Everyone has a 9/11 story, this is mine.
Everyone has a story about where they were and what they were doing on 9/11/01, this story happens to be mine.
I was driving down the Westside Highway that day from my tiny apartment on 104th street in Manhattan. I had an early breakfast meeting with Steve Harty, who ran Merkley Newman Harty, an Omnicom ad agency that I became friends with when we sold part of our last company to them in 1999. Steve and I met with some regularity and I often looked to him for advice and guidance as I had just started my own agency, Interference Inc, incubated inside his offices.
As it was a Tuesday and my car was parked on the wrong side of the street, I decided to drive to work on Varick St instead of looking for parking as that would take too long. There was a lot of traffic as usual on the WSH and we were creeping along. I was listening to Howard Stern and just in my usual daydreamy world when I turned the curve at 23rd st for the final stretch before I turn at Charlton to get to the parking lot. It was then that I saw the hole.
Once you go around the bend near Chelsea Piers on the West Side, you pretty much have a straight shot view to where the towers stood. I had seen them thousands of times growing up in the city, spent time in them for various events, functions and educational seminars. I had also seen this particular view hundreds of times on this specific route downtown and to Brooklyn. This time when I looked, I saw a hole. The hole looked slightly like a mouth. There appeared to be some smoke coming out of it and from the distance I was, perhaps 2 miles, it was a bit hard to tell how large it was, but it certainly did not look right. I quickly turned the radio to a variety of news stations to find out what had happened and at this moment traffic had slowed to almost a standstill. When I finally heard a broadcast covering it (it had only been probably 5–10 minutes since the strike, but I think it was 1010WINS that I landed on) they had a person on the phone describing that they had seen a small plane fly into the tower. As the person was telling the story, they made it seem like it was a private plane or something small. Nobody on the air was talking about hijackings or commercial airlines at this time.
I had made it down to about 18th street in the traffic, my windows were open and a lot of people were on the sidewalks and medians staring south as we all were when out of my peripheral vision on my right side I saw something going down the Hudson River. It was hard to tell but I distinctly remember telling myself that it looked like a plane and that it was flying pretty low. Not yet putting the pieces together it seemed out of place and slightly surreal. The plane was then obscured by the AMEX building in the financial district and I lost sight of it for a few seconds. When it reappeared it was in the sky for only a second or two before I watched it slam into the South Tower a little bit after 9am. Even 12 years later I remember the scene vividly. The muffled explosion that we all heard a few seconds after watching the impact. A young black man in a green shirt who just screamed out “Holy Shit!” with a look on his face that was some combination of excitement and horror at what we were witnessing. I heard a palpable gasp come out of almost every car and person on the street at seeing something we could not comprehend. Within a minute or so, the radio started reporting the second impact, and only then did they start to discuss the possibility that this was deliberate and not coincidence. In may ways this was one of the last moments before our veil of innocence was forever removed, before that which we can not unknow changed us all and removed a security blanket that most of us did not even know we were wearing.
I turned off the highway and took local streets wondering what would come next but still at the moment wanting to get to my breakfast meeting. I made it down and met Steve. We both decided it would be better to call off breakfast and go to the office. As we were walking, Steve said point blank that this was a terrorist act. He had worked for a time in the CIA or FBI, I forget which, and seemed to be pretty aware that this was more than something coincidental or small. I remember being both scared and thankful that someone with some more intelligence than I could shed a little light on the incident.
Located at Varick and Houston, our offices were about a mile from the towers. We were all watching television to get the updates and trying to call our loved ones. I managed to get in touch with my pregnant girlfriend at the time and she told me she was going to meet her brother but that she would head up to my apartment as soon as she could. Having the top floor of a 12 story building, someone at the agency suggested we go to the roof and see if we could see more from there. To this day I regret agreeing to join in that suggestion.
As we were on the roof, with an unobstructed view of the smoking towers it was still hard to make sense of what we were looking at. These icons of New York City and our commerce industry were sitting before us with mortal wounds and all we could do was watch and hope it would be ok. There was smoke, fire, debris and then someone pointed out that some of the objects that appeared to be falling off of the buildings looked to be people. As I looked closer and made the silent realization that this seemed to be true, I simply turned away and walked off the roof. I could not allow myself to discuss or even acknowledge that this was happening before my eyes. I had to get off that roof and out of that building and get home, as fast as I possibly could. As I got back to our office to get my belongings I saw the North Tower come down, this day was getting more unbelievable every few minutes.
I walked down the stairs, not trusting elevators at that moment and went to my parking lot. I don’t remember getting my car, but at some point I am driving north on Hudson St, radio on, trying to call my family but all circuits are busy. I see people all over the streets staring in the opposite direction that I am going. In my rear view mirror I can see the smoke and dust from the fallen tower hanging in the air. The South Tower is still standing and starting to get a bit smaller in my mirror as I get towards 10th street. I am stopped at the traffic light when in my mirror I watch as the South Tower falls. The cloud was enormous and pushing towards me. People all around are screaming and crying and running and falling. The light changes and I race away, desperate to make sure that my family, girlfriend and friends are OK.
I get uptown as quick as possible. My girlfriend and her brother are at my apartment and as soon as I get in the door we hug and sit together watching the news as we see the aftermath of the fallen towers. We have heard of the Pentagon and Flight 93 crashing in Shanksville but we don’t know much more about them. We are shocked, stunned and unable to process what is going on. It is an extremely bizare moment to think that you personally witnessed such a massive amount of death and destruction. There was no way to be prepared for it, it just was.
My best friend from high school lived relatively close to me and so we went there to be with others we loved and try and handle this together. Some other close friends were also in town and we all met and watched as the events unfolded. Sadly there was still one shocking moment to come for me that made this day even more awful than it had been up to that moment.
I don’t remember exactly when it was that afternoon, we were probably on our second or third hour of constant news coverage as a group when the newscaster on the station we were watching started to talk about how flight 93 seemed to have been brought down by some of the passengers. Even though this was another example of more people who died on this horrific day, we did talk about how they probably saved the lives of hundreds or thousands more people with that action. As we were talking this through as a group the newscaster puts some names on the screen of passengers on flight 93. As I am reading them I see Jeremy Glick. At first, I thought to myself that there must be many Jeremy Glicks’ in the world. It couldn’t be him. But I think for me it was more that I did not want it to be him.
Jeremy Glick and I worked together for a few years at an entertainment database company in the mid 90s called MUZE. We were both in the sales group and with he and a few others we had a pretty tight knit group of guys trying to sell this product to independent record stores and book store chains. That was not always the easiest thing to do in the beginnings of databases and touch screens (odd that so many years later I would still be in that business in some way) because it was expensive and technology was not nearly as pervasive as it is now. Jeremy was a good sales guy, but actually he was just a better guy all around. He was friendly, funny, smart, dedicated, devoted and passionate about a lot of things in the world around him. He had a great girlfriend, he was a physical powerhouse (Judo I think was his main thing from college), he could drink as well as anyone and was almost always in good spirits. We hung out personally and professionally and had dreams of making it bigger than we were at the moment, we even spent months planning a tech start-up called Retriever at the beginning of the web commerce days. I remember going to his wedding and just seeing a guy who was so happy to be able to marry the girl of his dreams. As I moved on to digital and experiential marketing, he went his direction and though we did not see each other as much as the 90s ended, he was certainly someone I still considered a good friend and who was always there when needed. Which partly explains why in the back of my head, I knew it probably was him on that plane and that he had helped to do a miraculous thing. That was just who he was.
It is hard for me to remember what happened next that day, or even the few days following. It rolled itself into a gaussian blur of sadness, anger, numbness and disbelief. As any New Yorker probably experienced, I heard more stories that hit close to home. The guy who was the lead singer in that ska band in high school, he was in the towers. The husband of an ex who was an EMT, he was treating people on site when the buildings came down. Another best friend’s husband who is a fireman spent tireless hours and days trying to help dig to see if anyone had made it through. The firehouse down the street lost 11 guys. Oh and the smell. The smell was always there. The burning, the smoke, the acrid, it just never seemed to leave your clothes or hair or the air for weeks.
We processed as much as we could, discussed it to death, cried and cried. We were there for each other and in some ways out of it some true New York beauty emerged. A lot of that is gone, time may or may not heal but it certainly puts quite a rough patch on these deep wounds but we keep going, it is all we can do. But for some reason, on this anniversary, I felt like I needed or more likely finally was able to recount my story, of which we all have our own, but this one is mine.
Thanks to Mike Nevins for putting this picture up on Facebook today of Jeremy, Adam Silver, Scott Lehr and myself (The MUZE crew sans Gary Geller) and letting me see that smile of Jeremy’s once again. I have no idea what was making me give such face, but sure, why not.
*I posted this story last year on my old blog, but as this is a new medium, I figured it deserved a place here.