Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

On the Anniversary of 9/11, Glimpses into Some of the Lives We Lost

The twin spirals of the World Trade Center made cameos in lots of movies, but this, I think, shows them at their best, reaching for the moon along with the lovers who glide past them. The towers show up around the two minute mark and linger a little in the night sky, before disappearing into the dark.

Today, of course, is the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But it doesn’t feel like a “9/11” day in New York; it’s cloudier and cooler, and you can feel fall creeping in around the edges.

That morning in 2001, as I left for the subway, the sky was so clear and azure-blue that if you were a painter, you’d have added a cloud just to break up the palette. The sun still felt reassuringly warm and summery, and made you feel like a fool for skulking underground to grab a train. I said out loud, to no one in particular, “What a perfect day!” It would’ve been a great day to play hooky, and I’m guessing some lucky souls saved their lives by doing just that.

Thousands of others left for work that morning, kissed someone they loved goodbye or maybe forgot to, and never came home. Of many, no trace has ever been found.

I knew some of them, though none well. Until our company was acquired and some of us moved uptown, I worked as an editor in the upper floors of Two World Trade Center. Joe, the maintenance man on our floor, often fell into the spare chair in my office at four in the afternoon or so, exhausted at the end of his shift, to complain about the ass-hat analysts who acted as if he was invisible until they needed something. He also had my back in any number of funny ways, as when he poked his head in, horrified, to say, “You work on files with these guys, right? Well, one of them just took one into the bathroom!”

Joe was still working in the towers on 9/11. He made it out of the building, but was hit by falling debris in the plaza.

Lindsay Herkness III, or the far less stuffy “Dinny” to his friends, was a senior VP at Morgan Stanley. The best way I can describe him is to tell you that he’d be played by George Sanders in a movie. Witty, charming, elegant—he seemed to have stepped out of another era. When we lunched together downstairs, he seemed like an alien presence in the dreary cafeteria, like a bon vivant who stops by at Christmas to give out plum puddings and presents. We had almost nothing in common except our love of old movies and dogs—mine a terrier mix I’d rescued from the street, his a basset named Beauregard Hound. But that was more than enough for us.

After the second plane tore through the South Tower on 9/11, Dinny remained calm. Too calm, as it turned out. He remained at his desk while his colleagues were ushered to safety, saying the towers were “the strongest buildings in the world.” But no building had ever had to endure this kind of hell. While his final, optimistic act cost him his life, I think it probably also helped those around him remain steady as they escaped with their lives.

The man responsible for getting Morgan Stanley staffers to safety was Rick Rescorla, a big Welsh bear of a man who was head of security when I joined Dean Witter (later bought by Morgan Stanley). At his insistence, safety and evacuation briefings were mandatory for all new employees. After calmly reminding us of the site’s history—it had already been hit by terrorists in 1993—he walked us through everything we needed to do to stay safe if it happened again. He was such an absolute brick that you felt like nothing bad could happen to you if he were by your side. Leaving the meeting, I told him it was the first time I ever felt safer after hearing a talk about terrorism.

I never really liked working in the World Trade Center. On windy days, you could feel the building sway; it was the only place in New York where you could get motion sick at your desk. And I did feel there was sort of a bullseye on the whole place. But whenever I ran into Rick, genially patrolling the halls, I felt better.

After the North tower was struck on 9/11, Port Authority security told those in the South Tower to stay put—that they were safer at their desks than in the chaotic plaza below. But Rick knew better. He grabbed a bullhorn and walkie-talkie and began systematically evacuating the thousands of people in his charge. Hundreds were in the stairwell when the second plane smashed into their building, which thudded and shook with terrifying intensity. He boosted morale by singing fight songs from his Cornish youth, also taking time to call and calm his wife: “Stop crying. I have to get these people out safely. If something happens to me, I want you to know I’ve never been happier.”

He was last seen headed up the stairs again as the South Tower collapsed.

I met Karol Ann Keasler only once, but that was enough to remember her still. Just before 9/11, my friend Amy introduced us when we ran into her at a restaurant downtown. She’d known Amy for years, but it seemed as if we’d both known her forever. She was warm and luminous and funny, and full of plans for her wedding in Italy. She’d only just come back from there, a week early, to help run an event for her company, Keefe Bruyette & Woods.

On the morning of 9/11, after the first tower was hit, Karol was on the phone with her mother, assuring her that her building was safe and that she’d been advised to stay at her desk. Moments later, the line went silent as the second tower was struck. Karol was trapped above the flames.

There’s an old saying that in a mass tragedy, it’s not that a thousand people are killed, it’s that one person is killed a thousand times. I just wanted to share with you my memories of a few of the almost three thousand people killed 15 years ago today. Godspeed to all of them. And may none of us ever take it for granted when we and those we love make it safely home.

9 Comments

  1. The shock of that day was the recognition of the everyday that was attacked. So many of us know the routine of picking up your coffee and bagel, getting the desk in order, catching up with the faces you look for every day.

    The special hurt of the loss of people you knew on that day is incomprehensible to me.

    • Yes, you said it perfectly — it was just another ordinary day, until it was hell. I especially feel for the people who worked for companies who lost so many people. Your colleagues are like your second family…

  2. Andy Matura

    Thank you for your post. My cousin introduced me to Bob Nagel in the school yard on the first day of freshman year of high school when we were 13. Going through the teenage years with him was fun and sometimes a little crazy. During Nam, he was a scout dog handler in the Americal Division in Chu Lai. Scout dog handlers had a price on their heads; if the VietNamese managed to kill him, they would have received a cash bonus for it. He survived that experience but didn’t survive 9/11. He was a Fire Lt. who arrived on the scene when both buildings had been hit but still standing. He was assigned to the Marriott Hotel situated between the Towers. When the first Tower fell, he was trapped but his men knew where he was. They could see one of his hands and they tied a rope around it to give him some assurance that he wasn’t going to remain trapped. He told them, “I’m in a tight spot but I’m OK.” Then he asked about the other men in his unit. When the second tower fell, he was crushed to death. He left behind a wife and daughter…and about a million friends.

    • Oh Andy, how horrible. My heart goes out to his family and friends, whom I’m sure were legion. Thank you for sharing his story with me…

  3. Of all the tributes I’ve read today, yours is certainly the most moving, articulate and immediate. My connections to the Towers and New York, watching the trauma unfold by TV and internet at a college campus in Madison WI, were distant, no matter how much I absorbed the grief of friends and strangers around me with closer ties. You’ve made me feel I know these irreplaceable individuals so vividly, and I mourn their loss. And even with just your descriptions of “Dinny”, and his photographs, I can agree: by God, it would have to be George Saunders!

    • Thank you so much for your very kind words, Sunshine. It was such a massive horror in terms of loss of life, sometimes the individual stories get overshadowed. I hope I did some measure of justice to the terrific people I knew…

  4. Janet, this post made me cry. I feel like I knew your friends too, just by your descriptions. I will never forget that terrible day; it still feels to me like a nightmare that I wish I could wake up from. Your tribute gives faces to the thousands of ordinary people murdered that day. Sorry for your loss. Can’t believe it’s been so long since this happened, it still feels like it was yesterday. On another note, is it just me or does anyone find it odd watching old films/series now that feature shots of the towers?

    • Maddy, thank you for saying you felt as if you knew these wonderful people; that is exactly why I wrote this piece — to “introduce” them to as many people as possible. And yes, I always get emotional when I see the towers in old movies and TV shows. It makes me gasp a bit…

      • Hi Janet. You’re welcome. Glad that it’s not just me. I was watching Terms of Endearment over the weekend; there is a shot of the towers with the tops covered in cloud that looks like smoke, I found it very eerie watching that scene. Even though I know they’re long gone, it’s like it doesn’t seem real somehow that they fell. Anyway, thank you again for your beautiful post.

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