For a few long minutes on the morning of September 11, 2001, I believed I might die. I remember thinking, “These bastard terrorists are going to get me, too.”
An insurance colleague at AIG had come into my office at 175 Water Street, about five blocks from the World Trade Center, shortly before 9 a.m. to say he read on the internet that a plane had hit the World Trade Center’s North Tower. My first thought was it must have been a small plane whose pilot had succumbed to a medical emergency. Then, I looked out my office window and saw the sky filling with paper blown out of the upper floors of the Trade Center.
I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. It already felt like a major event.
Recollecting my experiences from September 11 in Lower Manhattan brings back painful memories. I did not enjoy writing this piece, but I felt the younger generation in insurance could benefit from insights into how 9/11 monumentally impacted our industry. Too many people “went down to the station” or the office that morning and “never came back.”
An ominous sky filled with fluttering paper. I later learned that most of that paper came from the North Tower offices of Marsh, site of the first jet’s impact.
After a few minutes, groups of us began descending to the sidewalk outside our building to gape upward at the burning North Tower. I’d guess two or three hundred AIG employees assembled. I assumed, naively, that helicopters would soon arrive to douse the flames.
Shortly after 9 a.m., someone on the sidewalk yelled that another plane had just crashed into the South Tower. We couldn’t see the initial impact of the second crash from our viewpoint, but, nonetheless, all questions about whether these were acts of terrorism were immediately answered.
A security guard emerged from 175 Water Street and announced that the building was closing for the day. Nobody would be allowed back inside. More than half the crowd started heading for home. Since I lived three miles north in Gramercy Park, I decided to wait around to see the fire extinguished. If worse came to worst, I knew I could walk home.
The South Tower fell at 9:59 a.m. As I watched this gigantic structure sink into itself, a sound akin to the crash of humongous concrete bowling pins filled the air. I knew instantly I had just witnessed the deaths of many people. I thought to myself, “Even soldiers in war don’t see that many people die at once.” Surreal doesn’t describe it.
Within a few seconds, a large grayish cloud of smoke and debris advanced toward us. Someone in the crowd shouted that we should run because the cloud could be poisonous and might kill us. That’s when fear, and my mortality, gripped me. I truly thought I might meet my demise at the hands of terrorists.
I alternately ran and walked up FDR Drive with eight colleagues. The scene was a war movie come to life. Frenzied people scurried as the piercing wail of sirens assaulted our ears. Emergency vehicles sped through the smoke in every direction. Lower Manhattan was a blinding swirl of panicked activity. Chaos.
Everyone in my group made it safely to my home on East 18th Street. My land-line phone wasn’t working, and cell-phone service was intermittent, so I sat at my computer and sent an email to almost my entire address book, letting the recipients know who was with me and which colleagues I knew were safe. While planes were grounded, rumors took flight. I later learned that one had me at a meeting at Aon’s offices high in the South Tower when the fuel-filled jets struck. Friends of mine were also falsely rumored to be at the World Trade Center that morning.
The days and months after September 11, 2001, were an open, oozing wound in all of America, but particularly so, I believe, in New York City. Acrid smoke hovered over Manhattan 24 hours a day. Everywhere you went, homemade flyers showed victims in various poses from better days – holding a child, flipping a burger on a grill, displaying a just-caught fish on the deck of a boat – asking if anyone had seen the person who was now officially “missing.” We all knew, as did most likely the people who created the flyers, that these victims were not going to be found alive. But still, humans being human, we clung to hope. I heard the family of one missing insurance brokerage employee believed she was alive in the rubble below the Trade Center and surviving on junk food from a drug store in the building’s lobby. Of course, that wasn’t true.
On the morning of Sept. 12, I exited my building in Gramercy Park and walked a half block to Third Avenue. I felt like I’d been transported to the Twilight Zone when I saw a police car coming down the avenue. It wasn’t just any police car; it was a state police car from Michigan. At the time, I thought to myself, “Is the world now so screwed up that we need police from Michigan to protect New York City?” Of course, upon reflection, I realized the out-of-place police car was simply a message of unity and support for New York City, and all of America, really, from the good people of Michigan.
On Friday, Sept. 14, I called Hertz to see if I could rent a car to drive to my sister’s house at the Jersey Shore. The customer service rep was in Oklahoma. When she realized I was calling from Manhattan, she immediately dropped her businesslike tone and asked me, in a motherly fashion, if I was OK.
I nearly cried.
Everyone in America was concerned for, and supportive of, those closest to the tragedies, although I believe these atrocities affected every American to their core, not just those in close proximity to the carnage and/or those who lost a loved one.
Most Americans, I think, felt helpless in those days immediately following 9/11. Giving blood was a powerful gesture of support but, unfortunately, there were not many injured victims who survived and needed blood. Basically, you either made it out alive or you perished. People don’t typically live to tell about it when an enormous building collapses.
Americans did, however, get an opportunity to support the first responders and those digging through the aftermath’s rubble. A friend of mine volunteered to operate heavy equipment at Ground Zero a few days after 9-11. I asked him what it looked like close up. “It looked like Hell,” he said, “Everything was on fire.”
The insurance industry was hit especially hard by September 11. Marsh suffered the most fatalities of any insurance organization; 295 employees and 63 consultants perished. Aon lost 176 employees. Almost everyone in commercial insurance in the New York City area knew at least one person who died in the attacks.
When we got back to work at AIG a few days after September 11 (or maybe it was a week, I don’t exactly remember), New York City-based employees reported to alternative AIG offices for a few days. When we were finally allowed to go back to 175 Water Street, for the first few days when I emerged from the subway, I took in a straight-on, close-up view of the still-smoldering Trade Center site. Then, after walking a couple of blocks, I’d have to show my business card to a machine gun-toting soldier in order to be allowed through a security perimeter surrounding the Wall Street area. But showing your business card to a soldier to be allowed to get to your office did not seem crazy; it just blended in with the Michigan police car and all of the other “new normals” of surreal post-9-11 life.
I’m going to skip over details of the memorial services for individuals who died that day. They were all heartrending events. I attended three, but I know of people who went to 10 or more. The sadness was staggering, and it lingered for a long time.
Every insurance meeting in the first few months after September 11 began with 15 or 20 minutes of discussion about where people were that day, who they knew that died or who had narrowly missed being at the Towers that morning. It was sort of an informal exercise in group therapy. AIG, and many other employers, offered free counseling to employees. I declined to participate, although, in hindsight, I should have gone. I would spontaneously and sporadically cry in the months following, usually while I was home alone. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
The insurance industry has gained a lot of new members since 2001, including the offspring of some who died in the attacks. The youngest among today’s insurance professionals were not old enough in 2001 to understand what was happening. We lost a lot of exemplary insurance people on 9/11, people who no doubt would have gone on to do great things, including raising great families.
In the early years after it happened, I would see bumper stickers with a silhouette of the World Trade Center next to the words “Never Forget.” I would think that it was preposterous to believe that anyone could forget 9/11 in our lifetime. And while that may be generally true, younger generations won’t remember it as vividly, or think of it as often, as those of us who were adults at the time. Whenever someone mentions an event that occurred within the past 30 years or so, I automatically classify it as being before or after September 11. To me, the world changed profoundly that day.
The pain of losing friends and loved ones on September 11 will never completely vanish, but perhaps we can take some cold comfort that our nation came together in those post-9/11 days as it had never done before, or since, in my lifetime. Americans were donating their time and money to help victims and support rebuilding and rebirth. Nobody was asking who they voted for, or who they thought won an election; support and comfort was given freely by just about everyone, including foreigners. France’s renown newspaper Le Monde ran a headline that screamed, “We Are All Americans.” If there had been a vaccine against terrorism available on September 12, I believe 100 percent of Americans would have taken it.
Hopefully, Americans collectively learned many valuable lessons since September 11, and not just about preventing additional terrorist attacks, although those are certainly significant. I’m sure it would be too much to expect our nation to rally around the 20th anniversary of September 11 to set aside political differences in order to work together for a brighter future. But one can hope. America has many times displayed its ability to move forward as one unified nation when circumstances demand it. Hopefully, those days will return as we face a relentless pandemic.
And let us resolve to never forget the legacies of all those Americans, first responders and civilians alike, who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.
We, as a nation, and as individuals, would do well to follow the battle cry of American hero Todd Beamer as he and his fellow Flight 93 passengers displayed unflinching courage in their quest to protect this country on 9/11 by sacrificing their own lives to save others.
It’s wishful thinking, but perhaps the 20th anniversary of September 11 will move us to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be. As Todd Beamer said so courageously, “Let’s Roll!”
Larry Goanos’ latest book, “Professional Lines Insurance: An Oral History,” contains a chapter on September 11, 2001. That chapter can be downloaded for free here. All profits from the sale of the book in the month of September will be donated to the National September 11th Memorial and Museum. This article was edited by Lee F. Lerner.
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