconic and tallest buildings like the Sears Tower and the Aon building, I requested an evac-chair and always got one. But my new coworkers and I never practiced with it. More recently, when I worked at the Board of Trade, a security guard there told me evac-chairs are no longer in vogue.
“The stairwells are fire rated,” he said. “In an emergency you just wait there.”
I thought we said we’d never forget 9/11.
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