The following is a personal account of my experiences during the Summer of 2001 in New York and London, as well as what I saw, smelled, felt, heard and watched in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2011. As Jews, it is in our nature to tell stories, annually, as to always remember, honor those we have lost and to appreciate all that we have today. Each year I re-post this with an update at the end of the past year.
Summer 2001 (~July), New York
The Human Capital Management Division of Goldman Sachs had decided that a “penny saved is a penny earned.” However, in order to play fair, the global sector was given a chance to voluntarily leave the firm and take a severance package. Since the new administration had taken office in the White House, apparently Wall Street just was not feeling so hot, and the markets were starting to look worse for the wear. We were given a deadline, some time, a moment to ponder our future outside the walls of what would come to be the best lesson in life I have learned yet.
August 12th, 2001, London
My brother Joel, well, as much like a brother I ever had, was married to a beautiful, wonderful woman, Shushi Rose, in Manchester, England just a week prior. The train ride along the English countryside was just as imagined, lush with green hills, full of English flavors that tempted the eye to involuntarily think Shakespeare, Chaucer – but for me, not a lot of Harry Potter. After a wonderful week working in London with my good friends Lesley Bosworth and Janeen Schmid I found myself a kid in a candy store. England was this, folklore place to me as a child, and for the first time here I was amongst the ages. The weekend of August 11th, was met with Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) with Michael Rosen in Edgeware and on Sunday Lesley was gracious enough to allow me to stay at her flat before my trip back to New York City.
I took the day on Sunday to explore a few pieces on London, including the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. In the 48 hours of that weekend something happened…that even until this day, I wish I could explain….but I cannot. During my Shabbat in Edgeware the following sentence was uttered “if the Twin Towers, the World Trade Center in New York City, lower Manhattan were to ever fall, do you think they would go left, right, or straight down….?” The second…was the migraine – or what seemed to be the worst headache I’ve ever suffered. During my walk in National Gallery on Sunday a small thump in the back my head grew to a large thunderous roaring POUNDING….blinding pounding headache. Overcome with this pain I left the gallery, stumbled out and found myself smack in the middle of Trafalgar Square and what do I find…but of course “Muslim Unity Rally Against the Facist West Regime of George Bush….DEATH TO AMERICA!” While finding my way to tube in order to make it back to Lesley’s the following words were uttered by the man at the mic….”you not know when, where, or how…but we will bring you down, crashing into you, burning you into the sea….”
Of course in the day and age of Facebook and Twitter I will lead this chapter with http://www.artcanning.com. After the latest round of chemo and biopsy and after biopsy the Hodgkin's Lymphoma had returned to a man not yet 24. Art was dying and he knew it. Art Canning was also a good friend and co-worker at Goldman Sachs. He decided the best alternative was to take the voluntary severance package, leave NYC and head back home Pennsylvania. Art was also to this day, one of the kindest, most gentle souls that has ever crossed my path, my eyes and my heart. Truly one of the good lord’s best examples of a human. Now whether or not you believe in a god, or many gods or even an invisible alien that controls your thoughts – in the coming months I had to start to wonder, if there was one….what the hell is wrong with them.
September 3rd, 2001
It was decided that the team was going to have a going away dinner for Art. Not only that, but in the time that it was announced that a Voluntary Severance Program was going into effect, the division was bickering, fighting, scheming – who is leaving, who is staying, who gets that job if so and so leaves…everyone was out for themselves and it was all a game, a true Wall Street game. But in the end, some of us decided the best thing to do would be to have a dinner after 5pm on the very day that deadline to accept that severance package was to be….we had until 5pm on September 10th, 2001 to decide whether or not you wanted to voluntarily leave the firm….
September 10th, 2001, ~7pm
We arrived at the restaurant and shortly after Art Canning walked in to what he thought was a quiet dinner with a few friends. Nearly 50 of us were there, toasting to his life, to our future lives and to the goodness of it all. It was a night where the wine flowed, the food was divine….we all laughed, we all cried. I remember Ben Cannon, our VP…who could be a very hard man to get along with. But a fine British man nonetheless, always serious, always business…this night, we all practiced balancing spoons on our nose…..
In the car ride home (because in those days, you could get a Lincoln Town Car to take you home), my intern Trevor and I shared a car to the Upper West and asked me “so is everything gonna be OK now, we’re all cool in HCM….” – I remember looking at over at him and saying to him and truly thinking “everything is going to be fine now, life is going to be good from here on out….” Granted, what did I know at 24 years of age.
September 11, 2001…
I remember my chair, sitting, putting on the olive green shirt, brown/khaki pants, tying my shoes, walking to the subway along W96th Street. I remember walking down towards Broadway on W96th Street, how the hill slopes down just slightly and then looking up to the sky and just before going down into the 2/3 train remembering…how crystal clear and blue the sky was …it was as if nothing could go wrong.
After dinner that night most of HCM went out for karaoke, I had to be the GOOD SON and go home as Jessica Wickham really, really, really needed to talk to me at 8:30am….why 8:30am, because she was an American working in Tokyo and it was 8:30pm for her. We spoke for 15 minutes about the upgrade to the Learning Management System and talked about the dinner the night before and as we ended our conversation at 8:45am she said to me “Now Michael, you be good today, don’t go causing any trouble…” And I said “it’s Tuesday, what’s the worst that could happen…”
How did I know the worst was going to happen in 60 seconds or less……
Adam Roux came running around the corner…”dude, do you know why there is tons of paper flying around outside? Is there a parade?” Now at 180 Maiden Lane if you looked on the north side of the office tower another building blocked our view, but I looked up to notice the paper, but also that…well, if this was a parade, parade’s don’t come with black smoke. Then the screaming started….the loud…cries that could only come with the worst of possibilities.
Running around the other side I was approaching a large number of people starring out the west side of our office, and all I heard before I saw it was …” a small plane just hit the north tower of the World Trade Center.” Murry Christensen was standing there, my first boss at Goldman, and said “my lord, I’ve never in all my years….” I looked up to what I can only describe is what I can imagine the center of hell to look like. This large black hole, smoke billowing, pouring, flames shooting out, sparks flying…” Chaos basically started right about there….
Now because of the evening festivities the night before, some folks were….well, slow to come in that day, so not everyone was in the office – meaning, my god, we don’t have everyone accounted for, and it wasn’t until 3 days later that we truly did know where they were. Phones were jammed, internet jammed – I tried reach friends who I know were in transit and tell them to steer clear….and decided to head back to the window…as I was walking the crowd standing there just….just…JUMPED and SCREAMED….WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT….THERE WAS…WHAT THE..WAS THAT.. ….BIG EXPLOSION…out of the south tower.
Then …the bodies started to fly. I refuse to go into detail, but, what I saw jumping from that tower will never leave my dreams, or my visions. But no, you haven’t lived until you see a man climb out of a burning building ~80 stories up, while he is on fire and push himself off only to plummet to his death.
It was at that moment we all knew, the first plane was no accident, we were under attack.
Now I worked on the 21st floor, the Recruiting floor on 24 had a BIG screen TV in the lobby, so we went there. The fire marshal was on the loud speaker “DO NOT LEAVE THIS BUILDING, PLEASE DO NOT LEAVE, WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT IS OUT THERE!” If but one thing is for certain, America is a lot better prepared for emergencies in office buildings, lord knows, we had NO IDEA what to do – stay…go…go…stay?!? I got myself a seat at the receptionists desk to watch CNN and Aaron Brown was talking from midtown, showing on TV what was outside my office….at that time, you…don’t…think, you don’t question – you are in the middle of a war zone, and you just wonder what’s next?
The next part is when hell truly unleashed itself…
Now, I’ve never been in an earthquake….until that minute. The desk started to shake, rumble and roll. Aaron Brown started to scream on CNN “GO BACK TO NY, GO BACK TO NY….” As of course the Pentagon had been hit. All I see is the North Tower and a cloud of smoke…wait….all I see is the North Tower and a cloud of smoke. I looked at my office mate Shuli Pasow and said “what was that?” Now, when you can see yourself on TV (or your office building) and a 110 story wall of smoke is coming towards you…you kinda want to look out the window. I ran around the corner and looked up Maiden Lane, or what was left of it. I looked down to see people running…struggling so hard, fighting to stay ahead of this all consuming ….thing…that’s all I can call it…that thing. It was headed right for us. Within 30 seconds 180 Maiden Lane and the rest of Lower Manhattan was consumed in what was the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
To this day, on September 10, 2009, I am haunted by that very moment. You don’t forget that the people in that tower were crushed, burned, incinerated and destroyed were part of that smoke and consumption. And I know that because bone fragments were found as far as Brooklyn in the month and years to come in the cleanup effort.
It was at this moment, that my mind started to drift into something it had not before….I may die in the office. I may not make it home today. The air vents were shut, the building was heating up. The smoke was starting to make the windows cave in slightly. People were gathered in small groups, or trying to find a working phone. People started to come in off the streets, covered in dust. Chaos was here, and it was loud.
Standing on the 21st floor again near my desk, I saw Shuli Pasow again, a friend from the Upper West Side and office mate. I remember asking her “now what do we do!!??” – as she started to speak, I remember the building shook again…and all I could think was…. we’re not making it out of here alive…..any minute now those windows will cave in and implode this building.
Within an hour a group of us had decided that we had to go, we had to get out of there. We got to the lobby and were handed a wet wash cloth by the security team…I remember thinking…what the hell is this going to do?!? In case I want to wash my face?
There are some moments I remember more than others about that day. Stepping out of my office towards the South Street Seaport will be a moment I can never erase. Stepping from the office down on to Maiden Lane. The street was gone, it was as if it had snowed….a thick, powder of gray ash…nearly 2 inches deep. When you are a Jew who felt the need to study the Holocaust in High School and College – this is where your mind begins to shut down all reality.
~12pm-4pm, September 11, 2001, Manhattan….
When you work in Lower Manhattan and live in the Upper West Side, you always say to yourself, “one day I should walk home….” – you never think something like this will force you to do so. I remember getting to the Brooklyn Bridge and like Lot and his wife in the bible thinking, “don’t turn around…. don’t turn around….” – but I did, only to see what I can only tell you is a black sky, filled with flames, smoke, and death.
But we stuck together, making our way to Grand Central, where those in Westchester hoped to get a train. My boss and I, Bellamy made our way to the West Side. We tried for the A/C train at Times Square, – no way. I got on a bus at ~58th & 8th Avenues. A bus full of those in shock, in tears, hugs were given to those who broke down, total strangers reaching out – and I remember the woman I stood over as we made our way up Broadway just kept saying to herself “why…why…why…I don’t’ know how..why…would someone…..” and right then she looked up at me….”WHY!?”
I walked into 750 Columbus at just after 4pm, and took the elevator up to 11S where my roommate, and friend – and someone I will always think of as a brother, Scott Chait waited for word of either the survival or death of not only me, but of friends, loved ones…family members. I walked in and he grabbed me, and hugged me – many thought I was dead, ….
The rest of that night is not a blur – I remember very well drinking an entire 8oz bottle of Jack Daniels, being dragged to the roof of my building (which is full of lovely Jews) for a prayer session at sunset and…just…being in shock.
September 12- till…well, about a week later
People in NYC were nice to each other.
Two Weeks after September 12th – Thanksgiving
Next Monday we were back in the office, a few days and/or weeks too soon most of us thought. The smell of burning metal lasted until the week of Thanksgiving.
September 11, 2002…
I was running late. I was meeting one of the angels that have passed through my life, Nili Schiffman, at the offices of the Museum of Jewish Heritage to watch a ceremony of world leaders in Battery Park. My boss, my friend Bellamy said to me “see you tomorrow, go enjoy…” I said “I feel like I am still in mourning…” And then you hear something in life sometimes that just …never leaves you…Bellamy said to me:
“You should celebrate my friend. You are ALIVE. We survived that day, but how, who knows, those planes could have gone off course, bombs might have exploded, you don’t know what COULD have happened, but in the end, it didn’t and you are here to live another day. Celebrate those we lost and be joyful for those that survived, including yourself.”
And another person standing there, my co-worker and beloved friend Michael Kwidzinski smiled and just said "now go…" – and it was the first time in a year that I felt OK about what might happen in the days, months and years to follow.
Update written on September 10, 2009 (San Francisco)
Few days have passed in 8 years that I don’t wonder, think, ponder how those 3 months played out. What I do know for certain is that after that, in the years to come, in my 7 more years I had left in NY I did what I had to do , and that is to go forth and do what I can for the world – and to believe that man, is inherently good, but the factors of money, power, greed, arrogance and ego can corrupt. It is human evolution, it is the natural desire to be larger than you truly are. All I can hope for is to be a larger voice for the good, and hope that others do the same.
Eight years later….I can remember as if it was yesterday. Eight years later….I realize the best way for me to ever tell this story….is by telling you what happened 3 months before the story. When enough time has passed and those that were there are long gone, that history remembers to note how an event such as this could have been prevented, but at the same time understand that it was an event like that which created a great deal of good in the world….
Update written on September 11, 2010 (San Francisco)
After 9 years there are times that it still feels like it was yesterday. Like my Jewish traditions where certain stories are recounted annually I too shall re-post, recount and tell my story at least once a year, as to ensure I do not forget – I would feel that would dishonor those that were lost senselessly. Today reminds of how my life has evolved in 9 years. I am getting married in less than 4 weeks to the most amazing woman I have ever met. Silvia reminds me each day how amazing, precious and beautiful life is no matter how dark it might seem to get. I will take words from my ever wise Rabbi Mintz. It was almost poetic that this event occurred so close to the Jewish New Year, when we remember that these are the days we ask those we love for forgiveness – why wait: never go to bed angry, always give a hug and a smile and do your best to make what looks to be a shattered world a better place.
Update written on September 09, 2011
If you told me on September 12, 2001 that ten years later I would be married to a gorgeous blonde Jewish woman from Sao Paulo, Brazil, living in a beautiful apartment in San Francisco with a cute 8 week old puppy I would have told you to shut the front door cause you are NUTS! But alas, this is my reality. Another side of my reality is that it has been 10 years since that day and to most of us that witnessed and experienced it or lost someone, it happens everyday in our minds and feels like it was yesterday. Over the years I have watched many exploit and demonize the wrong people over what happened. In the end, I still have faith in humanity, it is not always perfect, but without it I would go mad. Though I can’t help ignore that some folks on certain cable news stations can just say whatever they want and there are enough people to believe it as gospel – and it reality it does nothing but generate fear and discrimination. People losing their homes and jobs and families, meanwhile some of the least intelligent people on earth appear on television acting like baboons and never have to worry for money again. The system of humanity reaching a breaking point, and in part I can’t ignore that it is what led to that day. I truly believe it is time to put away the egos and let humanity breathe again.