Friday, September 11, 2015

Observations from Ground Zero on September 15, 2001

Here's a copy of an email that I sent from my home in NYC to a number of friends less than a week after September 11, 2001. We will, of course, never forget.   

May all those innocent victims who perished rest in peace.    


Sent: Saturday, September 15, 2001 8:49 PM
Subject: Observations from Ground Zero - 9/15/01

Some of you asked me to keep you updated on what's going on in NYC during this difficult time.  I actually find it cathartic to write about it; the whole things is just so overwhelming, so all-encompassing, so horrific.  Standing by and watching the largest structure you've ever seen in your life collapse, taking thousands of lives with it in one instant, is an experience which defies description, no matter how large and precise your vocabulary is.  It was an emotion like none I've ever felt and I hope to never feel again.

I, and, I'm sure, all of my fellow New Yorkers and others affected by this great tragedy, appreciate the concern on the part of everyone who has called and E-mailed, it is really overwhelming, heartwarming and life-affirming.  

I personally have heard from people in every part of the United States and from overseas as well.  Both people that I love and hear from frequently and those who I haven't spoken to in a while have checked in to offer support (offering sentiments such as "Come visit us if you'd like to get out of the city," and  "Call if you need anything;") It's really touching and heartwarming and a stark contrast to the evil that has brought all this devastation to bear.   

It's unfortunate that it takes a grotesque tragedy like this to draw us together as a nation and as human beings, but I guess that's a slight silver lining in an otherwise very dark cloud.

Today, Saturday, I called Hertz to rent a car in NYC (on Wednesday when I walked to the Hertz office by my apartment there was a sign in the window: "No Reservation, No Car") and the lady on the other end, with a very distinctive Texas accent, said to me when we were done transacting business, "How are you doing in NYC?"  I said: "I'm OK, hanging in there."  She replied: "Well that's good.  I want you to know that this has affected the entire country and we're all taking it hard and our thoughts and prayers are with you all."  That almost made me cry.  The nameless, faceless Hertz lady at some unknown customer service location was reaching out in a heartfelt and genuine way to a stranger in NYC who was trying to rent a car in Manhattan.  If there's anything that illustrates more clearly how our nation has been drawn together by this tragedy, I don't know what it is.

Today Mayor Giuliani declared downtown Manhattan (where my office is) open to pedestrians, more an act of defiance to the terrorists who would keep it closed, I think, than an act of practicality.  My friend Fr. Dennis called me this morning and asked if I wanted to walk downtown with him, which I did, but before I tell you what we found, I want to relate a few stories from the last few days (if you're willing to read on).

I know that people in New York, Washington, Pennsylvania and Boston don't hold a monopoly on the sadness and misfortune which has resulted from this tragedy; it has affected every person in every state in our nation (as well as people in other nations).   Friends of mine with young children have told me how their kids have asked questions such as "How can two men kill 10,000 people?" and "Daddy, what if a pilot wants to fly his plane into our house on purpose?"  

Little kids are having nightmares about this (not to mention big kids like me).   Every person, every generation, of our country has been affected by these heinous acts.

I'm sure you've all heard stories,  some exaggerated and some true, about different aspects of the events of 9/11/01.  Here are just a couple that I want to pass on.  

First, if you read my previous e-mail on Tuesday about this experience, you know that my company does a lot of business with AON, an insurance brokerage on the top floors (102 and above I believe) of the 2nd tower that was hit.  One guy I know there, who I had dinner with last Tuesday night, was a designated "fire warden" for his company. I was once a fire warden for my company. Basically, no matter what building in America you are in, they always tell you the same thing: "In case of fire, always take the stairs, never use the elevator."  Well, to make a long story short, this particular person, a very upstanding guy, acquitted himself perfectly and led the 40 people in his care into the stairway.  He held the door as they all entered. Once the last person got in and he was about to enter himself (again, following all the rules) someone yanked him into an elevator and said "Come with us."  

The elevator zoomed to the ground floor and everyone ran out of the building (WTC 2), including this guy, about one minute before it collapsed. Now he feels that he's responsible for the deaths of 40 people because he led them into the stairwell and then he took the elevator which made it to the ground floor well ahead of the people taking the stairs.  

That's crazy and unrealistic (the elevator could have just as easily crashed and he would have died);  as could have the entire building gone down, who knew the odds of either possibility at the time?  But that's how he feels, as if he's responsible for those 40 people dying.  That's a residual effect of this tragedy that doesn't show up in the statistics.   I know of other people who feel guilty that they survived, and, I'm sure, there are many more.

My friend Fr. Dennis has a friend who's an auxiliary chaplain for the NYC Fire Department who was called to the scene.  The main chaplain for the NYC Fire Department (Fr. Judge) was killed when someone who was jumping out of one of the towers (to avoid being melted to death, nice choice: melt or jump) landed on him.  This auxiliary chaplain said that the reason that you only saw replays of the planes hitting and other non-ground scenes for the first ten hours or so was because there were human heads, literally, rolling around on the streets and body parts everywhere. It was akin to the worst war scene that you could imagine (and, again, it probably did signal the beginning of a war).  

He said that he could not even begin to count the number of body parts that he saw on the ground.  That's gross and I'm sorry if it's distasteful for you to read but it's the truth.  Apparently, all of the TV stations agreed not to show the ground scenes until the cleanup got most of the body parts out of the way.

So, anyway, back to today. Fr. Dennis and I walked downtown.  Below Canal Street no cars were allowed. There were police and national guardsmen (who dress like regular soldiers while on duty in case you've never seen them in action, which I hope you haven't) all over the place.  We walked down to my office building at 175 Water Street (I was hoping to get up there to get some things I need for work on Monday when I'm reporting to another AIG office in Berkeley Heights, NJ) but there was no electricity on and nobody was allowed into the building.  There was a layer of mud-like soot/dust on the building and all over the street.  We eventually walked up Wall Street (after the National Guardsman let us through because I was with Fr. Dennis and this particular Guardsman said "I think a Man of the Clothe should be allowed to walk anywhere he wants.")  and found more soot/dust/dirt and a foul stench.  I still can't imagine how Downtown NYC will be open on Monday, unless it's just the NY Stock Exchange.   We caught a few glimpses of the facade of the lower floors of 2 WTC, which was still standing.  To us, One Liberty Plaza (across the street from the WTC) looked bowed and bloodied and in need of structural help or demolition.  It is hard to believe how many buildings have come down since the two planes crashed.

There is still a smell of burning rubber in Manhattan.  About 1/3 of the people on the street are walking around with surgical masks on, ostensibly to filter out asbestos and other harmful airborne particles.  Possibly the worst reminder of what happened is that on every street corner there are flyers with pictures (some in color, some of very poor quality) of people who are missing and asking anyone with information on these people to call their relatives.  One of the hardest hit firms, if not the hardest hit, was Cantor Fitzgerald, a major bond trading firm.  From what I understand, of the 700 employees who were in the building at the time of the first plane crash, not one has survived. Their CEO was late for work that morning because he was bringing his 5-year old son to kindergarten.  He was interviewed by Connie Chung the other night and he was in tears for most of the interview. He lost his brother as well as 700 coworkers.  He appeared very genuine and it was hard not to cry just watching the interview.  My subsidiary of AIG insures Cantor Fitzgerald and last year I had three meeting in their offices on the 104th floor of WTC One.  I have an array of business cards from all the people I met there. As of this writing, my best guess is that those people are all dead.

Today I received word that the body of one of the guys that I know/knew at Marsh has been positively identified.  He had two young children.  There are still about 500 Marsh people who have not been found or identified.  More than 5,000 overall.  Most had kids and/or spouses.  There are no words to describe the sadness. I'm sure my pathetic e-mail doesn't do it justice, but it's an attempt.

My friend Lou Campanile volunteered yesterday at Ground Zero to cut steel and load barges (he's an expert welder/metal worker/engineer).  I asked him what it was like.   In describing the scene he invoked a few lines from the movie "Armageddon."  

In the movie, one character asks "What can we expect when we land?"  The reply: "It will be almost 1,000 degrees in the sun and 260 degrees below zero in the shade.  You'll encounter valleys of razor-sharp rocks."  The other guys says, "All you had to say was "The worst possible environment you can imagine."  Lou said that was what it was like, the worst possible scenario you could imagine.

I have to sign off now.  The sadness in my heart and the hearts of many is heavy and constant and pervasive, both here and all over America and all over the world.  Tony Blair, the Prime Minister of England, made a very poignant statement earlier this week.  When speaking of the havoc and destruction and loss of life these terrorists had wrought upon our nation he said, in a show of international unity: "Today, we are all Americans."   

My father came to this country in the 1950's from Greece seeking a better way of life.  My mother's parents came here in the 1930's from Ireland, also seeking a better way of life. I speak almost fluent Greek and I have visited relatives in both Greece and Ireland and take pride in my heritage. However, I grew up in America, played Little League Baseball, went to grammar school, high school, college and law school in this country and did everything an American does growing up in this great land.  My first allegiance is and always will be to this great nation.  I'm sure all of you feel the same way.

I know that as a country we are unified and strong and we will prevail, I have no doubt about that. In the meantime, we have funerals to attend, lives to mend, healing to occur.  These terrorists will not defeat us.  We shall prevail.    

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