My 9/11 Experience: Are We Expendable?

It’s a Tuesday morning just after Labor Day, and I don’t feel like getting up early to commute to my job as a foreign exchange IT manager in an international bank in Manhattan.  Having just returned home to Merrick, Long Island the day before from a visit to my parents in Oregon, having spent eight hours on multiple United Airlines flights with wriggling three and four years olds and battling eleven and thirteen year olds, I feel like I can use another day off, but no, I still have to go in.

So, I’m dogging it.  At Merrick station I skip the first train that comes– standing room only–and board the next one, thinking, this will still get me in by 9:00.   After the LIRR train reaches Penn Station I rush a bit and jump onto the first subway car that comes by.  We are almost downtown when the conductor announces, “Chambers Street, Broadway Nassau next.”  Oh damn.  Double damn!  I wake up to the fact that back at Penn I had stepped onto the wrong train.  I am on a C instead of an E.  The E train goes directly inside the underground concourse of the World Trade Center.  Now I’ll have to walk outside.  I’ll just make it.

I anticipate that once I get up on the sidewalk, I will take a short-cut across the open plaza to reach the doors of 1 World Trade Center.  From there I will walk through the WTC mall to the entrance to our office in 4 WTC.  I will stroll onto the 4th floor just on time, and see the Century 21 Department Store sign right outside the window.

I don’t realize it, but I’m not going to make it.  Not that morning.  Not ever again.  I don’t realize that the little decisions I already made will save me from being right in the base of the tower when a fueled-up Boeing 767 smashes in at over 450 mph.

Map_of_911_attack
Map of World Trade Center complex

o          o          o

Seventeen years later, it is still painful for me to replay the events of that day in my head.  But I feel it is important to leave a legacy.  Mine is just one story among many, but I think it is valuable as an eye witness account and for its perspective.

My perspective is a little different than one can get from the stereotyped media accounts that lower a sanctimonious shroud over the events, telling a story only inhabited by heroes, villains, and victims.  I don’t dispute that there were heroes—for example Morgan Stanley’s security director, Rick Rescoria, who evacuated 2,700 employees in WTC 2 and then sacrificed himself staying in to help others.  I am not a conspiracy theorist either.  I don’t dispute the broad outlines of the official story.  But I think it’s important to remain a little skeptical of the story told by the authorities, and when describing what happened to the civilians to realize that, while a crisis brings out character, it doesn’t improve it.  Not everyone behaved rationally or with compassion.

Some of the scenes I describe are surprising, and people who have heard my account sometimes question my observations and express the opinion that I should force it back into the standard mold.  I resist.  Some strange and disturbing things occurred on the ground, and I am reporting what I saw and heard, not a smoothed-out fiction.  Do certain things sound odd?  Well, they’re odd because they really happened.

Afterwards how did I feel about these events.  I survived myself, but I still felt a sharp sense of betrayal.  For one thing, it was highly probable that after the first terrorist attack in 1993, that another attempt would follow.  Prior to the final 2001 attack I felt that we were just sitting ducks.  After the event, I felt that the Port Authority and the FBI had missed some chances to protect us, and that we office workers were in effect treated as if we were expendable.

After the event, some of my fellow witnesses stated that they were completely taken by surprise, but I think they were either ignorant about security affairs or naive.  To me, it does not make sense to be complacent about one’s personal security and to blissfully ignore the threat of crime or terrorism.  Many people act as if it is safe to assume that normal conditions will continue without change, but that is often not the case.  In the information technology profession, there’s a common saying that “anything that can happen, will happen,” and in fact it usually does.  If you don’t take precautions is just a matter of time.  We can’t guard against every contingency but I advise my children not take it on faith that the authorities will protect you.  Think for yourself.

o          o          o

Back to that morning commute.  I’ve exit the subway and am climbing the dirty gum-scarred stairs to Church Street, just three blocks north of the World Trade Center.  I poke my head out, and let my eyes adjust to the sunlight.  Perfect—the sky is clear; the air is cool and crisp—the best weather we get in Gotham City.  My feet move quickly but there’s a lot of congestion.  Scruffy men are selling t-shirts, “I love New York.”  Insistent Chinese sales-women are peddling pirated music CD’s.  Gawking tourists are gazing up in the sky to orient themselves, annoying us commuters by clogging the sidewalk.  I dodge right through.  Now I’m fast-walking beside the US Post Office, almost to the corner of Vesey Street where the view of the towers opens up.  In a few more steps I’ll turn the corner…

IMG_7231

It’s 8:46 AM.

Strange.  I hear a distant rumble and then a deafening roar of jet engines.  I am interested in aviation, and I’ve seen and heard military jets fly by over the nearby Hudson River before for Fleet Week —black stealth bombers, warthogs and F15’s– but this is louder than anything I’ve heard before.  Soon the engines are screaming and the echo is building to a thunder in the hi-rise canyons.  Holy shit.  It’s a fighter jet!  What crazy pilot would fly this low? 

The post office is blocking my view.  I take two steps into the street to get a glimpse of the fly-by.  It is coming in fast.  I don’t have time to position myself to see WTC 1.  I hear an awful concussion, “BANG”, followed by a secondary explosion, a sickening “BOOOOOOM.”  I step out further into the street and look up in the direction of WTC 1.  I still can’t see the tower but I can see glass and steel fragments sharply reflecting in the sunlight as they tumble down.  I turn around, back up north toward Barclay Street, and then I look up again.  White office papers twirl and drift back and forth, slowing coming down, from over a thousand feet above.

Oh no, this is awful.  I’d better move back right away or I’ll get hit right on the head.  I turn around and move further back, trying to put space between my body and the falling debris.  I cross to the east side of Church Street, and I get my first full view of WTC 1.  I see a semi-circular slash extending almost the whole way across the north face of the building.  I wonder, do I know anybody up there?  I have some friends who work at Lehman Brothers at the mid-level, but have no idea who is up near the top.  I can’t see inside but I realize that many people have died instantly from the impact.  Totally sick! 

o          o          o

The street stays unexpectedly calm.  More commuters exit the subway and they stop to watch and chat.  Up above white smoke puffs out, but at first, I don’t see any flames.  A crowd starts to gather.  A black woman wearing a baseball hat says, “Look, a Cessna must have hit the building.”  A Cessna is a small private aircraft.  Another bystander echoes, “Yeah, it must have been an accident.”  The pedestrians seem strangely nonplussed.  They are reassuring themselves that the world is still normal.  I say, What Cessna?  I didn’t see it, but it was either a missile or a jet!  Saying that out loud makes me feel like I’m disturbing the peace.

I think of buying a one-off camera at a drug store.  (Cell phones did not have cameras then.)  But I immediately realize that besides it being callous to take photos of the suffering, I would get in the way of the first responders.  Anyway, it’s just plain stupid to get close to a burning hi-rise building.  I think the tower might even fall sideways towards where I’m standing, because there is a tear across the whole north side that I am facing.  What the hell is still holding it up?  If I see the top part tilt, I’ll get far enough away so it can’t fall on me.  I back up again to what I think is a safe distance.  I know that even that is not the right thing to do.  I should just get out of there.  I’ll just watch for a few minutes until the fire engines arrive and then I’ll get out of here.

Adrenaline kicks in and I’m feeling like inside a movie.  But in the movies sirens sound and rescuers come right away.  I still don’t see anything happening on the ground.  There are no fire trucks on Church Street, and no helicopters hovering in the air.  On the sidewalk, it still feels normal.  That is, until the fire inside the building really starts burning, until black smoke puffs out of the slash across the tower, and smoke starts seeping out from the upper floor windows.  Suddenly it feels very real.  Too real!  I hear a gasp from my fellow spectators.  A woman beside me holds her hand over her mouth and starts to cry.  I feel the horror of it and already I can’t fucking bear it.

o          o          o

My mind flashes back to an earlier experience when I was fire marshal for my floor in WTC 1.  In 1974 at age 22 I took my first office job with Kyowa Bank on the 46th floor of the building that I’m watching burn now.  The managers of my employer, Kyowa Bank, were Japanese, and the owner of the building, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, felt it was safer to have native English speakers as fire marshals.  My boss Mr. Hagihara asked me to serve for our floor.

The Port Authority security team invited us into an auditorium for training.  A young man with a Queens accent and a mullet haircut gave us a lecture and then played a documentary film.  It was a horrifying depiction of a 1967 high-rise fire at the Chicago Convention Center.  Flames thrust out the windows of a high floor.  People were trapped above.  Five died and many were injured.  The briefing was more honest than any corporation would present today.   In the years after that, although the Port Authority did install a sprinkler system in the 1980’s, I think complacency set in.

After the film stopped, mullet man explained that the emergency strategy of the Port Authority was “rapid response.”  He said they had their own fire department and they had positioned firefighting equipment on high floors within the building.  If a fire started they would try to suppress it quickly.  If the initial response failed, nothing could stop a fire from destroying the building.

He described the three concrete-reinforced stairways near the core of the building.  If a fire broke out, anyone trapped above the floor with the fire would not survive unless they got down through these tubes.  Ladders could not reach above the 3rd floor.  He said that evacuation from the roof would not be supported and we shouldn’t even try to go up there.  “You only have to remember one thing:  GO DOWN!”  The Port Authority had no “Plan B” then or later.

He went on to say that there’s always a crackpot who will try to start a fire just for fun.  The other day an arsonist started a fire in a garbage bin upstairs, but we put it out.”  (In fact, they did have a serious fire in WTC 1 in 1975, which was a factor that inspired the later installation of sprinklers.)

I thought, Oh great!  They’ve got to be kidding me.   I was only 22 years old but I wasn’t completely naïve.  The image of the flames coming out of the windows in Chicago stuck in my head.  After I left that job I would be extremely reluctant to work again in the Twin Towers. Now in 2001, watching from outside, I immediately realize the fire can’t be fought, that the tower is doomed, and that it will just be a race for time to evacuate.

o          o          o

I have been on the sidewalk for almost 15 minutes.  A young professional man in “dress down” attire is standing next to me, shoulder to shoulder.  He brings me out of my daze by shouting, “Look, they’re jumping!  You can see it, can’t you?”  The emotions are already more than I can handle, and I say, “No, I can’t see it.”  But I realize that something is very wrong up there, even worse than I expected.  Later investigators would find out that all three evacuation tubes were severed and blocked by the impact.  The doors to the roof were all locked.  Not a single person would escape from above the impact point of WTC 1.

Not having my driving glasses on, I squint.  I do try to see it.  The angle from two blocks away to the north is not good, and I really don’t see any jumpers.  It doesn’t help that just when I’m trying to focus my eyes I hear an enormous “HISSSSSSSS” followed by another concussion.  “BOOOOOOOM.”  Flames, glass, and metal are shooting toward us AGAIN!  Someone shouts, “IT’S A BOMB!”  We turn our backs on the tower and sprint at full-speed to the north toward Park Place.

I can see the backs and heels of young men who run faster than I can for a block in front of me.  It is just two weeks after my 50th birthday.  I try to keep up, thinking that I’ll get trampled if I slow down.  I think, what about the others behind me?  After two blocks of this I fear I’m going to have a heart attack.  My heart is banging in my middle-aged chest.  I tell myself, CALM DOWN, CALM DOWN!  I turn around to look back up the street.  Office papers are drifting down AGAIN from over 1,000 feet in the air.  Later I learn that an aircraft engine landed on Church Street near where dress down man and I had been standing.  A second escape from danger.

I can’t take any more!  This is just too much.  I’m getting out of here.

Murray St Flight 175 Engine
this engine fell right near I was standing

o          o          o

I walk east one block to Broadway and start trekking uptown.  I still have no idea of what this thing is about, and I keep looking up to see if there are more threats coming from the sky.  We’re being attacked from the air.  Still I don’t even consider getting back on the subway – that’s the last place I want to be when the power fails.

A few blocks uptown I see a Con Edison truck parked on Broadway.  The workers are gathered around the truck’s radio.  I stop and ask what’s up?  A utility worker in uniform tells me, “An airliner hit the tower.”  As I keep weaving through the crowd I duck into bars and coffee shops with a TV sets.  Gradually I piece the story together.  The first jet, American flight 11, had flown in from the north almost directly over my head and smashed into WTC 1.  The second impact was from United flight 175, coming from the opposite direction, crashing through WTC 2 and depositing pieces of the building, plane, and people in the direction where I was standing.

As I walk I feel intense pangs of guilt.  Why am I getting away physically unscathed, while others are dying horrible deaths, even jumping?  And it’s weirdly such a fucking nice day.  As I walk uptown people emerge from their workplaces and join a crowd marching north.  I reach SoHo, Dean and Deluca on Broadway and Prince Street, and see all the beautiful people who work there in fashion or retail, many crying again.  I’m overwhelmed by the sadness and the unfairness of it all.  I realize the only reason I wasn’t right near the base of Tower One at impact was pure accident, but many others weren’t so lucky.

It is about 10:00 AM by the time I reach to Houston Street.  Now there’s another collective gasp.  A woman shouts, “The tower collapsed.  All those firemen are dead…”  I walk to the west along Houston Street to Avenue of the Americas where normally there is an unobstructed view of the towers.  All I can see is a mountain of gray smoke.  My spirits are even heavier.

I start trudging uptown again.  I learned later that before WTC 2 was hit at 9:03 AM, a Port Authority employee made an announcement over the building’s public intercom:  “Please remain at your workstations.”  Fortunately, the head of security at Morgan Stanley, Rick Rescoria, told his employees to ignore the order and evacuate immediately.   After WTC 2 fell at 9:59 all the first responders who entered the building as well as the Morgan Stanley security director died.  The police headquarters finally radioed orders to the first responders in WTC 1 to withdraw.  Some of their radios didn’t work.  It was too late for many of them, and WTC 1 collapsed at 10:30.  All this time I am still trudging on the sidewalk with a growing mass of people up toward mid-town.

o          o          o

The next day I called a friend who had been working for Lehman Brothers in WTC 1, just six floors below where I was in 1974.  I asked if he was OK?  Joe told me he was at his desk on the 40th floor at the time of impact.  He immediately headed for the stairway, not even thinking to pick up his briefcase.  Walking down the stairs was very slow.  The stairway was only 42 inches wide and the civilians and rescuers couldn’t pass up and down at the same time.  They had to take turns climbing the stairs.  The Port Authority must have changed their policy about positioning equipment high up.  The firemen with their heavy oxygen tanks and other equipment actually slowed the evacuation down.  That’s why Joe almost didn’t make it.

Joe was still descending over an hour and fifteen minutes later at 9:59 when WTC 2 collapsed to the south.  He didn’t know the source of the huge roaring sound, but he felt WTC 1 swaying.  He just kept walking, not knowing he just had less than half an hour left to escape.  When he got down to the ground floor, the firemen told him, “Don’t look up!  Don’t look up!  Put your head down and run across the street.”  He sprinted out, and fortunately was away from WTC 1 when it collapsed too at 10:28.  He just made it, but he said he was sad that most of the firemen he saw walking up the stairs were killed.

o          o          o

Now as I reach Union Square at 14th Street and calm down a bit.  I think to myself, is there anything I should be doing?  Actually, is it right to just bug out and go home?  Who gave me the day off?  I’m upset but I’m not actually injured.  I realize that Foreign Bank’s other office in midtown is probably still open, and I decide to go in and see if I can do anything to help.

People wonder why I did this?  There were several reasons.  For one thing, the bank had an emergency procedure.  We were supposed to resume contact from a remote site, or go into another office.  The second thing was that I knew that the foreign exchange system we supported was running on one powerful computer in the Bankers Trust building directly across the street from collapsed Tower Two.  We had a fallback computer in New Jersey, but if we didn’t take measures to shut down the New York computer and activate the one in New Jersey, all the foreign exchange payments that our bank is making globally would come to a screeching halt.  People don’t realize that the global foreign exchange market is actually larger than the stock market.  If our computer failed it would disrupt the financial markets, first in Europe, and next in the US.   The bank would have to pay financial penalties.  Third, if our computer failed—let’s not be sentimental here—our whole team would be fired and replaced.  To the bank we are completely expendable and replaceable.

What I don’t know is that debris from the Tower Two collapse has ripped the front of the Bankers Trust building, and the computer is barely continuing to function in a room full of dust and smoke.  It’s a miracle that the power is stays on in the damaged building.  Later that afternoon it will choke in the dust and fail.

o          o          o

It takes me almost an hour to walk the 30+ blocks to 49th street and Avenue of the Americas.  One reason I am moving so slow is that I keep trying to make phone calls to my family, but my ATT cell service is not working (Verizon was), and I have to search for unused phone booths.  Once I find one and use a calling card and get through to my ex-wife Debbie’s home answering machine in Brooklyn.  She’s the mother of my two boys who are in school in Brooklyn.  I leave a message saying I’m OK and not to worry.  Later I reach my babysitter Cynthia in Merrick.  I ask Cynthia to call my wife Cathy and my parents in Oregon and tell them that I am OK.  I know that Cathy had a dentist’s appointment on the Upper East Side that morning, so she isn’t in danger.  I know that our two girls are safe in Merrick.  No one else in my family should be in jeopardy.  My boys should be safe in school in Brooklyn.

In front of Foreign Bank’s building where I am now I see a crowd of professionals milling around.  I ask someone what’s happening here, and they say that bomb threats are being called in all over the place.  Many buildings have been evacuated.  I see that people have left their offices, and are going to bars or standing around idly.  I hear that the commuter railways are clogged up or not running.  I pause to collect myself.  I wonder whether building security will even let me into the office?

Now, incredibly, the same man in dress down attire that spoke to me on Church Street recognizes me and approaches.  “I was with you downtown.  You saw them jumping, didn’t you?”  Caught off balance, I say, “I was there but I didn’t see it.  Are you sure it was me you were talking to?”  I am startled by my own reaction.  My gut reaction was he’s telling ME what I saw?  Who does he think he is? What nerve.  Also, I must be protecting my emotions—if I had really had seen people jumping I might have cracked up back there on the sidewalk.  He apologizes and walks away.  I immediately regret my response.

I try to collect myself again and I walk through the revolving doors of 1251.  I flash my ID and am surprised that security lets me in with no questions asked.  I take the elevator up to the 25th floor, and wait until someone scans me in through the interior glass door.  I walk over to Foreign Exchange Operations, the group that my IT group supports at Foreign Bank.  The managers are sitting around like big-shots watching CNN and are keeping a line open to the London manager on speaker.  Their group of about fifteen is doing their job, which is to use our computer to monitor foreign exchange settlements that our computer is making.  Larry, the FX operations manager sees me and says, “Look, we have an IT person now.”  He’s not a bad guy but isn’t exactly the sensitive type.  He is playing a heroic role for the business now and knows his job is safe (so far).  He is more detached emotionally from the events than I am because just watched them on TV.

The junior staffers are more human.  One asks me if the IT group downtown is OK?  I have no way of knowing because I wasn’t inside the office with them, but I tell them they are probably OK because they had some time to escape.  The staffer tells me it’s the first news they had about the welfare of anyone downtown.  No one called in.

o          o          o

Later I find out that about ten of my teammates were inside the office in WTC 4 at the time the first plane hit.  They heard a loud bang and then an announcement from the Port Authority saying that WTC 1 is on fire.  My friend Andrash, a kindly Hungarian mathematician who was known for being thoughtful and deliberate, looked out the window and saw a ring of fire up above.  He calmly went back to his desk and put the finishing touches on an email.  Then Don, an operations staff member who was more mindful of the danger tapped Andrash on the shoulder saying, “I think it’s about time we get going.”  They went down the elevator together, and at 9:03 AM as they stepped outside, another jet smashed into WTC 2 right next door.  Andrash and Don felt the heat from the flames and they dodged falling debris as they crossed the street to safety.

After that Don went to a corporate apartment where he was staying temporarily in Battery Park City.  He was concerned because he was keeping his dogs inside and he felt he couldn’t just abandon them.  Later when the towers collapsed the world went completely black outside his window.

Another colleague, Ed, a compassionate person and a bit of a non-conformist, commuted to work from the Upper East Side by motorbike, and parked his machine behind the Bankers Trust building just to the north of Tower Two.  He and lead developer Jack heard the crash and left the office a little earlier than Don and Andrash. Instead of distancing themselves, they stood right across the street from WTC 6 close to WTC 1, with the Millennium Hilton to their backs.  From this exposed position, they saw people jumping and crashing into the pavement, one after another.  When the second jet hit WTC 2 they are were much closer to the flames and debris than I was, and they ran inside the hotel.  They took a look out the hotel window and saw a ring of fire around WTC 2, just like around WTC 1.

They exited the north side of the hotel and Jack started walking uptown on Broadway somewhere behind me.  Ed still wanted to save his motorcycle, so he went back south and talked his way through forming police lines near the Bankers Trust building.  He found his motorcycle and powered it on.  Just then WTC 2 collapsed about 100 meters away.  He got off the motorcycle, leaving the headlights on, inhaled two lung-fulls of dust, and thought he had about one minute left before suffocating.  He fumbled with the right door of a building, thinking it was locked and got ready to smash it, when he finally realized that the left door was open, and he just managed to get inside and catch his breath.  He was able to wash his face and eyes inside.  After leaving his motorcycle keys with the super of the building, he “adopted” a stranger who was very upset, and walked her all the way to the Upper West Side to drop her off at her home.

As for Jack, after reaching Broadway and heading uptown, he found a bar and spent the rest of the morning sampling beers.  He was one of the key players who could have helped maintain the system in this emergency.  Later I heard him tell this story to the London managers, and I doubted that they too were impressed by his story of enjoying the happy hour.

o          o          o

Back in the midtown office with the New York operations team, I hear the London operations chief bark over the speaker in his New Zealand accent, “We have Euro and Sterling deadlines to make within the next hour.  Will the system keep running?”  I have to give him an answer.  I tell him that the computer is running in the building near the disaster and that I will call my colleagues to arrange for a fallback to New Jersey.  We know that WTC 2 collapsed but we don’t know about the collateral damage to our data center.  It would just be prudent to fail-over to New Jersey no matter what.

I make two calls to Derek, the manager in our group who knows how to transfer the system from the New York node to New Jersey.  The conversation goes like this:

“Derek, we have to fall back to New Jersey.  Deadlines are coming up.  The payments will stop if that computer fails in the BT building.”

“I can’t do anything unless Susan (our manager) tells me to.”

“Call her then!”

“OK, but I can’t do it unless she tells me to.”

“Can you at least get ready?”

“OK, I’ll call her.”

I feel that Derek is not giving me any information and isn’t being helpful.  Typical arrogance.  For crying out loud, he’s about the only one on the team who knows how to do the failover.  It seems like all he cares about is making sure I understand that he doesn’t take orders from me.  I am not giving him orders.  I’m just telling him what the situation is from the point of view of the operations group.  I had recently joined the bank and Derek was part of an old Digital Equipment engineering clique that worked together for more than a decade.  I could never gain the cooperation of this clique no matter how hard I tried.  I am just beating my head against a wall.

Meanwhile, by pure luck, our boss Susan happens to be working remotely at home in New Jersey.  I call her too, and she manages my difficult teammates over the phone.  I don’t know what she does, but fortunately she is able to perform the necessary procedures to fall back to New Jersey before the computer failed in the ruins.

After calling Derek and Susan I sit around in the mid-town office twiddling my thumbs.  I don’t know what’s going on because it’s all happening by phone between Susan, Derek, and others.  Meanwhile Larry orders pizza but don’t offer any to me.  It’s petty but I’m annoyed by how self-involved his management team is.  A junior staffer named Caroline takes pity and brings some over to me.  That was a gesture I really appreciated.

Before long the building management calls Larry.  They tell him that someone called in a bomb threat on our building.  I still have no idea what kind of person it is who does this kind of thing.  Were they just trying to get the rest of the day off to go drinking?  Did they think it’s funny to contribute to the atmosphere of terror?  We are ordered to evacuate.  I call Susan again in New Jersey, and tell her we’re leaving.  “Go,” she says, “just get going.”

The whole group files out and rides the elevators back down to the ground.  I at least feel good that I made myself available, showing our team’s commitment to the job.  I noticed that no one else from the team bothered to show up in mid-town.

o          o          o

My work obligations are over for the day and I trudge fifteen blocks downtown toward Penn Station.  It’s about 2:30 PM.  A huge crowd is stuffed into the shabby underground station.  Trains are departing, but slowly.  I get onto a Babylon local and squeeze into one of the front seats where two benches face each other.  Some construction workers sit down on both sides.  I try to bury my head in a book and ignore them.  I am trying to cope.  They taunt me, saying “Look, he doesn’t want to talk.  Look, he’s going to read now.”  Now I’m angry after going through so much, but I just continue to ignore them.  They are drinking now, and probably were drinking all day.   Really, what assholes they are.  I have nothing against drinking.  I do it myself.  But is it right to ignore the sad state of events and just party?

About an hour later we finally arrive back at Merrick station.  I tear up when I realize I am at the same exact spot where I was dilly dallying on the platform eight hours earlier.  I’ve been through so much in the past seven hours.  Now I’m going to walk home.  What will I find there?

IMG_7283
My family in August 2001 just before the attack

o          o          o

I cross Sunrise Highway and walk through the ritzy neighborhood called Merrick Woods.  The post-Labor Day weather is still glorious.  The leaves on the tall maple trees are lush, and the lawns are neat and green.  The only change I notice is an eerie silence.  We are close to JFK airport but there is not a single plane in the sky.  All flights in the whole country are grounded.

As I approach our house I see my wife Cathy watching our two girls playing on the front lawn.  I embrace Cathy.  Little Caroline, age 3, squeals, “Daddy.”  She does a little dance to show off.  It was her first day of pre-school, and she had ridden a school bus.  I ask her if her school was fun.  Oppositional even at that age, she answers, “No.”

Her exuberant sister Michelle, age 4, interrupts her adventure in the neighbor’s shrubbery to come over and give me a hug.  The contrast between the innocence of these girls we had adopted from Vietnam and the evil I had witnessed brings tears to my eyes.

o          o          o

Then I notice that my ex-wife Debbie’s car is in the driveway.  She emerges from the house with our two boys Eric, 13, and Mark, 11.  Later Cathy tells me that they had shown up at the doorstep crying.  Debbie had pulled them out of their classrooms in Brooklyn, telling them that their father was dead.  I am not pleased to hear that, since it was a big leap to conclude that I was killed.  Anyway, I don’t make an issue of her generating unnecessary drama since there was no way for her to know what was going on.  At realize she least she cared enough to show up.  She had to stay with relatives in Long Island because her apartment in Brooklyn Heights was infiltrated by smoke.

I play whiffle-ball with Eric and Mark on the front lawn.  I tell them the story of my day, and Mark asks me to repeat every detail.  Both kids are very familiar with my office, having visited there.  Eric still remembers playing with the game console I kept in my office when I had to work one weekend.  Mark asks, “Dad, what happened to the canteen where I used to buy chips?  What happened to the TV you keep in your office?  What would have happened if you had been killed?”

o          o          o

I think back to the previous summer when I brought Mark with me to work one weekday.  We rode the elevators to the viewpoint on top of Tower Two.  It was sunny and we enjoyed the sweeping vistas of New Jersey and the Empire State building to the north.  What impressed me and took my breath away was the hush.  We were so high up that even in downtown New York City, all we could hear was the wind blowing against the building.  Cars and people were barely visible at the foot of the tower, and we could not hear any street noise at all.  I remember this place as special.

WTC was originally developed as a grandiose David Rockefeller project to revive downtown.  The Twin Towers were built to an inhuman scale.  The Plaza was windy and sterile, and the underground concourse had nothing interesting inside for many years.  However, by the end, it had developed into a surprisingly human place.

The mall at the World Trade Center improved greatly in the 1990’s. Many retail stores opened, including Banana Republic, The Gap, J-Crew, Sam Goody, and Borders.  Many faces in the stores were familiar to me.  I remember the Jamaican employees of Au Bon Pain and Photo Mat, and the Indian men who ran the newsstands.  At noon, I would go down to the underground mall and buy a box lunch in a Japanese restaurant.  It had a small bar with bottles behind it with patrons’ names on them.  People would gather there after work for a quick drink and Karaoke.  I can’t forget the faces and the fast hands of the four young Indonesian women who made my lunch in this restaurant.

On our way back to my office that summer day Mark and I walked past Victoria’s Secret and then took a right down a narrow passageway with an exquisite flower store.  It had large displays with Chrysanthemums and spiky stalks that one typically sees in giant vases in lobbies of luxury hotels.  It had all kinds of exotic plants.  Lilies, orchids, and other not seen in a typical store.  A strikingly beautiful Indian woman worked at the counter.

Mark and I took an elevator to the 4th floor to my office and walked down a long hallway past a small canteen where Mark and Eric loved to pump quarters into the soda and candy machines.  Then we emerged into a football field sized expanse of open cubicles surrounded by tinted windows on all sides.

I had an interior office right next to our manager’s.  Inside my sanctuary I had a picture of the wife and kids, and photos of our 1998 visit to Vietnam for the girls’ adoption.  On top of the bookcase I had three bronze and jewel elephants that an Indian friend, Ram, had given me when I left Lehman Brothers to join Foreign Bank.

o          o          o

I follow politics in the Middle East and have some knowledge of security affairs.  I had premonitions that there would be more terrorist attacks on WTC, but had no specific ideas about when or how.  I realized that the terrorists pride had to be hurt after the first humiliating attack in February 1993 and they would likely make a more effective plan the next time.  I thought the FBI sounded very smug about how they handled the first attack in 1993.  They caught most of the plotters but hadn’t done anything to prevent the attack.  Would they be ready for the next attack?  Probably not.

At the time of the February 1993 attack on Tower One I happened to be lunching in a restaurant just about a mile up the street in Tribeca.   We saw a bulletin on TV and went outside onto the frigid street and saw the smoke and the emergency vehicles at Tower One.

That time the over 50,000 occupants of the WTC were fortunate because the attackers were both incompetent and unlucky.  They placed 1,336 pounds of explosives in a Ryder Van and detonated it in the underground garage of Tower One.   The bomb blew a 100 x 200-foot hole through five floors, but failed to damage a structural beam and topple Tower One into Tower Two, which was what they intended to do.  The bomb killed only six but it injured over 1,000.  Smoke infiltrated up to the 93rd floor, and there were no working emergency lights in the stairways.  The mother of one of my son’s classmates in Park Slope Brooklyn was working as an attorney on the 90th floor at the time of the attack, and she had to walk down a dark smoky stairway for almost two hours, a harrowing experience.  (Later they provided backup power for the lights.)

The FBI identified the terrorists because they some of them were idiots.  The FBI captured one of them at a New Jersey rental car counter claiming the $200 deposit he put down for the Ryder Van that he was reporting “stolen”.  The FBI solved the case after it was too late– after people were killed and injured and the terrorists did millions of dollars of damage.

Later I learned that although most of the terrorists lived in Jersey City, some of the plotters lived above the former Fuking Chinese Restaurant on Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn near my former home in Park Slope.  They drove cabs and I wondered if I had even ridden with them!

In July 1997, there was a sinister incident in Park Slope Brooklyn where I was living.  An agitated Arab man came out on the street and waved down a police car.  The police didn’t understand what he wanted, and found a translator.  The elderly man told them that two young men had bombs in an apartment above the Family Car Service on 3rd Avenue.  They were about to bomb the Atlantic Avenue LIRR station at rush hour.  A NYPD SWAT team raided the apartment, shot both of the plotters, and found pipe bombs.  I passed through this station every day on the way to work, and that also got my attention.

In August 2000 an instructor at the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Eagan, Minnesota called the FBI several times trying to find someone in the bureau who would act on information he had of a terrorist threat.  Zacharias Moussaoui, a Moroccan who hardly spoke any English and was unqualified to fly was insisting on training on a Boeing 747.  The instructor asked the FBI bluntly, “Do you realize that a 747 loaded with fuel can be used as a bomb?”  After the fact, the FBI linked him to the 9/11 plot, but before they ignored the warning completely.  They never told the public whether the story made it to the top of the FBI bureaucracy.  They know how to cover their own mistakes.

Of course, I was not aware of Moussaoui, but at about that same time, a dean from Washington University happened to visit me at our office at 4 WTC.  As we sat down with him, I joked, “Welcome to Ground Zero.”

o          o          o

On the morning of September 12, the day after the attack, my manager calls me at home.

“You can work from home until they find us new office space,” she says.

“Can I go back into 4 WTC and get my stuff?”

“No one will ever be allowed to enter that building again.”

Later I learn that when the two towers collapsed they severed 4 WTC in half, setting the remaining part on fire.  Pictures of my kids and the bronze elephants I kept in my office are now sitting in Fishkill landfill in Staten Island where they buried the debris.  Fortunately, I would still have employment, even though it will be a month or two before I started commuting to Manhattan again.  On the other hand, the retail workers that I interacted with daily must have lost their jobs, although they probably escaped with their lives.

IMG_7550
entrance to 4 WTC
IMG_7282
The ruins of WTC 4 (my office)

o          o          o

That same morning in Merrick I see our next-door neighbor Brian sitting on his porch, and I go over to talk.  I know he also worked for Merrill Lynch in the WTC complex.  Brian tells me that our neighbor, Aram Iskendarian, “never came home.”  It feels like a kick to the gut.  Aram was the friendliest person in the neighborhood.  I chatted with him many times but had not known that he worked for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 101st floor of 1 WTC above the impact point.  He disappeared along with 657 other Cantor Fitzgerald employees.  He had left for work earlier than me on that Tuesday, and was in his office while I was still down on the street.  Brian told me, “He parked his car at the Merrick train station that morning, and the next day his family had to make a sad trip there to pick it up.”

Cathy and I had met Aram and his wife Sheri after we moved to Merrick about three years earlier.  He was Armenian (Christian) by nationality, and Sheri was Jewish.  They met in a local high school, went to separate colleges, but stayed together.  Now over twenty years later, Aram doted on Sheri and their four children, Kara, Meryl, Alex, and Jason.

Aram was constantly in motion.  I remember him saying, “When we heard that we were having twins, we went out and bought the largest house we could afford.”  I would see him working outside their house on an ambitious window replacement project, or making some other home repair.  If he was not doing that, he was strapping his kids onto the back of his bicycle.  I often dropped in to chat in his driveway and share his cheerful mood.

After hearing the sad news about his disappearance, I tell Cathy, ‘We have to go over there now.  It may be hard, but we have to do it.”  Cathy says, “OK, I’ll go if you’re going.”  It would have been easier just to bunker down and stay home.

We leave the kids with the sitter and walk over to Sheri’s quiet little street.  She is out in front walking around.  Sheri comes up to us and says, “What are you by for?”  She seems to be trying to act like things are normal.

“We hear that you had some bad news yesterday.”  I put my arm around her shoulder, and say, “We’re sorry to hear it.  I was there.  Right out on the street.”  I feel a surge of sadness and my voice wavers.  She tearfully replies, “Thanks” and we move apart again.

She tells us, “My sister called me right after it was first reported.  When I saw on TV what had happened, I knew right away that he was gone.  I told the kids right away, but the three-year old twins didn’t get it.  Later that morning the boys still wanted to call their father at work like they did every day.  Maybe they are getting it now.  The girls do understand.  They seem to be OK.’

A blonde drives up in car, gets out, walks right over to Sheri, and starts yakking about how she knows a therapist who specializes in grief counseling.  She means well I suppose, but she annoys me because she keeps repeating herself, whether or not Sheri wants to listen.  Can’t she just give Sheri a little time to let it all sink in?  Is therapy an instant solution to our life problems? Isn’t it too early for that?  She hands Sheri a phone number on a scrap of paper.  Sheri starts walking around the yard erratically, leaving Cathy and I standing with the blonde.

I’ve had enough.  It’s finally time to go home.  I’m sad and feeling betrayed, but at least my own family is safe.  By pure luck I’ll still be able to watch our kids grow up.  Unlike Aaron, and 2,995 other innocents.  They were victims of the terrorists, and also to a small extent victims of the complacent bureaucrats of the FBI and the Port Authority who I felt did not do everything they could have reasonably done to protect our lives. I can’t do anything about that, but in the coming months I’ll do some thinking about what is important in my life, and what is not; who I care about, and who I don’t care about so much.  Some changes will be made.  But that’s another story.

IMG_7285
Mark and Eric in Jersey City 1995

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s