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The morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 started off like any other work day for me…and more importantly for my New York-based business partners and employees. My office was in downtown Chicago, but our NYC office was at the northwest corner of Rector Street and Trinity Place, just across Trinity from the old Trinity Church cemetery.
As usual, I was watching CNBC, shortly after the market open, as I was a partner in an options market-making firm and in charge of our Chicago operations.
CNBC cut to news of an airplane crashing into one of the Twin Towers. I immediately picked up the phone and called my business partner, Steve, whose office windows faced in the direction of the World Trade Center.
Not surprisingly, Steve had no real information; nobody did. We didn’t know whether it was an accident or an attack, and it was still well before either tower collapsed.
But while I was on the phone with Steve, trying to keep him updated on anything I could gather from the news as he dealt with the increasing local chaos, he saw the second plane fly by and heard it crash into the South Tower.
Although it took nearly an hour for the South Tower to collapse (it fell before the North Tower), that time — which must have seemed like an eternity on that day — seems to me now like the blink of an eye, and I really remember nothing of it except that Steve said some of our employees were walking over to the towers to see what was going on. I remember hearing later that some of my employees witnessed the gruesomeness of people throwing themselves out of high windows to get away from the flames.
I hung up with Steve for a while, but called back shortly before the tower collapsed and (at least, this is how I remember it) was on the phone with him as he started describing to me how his building was shaking and a few windows were cracking. I heard Steve yell out into the office to tell all the employees to take cover as Steve himself got under a desk. Fortunately, the building’s structural integrity held as one tower, then the other, collapsed a short distance away.
As for this part, I don’t remember whether I was on the phone with Steve (which I doubt) or whether he told me afterwards — after all, phone service was soon lost and cell phone service was overwhelmed.
Power was lost and people who were managing the building told Steve that the NY Fire Department had told them to keep everybody in the building.
Thus, Steve and a couple dozen of our employees (we had more, but most of them were out of the building already) were stuck in the building for some hours. Eventually, FDNY personnel came to get them and led them out. They walked through dust and debris that came up to nearly knee-high, and Steve remains convinced to this day that he saw body parts.
The usual routes home were mostly unavailable. Steve and others got to the Staten Island Ferry, which was still running, and got off Manhattan. After many hours, Steve was eventually able to get home. He was understandably in shock the next time we spoke. I can’t imagine — and don’t want to imagine — going through what he went through. The area of our office was uninhabitable for weeks, but the stock market closed for just the rest of the week, opening on Monday. So our New York personnel moved to Philadelphia for a while, and the Philadelphia Stock Exchange created a place for American Stock Exchange traders to work. I managed the traders from Chicago in one of the most difficult work experiences of my life, but something that was a tiny inconvenience and effort compared to what our NY traders and employees were going through.
Time seems to have mostly healed the wounds of those terrible hours and days for my friends and former colleagues. But even for me — and I wasn’t even there — an indelible mark remains with the images of falling bodies, debris-filled streets, and people diving under desks as building windows cracked around them.
We were incredibly fortunate that none of our employees suffered serious injury or death that day, but no doubt a different sort of scar remains for many of them.
My thoughts are with everybody who lost a loved one on that terrible day, and with the heroic first responders who risked life and limb to do what could be done.
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