9/11 first responders: Karen rescued my son from WTC

On 9/11, Karen Caycedo helped rescue my then 18-month-old son Ben from the daycare where she worked. Every Labor Day since then, my thoughts turn to Karen, my gratitude for the people who care for us and our responsibility for them.

Ben, left, with Karen in 2001

On 8:46am on that brilliant blue 9/11 morning, daycare workers arriving to work at WTC 5 saw the first plane hit the World Trade Center above and rushed into the daycare center to help their colleagues, some like Karen’s co-worker Onica Sarjeant with their own children in tow. The impact travelled through the entire complex, tossing furniture like toys and sending waves that threatened to shatter the floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows, through which workers and children saw plane parts and other horror rain down on the plaza outside. The 10 workers and 40 children evacuated, gathering on the sidewalk outside. Daycare center director Charlene Max made the genius decision to abandon WTC 7 as the designated “safe” place, and split the group into two, one heading uptown and the other, eastward. They moved as quickly as possible, with up to four infants in a worker’s arms and older children in hand. They commandeered shopping carts as child carriages and begged for diapers and formula. When dust waves from the collapsing building ballooned across the sky, nearby men gave their shirts off their backs to cover the children in the carts. Eventually, the groups found safe harbor. Around 1pm, dust-covered parents found their children asleep. It was nap time.

Every child and parent survived. But for Karen, Onica, Charlene and their colleagues, the immediate future wasn’t so clear. The daycare center was shoeless as policy, so the workers fled barefoot and jacketless. It was payday, so checks were buried under the rubble, along with purses holding IDs and credit cards. For some, the day’s events inflicted mental damage. A few weeks later, the workers heard nothing.

Joined by fellow parents Phil and Joyce Seares, we became suspicious when the daycare center owner, Children’s Discovery Center, failed to act promptly. The workers’ heroism not only saved our children’s lives, but prevented untold corporate liabilities and reputational damage. We remembered the 1993 WTC bombing, where allegations of employer wrongdoing were reported. When ABC News Producer Michael Mendelsohn materialized with a request to tape an episode about the rescue for 20/20, we saw it as a gift. The 20/20 story could either focus on the heroism of the workers, or the perfidy of an uncaring corporation. We discovered that Children’s Discovery Center was owned by Knowledge Universe, a holding company owned by billionaire Michael Milken. Luckily, my friend Randy Rock had worked for Milken and quickly connected me to the company’s CFO. The evening before the 20/20 taping, I spoke with the CFO. Without making any promises, he assured me that the company “would do the right thing.” This is the 20/20 story. Shortly after, Karen, Onica and their colleagues received make-up pay and many months of severance pay, benefits, counseling, and job placement.

Karen still works in a daycare. Many of her colleagues have moved onto greener pastures, but Karen is doing what she loves. Think of the children and the parents who have been beneficiaries of her wisdom, experience, and proven ability to prioritize their wellbeing, even at risk to hers.

In all the talk about the future of work, what gets lost are conversations about jobs robots can’t replace: child care, home care, nursing, teaching. Paths to certification through experience, rather than by sole reliance on academic degrees, make sense. Continuous training should be the norm. Pay should be commensurate with experience and knowledge. At a national average of $10.72 per hour, or annual wages of $22,290 per year, the 1.2 million child care workers in the U.S. are a national resource that deserves investment.

Systematic change is needed, including the efforts of my friend David Rolf, who is leading the fight for $15. Until this happens, individual responsibility will have to plug the gap, however inadequately.

Raising a family does take a village. We’re fortunate that our village includes not only family and family friends, but the wonderful people we have hired. We know that Karen’s willingness to put our children first was shared by those who followed: Julie, Tia, Meghan, Rachel, Cara, and Dylan. On 9/11 last year, we had the privilege of celebrating these wonderful people at a gathering at our home. We are now part of their village too.

Karen, me and Ben in 2015 (courtesy PIX11)

Candidate for NYC Mayor. Reform activist. Technology innovator. Writer, thinker, strategist, photographer. Opinions are my own.

Candidate for NYC Mayor. Reform activist. Technology innovator. Writer, thinker, strategist, photographer. Opinions are my own.