It never fails that I wake up before my alarm goes off on important days. I’ve never missed a flight. I’ve never missed an appointment. And on this day twenty years ago, I was up early once again. Showered, dressed and on my way to catch the train to the city. An earlier train than I usually would.
We were ready. My team and I worked hard during the summer to prepare for this day. The Partners selected us for a project which was a really big deal. Our task, present our views on future trends in the securities industry with a focus on the retail investor. And, more importantly, how the firm could capitalize on those trends.
We had it all figured out. This “online trading” thing was sure to be a really big deal in the future and we had some great ideas that we were confident would impress the Partnership.
But I wanted to get in early and rehearse before our 9:00 am presentation. My client’s offices were conveniently located across the street from our World Financial Center offices and my 46th floor window, of Two World Trade Center, had a beautiful view of the sunrise over Brooklyn and Queens. I would start my day there, have my usual saran-wrapped sesame bagel, and practice my part a couple more times.
After a few practice runs, and since I was just across the street, I decided to make my way over at 8:30. It would take five to ten minutes just for the elevator ride with the necessary switch to a new elevator on the 44th floor. But I had plenty of time and walked outside to cross West Street. It was a noisy morning with all of those large metal plates covering the myriad of potholes and never-ending roadwork. The banging of cars and buses going over the plates was loud and one bang, in particular, startled me as I crossed. But I was not to be distracted, and I made my way into our offices, ready to enlighten the Partners who put their faith in our team.
The commotion as I stepped off the elevator drew me to the windows where many people, along with some members of my team, were looking upward. A lot of smoke was streaming out of the top of the North World Trade Center Tower and debris was falling on West Street, right where I crossed a few minutes earlier. Someone said a small plane must’ve lost its way. “Damn”, I thought as I headed towards the conference room to set up.
But the commotion picked up and some people were visibly scared. I stood outside the conference room as the clock struck 9:00. A delay was understandable with what was going on outside. I paced up and down the hall in front of our conference room when the shriek of “Oh My God!” froze me. That shriek announced something really bad was probably happening and a subsequent shriek of “We’re Being Attacked!” confirmed it as true.
Security guards took charge and started directing us to evacuate. I grabbed my portfolio, which held our presentations, and followed the line towards the staircase. One of my teammates was several yards ahead and yelled over his shoulder at me “Looks like we’ll have to reschedule.” He always had a way to make me laugh. “I guess so!” I yelled back, grasping my portfolio tightly. I was kind of annoyed at this turn of events, still not fully appreciating the magnitude of what was going on outside.
And then I got outside.
Mobs of people were all just standing there, looking skyward at smoke and flames billowing out of the two beautiful towers. It contrasted extremely well against the beautiful blue sky. Large pieces of the building were now falling too. The bangs they made as they hit the street were different from the sound of a bus going over a large metal plate. I didn’t like this banging.
But we just stood there, looking skyward. As if some magnet was holding us in place. A woman next to me was crying. Screaming something about someone who worked near the top of one of the towers.
And then she just screamed.
Without prompting I focused my gaze and realized that now it wasn’t just pieces of the building that were falling. It was people. My grip tightened on my portfolio. Not to protect whatever the hell was in there, but to just grip tightly on something. Like watching a scene from a movie, I watched more and more people make a horrible choice. And after way more than I needed to see, or should’ve seen, I finally turned away from the horror movie and started to lumber uptown. Fire engines, ambulances and police cars roared past me as I made my way, every so often stopping and looking up to re-confirm that this was really happening.
And then the rumble.
Like a hurricane sized thunder set against the peace of a cloud-free blue sky. I gasped as enormous pieces of the South Tower started to fall and I instinctively knew….... RUN!
I turned and ran uptown. Fortune on my side that the early fall breeze was blowing southward which spared me from smoke and dust. I must have run ten blocks until either I guess I felt safe, or I just couldn’t run anymore. I stopped, turned, and stared at something I always wondered if it could happen. A Twin Tower fell. I remember thinking two things at that moment; that I would never watch the sunrise again from my 46th floor office, and my favorite photo of my son and daughter was lost forever. After several minutes of empty staring, I re-directed myself back uptown. Still clutching my portfolio of undelivered presentations.
The rest of that day was, in every negative way, long. I reluctantly watched the other tower fall, walked with strangers all the way to the 59th Street Bridge, and then crossed that bridge in a somber, zombie-like procession. After a bus ride with a colleague that I happened to meet along the way, he drove me home to Long Island where my family was waiting, and wondering, and panicking, since all phone service from the city was unavailable. I put my portfolio down and tried to describe the day, as best as I could. I was numb, but I made it home.
As you might expect, we never rescheduled our presentation. Some things are more important and yes, they really are more important. I often think about how that presentation may have gone, what if I didn’t make it home, and all those who weren't as fortunate as me.
Today my undelivered presentation is just taking up space on a shelf in my closet. A reminder not only of that day, but also to be thankful for the wonderful life we have, no matter how hard that life may be at times.
I wish you all the peace, love and happiness in the world!! And let us Never Forget!!