He could have passed for Yul Brynner’s twin if it wasn’t for those eyes. He was 57 years old, 6’2” tall, tan and handsome with a shining bald head. But his eyes, those elfish eyes dared those around him to partake of anything but his infectious happiness. It was those eyes I will never forget.
It was Labor Day weekend, 2001. One of my best friend’s college buddies from UCLA was in town and his uncle had a boat. So we had the good fortune to be invited to take a cruise around Shelter Island on that long holiday weekend 15 years ago. I was 30 years old at the time and I can tell you there was no “boat” about this Yul Brynner look-a-like’s 130-foot yacht. The crystal champagne flutes, the hot tub on the deck, the full crew – none of these accoutrements faintly resembled the boats I’d been on as a middle class girl spending summers off Connecticut’s stretch of Long Island Sound. The thing is, our friend’s uncle was none other than Herman Sandler, the renowned investment banker and co-founder of Sandler O’Neill.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of Sandler and I had no idea that this chance meeting would make a soon to happen unspeakable act that much more real. Would Sandler exude that same pomposity so common among the Ivy League investment bankers who had underwritten the Internet Revolution? In a word, hardly. Sandler personified self-made man. After introducing me to his family, of whom he was immensely proud, he graciously offered me something to eat or drink. And then, he told me a story about a man who knew the value of never straying the course. It haunts me to this day.
It was a good old-fashioned American Dream story about a man and some friends who started an investment bank to banks and built their firm to the top of the world. Literally. The secret to his success, which he enjoyed from his place in the clouds, on the 104th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center was simply hard work, he said. He prided himself, relaying to me in what I could tell was a tale he’d repeated time and again, not only on making it to the top of the tallest building in the city, but on beating the youngest and hungriest to the office in the mornings and turning off the lights at night. Never forget where you come from. Never take for granted what you have.
In 2001, I had been on Wall Street for five years and was enjoying my own success and experiencing firsthand what money could buy. Given the choices my world offered, most would not have chosen night school. But I was determined to fulfill a lifelong dream and attend Columbia where I was to earn my master’s in journalism to complement my MBA in finance from the University of Texas. I guess I was not like most others. I wanted something tangible to open the next door in my career, which I knew would involve both the markets and writing. I called it my retirement plan.
Throughout this Wall Street by day, student by night chapter of my life, the minute the stock market closed at 3 pm, I would rush to the west side subway lines to trek north to Columbia’s campus. Just before Labor Day that year, I had turned in a class project, exploring the world of the famous Cornell Burn Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. During my time on the project, the unit was quiet save a few occupants, which apparently was not the norm. So those brave nurses had to paint a picture for me of what it was like when the floor was bustling with victims of fire-related disasters. Many of the stories of pain and suffering were so horrific I remember being grateful for the relative calm and saying a little prayer the unit would stay that way.
I returned to work on Tuesday, September 4, after that long weekend that proved to be fateful, with a new perspective on life and work, inspired by Sandler’s humility. Little did I know we were all living on precious borrowed time. It was impossible to conceive that one short week later, Sandler’s inspirational tale and those nurses’ surreal stories would collide in a very real nightmare.
It’s the Pearl Harbor of my generation. Most Americans can tell you where they were on the morning of September 11, 2001. I had walked part of the way to work that day, so picture perfect was the blue of the blue sky. I was in my office at 277 Park Avenue in midtown watching CNBC’s Mark Haines on my left screen and pre-market activity on my right screen. As was most often the case, it was muted as live calls on economic data and company news came over the real life squawk box on my desk. My two assistants were seated outside my office going through their pre-market routine, fortified as was usually the case with oatmeal, yogurt and coffee. In retrospect, the mundaneness of the morning’s details are bittersweet.
It was almost 9 am and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that a live picture of the World Trade Center had popped up on CNBC. Haines reported, as did many initially, that a small commuter plane had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. As distracting as the image was, I tried to go back to my own morning routine, preparing for the stock market open in what had ceased to be one-way (up) trading after the Nasdaq peaked in March 2000.
And then, at 9:02 am, time stood still. A scream pierced the floor as one of my assistants watched a second plane, a second enormous plane, fly straight into what appeared to be Morgan Stanley’s office floors in the south tower, where her father was at work. As things turned out, it didn’t matter where the plane had hit for the employees of Morgan Stanley that morning. They had Rick Rescorla, the firm’s Cornish-born director of security and a Vietnam veteran who had been preparing for this day for years. He knew the Twin Towers were an ideal target for terrorists. Thanks to his efforts and years of constant drilling – every three months, which some thought overzealous — all but 13 of Morgan Stanley’s 2,687 employees and 215 office visitors survived that day. With the evacuation complete, Rescorla heroically reentered the buildings to continue his rescue efforts and in doing so, paid the ultimate price.
Ironically, as was the case with Morgan Stanley’s Rescorla, some at Sandler O’Neill had lived through the first attack on the World Trade Center. When the young firm had outgrown its previous office space, it chose the south tower as its new home, moving in the same week it was bombed on Friday, Feb. 26, 1993. Many who struggled their way down over 100 flights in crowded stairwells, through seas of discarded women’s shoes, learned the lesson that they would have been just as well staying put. It was that very hesitation, borne of that lesson, that cost many of the firm’s employees their lives.
In the 16 minutes between the time the first and second planes struck the towers, the Port Authority had announced over the south tower’s intercom system that the issues were isolated to the north tower and to stay put. That didn’t mean the scenes across the way at the north tower were any less horrifying as rather than suffocate or burn to death, some leapt to their deaths before the very eyes of those across the way in the south tower. Amid this mayhem, Jennifer Gorsuch, a Sandler employee, emerged from the ladies room just in time to hear Sandler shout, “Holy shit!” Gorsach rushed to find a friend and fellow Sandler employee who had survived the 1993 ordeal and knew of an escape route. Together, the two set off down an open stairwell.
Sandler, though, going off his 1993 experience, told one investment banker who did survive 9/11 that the safest place to be was in the office. He added, though, that anyone who wanted to leave was welcome to do so. Of the 83 employees in the office that morning, 17 chose to leave right away. The bond traders and most of those on the equity desk chose to remain. Only three other Sandler employees would make it out alive. The rest, including Sandler himself, were never aware that one, and only one, open staircase offered them safe passage; the building’s intercom system had been knocked out at the time of the second plane’s impact.
From the little we know, many that day above the crash site tried to get to the roof. Though it would not have made a difference in the end, it is nevertheless deeply disturbing that the door to the roof was found to have been locked. The towers were exempt from a city code that required roof access to remain unlocked. The Port Authority and Fire Department had agreed that the safest evacuation route was down, not up. Plus, enforcing the exemption delivered a loud and clear message to vandals, media-mongering pranksters and those contemplating suicide.
For me, the sweetest sorrow came down to the nobility of those brash, boisterous traders. Many that day, at Sandler O’Neill and Keefe, Bruyette & Woods and Cantor Fitzgerald, among others, were among the 1,500 who could have possibly escaped but chose to do right by their firms’ clients. You see, once it was understood that the attacks were an act of terror, the markets began to flash angry red, promising to crash at the open, handing certain victory to the evil, soulless weaklings who took aim at the economic heart of this great country. It is the traders who chose to man their stations I mourn to this day, those I have always called, with utter reverence, the real Masters of the Universe.
The helplessness I felt when the buildings fell was matched only by my horror at the silence that followed. At some point between 9 am and 10 am that morning, I found myself praying the deafening fire engine and ambulance sirens tearing down Park Avenue would just stop blaring. The cacophony had filled the 102 minutes that followed the initial plane striking the north tower at 8:46 am. But then the buildings did fall. Although the second to be struck by a plane, the south tower was the first to fall at 9:59 am. In the 29 minutes that followed, we all prayed the north tower would escape the fate of its sister to the south. But it was not to be. The unthinkable, the impossible happened, not once, but twice. And then it was quiet, quiet for days and months and now, 15 years.
Of course, there were miraculously 12,000 who walked away, mainly those who had evacuated the floors beneath the impact zones in both buildings. No doubt, the survivors paved a pathway of hope to help the country heal. But the dearth of rescues was nevertheless heartbreaking as we collectively sat vigil praying man and dog would pull a survivor from the pile. Hence the devastation wrought by the silence. It was unfathomable to contrast those who had braved the fires and lost, and the mere 22 survivors admitted to the no longer nearly vacant Cornell Burn Center of my Columbia class project experience. As if to punctuate the pain, four hospital EMS employees had been lost along with 408 other rescue workers that dark day.
Normalcy was suspended in the days and hellish nights that followed. We financial markets survivors, weighed down by guilt as we were, were told to do what those in those towers had done so bravely. We stayed on call in the event Dick Grasso and the other powers that be were able to open the markets for trading. We were prepared to be the calm in the stormy market seas that were sure to follow the initial open.
Unlike the markets, Columbia resumed classes on Wednesday, September 12th. The moment I stepped out of my cab on 125th Street that evening, the memories of the sounds of 9/11 were lost in the overwhelmingly toxic smells of its aftermath. Buffered as I was, at home in the middle of the island on Fifth Avenue, I had only experienced the tragedy’s aftermath from the nonstop playback news images of the towers that were, and then ceased to be. But Columbia, with its proximity to the Hudson, is an inescapable spot to take in what the winds carry. That evening it was the sad novelty of the smell of burning computers, steel and God knows what else, something I hope to never know again.
On Friday, September 14th, I was set free to travel north to Connecticut to the loving arms of my family who were worried so. They tried to bolster my spirits, what with my 31st birthday set to arrive on Monday. But I was in no place to find the will to celebrate. I was short the markets, poised to profit the minute trading opened on Monday morning and beating myself up as a traitor to my country for being so. The moment I was able to do so on the morning of September 17th, I closed out my position. And I manned my station.
That night, most of my friends dragged me out to my favorite Italian restaurant. But one of us was absent from the table. My dear friend, whose UCLA friend had introduced us to Herman Sandler, found herself in the right place at the right time to begin to help the healing process. At the time, she was working at Bank of America in midtown. The very day the towers fell, the bank had offered Sandler O’Neill survivors temporary office space in the same midtown office at which my friend worked. Jimmy Dunne, who found himself running Sandler O’Neill in the flash of an eye, gratefully accepted. Dunne had been out of the office on 9/11 trying to qualify for the U.S. Mid-Amateur Classic; he survived by chance and chance alone. So devastated was my friend that she chose to stay late every night, on her own time, to help Dunne write condolence letters to the families of the 66 Sandler employees who had lost their lives. She would eventually end up working at Sandler.
On my birthday, six days after 9/11, my friends insisted that robbing us all of joy, the very ability to celebrate life’s little occasions, would represent yet another feather in the caps of the cowards who attacked our fearless traders, our Masters of the Universe who were now all, and would be forever, on heavens’ trading floors. We raised our glasses to them that September evening and I remember thinking I hope Smith & Wollensky delivers in the celestial realm.
But I don’t digress. I never do on 9/11. I never shy away from remembering the worst day of my life. To do so would be an unforgivable dishonor to the 2,759 victims who gave their lives on that painfully beautifully September morning. And so, I never will.