Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September 11, 2001 - 12 Years Later

Here's a partial summary of my account of the morning of September 11, 2001, including an email that I sent from my Manhattan apartment that afternoon.  I post this, or an expanded version of it, every year on this date.


The morning of September 11, 2001 began like most other mornings for me at the time.  I woke at 6:30 am and spent 32 minutes riding my exercise bicycle in my living room on East 18th Street in Manhattan while watching TV.  I then showered and got ready for work at AIG’s downtown offices.  Every morning, just before leaving my apartment, I’d rip a page off my horoscope-of-the-day calendar to see what the stars were predicting for me.  This routine was attributable to my mother, who passed away in 1993.  She used to put a horoscope-of-the-day calendar into my Christmas stocking every year starting in about 1980.  After my mother died, my sister Maria continued the tradition.  My guess is that I had read my daily horoscope almost every morning for 21 consecutive years.
That day, something very strange happened even before I left my apartment.  I was about to rip off September 10th’s page to read the new day’s prediction when I said to myself, for no discernible reason, “The world is different now, I’m not going to read horoscopes anymore, I don’t believe in them.”  With that thought, I unceremoniously threw the entire calendar into the garbage.  This was the first time in 21 years that I knowingly refused to read my daily horoscope.

Outside on Third Avenue I flagged a cab and headed south to my office at AIG in the financial district, in keeping with my routine.  I want to emphasize here that I don’t claim to have ESP or any special ability to see the future, but there was an unusual aspect to my commute.  Riding down Third Avenue (which turns into Bowery Street in lower Manhattan), there was a point in Chinatown, called Chatham Square, where the Twin Towers would become visible from the cab after being obscured earlier by buildings.  In my mind’s eye, I would regularly imagine the Towers exploding from a high floor just as I entered Chatham Square.  I didn’t know what would cause an explosion and I certainly never thought that a plane would be responsible.  Nonetheless, I was envisioning a large eruption of gray and black smoke.  This vision was the only reason that I knew the name of Chatham Square (whose sign was rather obscured): I felt strongly that someday it would be an important detail and I took special note of it.  Over the previous three years, whenever I’d arrive in Chatham Square to see the Towers unharmed I would literally breathe a sigh of relief.  Even on September 11, 2001 I had that (false) sense of security upon seeing them intact.    

My next significant memory of that morning occurred shortly before 9 am.  My home phone service had inexplicably been malfunctioning for a few days and I finally got around to calling Verizon.  I was dialing customer service when a colleague, Jason Brown, entered my office to tell me that he heard on the radio that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center Towers.  I looked out my office window and saw dense clouds of paper fluttering high across the sky towards Brooklyn.  It reminded me of the many ticker tape parades that I had seen along lower Broadway after a championship season or during a world dignitary’s visit.  But I knew there was no parade that day.  Something was wrong.    

A bunch of us went downstairs to get a better look.  Standing on the sidewalk in front of 175 Water Street with an ever-growing crowd of upward-looking gawkers (much like the throngs in a 1950s science fiction film watching descending UFOs on a city street), I remember thinking, or perhaps hoping, that helicopters with fire hoses would show up…of course, they didn’t.  

Mesmerized, a colleague, John Feniello, shook his head and said, “That fire is going to burn for days.”  Of course, he had no idea, nor did I, that the fire would burn not for mere days but for months – but not high in the sky, rather much lower, among the ruins of the Towers.  But it seemed logical at the time; it was the only thing that we could believe.

When the second plane hit the South Tower, any doubts I had that this was a terrorist attack were immediately erased.  We knew the country was under attack.  Shrill screams could be heard and genuine panic started to set in, even though the worst was yet to come.  Security guards announced that our building was closing for the day and told everyone to leave the area immediately.  Much of the crowd started heading toward the ferries that were gathering at the foot of Wall Street.  Others started walking uptown toward subways or buses that might, or might not, be in service.  People also began walking across several bridges to escape the city. 

It was a horror movie coming to life.

But I couldn’t leave, not at first anyway.  I wanted to watch the firefighters battling the blazes.  There’s no rational explanation, but I didn’t want to move until I knew that the situation was under control.  

After a while of just staring up at the Towers, I heard a deep rumbling, like gigantic concrete bowling pins colliding.  The noise didn’t last long, maybe five seconds at most.  Before I knew what was happening, the South Tower slipped down out of my sight.  It just disappeared…like a high-rise house of cards, its base kicked out from under it by an angry child.  Moments later, the three-story building in front of us stood taller than the 110-story tower in the distance that had just been compressed back into its foundation.  It was the sickest feeling, one that I don’t think I can quite explain.  I saw it and I heard it and I felt it but I still can’t believe it.  The Twin Towers seemed like the 100-year-old oak trees in your front yard: they couldn’t be moved or bent.  If anything, they held up the sky.  They anchored lower Manhattan and provided a sense of direction for every New Yorker who’d ever lost his bearings.         

The collapse and disintegration of the South Tower seared my brain.  I sincerely hope that I never see anything as stomach-churning again.  People around me started screaming and crying.  Everyone on the sidewalk knew someone who was in the Towers – a relative, a friend or a business acquaintance. Some people threw down briefcases and started running.  I kept staring in shock.  At that instant, I think everyone on the sidewalk knew that we had just witnessed the death of an unimaginable number of people.  It occurred to me almost instantly that even the most battle-hardened soldiers never see so many people killed in a single instant.  The aircrews who dropped the atomic bombs in World War II were not five blocks away at ground level when their payloads did their dirty work.  And five blocks was relatively far in a sense; hundreds of firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians and other heroes were right on site.  One firefighter later described the scene in this way: “Everything was on fire, everything you saw was burning.  It was what I imagine Hell to be like.”

Quickly, certainly more quickly than I’d have imagined, a thick white cloud of smoke came rolling at us.  It was a five-story-tall fog and it was moving fast.  For a few seconds I froze.  The bright September sky was being obscured.  Then a guy not ten feet away from me breathlessly shouted “Run…ground smoke…it could kill us!”

I suddenly realized that there might have been deadly chemicals in the plane.  There was no rational basis for this belief; but then again, nobody knew anything for sure at that point.  The frenzy spread instantly: people dropped briefcases and bags and started running, screaming, just trying to get away from the smoke as quickly as possible.  I remember thinking, “Those bastards, they might get me too, this could be how I die…” The fear of death was real and it was everywhere. 

About two or three hundred of us ran straight toward the East River, only a block away, and then north past the South Street Seaport.  I’ve since heard that some people actually jumped into the river to avoid the smoke but I didn’t see that.  As we ran up the closed FDR Expressway the dense white fallout followed us.  We formed a seemingly endless herd of stampeding business suits.  Burning smells and the piercing screams of emergency vehicles joined to assault our senses.  It was a war zone, although until that moment I don’t think that I had ever actually thought to imagine one.  The word that describes it best and one which I’ve never truly experienced before: Bedlam.  

I was alternately running and walking with four coworkers as we headed to my apartment about two miles away on 18th Street.  A friend from San Francisco who was in town on business, in the lobby of the North Tower when the first plane hit, had – by some unbelievable stroke of good luck – noticed me amidst all the confusion and joined our group. When we were about halfway up the FDR, a guy who had been listening to a hand-held radio via earphone yelled out “The second tower just fell.”  People gasped but we all just kept running.  A few looked back.

When we got to my apartment, I wanted to tell the outside world the names of those who were safe.  However, I still had a dead home phone and cell phone service was, at best, sporadic.  Fortunately, my computer’s internet connection was working so I sat down and composed a message to everyone in my e-mail address book.  To this day, many years later, I have not re-read that e-mail because I know that it will bring back many painful memories.  But, I later learned, it was forwarded around the globe to those interested in first-hand accounts of the events in New York City on that dark day.  My friend’s wife, who is an elementary school teacher, said that she used it in her classes as an example of a first-person account of September 11th.  Here is that note:


Sent: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 12:58 PM

Bcc: Everyone in my address book
Subject: The Surreal Events of Today
I am shaking like a leaf in a windstorm as I type this.  I cannot believe the events of today, as I'm sure you can't. I was in my office at 8:50 this morning when a colleague came in and said
that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center and papers were flying everywhere.  I looked out the window of my office and saw a ticker-tape-parade type stream of papers flittering across the sky.  After a few short minutes and various reports, some erroneous, a group of us descended in the elevator to the ground floor of our building, where we exited and looked to the left a bit where we saw Two World Trade Center, five blocks away, ablaze from the top third of the building.  It was unreal.  The black smoke and red flames framed against a clear blue sky.

The crowd on the sidewalk grew exponentially until we were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, at least 300 people staring upwards.  One of my colleagues had just been in the lobby of One World Trade when the plane hit. He said smoke immediately came shooting down the elevator shafts and filled the lobby as people exited in terror. Pandemonium.  He ran back to our
building, covered with soot, where he stood with us to watch in horror. We all stood around gaping at the flames, not aware of any possible danger to us.  I sat and thought about how many people I know in those two towers who have no doubt perished.  I'm aware of at least seven people from my subsidiary of AIG who were in one tower on a high floor.  We do a lot of
business with Aon, an insurance broker on the top three or four floors of Two World Trade Center.  As I type this, emergency vehicles are swirling by on the street outside my apartment on 18th Street.  The massive cloud where the WTC used to stand is visible out my living room window.

As we watched the flames, after about twenty minutes, all of a sudden World Trade Center Tower One, which we could only see above the 40th floor or so ,collapsed before our eyes.  It was the sickest, most surreal, most stomach-churning thing that I have ever seen in my life.  My nerves became electrified, in a bad way, and I felt almost like I would collapse as well. Other people did. People started crying and getting hysterical, obviously because they knew people in WTC One and/or know any of the many, many police and firemen and rescue workers who were in and around the building trying to extinguish the fire and save lives.  I just heard the mayor on the radio and he said he can't even get a rough estimate of how many firemen and police and EMTs died in the two WTC Tower collapses, he just said the number would be very large, staggering.

This whole day is unfathomable.  

As I type this I continue to shake.  I think about all the people who I know in those two towers and I can feel tears well up. There will be far too many funerals to attend.  Many bodies, I'm sure, will never be identified.  It is unbelievable.  At least 50 to 100 people I know died today.  Can you imagine that?  Unless you're in a war, which I think we will be soon, that doesn't
happen.  Many of you too, if not all, are in a similar situation, maybe you know even more who passed.  Hopefully many of our friends and acquaintances were away on business or vacation, or running late.  Our lives are changed forever and I don't think I'm being dramatic in saying that.

A few seconds after WTC One collapsed, a large, probably five-story high plume of white smoke erupted, far denser than any fog I'd seen living in San Francisco.  All of a sudden, someone yelled "ground smoke, run, it can kill us!" and people began panicking, although, I must say it was a controlled panic if there can be such a thing.  Hundreds of people began running, although not trampling each other, actually helping each other to some extent.  Although one friend of mine asked a car service to give him a ride to Westchester (the car was empty but for the driver) and he said, "Sure, $2,000."  I'll let that statement stand as its own condemnation of mankind, or at least one (hopefully small) segment of mankind.

As we walked/ran up the East Side under the FDR, past the South Street Seaport, the white cloud of deep dust/soot/whatever, followed us intently.  It was moving at a good pace and, I must say, I feared for my life briefly, either from dying of smoke inhalation or being trampled.  I don't think I was
alone in that feeling, it was very, very scary, and my words don't do it justice.  We continued running and walking up the East Side, myself and four co-workers.  All of a sudden I heard someone say "Larry Goanos!"  I looked and it was Fran Higgins, a friend from San Fransisco who's brother-in-law, John Doyle, works with me at AIG.  He was scheduled to be in a meeting at Two WTC at 9 am and was running late, it took him an extra hour to get in from his sister's house in Westchester and he was in the lobby when the first plane hit.  He ran outside and saw debris falling and three people actually jumping off high floors in order to kill themselves via the impact rather than await being burned by the intense flames.  Reports are that many other people jumped as well.  Fran didn't know where to go so I invited him to join me in the trek to my apartment about two miles north.  He had two heavy bags but lumbered on.  His father narrowly missed the bombing at WTC in 1992. Two bullets dodged by his family at the WTC.   

Cell phones weren't working. People were screaming out names.  It was sick (to re-use a phrase again and again; it is, sadly, the most appropriate.) The FDR expressway was closed.  People were running everywhere, keeping an eye on the large cloud following us.  Some were ready to jump into the East River to escape the smoke if need be.  As we got about six or eight blocks up the FDR someone who had an earphone of a radio in their ear reported that WTC 2 had just collapsed as well.  The whole thing was the sickest, most twisted, surreal, screwed up thing that I had ever heard or imagined.  

Eventually we made our way to my friend Jim Riely's place on East 22nd Street. As fate would have it, my phone had gone out of service last night and I was going to call Verizon to fix it this morning.  My cell was working only in spots because of the great strain on the system.  At Jim's we found Jim, Dan O'Connell, Colleen Dempsey (Doreen, Jim's wife, works uptown and ,I'm sure, is safe) and Chris Doyle, Jim's partner.  Because a lot of you know a lot of these people, here are the names of people who I know are safe beside those above (a lot of phones are down but my internet cable connection is working, at least for now): Dennis Gustafson, Rose Mosca, Peter Wessel, John Feniello, Sandy Nalewajk, Kirk Raslowsky and Jennifer Raslowsky and their young daughter Alexandra (who they were just about to drop off in day care at the WTC when the first plane hit; they made it our office in tears, clothes askew, Kirk had just thrown down his briefcase, grabbed his wife and daughter, and ran) John Iannotti, Ray DeCarlo, Greg Flood, Mike
Mitrovic, Kris Moor, John Doyle, Susan Eagan, Gail Mazarolle, Dawn Paolino.

If you know any of their families and don't know if they've been contacted, please call them if your phone works.  

Many more are safe, I'm sure, it was just hard to get a gauge with all the smoke and pandemonium.  There are now six of us in my apartment watching CNN.
I stopped and picked up more bottled water on the way here because people were saying there are rumors of chemical warfare and possible contamination in the water (probably not true but why take a chance.)  Things seem to be calming down a bit now (I've been taking a break between typing to let others send e-mails) but I'm sure our lives will never be the same.  The tranquility of life in America has been shattered, we have been dragged into the trenches with the rest of the world.  Our soil is no longer sacred, protected ground.  Anyway, the people who I've mentioned are all safe, as am I.  God bless America and God bless us all.  
Excerpted from "Claims Made and Reported: A Journey Through D&O, E&O and Other Professional Lines of Insurance," 2008; Soho Publishing, New York 376 Pages (