It is incredible to think that today is 18 years since the September 11th tragedy here in NYC. There is nothing I ask of you other than to help us all remember…

The Power Behind Storytelling

I was driving my then 11-year old daughter (now 29!) and her friend Dani to middle school on Long Island on a crisp sunny Tuesday morning when it came over the radio. We thought it was a joke on the top 40 station. “A small plane has hit the World Trade Center.” When we realized it was real, I said, “Well, that’s Downtown, my firm is Midtown, I should be able to still drive into the city.” I dropped off the girls and found myself right next to JFK Airport when they reported the second plane hitting. At that moment, all traffic on this normally busy thoroughfare came to a dead halt. As I sat there, very confused about what was happening (although immediately Howard Stern said “We’re being attacked”), I remembered the 1993 Trade Center bombing shortly after Doug Ellenoff and I started our firm together. Our office in 1993 was half a block from the Empire State Building. Once they evacuated the ESB in the ’93 bombing, we shut the office right away. So when the planes hit the towers, I immediately called my office, then called Feldman & Associates, and closed it, telling everyone to get home and get safe. Most law firms stayed open and told attorneys they could leave if they wanted to. After twenty minutes sitting there unable to move, I turned around and went home, worried about my daughter at that point. Her school closed eventually, and she came home about an hour later. Thanks to that day, now pretty much all the middle-schoolers in the metro NY area go to school with phones. I will never forget seeing the cars in the Long Island Railroad commuter parking lots weeks later left by those who would never return.

Our staff that had been at the office first gathered at Milan, the Italian restaurant that was next door back then, in Manhattan on West 44th Street, to watch the TV (no streaming on iPhones then) and then realized they needed to scatter. After this, I vowed never to have a NYC office without cable TV or, now, my CNN feed on my phone. Very quickly, all NYC transit was shut down, and the tunnels and bridges closed to vehicles. My assistant at the time, Sandy Butler, walked home to Queens over the 59th St. Bridge. My then very new associate Mike Nertney was worried about his Dad, thinking he was downtown (he was not). Another then associate, Rob Charron, was worried about his wife Karen. She came up out of the subway down there and saw everything. Luckily, she managed to turn around and catch a subway out before they were shut down. Adam Mimeles, also an associate at the time, walked to the Upper West Side and, once traffic was allowed to leave the city, ultimately hitchhiked across the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey that same night by jumping, uninvited, into the cab of a semi that was inching along in traffic. All three are now successful attorneys in other firms and companies.

My family and I were worried about my then brother-in-law, at the time in his early sixties, next door to the Trade Center at World Financial Center. From 8:45 a.m. to 2 p.m., we did not know where he was or whether he was even alive. We later learned that, after the second plane hit, with elevators shut, he walked down 36 flights and started walking north. Just ten minutes after he got out on the street, the first building fell. He said, “Imagine a giant wall of black coming at you, and you can’t outrun it, no matter how fast you run.” He was thrown in the air, lost his glasses, shoes, and briefcase, and thought he was dead surrounded by smoke. About ten minutes later, things cleared a little, and two strangers lifted him over a fence at the Hudson River to get him on a passing tugboat that some CEO had commandeered to pick people up. Consider watching the very moving 12-minute YouTube documentary narrated by Tom Hanks about the half million people removed from Manhattan by boat that day.

The tugboat dropped him off a little further north around Houston St. where nice people took him into an office to give him water. He must have looked horrible, covered in soot, and was coughing like crazy, so they walked him to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he was pretty much the only customer. Frankly, that day, you either got away or were killed. He finally called us around 2 p.m. to say he was fine and in the hospital (those two things don’t usually go together). After being treated for smoke inhalation, he disregarded the doctors and checked out around 11 p.m. He ultimately got home around 1 a.m. by hitchhiking onto an empty Madison Avenue bus and then convincing a cabbie to take him to Long Island, even though the Midtown Tunnel was open only outbound at that point, and the driver couldn’t come back to the city. He told the cabbie he’d pay anything if he would take him. The cabbie said, “Looking like you look, I’ll take you for free.” He later told us of the horrific sights he witnessed as he exited his building, including a shocking number of people jumping from the upper floors of the Towers to their ends to avoid burning to death.

I spent the day at home watching TV and emailing basically every person I knew to see if they were OK. It took three scary days to find one friend, Matt Greene, who we didn’t know was out of the country. The next day, Wednesday, with all bridges and tunnels closed to cars, almost all of us still made it into the office since commuter trains were running. There was no point, however, as our law firm’s phones in our otherwise unscathed Midtown office had gone out. We sent an email to everyone we could with our cell phone numbers and such, but no one was calling. Email was still pretty new back then, and no one had a PDA or email access, except on your office PC or home hookup. And our phone provider made clear that they had no clue when the phones would be back since their main transformer was at the Trade Center. Plus, well, New York City business just stopped.

So, that Wednesday, we all went for a very long liquid lunch (I remember my good friend and then counsel Jen Rosen meeting us there at the Penn Club) and then went home. That afternoon, I reached an old friend from high school, Steve Saltzman, who worked at Marsh & McClennan on the 107th floor of the North Tower. Thankfully, he was in Florida at a conference. But, he could barely speak. He told me he supervised a team of twelve people and had ordered all of them to come in early that day, and they all perished. He said, “They’re gone, and it’s all my fault.” Of course, it wasn’t. Another friend of mine was fine. He was supposed to have breakfast at Windows on the World on the 107th floor of 1 World Trade on Tuesday the 11th, but, at 11 p.m. the night before, his client suggested they switch it to lunch. This is how it was that week.

Then, Thursday, more people were on the streets, but by noon there were over a hundred bomb threats in the city and rumors the commuter trains might shut down, stranding everyone in the city with all the hotels fully booked. Still no phones. We closed again and said we’d stay closed the next day, Friday, and reopen Monday. I remember literally running from the office to Penn Station with our then associate Jodi Zotkow (then Snetiker), stopping only for a moment to pay a street vendor $2 for a small American flag which, while being held together by tape, still sits proudly in my office. I will never forget the thousands of “missing” posters that hopeful friends and family had posted of people, almost all of whom were certainly killed. Good thing we stayed closed because there were hundreds more bomb threats on Friday.

Speaking of Jodi, the night before the attack, September 10, the company that Jodi Zotkow’s husband, Adam, was a partner in (and our client) finally closed an equity investment from an investor in Italy. It had taken all summer to complete the negotiation and finally get the signatures over the fax (!) to our office at around 6:30 p.m. on the 10th. All that was left was to wire the $3 million the next morning. Well, of course, late in the day of September 11, we received an email that the investor was suspending all wires to the US because of the attacks. It took three weeks and a complete renegotiation of the deal (to the significant detriment of the company) for our client to finally get the money.

I spent Friday at home on Long Island wondering what to do. We had no clue when the phones would be back. It wasn’t like you could just call Verizon at that time and ask them to come put in new lines. A law firm without phones, especially then, was helpless. We weren’t alone. It took a week for me to reach a Fried Frank partner that was opposite me on a deal (their offices were near the Towers). Their phones just weren’t working; they must have had no access to emails, and there was no information on their website about what to do. The city was a mess. It was really only after this that firms and companies started seriously thinking about redundant off-site systems. I sadly started considering looking at moving my firm to Long Island and was planning to start calling real estate brokers that afternoon.

Around noon on Friday, just for fun, I called the office, and, miraculously, the phone lines suddenly were working! I decided it was a sign, and all thoughts of Long Island went away. On Monday we all came back, still shaken up but determined. Clients started calling. That deal we were working on before this, let’s get it done. It took a month or so, but then things were back to humming as always.

I allowed employees to volunteer down at Ground Zero during work time if they wanted to. I offered space in our suite to attorneys whose downtown offices had been destroyed or inaccessible. We did all we could. But we could not bring back the thousands who perished, including so many who died trying to save others and so many who developed illnesses from toxic air working on the Pile, as everyone called the horrible huge mass of burning rubble that sat for months after the attacks. It took too long to finally develop the evidence linking cancers and other serious illnesses to work on the Pile. Hopefully, at least, these brave responders are now getting the financial help and care they need. Kudos to the likes of talk show host Jon Stewart whose passionate appeals to Congress recently have helped extend the support for these heroes.

Eight years ago I was thrilled and sobered to add to this story that Bin Laden had been taken out. And we are all proud that we now have the 104-story One World Trade Center, exactly 1776 feet high, as well as the 9/11 Memorial near the footprints of the towers and the beautiful reflecting pools where they stood. About three years ago I took my now 17-year old son Andrew to the pools and up to the amazing One World Observatory in what I still call the Freedom Tower. At first he was sort of whining not to go, but, afterwards, he said, “That was really cool, thanks.” Two years ago (before his path to stardom on Broadway) he and I had our first visit to the incredible 9/11 Memorial. We were both moved by the artifacts and memories of those lost. The Memorial is appropriate for all ages, and I encourage everyone to pay a visit.

You can be sure they are determined to do it again, and today we know there are other very well-financed groups seeking to destroy us and our way of life. I hope you will take a little time on Wednesday, both to remember the bravery of those who died, those who risked illness to work on the Pile for months, and to remember our need to stay vigilant and resolute in our desire to rid the world of this horrific evil. And, also, remember the wonderful things that happened as the city and our nation came together in those difficult days. I remember about two months after the attacks, I felt things were finally back to normal when a cabbie got out of his car to scream at another driver. And now that I have been living in the city for the last five years, I feel pride in being an even stronger part of the attitude that does not allow any fear or terror to stop us from enjoying our lives as we wish. I continue to worry that a rapidly growing population of younger folks, including my son Andrew born after the attacks and some of my current colleagues who were maybe 7 or 8 years old that day, either know nothing about the tragedy or will learn about it as part of history- let’s make sure they really understand what we faced.

As I write, I am thinking of two that I knew who did not make it that day, Dave Weiss of Cantor Fitzgerald and Neil Levin, head of the NY-NJ Port Authority and also remembering those lost at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, PA.