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A Personal Recollection From a Day of Horror

Posted By Barry Ritholtz On September 12, 2001 @ 9:00 am In War/Defense,Web/Tech | Comments Disabled

Originally posted at the soon to be defunct Geocities [1] on 9/12/01

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A Personal Recollection:

The word that keeps coming back at me is SURREAL. Yesterday’s events were just so other worldly.

As you may know, our main offices are on the 29th floor of 2 World Trade Center; At least, that’s where they were, before that building disappeared before our very eyes, live on television. I work in the Garden City, Long Island office — about 45 minutes outside of Manhattan — and its here where most of our brokers are located.

Eighty percent of our firm’s clients live outside the United States, and so many of you have emailed and called us from around the world, inquiring as to our well being. Europe, Hong Kong, Australia . . . Your kind words have been deeply, deeply appreciated. I will eventually work through all of the messages to get back to you each individually. In the meanwhile, I felt it was appropriate to give you a bird’s eye view of what was happening over here.

Early Tuesday morning, and I am working from home, finishing up my weekly market comments. Around 8:30am, I tried to distribute them electronically, when my cable modem bugged out. Unable to email my remarks, I drove to the office, annoyed at my wasted morning. I’m normally in about 8:30; Tuesday I headed into work a bit later than usual.

I’m in the car around 8:50am or so, when radio shock jock Howard Stern announced a plane hit one of the Twin Towers. I thought, Yeah, sure it did, wiseass. Just to be sure, I switched to Bloomberg Radio, which was dutifully reporting traffic, weather, stock futures, etc, but nothing about a plane crash. That Howard sure is a funny guy.

I park my car, walk into the office — and was greeted with a surreal scene. Dozens and dozens of brokers, all clustered around the many TVs in the office. Instead of running the usual CNBC, each TV was on a different news station — CNN, MSNBC, CBS, and CNBC. Visible on every set, a different view of smoke billowing out of the north tower of the World Trade Center.

It was dumbfounding. Just how incompetent a pilot do you have to be not to miss that building, I wondered as I made my way to my office. I sat down, powered up my workstation, and was ready to get to work.

Within a few moments, the second jetliner struck the other tower. At that instant, it was immediately clear that this was no accident.

Our head trader Bill is a dear friend of mine, and he works right up there on the 29th floor. I called the NY office, but there was no answer. I dialed his cell phone — no answer there either.

After what seemed like hours of trying, I finally got through, and out of force of habit, asked for him by name. “Who the fuck else do you think this would be?” he yelled. I could hear all sorts of chaos in the background–sirens, yelling, screams — just a small precursor of what was to come later. I sheepishly asked him if he was OK; He said he was fine — but that he was more scared than he had ever been in his life.

He settled down a bit, and told me what he saw as it was happening — until, under a cloud of dust, we lost cell phone contact. Last night, and again this morning — safe and sound, thankfully — he filled me in on more of the details, and the timing of the chain of events from his perspective.

It was astounding. Not that his story is unique, or definitive; Rather, its simply one man’s tale of survival during a period of unthinkable horror and utter chaos. Since he has no interest in writing up what happened, I have — with his permission — attempted to retell his story. I know it has been purging for me to put it down on paper; I hope his telling of it was cathartic for him.

I present his experiences with minimal commentary — except where necessary to fill in some details or give a bit of color into who he is. My own comments are clearly distinguished from his — I do have some thoughts, which I will share with you at the end of this.

Here is Bill’s experiences:

“I had just come up from the subway next to the World Trade Center. I had walked up the subway stairs, and went towards the Trade Center to work. Sirens were wailing, but you hear fire engines and ambulances all the time in Manhattan, so you more or less learn to ignore them.”I went towards the plaza to light a cigarette. I neared the [New Jersey Commuter Rail] Path train entrances — about a block from the Trade Center Plaza, and perhaps 2 blocks from the North Tower.” [In my mind's eye, I pictured him -- suit & tie, briefcase over his shoulder, head bent down to his cupped hand to catch the flame]. “When I was lit, I noticed paper and dust swirling around. I looked up at the top of the building, only to see that it was on fire.”

“I’m staring at this scene — smoke coming out of the top floors of the tower. It is disturbing, but obviously nothing like what was to come later.”

It was at that moment that “the Loudest explosion I ever heard in my life happened. I looked up again to see smoke billowing from both buildings, and an enormous fireball. I could see papers and ash raining down, debris falling. My first thoughts were to get the hell away from there, get to safety, go towards the water.”

Bill’s a former Marine, with the whole gamut of what that encompasses — live fire exercises, intense training, etc. — and its my guess that his training kicked in. Get to higher ground, stay calm, assess the situation, survive.

“In my mind, I figured the safest place to be was near the water — worse comes to worse, I could always jump in. So I started running. I ran towards the South Street Seaport until I couldn’t run anymore.” [He's a pretty big guy -- 6'2", 245, and even carrying an extra 20 pounds, he's more fit than most]. “All I know is that I was the fastest big, fat, guy in a suit yesterday,” is how he described himself this morning.”I was just in Survival Mode.

“By the time I got to the South Street Seaport, I was out of breath, but glad to be alive. Cell phone connections were spotty, and the lines at the pay phones were 10 deep. I found a sign for a handicapped elevator, and walked around that corner to find a bank of 4 empty pay phones.” [Nothing like a cool head in a crisis].

“I called my wife to let her know I was OK. By that time, I had calmed down enough to know that my next order of business was getting off Manhattan Island alive. I just wanted to see my kids and hug them.”

“From the Seaport, I saw a stream of people crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. There were still too many jumbo jets in the air to attempt that exit. Bridges and Tunnels are inviting targets of high military value. I buy some water — Starbucks is open for business, as if nothing is wrong. I went back towards the outdoor part of the Seaport, nearest the harbor. An old schooner was docked there, and I struck up a conversation with the skipper. ‘Need a First Mate? We can get some of these people off Manhattan.’ He said that the Coast Guard had already buttoned down all water vessel traffic — in a surprisingly short time after the 1st blast.”

“But he was repairing and painting parts of the boat, and had a load of dust filters. The captain and I passed them out to people on the docks.”

Incidentally, Bill refused to take a mask for himself. He told the Captain to save some for “people with Asthma or other breathing problems who would really need them, when the time came.” I wonder how many other people — myself included — would have done the same?

“By that time, I could hear the roar of F-18s fighter jets in the sky. I figured it was safe to cross the bridge by then, so I headed uptown to get towards the Broadway entrance.”

For those of you unfamiliar with lower Manhattan, the Island narrows dramatically below Canal Street before coming to a point at the southern tip. Upper Manhattan is 15 – 20 blocks wide; Its less than half that down here. Take a look at MapQuest [2], type in “2 World Trade Center, NY,” and you’ll have a better idea of what I mean.

The bridge — down about a third of the way from Canal Street and the bottom of Manhattan — overhangs land by a good half a mile or so. To walk onto it, you need to be near the center of lower Manhattan island, near the Eastern part of City Hall, just off of Park Row, and just South of the Courts on Centre Street.

This is about when I first get him on his cell phone.

“I’m walking uptown, and its plain weird. At one point, I’m near a Federal building or Court House. Lots of U.S. Marshalls standing outside, all with shotguns in hand. Just a totally bizarre scene.”"So I started up Broadway to get to the entrance of the bridge. I eventually made my way up near the Millennium Hotel — 2 blocks from the WTC, and the equivalent of about 4 blocks from the 2 Towers. That’s when the surreal scene went from bad to worse.”

“Looking [West] down one of the streets [either Liberty or Cortlandt], I could see the Towers on fire. About 2/3rds of the way up, I see a man is standing in an open window. I’m looking right at him — just staring at him in dumbfounded amazement — and he leaps out. That’s the scene I cannot erase from my mind — him jumping. How much pain do you have to be in to ‘voluntarily’ jump out of a 50th story window?”

From bad, to worse, to unthinkable. He is only a few blocks away from the Trade Center, when the number 2 building — the one he worked in — collapses. It’s there one moment and gone the next. But not without a trace; Rumbling towards him is a tidal wave of dust, a huge cloud of debris.

“The building goes down. I see it and hear it. I turn and start running in the opposite direction as fast as I possibly can. Looking over my shoulder, I see the wall of dust coming — fast — two blocks away. Paper, aluminum, dirt, smoke, all sorts of debris. It’s gaining on me, and I realize that I cannot possible outrun it. I get to the next corner, duck around it, hoping the building will offer some protection, and that the wave will pass me by. I still had a napkin from Starbucks, which I put over my mouth to block the choking dust. Moments later, the thick cloud rumbles by, and suddenly, its as dark as night. You can’t see more than 5 feet in front of your face. I’m covered in ash, soot, debris. People are walking around, covered in debris and blood. There are papers fluttering everywhere. It’s just a mess, total chaos.”

Then the smoke got too thick, and we lose the connection.

I immediately call Bill’s wife, to tell her he was okay. She was already out picking up the kids at school — they, of course, knew where their daddy works. A neighbor was covering her phone for Bill’s wife, so I left a message with her that he was all right.

I got back in touch with him a few hours later, and again that evening. Here’s the rest of his story:

“I finally made my way over to the Brooklyn Bridge. Hundreds of people were calmly walking across. It was simply another surreal scene. F-18s fighter jets circling the skies, survivors walking across. I see a big jet — a 747? — in the sky. Oh, shit, I think, here we go again. I feel totally vulnerable up on the bridge. Then I notice that the 747 is escorted by a fighter jet — and that was incredibly reassuring. I can only imagine what the conversation was like between those two pilots.”"I’m half way across the bridge, and — even more unbelievable — an Arab man is singing & celebrating, clapping and yelling “My Arab brothers, my Arab brothers.” I was too concerned with my own survival to do anything to him — though a few things came to mind. My own thoughts were: I just want to live through this, just see my wife and kids. Right then, four iron workers grab the guy. I figured they were going to kill him, there and then. The cops are on the group in a flash, and break it up. I tell the cops to let them throw ‘em over the side. The bastard’s lucky they didn’t kill him on the spot.”

Numerous anecdotal stories abound that “Middle Eastern looking people” were seen “observing” the spectacle, celebrating at first, but then catching themselves. Right outside the towers, at the right place and right time. It makes you wonder how many people knew about this in advance.

“I finally get across the bridge. At the end of the bridge, there’s a small park, with a grassy spot, and one little tree. I sit in the shade under it, have a cigarette — the best butt of my life — and finish my water.”"The whole place is a staging area for emergency vehicles — Ambulances, Police cars, triage units set up. There are plenty of bloody people walking around, but if you could walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, well, then you have to be mostly all right.”

“Thankfully, I’m off Manhattan. Now I’m thinking about how to get home. People are incredibly generous. In the bedlam, some guy from Brooklyn offered me his bicycle, so I could get home.”

“Meanwhile, traffic on the Brooklyn side is heavy. My brother is a fireman in Queens, and I see if any of the fireguys working in the staging area know him. “Hey, you need a ride?” one asks me. Fireman are stopping cars. They ask the drivers “Who’s going to Queens? The Bronx? Who’s going to Long Island?” One Fireman asks me, “Where you going to, buddy?” I tell him.

“Is Commack close to you?” a fireman asks me. Close enough, I say. “Slide over, buddy” he says to a passenger, who makes room for me. I get in. We drive to Commack, mostly in silence. My wife meets me. I get to go home. I get to hug my kids . . . “


That’s Bill’s story, as he told it to me — on his cell phone as it happened, and over the phone today. When I spoke to him last night — there was an impromptu celebration at his place, full of relatives and neighbors. “A Celebration of Life” he called it.

Stories of New Yorkers pulling together abound. People spontaneously start cooking food; they set up service stations to feed the exhausted emergency workers. The next day, an impromptu crowd of cheering people line certain streets, applauding the Police and Firemen and EMS workers going to and from the scene. They hold up signs reading “Our Heroes” and “Bless You” and “We Will Survive.”

The image that stays with me is the smoky photo of 3 Firemen putting up the American flag over the remains of the Trade Center. It may end up being our generation’s Iwo Jima [3].

An instant, makeshift transportation system had appeared around all the outer crossings out of Manhattan. My Brother-in-Law — his office was a few blocks South of the Towers — told me how he (and a few co-workers) walked all the way from Downtown up the East side to the 59th Street Bridge. Halfway across the bridge, they get a lift in a van — driven by Arabs! Did we get into the wrong car, he wondered? “Its just terrible what happened,” the Middle Easterners mumble numbly as they drive on. On the bridge and on the Queen’s side, people offer assistance to each other. The Arabs drop them off at the Forest Hills railroad station. (But it turned out that no trains were running from there). Another person gives them a lift to Jamaica, a LIRR hub, where he catches a train home. Again, many tales of incredible compassion and generosity.

Miraculously, all of our colleagues who work — I guess I have to start saying worked — at Weatherly NYC, on the 29th floor of 2 World Trade Center got out of the building alive. Every one. We are thankful for their safety, but we are also greatly saddened and very, very angry. Saddened at the loss of life, Angry at the senseless destruction, Angry at the savage stupidity of this act.

Someone had said during the day that everyone in the industry knows someone who works in one of those buildings, and that is absolutely true. Outside of our own office, I know people at Cantor Fitzgerald, at Morgan Stanley, even an old girlfriend who worked at American Express.

The general gestalt in the media here is that we are at War. I do not know if that’s an over reaction, but a drumbeat for swift and terrible retribution has been steadily building. I wonder how “measured” the response will be.

I also get a strong sense that a slumbering giant has been awakened. We have foolishly tolerated much in the world, more annoyed than angered by small acts of hostility. No longer. More than the skyline in NY has been changed. You can feel, very palpably feel, a sense of resolve forming. Not from the elected officials, but from actual citizens. The story is already disseminating about the passengers who brought down the jet in Pennsylvania, the one aimed at the White House. It feels like we are now all in the military.

CBS Marketwatch editor-in-chief David Callaway [4] suggested the quote from Japanese Admiral Yamamoto after the bombing of Pearl Harbor: “I fear that all we have done is awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.” There is a sense this is greater than Pearl Harbor — an attack on a military base distant from the U.S. mainland. I suspect the National response to this will be greater than that one.

Its ironic that HBO’s Band of Brothers — a mini series tracing the World War II experiences of a group of young soldiers — started its run two days before this attack. It’s the story of a somewhat innocent country — changed by world events — rising to the occasion to confront an unspeakable horror.

One can only hope that a somewhat less innocent country — changed by world events — can also rise to the occasion to confront a different, unspeakable horror.

[5]

Postscript [6].


If you are curious about how this page came to be, please look here [7].

I’m gratified by how many of you have written to share your thoughts. Please send your comments on any of this here. [8]

I have gathered all of your responses — 160 megs worth — and posted them here [9].


For those of you who may have never seen the magnificence that was the World Trade Center in person, and hence, never will, this is the closest you can ever get: Trade Center Virtual Panorama [10]
A complete Weblog of the many, many comments, photos, news reports, 1st person accounts, commentary on the attack, from all over the web: San Jose Mercury News Attack Web Log [11]

I found this memorial site after the 3rd month anniversary of September 11th — from all places the US State Department [12].
Want to know how you can help? Donate cash, blood, help the relief efforts, whatever you can. For more information, see: Emergency and Relief Information in Wake of Terrorist Attack On U.S. [13]


Article printed from The Big Picture: http://www.ritholtz.com/blog

URL to article: http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2001/09/a-personal-recollection-from-a-day-of-horror/

URLs in this post:

[1] Geocities: http://www.geocities.com/ritholtz/bpr.html

[2] MapQuest: http://www.mapquest.com/

[3] Iwo Jima: http://www.geocities.com/ritholtz/nyfdiwojima.jpg

[4] David Callaway: http://cbs.marketwatch.com/news/story.asp?siteid=mktw&dist=mktwmore&guid=%7B194E2638%2D9B56%2D4342%2DAEBB%2D024C110B0198%7D

[5] : http://www.geocities.com/ritholtz/bps.html

[6] Postscript: http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2001/09/postscript/

[7] please look here: http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2001/09/how-this-page-happened/

[8] here.: mailto:Ritholtz@aol.com?SUBJECT=Re:%20comments%20on%20your%20Personal%20Recollection

[9] here: http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2001/09/feedback/

[10] Trade Center Virtual Panorama: http://www.newyork.com/vny/panorama/tour3a.html

[11] San Jose Mercury News Attack Web Log: http://www.siliconvalley.com/news/special/attack/blog.html

[12] US State Department: http://usinfo.state.gov/topical/pol/terror/album/newyork/

[13] Emergency and Relief Information in Wake of Terrorist Attack On U.S. : http://dailynews.yahoo.com/fc/US/Emergency_Information/

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