Fifteen Years One Thing Hasn’t Changed

My kids came home from school and asked me about 9/11. It has been 15 years and the memories are as clear in my mind as the sky that morning.

Before I began to tell them about my experience, I wanted to hear what they learned. Nick (age 7) told me a factually accurate account of the events. He finished with the statement:

“And we built buildings in New York that were taller and stronger. And dad, it only took a year to fix the Pentagon because everyone wanted to show that not even a horrible thing like this can stop us!”

I smiled and agreed.

Dahlia (age 5) said she learned the same things as Nick. She added:

“Everybody was really lucky there were so many brave policemen, firemen and nurses who ran to the buildings to help.”

I got a little choked up, but I smiled and said:

“That’s absolutely right.”

Then it was my turn to tell the story.

The kids were in my office on the couch across my desk from me. Dahlia sat on the arm of the couch and Nick was on the edge of his seat in the middle of the sofa.

That day, my staff started their day in the office for a morning meeting. About 47 people in total. Twelve salespeople. Five management and administrative folks. And 30 housekeepers.
I was running a corporate housing business and our office was on Fifth Avenue and 43rd street – two blocks from Grand Central Station.

The housekeepers usually left the office at 8AM but because of the meeting, they left at 8:25. It was a happy meeting. We gave out some awards. Had a nice breakfast. Smiled and laughed a lot.

The housekeepers worked in teams and would travel on the subway to their cleaning assignments. They were met at the apartment buildings by a van and they would exchange dirty linen for clean with the van driver.

We also had a truck that installed appliances in apartments. That day, the two guys in the truck had about $30,000 worth of stuff to install in apartments at 17 John Street – three blocks from the Twin Towers.

Ten housekeepers (and one trainee) and one supervisor were on their way to 17 John Street to clean the apartments and they were going to meet a linen van and the appliance guys at the building.

The housekeeping team exited the subway at the World Trade Center station at 8:40AM. They dragged their small suitcases with cleaning products through the station and reached the street at exactly 8:45.

In our break room I was meeting with our admin and sales team. The television was on behind me with the volume off. One of our account managers gasped, two others covered their mouths when, at 8:55 the TV news cut to a shot of the North Tower with a smoke and flame filled hole in it.

We all stood in silence just staring at the TV for what seemed like forever. It was only about 30 seconds when Scott Brennan, my childhood friend and now my operations executive whispered:

“Dave, the housekeepers…”

“Get them on the phone and tell them to get in one of the vans now. Have the van drive them back here.” I said.

Each housekeeper and van driver had a company cell phone.

We all walked into my office and turned on the big screen TV tuned to the news.

Just after 9AM thirteen of us watched as the second plane hit the South Tower. The first plane struck the North Tower at precisely the time our team of twelve people left the subway at the World Trade Center.

I grabbed our revenue manager, gave him a phone list and had him call everyone in the field and tell them to get on a bus, in a taxi, or on a train and get out of the city. It was clear to us that we were under attack.

Scott could not reach the twelve people downtown. Their phones were going straight to voice mail. He decided to call the building where they were supposed to report. They had not been there.
Just then my phone rang – it was “linen van one” on the FDR drive. They saw the smoke and were stuck in traffic. They wanted to know what to do.

“What’s the next exit?” I asked.

“The Manhattan Bridge.” Was the reply.

“Go to Brooklyn and call me when you get to a place you can park. Drive as far as you have to and find someplace like a diner or a shopping center. ” I said.

Then I called linen van two. They were on the west side highway heading uptown.

“Where do you live?” I asked the driver

“The Bronx.” He replied.

“Take the van home. Park it in a parking lot. Call me when you get there. Go now.”

The last chance we had to pick up the housekeepers was the appliance truck. Scott was on the phone with them when I entered his office.

“Scott, they’ve got to go to 17 John and get the housekeepers. Can they get there?”

Scott relayed my message.

“Yes. They will do everything they can to get over there but Dave, the truck is loaded, all those people won’t fit in it.” He said.

“Tell them we will deal with that situation when they have everyone together.” I replied.

I fully intended to dump $30,000 in brand new appliances on the street if we had to.

At that point, two NYPD officers got off the elevator on our floor.

They informed us that someone had planted a bomb in Grand Central Station and we had to leave immediately.

My assistant immediately forwarded all the calls from the inbound telephone lines to each person’s cell phone. They were ringing nonstop with our guest’s families calling, our employees’ families calling, vendors calling – all checking on the wellbeing of a loved one.

Seventeen of us ran (and I mean ran) as a group toward Central Park (it was the only place I could think of as safe – no tall buildings).

We got as far as Dunkin Donuts on 6th avenue and 43rd when we realized we couldn’t leave without making sure the “downtown twelve” made it to safety.

Scott and our revenue manager had been in touch with everyone except those twelve people.

In Dunkin Donuts (which was still open and selling stuff) I looked at the group. I said:

“None of you have to stay. I’m going to figure out how to get in touch with those folks. I won’t do anything unsafe and as long as we stay together we will be fine. If you want to leave, you can go now. But if you go, go as far as you possibly can. Take a bus, a train or a taxi out of here. Take a couple of minutes and let me know what you want to do.”

Four people stayed with me.

As we were scrambling around, the towers both collapsed.

We went to a bus stop to get everyone else on a bus. Nine busses passed us. The busses were full of people covered in ash and soot. The City made all the transportation heading uptown and out of Manhattan free. Bus drivers were instructed to pick up everyone to fill their busses and then drive out. Taxis were allowed to take multiple people uptown and out to Brooklyn and Queens but once they left Manhattan, they had to stay out, until further notice.

The next telephone call I got was from the appliance van. They were boxed-in. People abandoned their vehicles when the towers collapsed. Our drivers were still trying to get to 17 John Street. The police had closed the West Side Highway. They could go no further.

“Leave the truck and run.” I told the driver.

“Go toward the piers. Get on a boat and go to Jersey. I don’t care what you have to do. I will reimburse you. Pay someone to let you on the Circle Line if you have to.”

Cell phone lines were jammed – fast busy signals whenever you tried to make a call.

Five of us – coworkers and friends – spent the next two hours frantically calling the cell numbers of the downtown twelve as we ran into and out of our building as various threats came in.

At about 2:15PM we were standing on a corner, at a hot dog vendor (still working under the crazy circumstances) deciding our next steps.

We agreed Scott and I would walk downtown and just start looking for our missing coworkers.

Chaos, over 8 million people trying to get out of Manhattan, and that was the best plan we could come up with.

When I looked to the left of the hot dog cart I saw the housekeeping supervisor. He was covered in dust and ash. With him were two housekeepers.

When the first plane hit, they ran South toward the Statue of Liberty.

By the time they reached NY Harbor, Battery Park was packed.

They tried to call us but could not get through. When the buildings collapsed, boats began pulling up to the dock and evacuating people.

Nine housekeepers got on a tugboat and went to New Jersey. They were safe.

The three people standing in front of me – the supervisor and two housekeepers – walked all the way uptown to the office to let us know that everyone made it.

One of the housekeepers apologized – she dropped her suitcase of cleaning supplies in Chinatown because it was just too heavy.

I looked over at my kids, their mouths were agape. My daughter’s eyes had welled up with tears.

I told them I learned one important thing from this experience. I learned when things get crazy it helps to stick together.

Our housekeepers stuck together. The people in our office stuck together. We had a feeling as long as we were with each other, we would be safe.

My kids nodded.

My daughter gave me a hug and said:

“Dad you are really lucky you had such good friends who stayed with you.”

Yes, baby. I am.