Talking About 911
My office was at Seven World Trade Center on the top floor, northwest corner, looking out at the Hudson River to the west and midtown Manhattan to the north. The day was particularly clear and beautiful with bright blue skies and a hint of approaching autumn in the air. I was working at my desk at 8:46am when suddenly, from very close overhead, I heard a stupendous roar of aircraft jet engines followed immediately by an ear-shattering explosion. American Airlines Flight 11 had just flown a few hundred feet directly above me and smashed into the north face of One World Trade Center (North Tower), directly across the street behind me. I crossed the hall to my conference room which faced south, and looked up to see a cavernous hole in the face of North Tower. Metal and glass were raining from the building facade, down into the street. As I watched, flames spewed out of the gaping cavity, and small figures that were people appeared at the edges of the hole. Some crawled out and tried, without success, to hold onto the building structure at the bottom edges of the cavity. They lost their grip and fell in what looked like slow-motion free fall to the concrete below. Others looked over their shoulders at the fiery inferno, then jumped in a leap of faith, or perhaps of terror and desperation. I watched dozens of people fall, or jump. It was a terrifying spectacle.
I returned to my office and turned on the tv news to get information on what was happening. I was still watching television at 9:03am when United Airlines Flight 175 flew into Two World Trade Center (South Tower). It seemed unlikely that two plane crashes were accidental, so I ordered immediate mandatory evacuation of Seven World Trade Center. At 9:30am when the building was reported cleared, I left my office and walked down the forty-five flights of stairs to the lobby and exited to the rear through the kitchen north onto Greenwich Street.
I was walking north with two colleagues, and we had only progressed a few blocks when several women who were looking back towards the destruction started screaming and pointing. We turned to see that heavy smoke had gathered just above the trade center in a cloud which formed the iconic image of Satan, including horns and pointy beard. I said, "this is a scene of pure evil, triumphant". One of my colleagues, a man of faith, said "God always answers that". And indeed, the next day front page newspaper photographs showed the North Tower wreckage in which collapsed steel girders formed the sign of the cross. In my office today I have a 9x6 inch rough-surfaced steel cross which was carved from one of those collapsed beams.
As we walked north alongside hundreds of strangers it became apparent that we'd probably have to walk all the way to midtown. Subway service was halted; the few northbound public buses were packed with passengers; every taxi was full; sirens screamed constantly as a steady stream of emergency vehicles headed south. Mobile telephone service was very intermittent, and it was difficult to get a dial tone. We were walking on West Broadway just below Canal Street when one of my colleagues looked back and said, "I wonder if those buildings could collapse?" We stopped to look and, as if on cue, South Tower began pancaking down, crumbling from the top. A giant cloud of dust and debris came billowing through the canyons formed by the streets and buildings. People around us started running and screaming. We turned east, and started working our way west-to-east and south-to-north via smaller side streets to avoid the major thoroughfares hit with the worst of the debris cloud and panicked crowds of frightened people. South Tower collapsed at 9:59am, just thirty minutes after I left Seven World Trade Center, and North Tower collapsed at 10:28am. Lower Manhattan was enveloped in dust, smoke and ash. Seven World Trade Center collapsed at 5:21pm that afternoon. Many of my personal mementos were destroyed -- photos of my family and events with colleagues over the years, reprints of newspaper articles about me, and various awards and honors.
Shortly after 11:00am we arrived at Park Avenue and 53rd Street, Citigroup's corporate headquarters office, and initiated disaster recovery procedures for my business units. I telephoned my wife in Connecticut, and my oldest daughter who was attending Georgetown University in Washington and could see the smoke rising from the attack on the Pentagon. Our conversations were emotional as they had feared I was trapped in the disaster unfolding in lower Manhattan. All roads, bridges and tunnels into and out of Manhattan were closed for security reasons, but I had no car in any event because my driver had abandoned it in the chaos near World Trade Center. We learned later that it was destroyed in the debris of collapsed buildings. I stayed at my Park Avenue office until 7:00pm, and then took the once-hourly Metro North emergency outbound train from Grand Central Terminal. All trains ran as locals that day, making all stops, and each station was packed with crowds waiting for loved ones, some of whom were never going to arrive.
I had a friend, Michael Berkeley, who died that day in the North Tower. I had seen him just two days earlier at the US Open Tennis finals. Michael had a lovely wife and two young sons ages seven and five. The image of his wife and boys grieving at the funeral has stayed with me through the years. I reflect on how it could have been my family grieving at my funeral, if American Flight 11 had come in at a little lower altitude, or if I had dallied a little longer in my downtown office. I learned to never take for granted that I will be blessed to return to my loved ones at the end of the day, even a beautiful and seemingly routine work day.