Mid-morning yesterday, the emergency alarm sounded at work. Unlike our last building, this one’s alarm comes with a voice that says, “There is an emergency in the building. Exit the building immediately,” along with a piercing alarm sound that continues repeatedly.
I work on the 6th floor of an 11-story building. In the last building, I was on floor 3 of a 6-story building. I made my way to one of two stairwells along with everyone else on my floor. We merged into the mass of people heading down from the floors above. It was slow-moving, and then we stopped.
We all assumed it was a drill (which it was). But as we were stopped, literally not making any progress to exiting the building, several people joked how we were going to die in the stairwell.
I was surrounded by people I didn’t know. I could see some of my co-workers above and below me, but no one I knew was immediately next to me. Even though the majority of my heart and mind understood that this exercise was a drill, and that the people saying these things around me were joking, there was a small part of me that went to the other extreme. What if this wasn’t a drill? I mean, it’s not unheard of in the times we’re living in, that there could be an actual situation somewhere in the building that other people wouldn’t know about. My mind flipped through scenarios — a gunman in the building, a bomb threat — my thoughts even registered that a fire might not even be as bad as those things. I thought of the stories I’ve read about people who were in the stairwells of the World Trade Center, then I was back where I was, in the stairwell of my building, not moving an inch, surrounded by all these bodies, people who didn’t comprehend or consider that we actually might be in danger, and I came within moments of a panic attack.
Thankfully, I was able to calm myself before I fell off the edge of rational thought, and also it was around that time that we slowly continued our descent. I still am not sure why things got so backed up. Once outside, I made my way over to the 6th floor safe zone and talked with a couple people and waited until the all clear.
When the all clear call came, I knew that the line for the elevators would be crazy. There are 5 elevators for all floors and 1 elevator (express) that goes to the top three floors only (meeting rooms, executive offices). Instead of waiting in line, I decided to use the rest room and try to collect myself further away from the mass of humanity that would be in the lobby.
Even after I used the bathroom, I could tell from the din coming from the lobby that it was still crowded, so I decided to use the stairs to go back to my office. My friend Mike often asks if I want to take the stairs up after we get coffee in the morning. I always say no. And now I know that my answer is justified. I wouldn’t want to be huffing and puffing next to him. I had to take breaks as I walked up to the 6th floor. My legs buckled on the last couple flights. I get why the stair climber is such a popular exercise apparatus. It’s a great workout. But when you’re dressed for work (even though yesterday was College Student Friday so we could dress down), it’s not cool to be sweaty when you return to your desk.
Ironic isn’t it that people said we were going to die in the stairwell on the way down, and me thinking of the way I might describe how I felt as I was on the way up.