Stories We Never Forget

She returned to our room with an odd question. “Has anyone from the Club come to talk to you?” 

The nine of us—strangers who knew each other only through brief introductions shared over the prior 15 minutes—looked at each other. Our blank stares gave her the answer. 

She would need to be the one to tell us. She would somehow have to articulate the horror that would change life as we knew it. She stood in visible discomfort. Her voice was shaking. “It seems that we are the target of terrorist attacks.” 

“Who is ‘we?’ ” I remember asking myself. What was going on? Was there an armed gunman in the building? 

She continued. “At about 8:50am, a plane struck one of the World Trade Center towers. It was assumed to be an accident. Until a second one struck the second tower about 15 minutes later.”

This was the message my friend Christine delivered to me and eight others. We were participants in a personal development class through her new company. Gathered in a small conference room in New York’s Union League Club on 37th Street and Park Avenue, we sat asking ourselves what to do next. Some reached for phones; some discussed whether it was safer to remain in the building or empty out into the street. 

I reached for my cell phone. Apparently I had forgotten to turn it off prior to the start of class. I had one voicemail message. It was Bob, telling me about the catastrophe unfolding in New York City. His message was quickly cut off. I tried to phone him back at his office in San Francisco. I received the recorded message. “Your call cannot be completed at this time.” It was the first of many times I would hear this message when attempting calls from my cell and pay phones throughout the day. So would everyone in this room. So would everyone in Manhattan. 

We left the conference room as a group in search of a television. We found one in the workout room. Amidst treadmills and weight machines, I saw the images I would see countless times over—a plane traveling at warp speed, passing behind a burning World Trade Center tower and deliberately crashing into the twin tower to its left. It hit the building about one-third of the way from the top, lower than the first plane had struck the first tower. The plane seemed to slice right through the building, leaving a trail of fire in its wake. 

The two majestic twin towers—icons of the New York City I had known for a decade— were on fire. Soon the Pentagon would suffer a similar fate. Soon a plane would crash in Pennsylvania, likely successfully diverted from crashing into another American icon. 

It was in this small gym that I watched the unfathomable— the collapse of one of the mighty World Trade Center towers. On live television, I watched a building fall like it was a purposeful implosion. Yet I knew the building was not empty. That’s when I first cried. My initial shock gave way to the reality that thousands of people could still be in that building. Now they were dead. There was no way they could have survived. 

I left the room to look for Christine. I found her downstairs in the Club lounge packed with visitors. I stood next to her, our eyes focused on the CNN coverage on television. I put my arm around her. She had no response. Perhaps she was in shock. I rubbed my hand on her back. We stared ahead. And then we watched the second tower collapse to the ground. 

A skyline had crumbled. All that remained was a ball of smoke. Over and over, we would watch footage of smoke tunneling down narrow alleyways of Lower Manhattan chasing terrified workers. It was like a scene from an action movie. We watched two women ducking behind a car watching the first tower burn, only to see another plane strike the second tower before their very eyes. We watched footage of people jumping out of buildings. Yes, people were jumping out of 110-story buildings. I could not imagine the sense of despair leading a human to that action. I melted in a whole new round of tears.

We wondered if the attack was even over. The news reports were unclear. Although all national airports had closed and flying planes were ordered to land at the closest airport, there were reportedly eight planes still unaccounted for. It was unclear if these eight included—or were in addition to— the four that had already crashed. Where were the others? And who were they being piloted by?

Hours later, our initial group dispersed. One woman left to seek her children. One left to find her way to New Jersey, vowing to never travel via airplane again. I don’t know if they were successful in reaching their destinations. All means for traveling into and out of Manhattan were halted—bridges, tunnels and subways. 

In the end, three from our group remained—Christine from Boston, the class facilitator Deborah from the UK, and I. We spent the afternoon together, watching CNN from the lounge. We endured the cigarette and cigar smoke beginning to pollute the room. People ordered stiff drinks from the bar. We watched a staff put forth incredible attentiveness to their jobs, despite the national crisis.

I held my cell phone in hand. Messages were piling up—five, eight, l0 messages—all from family and friends who knew that I was traveling in New York City this week, or guessing that I might be. I couldn’t access them. In the first hour of the tragedy, I had thankfully spoken to Bob and my mother. She called my father to let him know I was in New York, but was safe.

We remained in the building until late in the afternoon. We initially didn’t want to leave for fear of future attacks. We were blocks from the United Nations and the Empire State Building. The sound of planes overhead startled us until we realized that they were F-16s flying overhead for our protection. 

But there was another reason to stay indoors. It kept us detached from what was really unfolding. Over the television, I was no closer to this attack than an American farmer in the Midwest. Once outdoors in Manhattan, I would be a part of the most tragic strike to ever hit America.

At this point, my fear— shared by all Americans—was the unknown. Who perpetrated this attack? How many were dead? A personal fear was whom I would know among the dead. My employer JPMorgan did not have offices in the World Trade Center. But a decade in the financial services industry and seven years of living in New York City left the odds of at least one casualty among my friends a real possibility.

Throughout the afternoon, names jumped into my mind. Jerry worked in the World Financial Center; Dan’s last consulting assignment was in the World Trade Center; my ex-boyfriend worked for Salomon Brothers. Where was his office? And where was he this morning? 

At the Union League Club, the staff set up a buffet lunch in our conference room. Christine had booked a hotel room at the Club, which she offered to anyone stranded in Manhattan. I sat in a pay phone booth for what must have been an hour. From there, I was able to retrieve voice mail messages and return calls to worried co-workers and friends. It would be the first of many marathon phone sessions over the next few days. Over the week, I would speak to nearly every one of my family members and close friends—and even not-so-close friends.

By 4:00pm, the three of us needed to do something. Our emotional exhaustion was translating into the physical. Christine wanted to take a nap. I suggested to Deborah that we take a walk. We walked towards the East River. It was a gorgeous September day in Manhattan, the type of day that would normally have me obsessed with running in Central Park. We looked south as we crossed Park Avenue. While there was not a cloud in the sky, dark puffy smoke clouds hovered across the bottom tip of the island. The week would continue like this, until storms and rain surprised us on Friday morning.

I made a second beautiful observation about the city on that day—the silence. As a result of a tragedy, Manhattan—specifically our Midtown location—was the city you often wanted it to be. We crossed avenues without following the directions of street lights. With the exception of emergency vehicles, there were few vehicles on the streets. There were numerous people walking about, but all wandered with a sense of calm. There was a somber mood over this East Midtown neighborhood. While we were all in the midst of catastrophe, we were also a world away.

We decided to walk south to see what we could see. We walked through Union Square, and I shared with Deborah how only last night I had emerged from the subway at this exact spot and—disoriented by the darkness and rain—looked to the lights of the now extinct Twin Towers for direction, just as a shepherd would look to the stars. 

We walked south on Broadway to Houston Street. This was as far as the police would allow us to walk. We cut one block west and stopped to look towards lower Manhattan. The smoke still puffed upwards from the carnage. I noted the black color on some puffs, which indicated a still burning fire. Later that night, we learned a third building, World Trade Center 7, collapsed at 5:20pm, right about the time we had stopped to pay our moment of respect on Houston Street. 

We collected Christine back at the Club and sought pizza for dinner. It was remarkable how many New Yorkers were out on the streets. About half of all restaurants were open, and those that were did incredible business. It seems everyone needed refueling, an escape from the television news coverage, and the comfort of other humans. We were pleased to wait in line for over 45 minutes for two slices of greasy cheese pizza. 

I left Deborah and Christine later that evening and checked into the Grand Hyatt New York next to Grand Central Station for the next four nights. Our class was obviously cancelled. My business meetings throughout the week were cancelled. My friend Heather’s wedding, which I planned to attend that Saturday, was postponed. Airports were closed. And even upon reopening on Thursday, all three New York area airports immediately closed with bomb threats and detained suspects. I decided to not change my scheduled flight back to San Francisco on Sunday afternoon. Deborah was told she would most likely be able to get back to London on Monday. Christine was able to drive out of Manhattan on Wednesday morning and return to Boston. 

For the rest of the week, time moved at a snail’s pace. I went to my company’s New York office, but couldn’t concentrate on business. No one could; no one did. But being amongst colleagues offered a much-needed comfort as I navigated days in the city alone. I called clients with the message that my colleagues and I were all safe, and they sighed in relief. As an industry, we were concerned about several investment managers. Salomon Brothers and Oppenheimer had lost their office space, but all seemed to be fully operational. Fred Alger Management was a real concern. On Wednesday evening, I saw CEO David Alger among the missing persons photos on local television.

The city was a dichotomy. Lower Manhattan was still scrambling in its effort to recover victims, reassure families, and reopen for business. Upper Manhattan continued to function in silence. It was not until Thursday that cars were allowed back into the city. 

The news coverage was two-fold. There were the national reports—President George Bush, Congressmen and other U.S. government officials offered updates as to who was behind the travesty and what we were doing about it. From the very beginning, Arab terrorist Osama Bin Laden was the likely suspect. President Bush wasted no time in calling this an act of war. New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani was masterful in simultaneously directing and comforting his city. An interview with a Middle East expert commented on the terrorists: “Make no mistake about it,” she said, “these are not madmen.” To my mind, this was hard to comprehend. “They are deliberate, calculating, and educated individuals. They are men with promise, but without hope.” I am still grappling with understanding the mindset of these men.

By Wednesday evening we were starting to hear the many stories of heroic individuals. There were cell phone calls made from the planes and office buildings. I heard the story of Jeremy Glick, a passenger on board United Airlines flight 93 which crashed into a Pennsylvania field. Jeremy was my exact age—31 years old. He had married his high school sweetheart five years ago. They had celebrated the birth of their first child three months ago. He had a 20 minute phone conversation with his wife and father-in-law prior to he and several other passengers launching a counterattack on the hijackers. Considering the circumstances, their phone conversation seemed calm and instructional. The plane crashed and all its passengers perished. But it is likely that Jeremy’s actions saved the White House. His wife’s said nothing went unsaid between them; they had shared everything during their all-too-short time together.

Then there was the interview with Howard Lutnick, the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald. Of the 1000 employees of this bond trading firm, 700 of them were in the World Trade Center on that fateful morning. He was not among them. Why? He arrived late because it was his child’s first day of kindergarten. His interview was gut wrenching. Imagine the thankfulness of having your life spared, while losing your brother (also an employee) and two-thirds of your staff. It was the worst of survivor guilt. But then there was pride for his remaining employees, who decided all they wanted to do was get the U.S. bond markets back on track. They had to get their back-up operations in order. They had to trade bonds. And that’s what they did. In the days that followed, it became clear that Cantor Fitzgerald was among those most impacted by the attack; in the years that followed, they were one of the greatest comeback stories. 

Finally, there was the story of a hero named Sergio (last name unknown). He had found a distraught older woman at a center just north of 14th Street, which became the dividing line between Lower and Upper Manhattan. The woman and her husband—in their 70s and with heavy accents— had been working at a voting facility downtown (ironically New York City primaries were being held on that Tuesday). When disaster hit, she went outside to check on what had happened. Before she knew it, she was lost in a cloud of smoke and panic. She went back to the voting facility only to find her husband missing. This is when Sergio—who she described as her angel—found her. He talked to her. He asked her questions. He ran around the hospitals of Manhattan with her to find her husband. Eventually the woman shared with Sergio that she had a son who lived in Boston. Sergio tracked him down. The husband had also gotten in touch with the son, leaving a cryptic message on the son’s answering machine. This was how Sergio—a complete stranger who took the time to listen and ask questions—reunited the elderly couple. 

These are the three stories I will always remember. They are ones I want to remember. They show the angst of human emotion and the strength of the human spirit. I heard so many stories over the coming days, and while it was a draining experience to hear them, I just could not stop listening.

Like countless Americans, I became addicted to the television coverage. My heart went out to those who spent days running around Manhattan tacking up posters of missing relatives. Their posters were pinned on building bulletin boards and clothing. They lined up in front of reporters in hopes of broadcasting their personal story to as many people as possible. By Saturday, I softly wondered what they were seeking. I realized they still had hope.

All I wanted to do during that week was something—anything—to help. Seeking to give blood on Wednesday, I found their supplies full. Tragically, there were not enough injured victims being sent to the hospitals to warrant the generously donated supply. Seeking to volunteer, I learned they were only seeking people with specialized skills–doctors and nurses, social workers, union construction workers, policemen, firemen, and engineers. What was my skill? As a salesperson, there was nothing I could personally do to help victims. At work, I could offer nothing to help keep the critical operations our investment company running for clients, yet I knew many colleagues in operations and senior management were working 24/7 to do so. 

So I decided my job was to just take it all in. I read every missing person poster. I joined the 7pm candlelight vigil on Friday evening, standing among the masses on 42nd Street holding candles. President Bush rode by in his motorcade. While I didn’t vote for him, I cheered for him. He was our Commander-in-Chief. I cheered to thank him for his inspirational visit to heroic rescue workers earlier in the day. Mayor Giuliani had proclaimed Broadway open for business, so I purchased a last minute ticket to see the “The Producers.” The theatre was half full.

I couldn’t figure out how Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane and the cast could perform. I didn’t know if I could laugh. But I figured if they could do their job, I could do mine.

On Saturday, I went down to the Armory on 25th Street and Lexington Avenue, which had been set up for the families of the missing. Posters, flowers and prayers lined the outside of the building. I walked around the entire building as a way to pay my respects. 

What I witnessed that morning was like anything I had ever seen in New York City. Girl Scouts carried around cardboard trays of homemade cupcakes. A man carrying a Kleenex box handed individual tissues to two crying women. A man with a shopping cart full of beverages called out to people to take them. I saw mounds of socks, toilet paper, food and clothing. The night prior, city officials had instructed New Yorkers to stop donating supplies—unless they were shovels or flashlights—as they already had more than they needed. I saw taxi drivers with “Volunteer Cab” signs in their windows. People talked to each other; they made eye contact. They said excuse me; they weren’t rushed. 

I left New York City on Sunday afternoon as planned, and arrived home safely. Although a frequent flier, I was admittedly anxious when I took my seat on the United Airlines plane. I looked at my fellow passengers and crew members.

I had asked Bob to pick me up at the airport. Because I wanted someone to know what flight I was on. I wanted someone to come home with me. I never felt so in need of a hug. I didn’t want to be alone.

My life would never be the same. All of our lives would never be the same.

Originally authored by Jodi L. Morris on September 16, 2001.

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Venture Guide to High-Achieving Seekers. Success Coach. Venture Travel Curator. Impact Investor. Traveler. Writer. Global Connector. When we connect to others' stories it changes our own. Let's Venture!