The office building suddenly started to sway in midtown Manhattan, and everyone on the 26th floor feared something terrible was about to happen so they rushed out and ran down the corridor toward the elevator – until a man yelled, "Don’t get on the elevator! We have to take the stairs." Then, like a choreographed ensemble, they all changed direction simultaneously and headed back toward the stairwell.
The youngest member of the group pushed open the door and held it for the others to file through, but the last person, a man in his late 70s, was having trouble keeping up with the others.
"Come on, Frank. We’ll help you," one of his colleagues said as they started down toward the 25th floor, but the going was slow and Frank wasn’t doing too well. He had to pause even before they reached the next landing, by which time many of the others had gone ahead and were making their way to the 24th floor.
Realizing they were falling behind and fearful the building would start swaying again before collapsing, Frank’s colleagues left him and started leaping down the stairs.
Abandoned, Frank paused indecisively for a moment and then began walking back to his office, where he sat down and caught his breath.
Fortunately, the building didn’t collapse. It had been a rare but harrowing 5.8 magnitude earthquake that sent shock waves from Washington all the way to New York City and beyond.
The rest of the group never returned to work and joined the thousands of others throughout the city who had evacuated their offices. Everyone lived to tell the tale.
What would any of us have done in similar circumstances? Run for safety or stay with Frank and risk injury or worse, death? It’s easy to judge but sometimes it’s hard to do the right thing when you’re faced with those terrifying life-or-death choices.
Ten years after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, I still think about the men and women – firefighters, police and paramedics – who rushed into the burning Twin Towers in a valiant effort to save the people after terrorists hijacked four commercial jet airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, killing almost 3,000 people, including 343 firefighters and 60 police officers.
Theirs was a special kind of valor; and very often the people who don’t think of themselves as courageous find the grace to respond unselfishly in moments of crisis and risk their lives for others. Who knows what special spiritual and emotional and psychological ingredients go into making a person like that?
This much is certain: They are a breed apart in our modern era when life seems to be governed by self-interest. It is a disturbing reality that tragedies and catastrophes typically bring out the best, and the worst, in us. There are those altruistic and compassionate few who offer themselves to help the weak and suffering, and there are the others, who exploit the misery of the victims in a vile demonstration of self-aggrandizement.
In many crises, such as the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010 that claimed 220,000 lives, victims are often abandoned or preyed upon. That should give us pause and inspire us to ask ourselves what we’d do. Would it be the right thing?
Writing in Boston Review, Junot Diaz said, "There will be more Haitis. Some new catastrophe will strike our poor planet. … Those of us who are committed will help all we can, but most people will turn away. There will be a few, however, who, steeling themselves, will peer into the ruins for the news that we will all eventually need. After all, apocalypses like the Haitian earthquake are not only catastrophes; they are also opportunities: chances for us to see ourselves, to take responsibility for what we see, to change."
Let’s pray for the grace to change.
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.