You may have read my story of 9/11 and the “voice.” It touched many people, but there is much to be said about the very difficult days afterward. In tragedy, people often show their true nature.
On the morning of 9/11 I stood outside my parking garage on the Hudson River, and called my wife to let her know I was okay. Then I heard the wine of a jet engine and saw the plane. What I witnessed is the now familiar shot of the second plane striking the South Tower. I braced myself for a huge explosion but it was more like the “pop” of a balloon.
Until this time people were milling around in groups watching the smoke pour from the first hit and speculating on the cause. Now everyone scattered. I ran for the PATH tunnel to the World Trade Center; believing that I should be there to help. What I encountered was a mob of humanity streaming out of the tunnel and shouting that the station was filling up with smoke.
The pandemonium on the street was right out of Hollywood: people running in the streets, cars driving on the sidewalks. A few just stared skyward. I left my car in the garage and walked to the Hoboken train station because I did not think I could drive after what I saw. The trains were packed, but orderly, and the passengers were quiet. One man sitting across from me said it was a terrorist attack. It seems incredible, but I didn’t believe it at first. From the train I witnessed the South Tower fall, and with it a mournful keening sound from the passengers. Then someone reported that the Pentagon was hit. Shortly afterward, a plane had flown into the ground somewhere in Pennsylvania. I remember looking at the man who had the terrible insight who then said, “We’ll find there were heroes on that plane.”
As we neared my station stop, my cell phone rang. It was my neighbor. Although I called my wife, I had only left a message on the house phone. After the second plane hit, the cell network was overloaded. My wife found out about the attack while at the grocery. The clerk pointed to the television at the register and said, “Look at that. A plane hit the World Trade Center.” She just ran out leaving everything in the shopping cart. Thankfully she remembered the boys, then 5 and 2.
Although my voice was on the answering machine, and she knew that my neighbor got through to me, my wife would not believe I was alive until she saw me. My neighbor met me at the station and drove me home to a very emotional reunion that I will always remember as the best hug of my life.
At home I really didn’t know what to do, so I just started making phone calls. I called the London office to let them know I was alive and was piped directly to the CEO’s office. Of the thousand or so Cantor employees, I was only the second person after the President, Howard Lutnick to check-in. The call was quite short. No one knew who was alive; an d it was assumed everyone was dead because the workday started well before the first plane hit. No one knew what to do, and there was no one to ask, so I started contacting the families of the people who reported to me.
The phone calls were all very difficult. In each case I was the first person they had spoken to from Cantor Fitzgerald. I had nothing to offer. I had no information. I could not offer them hope. I wept heavily on each call.
One call was particularly difficult with the wife of the last person I spoke to on the 105th floor just before the attack. She was old Castilian nobility. Although she generally spoke excellent English, it failed her on that day. Eventually it was clear to me that I was to blame for her husband’s death.
I had no idea what I was walking into, but I felt that hearing something from someone they knew was better than hearing nothing from anyone, so I continued making calls. For the first 24 hours I was either on the phone with the London office of Cantor Fitzgerald, or taking calls from the loved ones of the people who were missing. The Spanish woman called and apologized, saying that what she meant was that her husband stayed with the firm because of me. At some point on Thursday the 13th, I began making calls to friends who had not checked in with me yet. Most often they did not want to confirm the almost certain fact that I was dead.
In my voice and on the other end of the phone, pinched voices and whispers struggling to hold back a tide of emotion. Sometimes, it was a sigh of relief and quiet laughter. There were offers to help. To check in with my family back in Mississippi. The worst? One person who I thought I was friends with responded with a sardonic chuckle, “I didn’t even know you worked in the Trade Center.”
The most remarkable reaction was from a person I first sat next to on a trading desk. He was a Princeton graduate and an egotistical, rude, know-it-all, bully. He was infamous for his fits of rage on the trading desk when things didn’t go his way. He was not content to throw phones, but also books, computer, and chairs. Horribly rude to our brokers, one of which was his wife. He’s was kind of my “B” list, but we always got along well. I was probably the only Southerner he’s ever met. I called him that Tuesday and he picked up.
“Jeff?” I asked.
I hear the phone hit the floor.
The phone went dead. About an hour later there’s a knock at my door. It’s Jeff. He doesn’t wait for me to open the door, he just charges in and gives me the second greatest hug of my life.
Postscript: The remains of only one of the people on my team were ever found. Remarkably, his body was intact and was discovered near the top of the rubble. After the first attack in 1993, his wife told me that that next time he was going up to the observation deck on the 110th floor. His wife was able to identify him and was given his wedding band.
Tim Heaton is a HottyToddy.com contributor and can be reached at email@example.com. His book, “Bless Your Heart, You Freakin’ Idiot: Southern Sayings Translated” is available on Amazon as well as “Momma n’ Em Said: The Treasury of Southern Sayings.”