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 clouds 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.
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. At some point I’ll talk about what happened to me there, and the horrors I saw befall others, but for now I want to talk about the people I knew who were lost.
Joe, the maintenance man who took great care of everything and of us, 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 the company’s staffers to safety was Rick Rescorla, a big Welsh bear of a man who was head of security when I started working there. 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 someone 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 always. Just before 9/11, my friend Amy introduced us when we ran into her at a downtown restaurant. 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 in Arizona, 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 and many of her colleagues were 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.