My 9/11: The Terror Days
The chaos of New York after the attack, by our editor, Philip Letts
‘My 9/11’ is a three part series. The first in series was published last week. This is the second, and the final part will be published next week.
It was a strange reality to be faced with; the twin towers were burning, New York was in chaos and my flight out of this place had been cancelled.
Fortunately I had my luggage with me when the receptionist informed me that my room had been taken, since I had checked out earlier that day. And now the hotel was fully booked. She was, though, concerned that this would be the situation in most of midtown Manhattan as travel out of the city had been halted. It seemed that the terrorists had destroyed more than the twin towers. As if that was not enough!
With wi-fi and mobile networks downed I had no choice but to hit the pavement searching for a new hotel. As I roamed the streets I asked myself if this was what a war torn city looked like. The western world was totally sheltered from such a scenario. From the fear on people’s faces, everyone glued to their TV’s or phones for the latest updates, and smoke lingering in the air. From people scurrying from danger - searching for the next place to stay.
I went from hotel to hotel. The response becoming all too familiar - everything was full. After all, New York was at a standstill. An endless cast of reception staff repeated their apologies - but there was nothing they could do. I pounded the criss-cross streets of New York for three hours. By mid afternoon I was only getting more anxious. I stopped for a while to sit on my bag and take stock. It’s strange how we keep moving when calamity hits. ‘Flight’ takes over. Yet, I had nowhere to flee to.
Somehow I found myself back at 5th avenue, where I had started that fateful day. This famous street had become less busy. Yet, the diminishing number of people around me moved briskly, purposefully. And there was still quite a few of them hanging from street lights to watch the scene below. The towers had vanished, replaced by smoke. A heavy pungent smoke that seemed to engulf the whole of lower Manhattan and high up into the once clear blue sky.
The snippets of conversation that I snatched from passers by centred on the number of people that had died. Strangers, suddenly my sole source of news.
The number of reported deaths from the terrorist attacks kept climbing. God only knew how many were injured. The other recurring street banter was of New Yorkers fleeing the city. The rumours had spread that it would be empty by the morning. And yet I could not get a room for love or for money. The sense of isolation gripped me. No phone, no room, no Internet, no contact. Great.
My nose twitched at a whiff of smoke that must have drifted uptown on the warm afternoon breeze. I recalled the horrific scenes from the TV. It jolted me back into action. There was one hotel that I had forgotten about. One that I had not used since my earlier days visiting the city as a tourist. I had enjoyed the Paramount so much back then that I had almost become a regular. I was probably one of its earlier out of town visitors. It was worth a go.
I still could not find a cab or a phone signal so twenty minutes of foot slogging took me to this trendy haunt. It looked no different. Still the hip retreat from the bustle of Times Square just a few hundred yards away. I approached the reception desk without much hope. The lobby was busy with tourists seeking the latest news from the twin towers, about their onward travel. Some even asking if cancelled tours would get refunded.
I shared my dilemma with the receptionist while I reminded the flustered young woman that I had been a regular guest. I must have looked quite desperate as she started down the usual path of refusal. But she looked at me, then checked herself and started to pound at her computer.
She spent a while talking with a colleague while I prayed to some often ignored higher force. Not for the first time that day. The part where she stopped and smiled at me caught me by surprise.
“It’s great to see you again Mr Letts. We’ve just been informed of a cancellation so we can take your booking now. Thank you for thinking of the Paramount.”
I practically jumped across the reception desk to hug this wonderful lady. Fortunately she stepped back to grab some keys so I had a chance to check myself. Instead I gathered my stuff, stared up at the ceiling in relief and headed to the bar. In those days, the Paramount had a chic little cafe just off the lobby, by the street. And boy did I need a coffee.
A few caffeine shots later, with my disconnected mobile phone practically out of battery I decided to head up to my room to recharge and watch the TV. It was time to catch up on the latest news.
CNN was no less chaotic than the last time I watched it straight after the towers had been hit. But now there were copious images of the terrifying scenes around me. They even had shots of the planes hitting the twin towers and most shocking of all, shots of people falling from high while the towers were still standing, burning. No one, as yet, quite knew why. Were they jumping?
I watched for a couple of hours, glued to the channel. I had never watched a news programme for this long. Taking in the horror downtown affected me deeply. I had started my career as an investment banker in London. I remembered my trading counterpart at Cantor Fitzgerald. The same Cantor’s that had been destroyed in the twin towers. Their corporate HQ positioned in the heart of the North tower. Right in the line of fire.
As time moved on I could watch no longer. With phones and the Internet still not working this show was my only connection to the outside world. A terrifying connection. I decided to get some air and headed out of the southern entrance, turning left toward Broadway. This massive, four lane artery connecting the West side of Manhattan seemed to be emptying out. Perhaps it was true, everyone was leaving New York.
I took in the early evening air. September in New York is stunning. The days are still quite hot, but the evenings are clear and fresh. I headed to the outer fringes of Central Park. It was strangely quiet. I felt like the last dumb tourist in this savvy city. Wandering around aimlessly while everyone was taking shelter elsewhere.
I headed back to my hotel.
This time a news network confirmed that New York was being abandoned. It seemed as though everyone had figured out how to get a lift, bus, train or ride share out of the place. Everyone, except for me.
And I could still not get a phone line. I must have tried a hundred times. The worlds most connected, bustling city was shut down. Apparently thanks to the son of a Middle Eastern billionaire hiding out in Afghanistan. Who was this Osama guy anyway? I guess we were all about to find out.
It got late and I started to drift off. The news still on - the days events ringing in my ears.
Suddenly the phone rang. I assumed it was the reception desk. When I picked it up I heard the voice of my mother in law.
“Oh my God. It’s you. I finally tracked you down. I called a bunch of hotels in New York! Thank God you’re OK.”
She must have literally got the first working line into the hotel. She begged me to get to their home in New Jersey, just across the George Washington Bridge. I thanked her for her concern, listened to her talk about all those poor people in the twin towers and those terrible terrorists and how it was not safe for anyone to stay on the island of Manhattan right now.
I told her that I would stick it out at the Paramount and spend tomorrow trying to organise a flight out of the City. My father in law was a well known politician. She told me that his office was telling her that JFK and Newark airport would be closed down for days. She even heard a rumour that all American airports would get shut down.
“New York will never be the same again. In fact, the world will never be the same. You’ll see.”
I said goodnight. Her parting words left a mark. Thank goodness my wife and baby kids were safe in London. Thank God it was only me in New York. I had still not been able to reach her.
The next morning I was up and about by 6am. I walked out of the hotel, heading to my usual place for breakfast. It seemed more important than ever not to break a habit. It was strange, the back streets were empty. I didn’t think much of it. I would soon be back on Broadway and the bustle would return.
As I stepped onto this famous street I stared in disbelief. It was completely deserted. There were no cars whatsoever - going either way. None. I was literally the only person on this main artery through the city. It was another clear morning and I could see a long way up and down the cavernous street carved between New York’s western skyline.
Yet, I was completely alone.
Had I missed something? After all, mobile phone connections were still broken. I had not, as yet managed to call back home or connect with any of my colleagues. And my God, we had fifteen offices and 400 people to get in contact with.
Had they all been told something terrible was going to happen?
Was I about to get hit by another air strike? Was yesterday just the precursor to something bigger?
I felt a sense of panic as I jogged over to the Dean and Deluca by the Today show. For the second day in a row I would watch the morning unfold on their live TV cameras. It was addictive.
I heard my mobile phone ring. It rang louder than ever in the surreal silence of the city.
I could finally hear the voice of my assistant from London.
“Philip, it’s Emma. Thank God I’ve managed to reach you. We’re all desperate to know that you’re OK. It’s all anyone’s been talking about. I must have been called by a hundred people. Where are you?”
I told her. She also became concerned about me remaining in New York City. Almost at odds with how silent and serene the place had become. The silence before the storm?
“Don’t worry, I’ll get you out of the city - whatever it takes. Bill and Val have offered to send their private jets. I’ll get you out by tomorrow.”
How wrong she would prove to be.
“Thank Bill and Val, but we’ll find our own way out.”
“I thought you might say that.”
“Also, please set up a call with the board for tomorrow morning. I think we’re going to need it.”
Later that day it became apparent just how much we would need it. As the calls came in from our regional trading exchanges my mind shifted back to our company’s fate. Since the attacks our trading revenues had collapsed. Most of our online exchanges were seeing drops of between seventy and eighty percent. Before the terrorists struck our trading volumes were nudging $150 million. At this level we could finally make a profit.
I had been hired to make this Silicon Valley darling perform - then to globalise the phenomenon. In less than 12 months we had doubled revenues, halved costs and pounded the business through to breakeven. The words of the wise old gentleman at the previous day’s investor presentation came back to me. I would be damned if the terrorists would destroy all of our hard work.
And yet, we had to raise one more round of private equity before going public. How in the world would we do it now that the US was under attack? I called our CFO. He was even more concerned.
I had still not come across another person. New York was not the same. Perhaps my mother in law would be right after all.
My 9/11’ is a three part series. This is the second in series. The final part will be published next week.
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