Saturday, September 10, 2011
by Suzanne Watson
Her message was my wake-up call. She inspired me and changed my life forever. And I never met her.
Melissa Harrington Hughes died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. She didn’t work there; she was on a business trip for her San Francisco-based technology firm. She was an extremely accomplished 31 year old, who had traveled the world and had recently married her sweetheart, Sean Hughes.
Many people remember her, and him, for the harrowing telephone message that she left him minutes after the building was struck by the plane. In that message, she said, “Sean, it’s me. I just wanted to let you know I love you and I am stuck in this building in New York. A plane hit or a bomb went off – we don’t know, but there’s a lot of smoke and I just wanted you to know I loved you.”
The first time I heard Melissa’s voicemail, Sean was being interviewed by Chris Jansing on MSNBC. Ms. Jansing completely broke down upon hearing it. Clearly, Melissa’s final words resonated with a lot of people. The internet site dedicated to Melissa filled with posts from people who were touched by her story. I was among them. Somehow, with all of the tragedy of that day, her story stuck with me above all of the others. But why?
Partly, I think in some ways I could relate to her. I was working for a large financial institution at the time and had spent all of my life, and most of my career, working in San Francisco. One of my positions required that I visit our businesses in New York in the Trade Center, so I had also taken business trips to the towers.
When the buildings collapsed I thought about all of the people that worked for my company. We lost three employees that day, but I didn’t know any of them. She was the one that stood out for me. Her beautiful wedding picture taken up in Napa, close to where I grew up, became seared in my brain as it was shown repeatedly over the next several days. But it was more than the pictures; it was her message.
In her voice I could sense so many of her emotions: fear, panic, bewilderment. But mostly, in her final minutes on earth, she wanted Sean to know that she loved him. I thought about her, and all of the people that died that day, who went off to work as they normally did. Kissing a spouse or child good-bye, grabbing a cup of coffee, making plans for the weekend. And none of them came home. Plans and hopes and dreams were gone in an instant. Sean Hughes said that he and Melissa were excited about their future and talked about all the things that newlyweds do: moving to a new home, getting a dog, having children.
Her final words to Sean started me thinking about my own life. My husband had taken early retirement in 1996. He wanted to travel, spend time with our new grandson, and enjoy time with friends. I had wanted to continue working. But I kept thinking about Melissa’s message. What if that had been me? Is that how I would want my life to end, without ever having enjoyed what my husband and I had worked so hard to build?
The weeks following September 11 were frightening and incredibly busy for me. My division of the company had locations throughout the United States and for weeks after the twin towers fell we received bomb threats in major cities. I had an office on the top floor of our Los Angeles headquarters and I jumped every time I heard a plane or helicopter go by. After a month or so, I began to feel like this would all pass and that life would get back to “normal”. But then I thought about Melissa. Life doesn’t get scripted. Although the odds of me being killed in a terrorist attack might be low, there were still no guarantees that I could escape a car accident or a terminal illness.
So in the first week of November, when all of the initial frenzy had died down, I told my boss that I wanted to resign. We negotiated that I would stay until March 1, which I did. I have never regretted that decision and would not trade all of the memories and experiences I’ve had since then for any amount of compensation I gave up.
Judith Viorst once wrote that it is the small moments in life that make it rich. Melissa made me realize that I needed to grab the small moments while I could; that sitting with my husband every morning, sipping coffee and watching the news, is a gift.
So to Melissa Harrington Hughes: thank you. Someday I hope to get back to the new trade center memorial where I can touch the steel engraving of your name. And in the hollows of those letters, we will finally be connected.