Category: On Writing

Manhattan Memories – Part 2 – World Trade

Manhattan Memories – Part 2 – World Trade

It was too big. Too ugly. It inspired awe, and in the end, terror. But for a time, the World Trade Center, the WTC, was my neighborhood.

This week in September has a special meaning for Americans, and for countless New Yorkers. For some of us, the destruction of the WTC on September 11, 2001 will never become symbolic. It will always be personal, a visceral ache in the soul. I’m addressing my own sorrow this year by writing some of what I remember – the good, and the bad.

1993 – A Brush With Terror, A Half Mile Away

I was still working at 45 Broadway at Sun Microsystems when the 1993 WTC bombing happened. We felt a rumble, and saw smoke rising in the distance in the vicinity of the WTC. Our colleague, Rob, told us that he heard from someone at the Paine Webber WTC office; there had been a bombing somewhere near the building. The people were all right; the trading systems were still running. Some Paine Webber people stayed at their desks, others fled.

The explosion sent a lot of smoke into the WTC complex. We learned this firsthand when a colleague, Stanton (not his real name), returned to our office. He had been visiting our client at Cantor Fitzgerald when they got the order to evacuate. I remember that Stanton walked down from the 104th floor to exit the building.

His nostrils were ringed with soot. No matter how many times he wiped his nose, the soot kept coming. Our manager, Rich, dispatched him to the emergency room. We later heard that he was okay. (Stanton quit shortly after that day.)

It turned out that someone had parked a vehicle full of explosives in the garage beneath The Marriott World Trade Center Hotel. The explosion caused major damage to the hotel, but the towers were intact.

I remember being afraid but thinking that it must be an isolated incident. Several days later I was already back in the complex, taking the PATH train to a client site in New Jersey. Life went on.

One World Trade Center,  World Financial Center 1994-1997 – What Hath Man Wrought?

I left Sun to join a software startup company called Illustra in 1994. Our office was at 1 WTC. I was excited about the new job, and so ignored my inner dread of working on the 79th floor. I comforted myself by observing that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Besides, the building had super tight security.

1 WTC  had some features that remain unique in my copious experience of New York office buildings. Monster elevators offered an unnervingly rapid ride to the “Sky Lobby” on the 78th floor. These beasts were cavernous and also ruthless; their doors offered no mercy to the slow. If you couldn’t get in fast enough, you risked bruised limbs or a dislocated shoulder.

Once aloft, there were other wonders. The views from any office were amazing, that is, if you could get past the vertigo. At your desk, you could enjoy the unmistakable side to side sway of the building in a decent wind.

Below the WTC, the concourse was its own neighborhood, a seemingly endless maze of shops and eateries. I still have a jacket I bought there. (I don’t wear it.)  

The concourse connected to a footbridge that brought me up and over West Street to our clients, notably Lehman Brothers, at the World Financial Center, or the WFC. WFC, was, and still is, the home of a fabulous indoor atrium, the “Winter Garden,” a place for meetings away from the hubbub of the trading floor.

In the winter, we would sit among the palm trees sipping our take-away coffee or Earl Gray tea, enjoying the filtered daylight from the soaring glass cathedral ceiling above.

In good weather, we would sit on the plaza overlooking the WFC marina on the Hudson River. Sometimes we’d  point to the yachts parked there, proclaiming , “Well, that one over there  is mine. I’m sailing out of the city tomorrow night. Would you care to join me?”

9/11/2001 – Midtown – Shock, Mobilization, and Flight

I was now working at Bear Stearns at 245 Park Avenue, on the corner of 46st Street. I was responsible for Portfolio Trading Technology.

We were ensconced that morning in a rich wood paneled, windowless conference room on the 13th floor. My boss, Charlie, was presiding over our weekly technology status call. He was speaking when Steve, a sales trader on the line from Boston, interrupted, reporting that a “small” plane had just hit one of the WTC towers. Charlie returned to Bear’s second-floor trading desk to get firsthand news from the televisions positioned overhead, and to supervise any stock trading activity that would surely follow. A few minutes later, I went down to the desk with most of my anxious staff to find out what was going on.

“It’s surreal.” Stan, a tech colleague stood by the trading desk, his eyes glued to the image of smoke pouring from the top of 1 WTC. “That was no small plane,” he said.

The traders sat, frozen at their screens. The phone rang, and Jimmy, the head trader, picked up. It was Patsy, the wife of Alan, another trader who had just left our desk at Bear to go work for Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 104th floor of 1 WTC. “Have you heard from Alan?” she asked. Jimmy had not. Soon after, another ex-Bear guy, Kenny, called from Lehman Brothers in London. He had been on the phone with some people from Cantor; they were discussing a big trade.

They heard a sudden loud noise from the Cantor side; one of the Cantor people said he smelled fuel, and then the line went dead. (Patsy held a memorial for Alan a week later.)

Somewhere during the morning, the second plane hit. The towers fell.

I went back upstairs to tell my staff to find their way home. I then focused on making sure my own family was okay. Mobile phones were working, and I quickly got hold of my son, Mike, whose office was at Times Square. His fiancée, Elizabeth, worked at 25 Broadway, down by Bowling Green, and south of the WTC.

We agreed to meet at my office. Mike would walk west; Elizabeth was already walking north, as the subways were not running. My husband Steve, who worked at the United Nations, reported that the UN was evacuating, but he was ignoring the order. He had driven in that day. Steve would wait for us at the UN garage on 48th Street and First Avenue. He would drive us all home.

Mike arrived, wearing a face mask. Elizabeth arrived about an hour later, her clothing and her beautiful brown hair covered in ash. After she cleaned herself up as best she could, we left the building. John K., a colleague, and fellow Metro North commuter, joined us on our journey. Like us, he preferred a car ride to public transportation that day.

It was a great relief to finally see Steve, and then to be in motion. We found the FDR Drive deserted. We did not see another vehicle on our ride north along the East River until we got to the Triborough (now RFK) Bridge. Never before had we been alone on this busy road. (And never since.)

The solitude conjured a vision in my shell-shocked brain –  the last scene of Planet of the Apes, where Charlton Heston’s character looks down the beach and cries, “Damn you! Damn you!”

There are millions of stories of that day. This is a shortened version of mine, written down – not for catharsis or closure. That can never be. It’s merely for remembrance.


Image – snapped from a print copy of the Village Voice, dated October 18, 2001.