Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Tough memories of September 11th, 2001

Six years ago last night was a great night. A normal night. I started my commute home at a reasonable time, and sat on the 40-minute train ride with a friend I haven’t seen in a while – Mike Gogliormella. He was energetic that night as he explained to me that 50 of his close associates at eSpeed were laid off that day – meaning he wouldn’t see them tomorrow… but he still had his job. So he was clearly having mixed feelings – happy to still have his job, but sad that others did not. I remember he had a really short hair cut that night and was wearing a baseball cap. He told me about the haircut he got while on vacation with his wife, Daniela (another good friend) and newly adopted daughter, Gillian. He just lit up when he spoke about his daughter and his family. She was only about 6 months old, and given that my first son was just 11 months old at that time, I could totally relate to the joy and amazement he was feeling then and about to experience in the coming months.

That was the night of September 10th. I went home that night and told my wife “Guess who I rode the train with – Mike G.!” and answered all the obligatory questions about how he was doing, the baby, etc. Mike also went home and probably said “Guess who I rode the train with – JR”, and answered the same questions from his wife.

The next morning seemed like the start of any other day...
(this post is long... click here to see the whole story)
Another day where I would try to figure out how to get my new business off the ground, having left a big corporate job to start ITK Solutions only 3 months prior. My partner was traveling in London and I was alone in our new office on the 23rd floor of One Liberty Plaza which faced the South Tower of the World Trade Center directly across Church Street. It was a great office and we worked hard to find it and negotiate it. I did lots of legwork to find all the possible locations for full-service office space, and then went and looked at about 12 locations. I narrowed the search down to 2 choices for my partner to see when she came back from London (she was relocating once I got the business up and running). In May of 2001, while she was in town, we looked at One Liberty Plaza, which we both loved, and then took a walk across the street to see our other choice: a renovation in progress, on the 93rd floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Margaret Echterman, a very friendly and persuasive sales person from the management company which ran the office space met us in the lobby and rode the long elevator ride with us to give us the grand tour. It was, ironically, filled with lots of dust and studs and debris, but even then, you could see that this office was going to be spectacular. We stood for a while in what would likely be our office, looking down almost 1000 feet. There was nothing like it. In the lobby after the tour, Margaret told us the office would be ready by June 1, and offered us a 50% discount off the published leasing rates. Wow. I was sure that with that deal, this would be our space… so, we took that deal back to Claudia – the similar office manager / sales person at One Liberty Plaza and told her “if you can meet that deal, we’ll take your office, otherwise, we have to go across the street”.
Claudia met Margaret’s deal. So we graciously declined Margaret and moved into One Liberty Plaza. I walked away really liking Margaret, a bit jealous that I wouldn’t be occupying that incredible office space on the 93rd floor of the south tower.

I remember the morning of September 11, 2001, was a perfect, slightly breezy, sunny sky. In my office before 8:00 am, I was temporarily confused by the morning sun beaming into my west-facing window (I think the sun rises in the east, right?). I had to look out and up to realize that it was the reflection of the sun off the east side of the South Tower. In hindsight, that was the only morning I ever noticed that happening.

I stepped out of my office a bit before 9am. Standing at the sink in the mens room, I began to hear an announcement over the building’s speaker system and began to walk toward my office. “We are investigating the problem. Please stay away from the west side of the building. Please move to the east side of the building.”

Naturally, I ignored the announcement. As I walked down the hallway, past the other offices of other small companies, I could see the air outside their windows was filled with paper flying everywhere – a sight normally seen only during a parade for one of our winning sports teams (ticker tape parades, after all, originated down here on wall street). But there was no such parade. I entered my office and saw even more debris flying outside my window. Being so close to the World Trade Center towers, I had to push my face against the glass and look up to see what was wrong – there was a pattern of holes, and clearly the burnt result of fire, on the east side of the North Tower. Given the size of the holes I could see, I remember thinking that a small plane or helicopter must have crashed into the building. I also remember immediately thinking about my friend Mike G., knowing that eSpeed occupied the upper floors of one of those towers. Trying to rationalize this event, my mind was racing. I thought that maybe one of the people who got laid off from eSpeed decided to crash his small plane into the building in a desperate act of revenge.

I walked to the shared area of the office, where there was a TV with live coverage of what we all believed to be a horrible accident. It was much worse than what I was seeing on my side of the building. Several of us who arrive early, but have never spoken were watching the TV with amazement as this event unfolded directly across the street. I remember saying out loud to nobody in particular “people are dying right across the street”.

I walked back to my office and my phone rang. A business acquaintance from London “What’s going on there? Are you ok?”. “I can’t really talk now” was my response and hung up quickly. I called my wife to tell her to turn on the TV and also to tell her that I would likely just leave the city now to avoid all the inevitable craziness later (I had no idea). I looked awkwardly up out the window again just for a minute and grabbed just my phone and headed back into the lobby. I walked past the office of my friend Evan, who occupied an office on the south side of the building, and we anxiously chatted about what could have caused this explosion across the street… in the background, out the window, paper and debris was still falling. “Maybe it was a small plane, or someone shot a missile?”, I think he said... all speculation in our state of complete anxiety.

I went further up the hall to see the TV again – as it felt safer at this point than pressing my face against the glass in my office to see what was happening across the street about 50 stories above my 23rd story window. The smoke was increasing, the situation seemed worse. I walked back toward my office on the West side, ignoring the continuing building announcements “stay away from the west side of the building. Do not leave the building.”. I ignored those announcements too. I passed Evan’s office again and said “I’m just going to go home” and continued walking.

As I put my hand on the door knob of my office door, there was a huge explosion which rocked the building – and I ran. The explosion was so powerful and loud that I expected to see a fireball chasing me as I ran back down the hall. Then Evan screamed “It was a jumbo jet! It was an airline jet! I saw it! A huge passenger jet!” and he then ran with me – to the elevators. You could practically feel our hearts pounding – all the people in the elevator – but nobody talking. The debris on the ground was growing and swirling in the wind, and now there was much more falling from the sky from what we now know was the second plane. I used the east-facing exit doors, thinking that I would have less chance to get hit by anything falling from the sky if I put my building between me and the towers. So many small memory snippets in the next few minutes:
...dust gathered already in the revolving door... people waiting to exit, not sure if they should go out in the storm (just like when it’s pouring rain)... a man in a daze, thoughtfully picking up and analyzing what looked like a piece of a metal wall – maybe even a part of the cabin of the plane... several people hysterical crying… crowds gathered at the intersections on Broadway where there was a view between buildings of the burning towers… cops clearly confused about where to send people and sometimes staring up at the buildings themselves…

I hesitantly walked across Broadway to the subway station under Nassau street, thinking that the risk of being underground was less than the risk of being in the shadow of the burning towers.

Underground, things were eerily quiet. Most people had no idea what was happening above them, but some definitely did. I remember seeing two people I knew really well from my prior job at JP Morgan, and just ignoring their presence. I wasn’t really ready for the “how are you” conversation. There was an elderly woman strangely babbling about how we’re all going to die, and another woman uncontrollably crying and shaking creaming at her to shut up.

I got out at Penn Station, and everything seemed normal. There was no view of the towers. My train would not be leaving to take me home to New Jersey for another 40 minutes…. So I called my wife and she nervously just asked me to leave Penn Station, for fear that it was another target. I walked the streets for 30 minutes and then boarded my practically empty train – it was approx 10:00 I think.

On the mostly quiet ride home, some people were talking about the event and I could hardly listen – it made me sick to hear people talking about it. Then, as we exited the tunnel on the NJ side, someone looked back at Manhattan and said “Is there only 1 tower? Oh my god, there’s only one tower!”. I turned to the guy near me and we gave each other the same “they are crazy” look… I actually looked back a the burning towers in the distance (you could see them from quite some distance away) and said “It’s just the angle we’re seeing them from, the other tower is behind that one”. My mind would not let me see that one of the towers was already gone. Other people on the train who were able to get a connection talked about how planes were crashing into other places in Washington and elsewhere, and how there was a belief that many other jets were still in the air headed towards other targets.

When I arrived in Summit, my wife picked me up and I still didn’t feel safe. I hugged her tightly and cried uncontrollably. I also remember looking nervously up at the sky, irrationally expecting to see a jet descending on one of the local buildings. The sky was perfectly blue. My 11-month old baby was smiling in his car seat, happily naive to the events. The fear at this point was so high, that we decided to fill both cars with gas and stock up on bottled water – which we did. Then we went home and watched the news – for almost 24 hours straight. At one point, Channel 5 was broadcasting live phone calls from people who had “missing” loved ones – believed to potentially be alive at some area hospital or elsewhere, just lost in the all the hysteria… and my friend Daniela was suddenly speaking on TV, asking people to contact her if they knew where Mike was.

I later learned that Margaret Echterman was killed that day, sitting in her newly renovated office space on the 93rd floor of the South Tower. A good friend of the family, Ian Thompson, was also killed, as was Tom Farrelly, one of the nicest people I ever knew at JP Morgan, and John Cruz, a young man I worked with on the trading floor at JP Morgan who took a job with a bond trading firm in the World Trade Center.

I feel lucky to be here to tell this story.


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing your 9/11 story. What a sad day that was for the USA but even sadder for those who experienced it first-hand.

Gourmet Specialties said...

Such a sad day for those who perished, but a lucky day for those who love you. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to witness such horror.