For some reason I was up and active a little earlier than usual that day, busy networking on the Internet industry online discussion lists. It was the 5 AM beginning of a nice day in Southern California.
A post from one of the lists caught my attention: Someone’s mother in New York had called to say a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center (WTC) Towers.
I laughed, remembering the small plane that had hung for two weeks off the side of one of those towers shortly after they had been built in the early 1970s. Every morning I would get off the Broadway bus and look up at the site, wondering when WTC building management would figure out how to get the plane down. They hadn’t even figured out how to wash the windows yet. It always made me wonder how a pilot could accidentally fly into a building (although it occasionally happens in New York) — particularly one of two huge white buildings that most New Yorkers used as an area-wide landmark in figuring out directions. Turning on the TV, this is what I had expected to see: another small plane sticking out of the side of one of the buildings and news commentators making snarky jokes.
I can only describe the sight of a full-size airliner half-embedded in the WTC tower as surreal. A tragic accident. I wondered about the people in offices 100 stories up in that tower. What would it be like to be there in the trading room and having an airliner crash through the wall? What would the nearly 500 mph impact feel like? A death tragedy of huge proportions. How could the pilot be so careless? How could this have happened?
A reporter was on the screen, doing an on-street report with the towers in the background. Oh no! Oh no! Oh no! Above his head another airliner could be seen flying into the other tower.
The impossibility of these accidents slowly transformed into the probability of attack.
Network news was in chaos. Tens of thousands of people worked in those buildings and they were being evacuated — walking down the stairwells 10, 20, 50, 80 floors of stairs crowded with terrified people.
A deal attorney I had worked with was one of the first interviews. He was covered in debris and talked about how well the evacuation was going, all things considered. Those above the impact floors had been directed to the roof and were waiting to be picked up by helicopters. Then the first tower began to slowly crumble, pancaking floor on floor … People were still in those offices. Oh no! Oh no! Oh no! Then the other tower … Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!
That’s what you say when there are no other words.
The next interview was with Howard Lutnick, a bright young guy who was one of the heads of Cantor Fitzgerald. I always liked Howard, and I had many friends at his firm. We had tried several times over the years to find an account-list fit for me to join the firm as an institutional bond broker. For some reason, it could never quite be managed. He sat, covered in ash, close to a breakdown, the fact that nearly everyone in his firm was now dead just beginning to sink in. He told of the horror of bodies raining down on the plaza where he had been prevented from entering the building when he arrived for work after dropping off his son at school.
I think about 9/11 every year at this time and often between anniversaries. It was particularly important to me because I almost worked on one of the impact floors and had cried over at least 100 names of friends and co-workers who had died that day.
I admit that I occasionally wonder why fate excluded me. I had met with heads of the Shearson-Lehman bond department on the 104th floor, before Cantor Fitz took over the space. It was a huge trading room where hundreds of people worked trading bonds. I had dined at Windows on the World many times, but this day, when I got off the elevator on the 104th floor, I was so overcome with vertigo I almost had to fall to my hands and knees. Somehow I launched myself to grab on to the reception desk, and stood there clinging, trying to look calm and together — which I definitely was not. The head honchos came out and escorted me into an office, probably expecting to hire me, but I sat there unable to hear anything they said and feeling like I was being pulled toward the window, to be flung out into a death fall. They were shocked when I stood and apologetically explained I couldn’t work there. I said it was the height of the building, but I knew it was that beckoning window and something else I couldn’t even imagine. That day, the cure for my odd discomfort took place when I stepped into the down elevator.
On 9/11, and for several days after, I cried and shook. I remember the awful pain of seeing the pictures pinned to fences by people hoping against the creeping realization their loved ones would never be found. I remember the shoes. Everyone kept dress shoes under their desks, to change into from more comfortable walking shoes they wore on the trains, subways and street treks on the way to work. People take off their shoes when walking down stairwells, evacuating a building during a power outage. After walking down 20 or so flights of stairs, you lose feeling in your feet and must take off your shoes. I remember the shoes.
I avoid reading the list of names. I avoid the televised memorials. I try to avoid thinking too much about it all, but every year I am reminded.