Thursday, September 11, 2014

September 11, 2001

Memories of September 11, 2001

It's hard to believe that 13 years have passed since that horrific day in September of 2001. Thirteen years. In a way, it seems like it occurred a lifetime ago, but in another way, it feels like it was yesterday. 

I was in my office in downtown Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001, about five blocks away from the World Trade Center.  Shortly before the first anniversary, I sat at my computer and wrote 21 pages of stories and remembrances about things that occurred on that day and in the year that followed. I had rejected all offers of grief counseling, preferring instead to cry, by myself, periodically. My stubbornness may have been a mistake at the time, but I'm the son of a native of "the old country," Greece, who only went to the doctor when he had an appendage to present for re-attachment. Actually, I don't think he would've gone even then. So writing about what I'd experienced was, I believe, my therapy. 

I had a feeling, as I was memorializing those stories, that one day they'd appear in a book. Six years later, I published a volume on the professional lines insurance industry, and those stories comprised the bulk of the chapter on September 11th. 

A large number of people employed in the commercial insurance industry perished on that day, including friends and former colleagues of mine. 

There are many memories that I didn't record in those 21 pages; maybe someday I'll reduce those to writing as well. It was a very surreal time in the lives of most Americans. 

The first event which made me realize how screwed up things had become was when, on September 12th, I saw a Michigan State Police car cruising along Third Avenue in Gramercy Park, half a block from where I lived. Did New York City really need help from the Michigan State Police? I'll also never forget emerging from my normal downtown subway stop on the way to work in the weeks after 9-11 and seeing the remaining shell of the World Trade Center Towers smoldering. The entire Ground Zero site emitted an odor of burnt wire and rubber. During the first couple of days, I had to show my business card to heavily-armed National Guard troops in order to be allowed into the area where my office was. 

One of the more emotional moments, at a time when they came almost non-stop, washed over me as I spoke on the phone with a Hertz representative while trying to rent a car. It was a couple of days after September 11th and I wanted to drive from Manhattan to my sister's house at the Jersey Shore. When the Oklahoma-based rental agent realized that I was calling from Manhattan and had been living through the 9-11 tragedy and its aftermath, she suddenly dropped her businesslike tone. 

"What's it like up there? Are you OK? Can we do anything else to help you?" 

Her genuine concern and kindness struck a chord deep within me. It was at that moment that I took a break from thinking about the craziness of Manhattan to realize that September 11th was not a New York catastrophe, or a Pennsylvania or Pentagon catastrophe, but truly a national catastrophe that affected every single American in a profound way. Those who were close to the events of that terrible day have no special ownership of the 9-11 tragedy or an enhanced right to receive sympathy. All of our lives were changed immeasurably by those events. Some of us, I believe, have a duty to report what we experienced so that other Americans, current and future, may have a better idea of what transpired on that fateful day which is fading further into our figurative rearview mirrors.  

With that in mind, below is the entire September 11th chapter of my book, reprinted on The LG Report in September 2014 for the first time in its entirety. 


May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

Bruce Springsteen “Into the Fire [1]

VIII.        September 11, 2001  

[Note: This chapter is a revision of a piece that I wrote just prior to the first anniversary of September 11, 2001, well before I knew that I would be writing this book.  I attempted to memorialize many of the events that I had seen and heard about on September 11th and during the year following that unfathomable tragedy. Given that so many commercial insurance people died on that dreadful day, I thought it appropriate to include those writings in this book.  One-quarter of this book’s net proceeds will be donated to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.]


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.[2]  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 20 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
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.  


*          *          *
My friend Dennis and I met twenty five years ago, when we were both in college.  He came to live for a summer with the Campaniles, close family friends of ours who live down the block from my childhood home at the Jersey Shore.  A Virginia native, Dennis was interning for the summer with Kidder, Peabody on Wall Street.  He is now Father Dennis, a Catholic priest in the New York Archdiocese.  One of Father Dennis’s good friends, Father George, was an auxiliary chaplain with the New York City Fire Department in September of 2001.  He was summoned to the World Trade Center shortly after the first plane hit on the morning of September 11th.  That day, I was told, marked the first time in the history of the New York City Fire Department that all 30 auxiliary chaplains were summoned to a single fire.  They gathered at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street, about two blocks north of the burning towers. 

Father George said that virtually every fire truck racing to the World Trade Center stopped at St. Peter’s so that the crews could confess their sins (the majority of NYC firefighters are Roman Catholic) before charging into the flaming buildings.  The commanders admonished their subordinates to skip confession because of the magnitude and urgency of the situation, but the rank-and-file firefighters paid no heed.  These men forced almost every truck to stop at the St. Peter’s on what would be the final fire call for most of them.  Father George sensed that these brave men did not necessarily foresee the Twin Towers collapsing, but they knew that they would very likely lose their lives saving others and they wanted to square up with God first.  So many firefighters stopped for this final holy sacrament – despite the unprecedented importance of their mission – that the priests had to absolve them of their sins en masse as they jumped off the trucks.  There was no time for individual confessions.  These courageous public servants knew that they were going to die, and yet they pressed onward to discharge their duties.  In the face of the fiercest fires anyone had ever seen, they had no thoughts of their own safety, only of saving others.  Ironically, St. Peter is believed to usher the deceased through the Gates of Heaven.  Perhaps on September 11, 2001 his work began for 343 firefighters at a church bearing his name.        

I have not seen the story above – every word of which I believe true – anywhere in the media.  Despite that, I think it’s an important account to record.  The same holds true for most of the other entries in this chapter, collected during that fateful day and in the year that limped along behind it.  In most cases I have not changed the temporal references so that it’s clear these were the thoughts of someone writing just a year after September 11, 2001.  Every New Yorker, and every American, has vivid recollections of personal experiences connected to those attacks on our nation.  As we all know, it was not merely a New York tragedy or a Washington, DC tragedy or a Pennsylvania tragedy; it was an American tragedy which left no citizen untouched.  This chapter is one New Yorker’s attempt at documenting some of the events of that horrific day and its aftermath in the following year.

*          *          *

Life in This City

The twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed nearly a year ago, yet the events of that day still seem surreal, as if they did not occur in this world but rather in some staggering nightmare.  Memories of that day return to me in slow-moving waves, much as, I would imagine, a passenger might remember the final seconds of a car crash that left him unconscious.  I still cannot fathom that nearly 3,000 people died in Lower Manhattan.  And, of course, many others perished at the Pentagon and in a plane forced down by the hand of American bravery in a Pennsylvania field.

No matter where you live in the United States (and even in many places around the world), chances are you were affected by 9/11 for quite some time – possibly even to this day.  But living in New York City no doubt imbued the events with a special significance.  New Yorkers moved among the acrid smell of burning wire and rubber and a host of unidentified substances until at least November and, depending upon how close you were to Ground Zero and the sensitivity of your olfactory senses, even longer.  New Yorkers personally knew and loved more 9-11 victims than the inhabitants of any other community.

If you lived in Manhattan in the autumn of 2001 you saw close-up the faces of thousands of missing World Trade Center victims on flyers posted by desperate relatives hoping that their loved ones had somehow survived and were either wandering around dazed or were lying unconscious in a hospital.  There were pictures of people at backyard barbecues wielding oversized utensils and flashing grins as big as the hot dogs on the grill…people on boats proudly holding a fish aloft in one hand and a sweating beer in the other…people in wedding garb enjoying their new matrimonial status that, to them, probably seemed like it would have no end...people hoisting up their young children proudly for the camera or simply hugging their older ones.  Some of the victims’ posters were so pervasive, hung in every available spot by desperate relatives, that you couldn’t help but feel you knew the person when his or her obituary finally hit the newspaper and internet.  Tens of thousands of people throughout the New York Metropolitan Area – perhaps hundreds of thousands – attended memorial services that overflowed with mourners wilting under the heavy sorrow of each successive gathering. The decedent’s young children, frequently squirming and jumping in the front row of the house of worship, almost always appeared oblivious to their loss.

Many of my friends and colleagues went to grief counseling in the aftermath of the tragedy.  During the three or four months immediately following September 11th I would occasionally break into spontaneous fits of crying, more often than not when I was alone with my thoughts at home.  I grieved for the friends I had lost and for the even greater loss of many others.  I also grieved for our pre-9/11 way of life, which I knew had been lost forever.   I had intended to drop in for one of the many grief counseling sessions that were being offered at work and around the city but somehow I never quite got around to it.  Perhaps as a substitute for therapy, I chose to record, from my perspective, some of the stories associated with that horrible day.  I’ve experienced a few of these firsthand and others I’ve learned about through trusted sources.  In no particular order, here they are.

*          *          *


Pete Sullivan used to work with me at AIG, a large insurance company headquartered in downtown Manhattan. He left about a year ago to join another insurance carrier and had recently taken a new job at Aon, an insurance brokerage with offices high in the South Tower.  I had been in those offices many times and can distinctly remember feeling the building swaying in high winds and being told that it was actually designed to sway.  It also creaked a bit, like an old pirate ship.   

One of my first thoughts as I stood on the sidewalk looking up at the two burning Towers was of Pete.  Then I thought of his wife and young triplets.  “I hope and pray he got out of there,” I remember thinking to myself. 

I knew probably 100 people working in the Towers and for no particular reason, I thought of Pete first.  A few minutes later, I looked about 30 feet away from me, and through the thickening crowd I saw Pete standing on the curb in front of our building, wearing casual clothes.  Aon permitted casual business dress every day but that thought hadn’t occurred to me.  I was very happy that he was safe, although I was confused about his casual attire and thought I might be hallucinating in the turmoil. I looked at Pete three times to make sure it was him because I couldn’t believe that I had been thinking of him and then he appeared, miraculously, 30 feet away, minutes later.

I never got to speak to Pete that day in all the commotion.  I did, however, see him about three weeks later at the wedding of a mutual friend.  When I first saw him at the reception, I hugged him and told him that I had seen him on the morning of September 11th and was very glad that he was safe.  He recounted his ordeal.

“I was late for work that morning,” he said, “I stayed home to help my wife with the babies a little longer than usual.  I was just arriving at the World Trade Center plaza when the first plane hit.  I heard a loud noise and looked up and saw the debris starting to fall.  So I ran across the street in front of One Liberty Plaza to get my bearings and to figure out what was going on.  Before long I saw people jumping out of windows.  I have some friends who are firemen and cops and they tell me that when someone commits suicide by jumping from six or eight stories up, the bodies hit the pavement and bounce.  These bodies, coming from 80 or more stories up, were hitting the pavement and disappearing.  The impact was so great that all that was left was pink foam on the concrete. No heads, no arms, no bodies.  Nothing was left.  That was three weeks ago.  Every night since then when I close my eyes to go to sleep all I see is those bodies hitting the pavement.”

*          *          *

My Last Visit

During the last weekend of August 2001 my sister Maria’s friend Patty came to visit New York City from Gainesville, Georgia.  Patty brought along a friend and colleague who worked with her as a nurse at a hospital in Gainesville.  Patty had moved from the Jersey Shore to Georgia to take advantage of the low-cost college education for in-state residents.  Patty’s friend had never been to New York City

Maria had asked me to show them around New York.  I met the women at Penn Station and took them sightseeing.  It was a sunny day.  We wandered from Times Square to the Upper West Side then over to Central Park.  After that we took a subway downtown, where we found ourselves at the World Trade Center.  It was a typical quiet Sunday downtown in the financial district.  Not many people were on the streets.  The three of us walked through the World Trade Center Plaza, looking up at the Towers.  I asked them if they wanted to go to the observation deck in the South Tower.  They said that they did.  We entered and walked toward an admissions booth.  A sign announced that there was an $8.00 fee.    

The women didn’t think it would be worth $8.00 so we turned away.  I had gone up only once, many years earlier, but I figured it was no big deal because I would undoubtedly have many more chances.  We headed off toward my office at 175 Water Street, from which the visitors could take in a free view of the East River, the Brooklyn Bridge, and other sights of the city. 

Late on the morning of September 11th Patty called my sister from Georgia, concerned for my safety.  Maria, when I finally got through to her on my cell phone in the early afternoon, sternly informed me that I would be moving back to the Jersey Shore, where I would open a small law practice.  It hasn’t yet happened.

*          *          *

Two of the Fortunate

If you worked for the bond-trading firm of Cantor Fitzgerald at the World Trade Center and were in the office at 8:43 that horrific morning, you didn’t survive. Cantor was in the first building hit.  It was located on floors above the plane’s point of impact.  Nearly 700 Cantor employees died.  My group at AIG insured Cantor Fitzgerald for professional liability losses.  I had  been to Cantor’s offices for a series of meetings about a year or so earlier to discuss their professional liability insurance program.  When we were allowed back into our office building a week after the attacks, I pulled out the business cards of my Cantor contacts and spread them on my desk.  I realized that most, if not all of these people, were dead.  I have not crosschecked those cards with the list of casualties for particular names.

Recently, however, I did hear about two very fortunate employees of Cantor.  One had been called to an unscheduled meeting at Goldman, Sachs about a half hour before the first plane hit.  The other had a client arrive in the WTC lobby without a driver’s license or any other ID.  As a result, WTC Security procedures required a tenant of the building to come to the lobby to vouch for the visitor.  The Cantor executive was going to send his secretary down, but since she was pregnant at the time, he decided to fetch his visitor himself.  He was in the lobby signing in the visitor when the first plane hit.  The forgotten ID had saved two lives. 

*          *          *

The Fatal Meeting

The two largest commercial insurance brokerage firms, and the ones that I have the most dealings with in my job, are Marsh and Aon.  Both of these firms lost many people in the attacks.  The first plane hit directly into the Marsh offices in the North Tower (the company’s worldwide headquarters is in midtown but it had approximately 1,800 employees in the World Trade Center.)  Someone told me that a friend came out of his office on Wall Street immediately after the first plane hit and noticed that all the stationery raining down displayed the Marsh letterhead.

Marsh lost 296 employees that day; 295 in their offices and one colleague on the American Airlines flight jet that was the first to hit.

Aon, located in the South Tower, lost nearly 200 people.  Most of these either didn’t evacuate after the first plane hit the North Tower or they had started down and went back to their offices after hearing an announcement, supposedly, over the building’s PA system that said it was safe to return to offices in the South Tower because the fire was contained in the other building. 

My employer at the time, AIG, lost “only” two of thousands of its employees in Lower Manhattan on September 11th.  Both men were in Aon’s offices at a meeting to discuss the property insurance renewal for Pfizer, the large pharmaceutical company.  Everyone in the conference room for that meeting had begun to evacuate after the North Tower was hit but, apparently, headed back after hearing the “All is safe” announcement.  Word is that the meeting had been postponed a number of times because of scheduling conflicts and the participants felt that they had to press forward to complete it while they had the opportunity.  

*          *          *

The Call

My friend John works at Marsh’s world headquarters in midtown at Sixth Avenue and 45th Street.  On the morning of September 11th he and his colleagues heard the reports of a plane crash and looked out their midtown windows to see the flames and smoke consuming the WTC North Tower that housed additional Marsh offices.  Frantic calls to coworkers in the World Trade Center went unanswered. 

By early afternoon Marsh management decided to survey their World Trade Center employees’ families to determine who was accounted for and who wasn’t.  They asked for volunteers to call employees’ homes to see if they had checked in with their families.  John, wanting to help out in some way, volunteered.  He was given a list of names and phone numbers.  He called the first few numbers and got only answering machines.  Then a woman finally answered at one residence. “Hi, this is John, I work for Marsh,” he began, “I’m calling to see if your husband has contacted you to say he’s OK.” 

The woman who answered the phone began crying.  “I thought you were him,” she said through her tears. She hadn’t yet heard from her husband.  John gave the woman two Marsh hotline numbers.  His stomach twisted into a knot as he hung up the phone.  John dialed another couple of numbers but then turned in his list, unable to make any more calls.

*          *          *


One evening in late September 2001 my friends John and Coco Rudolf invited me to a party at their friends’ loft apartment in SoHo.  It was a spectacular apartment, roomy with a large roof deck and well decorated with the proceeds of a high-tech IPO.  We were on the roof deck with about eight other people, sipping wine and chatting, when someone mentioned that the Twin Towers used to be clearly visible from that spot.  Nobody said a word for what seemed like ten minutes.  

Later, back inside, I spoke with a woman who was a physician’s assistant at Bellevue hospital.  She said that after the Towers collapsed a call went out for all available medical personnel in the area to report to the disaster site.  She arrived at the scene shortly thereafter and was given body bags and told to help gather up human remains as quickly as she could.  “After three hours,” she said, “I was physically tired from putting human heads into body bags.  They were everywhere.”

*          *          *

The Morgue

My friend Fr. Dennis answered the Archdiocese’s call for priests to volunteer at the makeshift morgue that had been set up at Ground Zero.  The list of volunteers was so long that it was almost a month before his turn finally came.   At 5 a.m. on a Tuesday morning a fire truck arrived at his rectory to drive him to Ground Zero.  Firemen and police from all over had been pouring into Manhattan to help out and, as fate would have it, the truck that gave Fr. Dennis his ride was from his home state of Virginia.  Fr. Dennis had grown up in Richmond and this truck and its crewmen were from that vicinity.

The on-site morgue had two priests on duty at all times (rotating shifts among the legion of volunteers) who would confer a blessing on the deceased bodies (actually, body parts in the vast majority of cases) while a third priest would roam the grounds counseling rescue workers as they went about their grim labor. The great majority of New York City Firefighters are Catholic and, as such, Fire Department commanders only permitted Catholic priests to man the morgue that would oversee the remains of their fallen brothers.  Apparently, there was no place for political correctness among the ruins. 

Fr. Dennis told me that during the eight hours that he was on site he blessed no entire bodies in tact.  Parts of bodies were all that he saw.  Firemen would appear at the door of the morgue with a handful of internal organs seeking a blessing for the disembodied human remains.  If the firefighters digging through the rubble believed that they found the remains of a fellow firefighter or a police officer, a priest would be summoned from the morgue to confer the blessing at the site where the remains were found.  This special ritual was a sign of respect for the uniformed heroes and Fr. Dennis was expected to offer up something more than the normal blessing that would be conferred on a civilian.  One such blessing was done on what appeared to Fr. Dennis to be the remains of a person’s shoulder and part of an arm.  Somehow the firemen were able to discern that this was one of their own, although Fr. Dennis couldn’t figure out how.  

All of the workers at Ground Zero at that time, including the priests, were instructed to wear gas masks to protect themselves against the potentially harmful fumes.  The burning odor was still quite pungent and palpable.  Fr. Dennis took off his gas mask each time he invoked a blessing in order to preserve the dignity of the religious act and to show respect for the victim whose remains he was blessing.

*          *          *

Yankees Tickets

In the autumn of 2001 the New York Yankees were in the hunt for their 27th World Series Championship.  I was also in a hunt – to refinance the mortgage on for my two-bedroom coop to a lower rate.  The government was attempting to stimulate the post-September 11th economy by, among other things, dropping interest rates steadily.  My mortgage broker, Tom, came down from Westchester County to have me sign some papers in preparation for the closing of the loan.  Tom had previously told me that one of his cousins, a senior executive at Cantor Fitzgerald who earned about $5 million a year, had died in the terrorist attacks.

After I signed all of the papers in my Lower Manhattan office, Tom and I went to lunch at The Swan, a bar/grill near the AIG office. “Lar,” he said, “Do you know where there’s a firehouse near here?”  I told him I did.  “I have season tickets for the Yankees and I have two tickets here for Sunday night’s playoff game against the A’s and I don’t really feel like going, I’m not in the mood.  I’d like to walk over and give them to two of the firemen.”  I offered to accompany him.

We walked over to a firehouse just off Fulton Street, about four blocks from Ground Zero.  As we approached, we saw the black and purple bunting draped above the garage door and a hand made poster displaying the photos of men, about eight, who were lost on 9/11 from this particular firehouse.  Tom approached a firefighter who was standing in the doorway and asked to see the captain.  A few minutes later, a guy in his mid-forties with a medium build came walking down the stairs to talk to us.

Tom introduced himself, and me, and told the Captain that he had two tickets to Sunday night’s Yankees playoff game that he couldn’t use and that he’d like to give them to two firefighters who might appreciate them.  The captain stared at the tickets in disbelief.   “These are for the playoffs…in Yankee Stadium,” he said.  “This is a big game.” 

“Yeah, well, please give them to a couple of the guys, guys who’ll appreciate them,” Tom replied.  The captain’s face took on a look of equal parts disbelief and appreciation as he accepted the tickets.  He then told us about neighborhood residents who had been bringing food and other gifts to the firehouse since September 11.  “Everyone has been great, really great,” he said.  He then shook our hands firmly, flashed a smile and simply said “Thank you.” 

*          *          *

Elevator Roulette

Representatives from Marsh offices around the country were at a meeting on the 93rd floor of the North Tower on the morning of September 11, 2001.  Marsh had instituted a company-wide initiative to increase efficiency and customer satisfaction.  It was called “Marsh Excellence” (or something similar.)  An employee of Marsh’s Boston office was running a few minutes late for the meeting when he stepped into the elevator on the 78th floor (the “Sky Lobby” as it was called) and pressed the 93rd floor button.  A woman entered the elevator seconds before the door closed and selected the 92nd floor.  The Bostonian was, no doubt, a bit irritated by the inconvenience of an extra stop given that he was already late.

The elevator stopped at the 92nd floor and the doors opened just as the first plane hit.  The force of the impact threw the man out of the elevator and onto the elevator lobby floor.  He turned back and saw his elevator car plummet out of sight.  The woman who pushed 92 had inadvertently saved his life.  The man was partially burned but he managed to get to the stairway and walk down 92 flights, exiting the building shortly before it collapsed.   He walked north through Manhattan, dazed and somewhat disoriented but able-minded enough to head for Marsh’s world headquarters in midtown.  He later said that he didn’t know where else to go.  Jeff Greenberg, Marsh’s CEO, upon learning that the Boston executive had managed to make it out of the North Tower and to the headquarters, summoned the man to his office so that he could provide his account of what had happened.   Needless to say, it was not comforting.

*          *          *

The Glass Door

AIG bought a small managing general agency in Mid-August of 2001.  The principals of the company were three former AIG executives who had left to start their own business about 18 months earlier.  They had moved their offices to the 89th floor of the North Tower in the summer of 2001, shortly before being purchased by AIG.   By September 11th most of their files and other business materials had been transferred to AIG’s offices five blocks away.  However, seven individuals, a mix of the brokerage’s employees and reinsurers, were in the offices that morning reviewing some files and wrapping up unfinished business in a north-facing conference room. 

At almost a quarter to nine someone noticed a plane heading towards the building.  The seven men watched as the jetliner drew closer.  They later reported that they could actually see the faces of the people in the cockpit seconds before the crash.  The plane veered upward on its approach, crashing about four floors above the brokerage’s offices.

Immediately the lights went out.  The seven men said that within minutes burning jet fuel was dripping through the ceiling and then continuing through to the floor beneath them.  Smoke was filling the 89th floor and the men, still unfamiliar with the new office space, didn’t know where to find the emergency stairs.  They huddled on the floor to avoid the smoke and frantically called for help on their cell phones. 

From what I’ve been told by a person involved, when a tenant rented space in the World Trade Center they would normally receive a wooden door to separate their offices from the elevator lobby.   This insurance brokerage, however, requested a glass door so that the receptionist could see people coming out of the elevators. As the seven men huddled on the floor awaiting help, they saw a flashlight beam shine through the glass door and onto the floor.  A fireman had exited the stairwell onto the 89th floor and was looking for people needing help.  The men followed the beam to its origin.  At the other end was a firefighter who showed them to the stairwell and told the men to walk down quickly.  They made it down the stairs and exited the building a short while before it collapsed.  If the original wooden door had never been replaced the men would have never seen the flashlight shining into the offices.

These survivors say that they’ll never forget the face of the firefighter who rescued them.  Almost surely he didn’t make it out alive. They also saw the faces of many firefighters who were lugging heavy equipment up the stairways as thousands of people were fleeing to safety.  They say those images will also stay with them forever.

*          *          *


At some point following every great tragedy the survivors’ thoughts turn towards pressing onward to meet the demands of everyday life.  The collapse of the World Trade Center was no different.  

Marsh offers all of its employees an option to select a death benefit of up to six times their annual salary to be paid to their survivors should the person die while employed at Marsh.  Depending upon which multiple the employee chose, a fixed amount would be deducted from each paycheck to cover the death benefit’s premium.  Following the WTC disaster Marsh decided to pay every deceased employee’s beneficiary the maximum death benefit no matter which option the employee had chosen and paid for.  I heard from someone who works at Marsh that during the payment process the company learned that two of its 295 deceased employees were each legally married to two women (all four of whom claimed benefits) and one man had mistakenly allowed his ex-wife, after a bitter divorce, to remain as his beneficiary despite the fact that he had later gotten remarried.    

As late as February of 2002 some survivors had not stepped forward to claim their deceased relative’s death benefits because, it’s been said, they could still not admit to themselves that their loved ones were not coming home.

*          *          *

Expectant Mother

A guy I worked with at AIG lost his wife in the World Trade Center.  She worked at Aon.  They had three small children and she was pregnant with their fourth on September 11th.  He took about ten days off from work after the 11th to tend to family matters.  He came back to work to try to get his mind off of the grief and suffering wrought by his family’s great loss.  The first day back he got called shortly after midday to pick up his seven-year old daughter at school.  She was sobbing uncontrollably and was having a child’s equivalent of a nervous breakdown in school. 

*          *          *

Crying From a Distance

My college roommate, Mike Healey, is one of my best friends.  He’s divorced and has half-time custody of his seven-year-old daughter and five-year-old son.  On September 11th his children were in school in suburban Philadelphia.  Most of the kids in their school were getting pulled out of class early by their parents but Mike decided to wait until almost the end of the day.  The school administration had made a conscious decision to not break the news of what had happened to the children.  When Mike picked up his kids they knew something was wrong because of the way classmates had been trickling out for home during the day. 

In the car Mike tried to delicately explain to them what had happened.  When they got home he turned on the television.  They saw the replays of the two Towers falling.  The kids had been with Mike to New York to visit me a number of times and they knew that I lived and worked in the city.  Mike knew that my office was downtown but wasn’t sure of the building. He also knew that I fly to California occasionally on business and, if I wasn’t in one of the buildings, he knew that I could have been on one of the flights.  The kids asked Mike if he knew exactly which building I worked in and he could only reply “No.”  Mike said that at roughly the same moment all three of them began crying. It was the first time that the children had ever seen their father cry.

*          *          *

American Express Saves a Life

As mentioned previously, the first plane slammed right into the offices of Marsh.  That morning a group of about eight Marsh executives from different offices around the country had breakfast together in the restaurant at the Millennium Hotel across the street from the World Trade Center.  They were all scheduled to be at an 8:30 a.m. meeting on the 93rd floor of the North Tower.  When the check arrived one Marsh executive offered to pick up the tab for the entire group.  He gave the waiter his American Express corporate card.  A few minutes later the waiter returned, saying that there was a problem and that American Express was not accepting the charge.  Not wanting to delay everyone, the executive told the rest of the group to proceed to the meeting and that he’d catch up after dealing with Amex via telephone.  The group left, making it to the meeting shortly before the plane hit the building and killed every Marsh employee who was in those offices at the time.  The executive who was delayed by the credit card rejection was the only one of the group to survive.

*          *          *


The three victims that I knew best were all Marsh employees.  I know it will sound like an incredible cliché but all three were among the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet.  Whether you first met John Tobin, Sal Tieri or Mike Cahill in the business world, at religious services or down at the Little League field (where they’d no doubt cheer on your kid just as heartily as their own), you knew instantly that you were with a really “good guy.”

John Tobin:  John Tobin was the chief financial officer for a division of Marsh known as FINPRO.  He was the kind of guy who would spot you at the other end of the hallway and he’d make a point to shout out your name and a big “Hello” punctuated with a wave and a smile.  In fact, this very scenario happened to me less than a month before September 11th and it will remain for me an enduring – almost haunting – image.

John’s friend Eileen Johnson has many fond memories.  They met when John’s employer, Marsh, merged with Johnson & Higgins, where Eileen held a position similar to John’s.  She recalls her initial frustration in not being able to get direct answers from John.  She originally perceived this as his attempts to withhold information from a workplace rival.  Soon she realized that John’s verbal meandering was just his way of being friendly and was a basic (and endearing) part of his personality.  “You’d go to John with a question and he’d tell you what was going on in sports, how his wife and children (whom he adored) were doing, the details of a softball game that he played in 10 years earlier, what his neighbors were up to and just generally touch on a bunch of unrelated topics.  You came out of his office not even remembering why you went there in the first place!”  This trait shouldn’t be confused, however, with intellectual weakness.  “John had an amazing mind,” Eileen says, “He hated computers and would do even the most complicated calculations all by hand.  He wrote out long spreadsheets that had to be taped together to be understood but he was always 100% correct.  It was incredible.”  She also remembers that John took a special interest in the young people at work and served as a mentor to a group of high school student interns one summer, even going so far as to help them choose colleges and fill out applications. “I have truly become a better person from knowing John, he taught me a great deal not only regarding work, but also about life and I will always cherish that,” Eileen says.  “I still, to this day, when faced with a difficult task, ask myself what John would say about it and I try to follow his lead.”               

John’s body was one of the first recovered, within a week or so of September 11th, which was miraculous considering that he was at the exact point of the first plane’s impact.  His wake was also one of the first to be held and nobody knew exactly what to expect.  It was a grim event, but also moving, and the love of his family and friends was evident and uplifting.  It was the most you could hope for under the circumstances.

Salvatore Tieri: The second service I attended, a couple of weeks later, was for Sal Tieri.  Sal was a salt-of-the-earth, never-had-an-enemy type of guy who you liked even when you were on the opposite side of a negotiating table from him, which I was on occasion.  Sal was a young 40-year old with two small children and a great wife, Maureen. He had recently transferred from Marsh’s Morristown, NJ office to the Manhattan headquarters and life was good and getting better.  Sal’s career was fast tracking and his personal life was, no doubt, even more fulfilling.

On the evening of Monday, September 10th, Sal wrapped up a long day at the office working on a particular vexing project with his colleague Jim Loughlin.  Jim recalls: “As I was leaving Sal said to me ‘Well tomorrow is another day and it can’t be as bad as this one.’“  Those were the last words Jim ever heard Sal say.

Sal, like so many others, wasn’t originally supposed to be at the World Trade Center on September 11th.  He went to a meeting as a stand-in for a colleague who was asked to attend another meeting at the same time in the Marsh midtown offices.  Nobody foresaw, of course, the fate that awaited Sal and thousands of others at the World Trade Center that morning. 

Sal’s remains had not yet been discovered when his memorial service was held.  Maureen decided to conduct it at the family’s beach club in Sea Bright, NJ where Sal loved to take his children.  The club had erected a flagpole to honor the victims of 9/11 and Maureen felt that their kids would be well served to think of their father every time they saw the pole standing at their favorite place on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.  

I drove to Sal’s service from Manhattan with two colleagues from AIG, Doug Worman and John Benedetto, and another friend from Marsh, John Kerns, who worked closely with Sal.  This was still in raw days immediately after 9/11 when New York City was heavy with the smell of burning wire and rubber and who-knew-what else.  People walked around the city wearing surgical masks over their noses and mouths.  The Holland Tunnel, not far from the World Trade Center site, was closed to traffic to-and-from New Jersey.  The roadways in and around New York City were generally a morass of delays, back-ups and detours. 

As a result, the four of us were late getting to Sal’s memorial service at the Jersey Shore.  A trip that normally would have taken an hour and fifteen minutes in pre-terrorist days required us to lurch-and-grind along for almost three hours.  We debated at times whether we were so hopelessly late that we should just turn back.  However, we plowed ahead (reversing course  seemed to us like it would be another terrorist victory), arriving just in time to hear the piercing strains of a bagpiper ushering the crowd back indoors to the reception area at the conclusion of the seaside service.  My first thought, I remember clearly, was that the bastards who had brought down the Trade Center and killed Sal had also made us late for his memorial service by causing the closing of the Holland Tunnel and the consequent overcrowding of other roadways.  There seemed to be no end to the evil they had wrought.   

The crowd that day, too big for me to estimate, was a testament to Sal and the many lives he touched.  On hand were relatives, colleagues, friends, business partners and, most poignantly, competitors.  People flew in from all over the country.  The lines of demarcation among various companies within the insurance industry, which prides itself on black-and-white clarity, were blurred that day as we all gathered to say goodbye to one of our own.  In a way, my three friends and I were lucky to have arrived too late to fully gather in all the sadness and finality of the proceedings.

Michael Cahill: Mike was the one I knew the best out of the three Marsh FINPRO victims whose memorials I attended. When I worked at Marsh for two years in the mid-1990s I had called Mike often for his advice on fidelity insurance matters (about which I knew nothing and he was an expert.)  When I returned to working for AIG, I dealt with Mike from the other side of the table.  The universal opinion on Mike was that he was a great guy who was always willing to help out and had as much integrity as anyone in the business.  He was the kind of guy who you knew would be an exemplary brother or teammate; Mike was always there for you when you needed him.

Mike’s memorial service was held at St. Aidan’s Church in East Williston, New York (Long Island) on a morning in early October of 2001.  The place was already jammed 20 minutes before the start.  In retrospect I recall a rainy and gloomy day but I’m not sure if my memory is accurate or simply clouded by the general nature of the proceedings.  Like hundreds of others in the packed church, I filed in quietly and found a seat.  What transpired over the next hour I won’t recount in detail, although I can tell you that the first three to speak at the ceremony (Mike’s parish priest, his brother and his boss at Marsh, Tom Vietor) all rose to the occasion and did an admirable job under staggeringly sad conditions.   The last eulogist however, Mike’s wife Colleen, left to rear their two beautiful young children herself, took it to another level.  She spoke with unparalleled eloquence, passion and composure.   

I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand from where Colleen drew her strength (the inspiring memories of Mike, no doubt, had much to do with it), but I have never witnessed such a display of courage and composure in the face of a tragedy of this magnitude. 

Her eulogy was funny, endearing and engaging.  It was simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking.  It captured the essence of Mike perfectly, at least as I knew him, which only magnified our sense of loss.  She recounted, among other things, that the story of who-pursued-who in the relationship differed depending upon whose version you heard, Mike’s or Colleen’s.  They had met as summer-share housemates in the Hamptons.  According to Mike’s version, Colleen sat by the pool reading a paperback with eyeholes cut right through the book so that she could follow his every move. 

Colleen’s eyes, amazingly, remained dry throughout the eulogy.  Both her words and their deliverance were truly inspirational.   The final piece to Colleen’s tribute was an REM song, one of Mike’s favorites.  St. Aidan’s graciously allowed the family to play the recording over the church’s loudspeakers as the memorial concluded and people filed out even though, strictly speaking, it was against church policy.  I don’t recall the title, but it was about a guy who, smitten with a woman, calls to ask her out but gets her answering machine.  It mirrored in a way Mike’s own courting of Colleen.  As the song played my eyes were drawn to the couple’s innocent children fidgeting in the front pew of the church.  It was a sledgehammer of sadness and it found its mark in most of us.  As Colleen walked up the center isle to exit, the previously-muted sobs of the crowd began to rise in unison, unabated. All but those few souls who had already cried themselves out were in tears as the church emptied.

*          *          *

Danielle Kousoulis

On the smoky and seismic afternoon of September 11th I was surfing channels looking for the latest news of the attacks when I came across a heart-rending interview with a young man named Chris Mills.  His girlfriend, Danielle Kousoulis (I didn’t take particular note of either name at the time), worked for Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower.  He recounted being in his midtown office when she called to say that a plane had struck the building and that she was scared.  He immediately left work and started making his way downtown to try to help her in some way, talking to her on his cell phone as he progressed. From what I recall of the interview, he said that Danielle knew that the situation was grave.  They exchanged some intimate thoughts about their love for each other.  The interviewer asked what Danielle said when the South Tower fell and Chris replied that it was clear that she knew it had happened but they avoided discussing it.  When the North Tower collapsed their connection died.  At the time of the interview he had been wandering around trying to find her, hoping that somehow she had managed to emerge from the building before it collapsed.  Unfortunately, she had not.

The images of that sad interview, for some reason, were burned into my mind, more so than many of the other horrors that I’d witnessed that day. 

Two years later I was working at ACE USA when a colleague, Steve Carabases, asked me if I’d be interested in playing in a golf tournament to raise money for a scholarship fund in memory of one of the September 11th victims.  That person turned out to be a family friend of Steve’s from childhood, Danielle Kousoulis, who, like me (and Steve), was of Greek ancestry. She and I also shared an alma mater, Villanova.  Small world, I thought.  I gladly agreed to participate in the tournament. 

Now here’s the even stranger thing.  I’m not a great golfer (although you wouldn’t know it from the way I talk up my game.)  I’d say I’m in the general range of “average” (defining the term rather liberally; we’re all friends here...) I’ve played in Danielle’s tournament twice.  The first time I shot an eagle (two under par for a hole), one of only two that I’ve had in my lifetime.  On the other occasion, I won the “Closest to the Pin” competition, the only such victory for me in many years of golfing.  I don’t pretend to know the significance of these two occurrences, possibly they’re just pure luck or coincidence, but, on another level, I like to attribute them to Danielle’s way of doing something nice for another person.   I never knew her in this life, but I’m sure from speaking to people who did, that Danielle was a very special person and brightening my day with two rare golf feats is just the kind of thoughtful thing that she’d do if she had any say in the matter.          

[1] “Into the Fire” by Bruce Springsteen. Copyright © 2002 Bruce Springsteen (ASCAP.)  Reprinted by permission. International copyright secured.  All rights reserved. [Bruce kindly granted me permission to use this quote.  If you’ve never seen one of his inspiring, motivating and captivating concerts, I strongly urge you to do so.]
[2] Fortunately, he (Fran Higgins) had been an hour late – due to bus delays – for a meeting at his company’s offices on a high floor where a significant number of people perished.