reflections on a tragic day

I had a ticket to fly to New York City on that fateful Tuesday twenty years ago.

But I had canceled it.  My dad had fallen three days before and when he was being examined, it was discovered that he had a variety of health issues, including the pancreatic cancer that would end his life a few months later.

This is not one of those “almost” stories; my flight was to have departed at ten that morning.  Because of the terrorist attack, it never left the ground.

Instead of driving to the airport, I was packing to go to Sioux Falls to see my dad in the hospital.  I had gotten up and read some things online, including a daily update from a stock market commentator that I liked who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald at the top of One World Trade Center.

While I was getting ready, I turned on the financial news in the bedroom and saw that very tower on fire.  It wasn’t yet pieced together that a plane had crashed into the building, just below the Cantor offices.

One of our sons, twelve at the time, was eating breakfast in the kitchen downstairs.  He remembers me yelling, “Oh, my God!”  He and Sue came running up to see what was wrong.  He recalls that I mentioned it could be terrorism, a word he had never heard before.

They went back downstairs and Sue turned on the television there.  We both saw the plane hit the second tower.  Then we knew.

After watching the unbelievable events unfold in New York and Washington and a field in Pennsylvania during the next few hours, I began my four-hour drive.  Normally, I feel a calm come over me when I leave the city and travel across the prairie landscape, but that wasn’t to be.  I turned on a radio program I wanted to hear; it opened with Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful.”  There I was, driving through the amber waves of grain.  I cried.

I stopped to get gas in a small town; a man was filling his tank at the other pump and then waving his wife up to do so in her car, with not very many gallons purchased between them.  It hadn’t crossed my mind that people would be worried about gas shortages, but when I got to Sioux Falls there was a line at one station I passed.

When I got to his room, I think my dad said, “Isn’t that something?”  But there was a distance in his words.  Always ready to suck up information and debate the state of the world, he seemed oddly removed from the drama playing out on the screen.   He probably knew that it was no longer his battle to fight.

He had been a pilot himself and had been in two wars (“won one, tied one”).  He told me once that until he felt the plane lift off, there was always a pit in his stomach.  But then it was off into the wild blue yonder.

Many stories about September 11 include the line, “It was a beautiful day to fly.”  That phrase has come back to me time after time when I’m traveling, but I’ve been reluctant to say it out loud ever since.

I also think of that day every time I see a clock that says “9:11.”

We are entering a time of remembrance, with many articles and programs and services to mark that day.  A story in The Atlantic, “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind,” has received a lot of attention.  It chronicles the effects on his family and his fiancée after Bobby died on 9/11.  (He didn’t work at the towers, but was there for a meeting.)  Bobby’s brother, his only sibling, “told no one at his first real job that his brother had died on September 11, because too many people were eager to share their own stupid stories about that day.”  And here I am doing just that.

The towers were one of the first places that I visited when I started going to New York for work.  Like the small-town kid I was (and still am), I milled around and gawked at everything between meetings, fascinated by being at the center of it all.  There was even a CNN studio off the lobby of one tower, where you could watch the broadcasters at work at the dawn of cable news.

As a young analyst, I was at a large meeting in the conference center when the management of Control Data updated Wall Street on its business.  It was exciting to be there, hearing about the innovative company from my home state.  When I walked out of the meeting, there was the largest bank of pay phones I’d ever seen.  Every one of them was in use.  This clueless Minnesotan was probably the only person there that didn’t realize that the news from the company was bad; those in the know had gotten to the phones first to relay the downbeat projections to their trading desks.

A few years later, I spent a memorable night at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of one of the towers, as part of a small gathering with one of the legends of the investment business.  I know, once again my “own stupid stories”; we tend to personalize events and places and try to tie them to ourselves.  But those are the memories that come flashing back to me — events and people in a place that became hallowed ground.

Because of its proximity to Wall Street and the number of investment firms with offices in the towers and in the other buildings in the World Trade Center complex, I figured that I would know someone who had been there when the planes hit.  As it turned out, no one I knew well was killed, although many from the investment business were, including all 658 of Cantor Fitzgerald’s employees in One World Trade Center who had reported to work that day.

Thirty months after the tragedy, I started a consulting project that took me to lower Manhattan regularly.  The sky was eerily empty where the looming towers had been.  The massive effort to haul away the great pile of rubble took years.  It seemed to go on forever, but eventually the trucks began moving material in instead of out.  The rebuilding had begun.  Today, the area is back to being a hub of commerce, except for the footprints of the towers, square voids with water pouring down into them; our symbolic tears and dreams.

Ten years ago, I met a man at a conference in New York.  In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, he had reached out to colleagues at his investment firm and to other friends, to “create a collection of our thoughts and reactions and put them into a small book that we could save and pass on to our families,” to have a record of what had happened to them.  He later sent me an email with an attachment titled “And Then the Rain Came.”

It began with recollections of those who were in the City that day, and included memories from others around the country and around the world.  One chapter held the stories of those who lost loved ones or survived the attack themselves.

The wife of the man who sent me the book, herself a former Wall Street analyst, remembered, “Dean Eberling and his wife and two daughters were supposed to come to our home for a party that coming Saturday.  Now he was in an elevator in Tower 2 at the lobby level.”  So close to safety.  He helped get others out, but didn’t make it himself.

Each day after September 11, the New York Times had short articles about the individuals who died (unless their families asked for privacy), in a section called “Portraits of Grief.”  For months I had read and been moved by many of them, when I came upon the one for Dean Eberling.

We had met some years before.  A well-known Wall Street stock analyst, he wasn’t brash or pushy like some others.  “He was first and foremost a gentleman,” wrote his friend.  My time with him had been relatively short, but that had been my assessment of him too — a reminder that we can leave an impression on others in the brief moments we have together.

If you’re going to read one thing in the lead-up to the anniversary, I would recommend an article about Rick Rescorla.  A native of England, he had been awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with oak-leaf cluster, a Purple Heart, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry while fighting for the United States.  When the story of the legendary battle in the Ia Drang Valley was told in the book, “We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young,” it was his picture in combat on the cover.

He eventually found his way to the World Trade Center, providing corporate security for Morgan Stanley, one of the premier investment firms.  When he assessed the situation at the building, he thought the underground parking area was vulnerable to attack, but was rebuffed by building authorities.  In 1993, the first bombing at the building took place essentially as he had predicted.

Then he worried that the towers would remain a high-profile target and speculated that an airplane could be used to attack them.  He thought that the firm should move its offices to a different location, but “in the meantime Rescorla worked out an evacuation plan for the company’s twenty-two floors,” and had employees practice it regularly.  (Highly unusual in itself.)

When the attack occurred, the operators of the building advised everyone to remain in place.  Instead, Rescorla got out his bullhorn and started executing the plan.  He died while going from floor to floor, checking to make sure that everyone had gotten out.  His actions saved almost 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees.

On September 12th, Rescorla was supposed to fly to Italy for the marriage of his wife’s daughter.  A lesser man would have thought of himself first, of their plans and the journey ahead.  Thank God there are people like him among us, who do their duty above all else.

Subscribe: email | twitter