In Memory of 9/11: The Search for Meaning in Tragedy

Ryo Takahashi, CEO

Ryo Takahashi (MBA ’20) reflects on the attack.

Eighteen years ago, on September 11, which started as an ordinary day with clear blue skies, 19 Al-Qaeda linked hijackers claimed the lives of 2,977 victims, many of whom were expecting an uneventful day at work.

On 9/11, I was in middle school in New York. Defying school policy, teachers turned on the classroom TVs so that we could all see what was going on. Back in 2001, most middle school students, including me, did not have cell phones, and I recall there were two long lines at the school’s only coin-operated phones where anxious students were calling their parents working in Manhattan to make sure they were alright. It was a strange sight: children anxious about their parents’ safety.

Several of my classmates’ parents never came home from work that day.

As for my mother, who worked in Manhattan, she came home late. Fortunately, she was unscathed.

To me, 9/11 was a fearful day in school, when we were unable to separate fact from fiction. Immediately after the Twin Towers collapsed, there were false reports of additional planes circling over Times Square. These reports were later invalidated, but the news networks were always abuzz with other “possible” attacks. We were all scared, and eager to go home.

Yet I had always felt guilty, because I could not immerse myself emotionally in the scene that unfolded on screen at the World Trade Center. A plane would suddenly appear from the corner of the screen and then just as suddenly disappear. Then, a ball of flame. It was hypnotic.

I couldn’t fully relate with what happened until I visited the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero this past August. What immediately strikes you is the authenticity of place: the museum sits immediately atop where the attacks took place, and where the Twin Towers used to loom large.

Visiting the museum, when I saw the twisted beams of steel, I could not help but imagine how much sheer force and violence it would take to make such a sturdy beam of steel bend in such a gruesome fashion.

Impact steel: Unthinkable heat and violence caused steel beams to bend in gruesome fashion.

Proceeding further, there were telephones. When I picked up the phones, I heard voices from the receiver. They were recordings of actual distress calls. My eyes welled. Suddenly, I felt a sense of place, that missing link between what I had seen on TV and the visceral sense of fear and loss came together. It was as if I had gone back in time to remember and relive that day.

Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Twin Towers were initially criticized for their unsightly size and architecture. But the towers soon became a defining landmark of New York, as if they were reaching towards the sky with limitless possibility and potential. A perfect landmark for the City of Dreams.

Those landmarks are no longer with us. Engulfing nearby streets with billows of smoke, the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. Not long after, the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m. What I saw on screen, together with an estimated 2 billion other global community of witnesses, likely could not capture the chaos, horror, and tragedy of Ground Zero.

For many, 9/11 is not over. From the Victim Compensation Fund, the unidentified remains of victims, to those suffering breathing issues from the debris, it is still very much an ongoing affair.

I found some measure of inspiration in the story of Paddy Brown, which I embarrassingly only came to know when I visited the 9/11 memorial. FDNY Captain Paddy Brown of Ladder 3, one of the first responders, was leading his team up the North Tower. When he arrived at the 35th floor, he used a landline to call 911 dispatch.

“This is 3 truck, and we’re still heading up.”

He never came back down.

As a New Yorker, the story of Paddy Brown was greatly encouraging, and reminded me of the measure of resolve and selfless devotion we have in helping each other.

We only have to look up.

Ryo Takahashi (MBA ’20), originally from Japan, is a management consultant and writer. Prior to Harvard Business School, he worked as a Project Manager at the World Economic Forum (WEF) and was a Senior Associate at McKinsey & Company. Prior to these roles he worked at the Economist and the Japan Times. His writing has appeared in Time magazine, the Economist, the Japan Times, and the World Economic Forum, among other outlets. He received his B.A. in Economics (with Distinction) from The University of Tokyo and was also a Rotary Scholar to the London School of Economics.