It’s easy to treat 9/11 as a story of hate. A little too easy.
It’s easy to generalize that 9/11 was a story of hate. It was an attack on our Western values, our freedom, our American dream. But that conclusion would grossly overlook the nuances of how that day touched our lives. Everyone had their own story. And here’s mine.
I worked at OppenheimerFunds in the South Tower, on the 32nd floor. I was on the phone with my Deutsche Bank salesperson Ricardo, discussing the latest on Argentina’s economic debacle, when I suddenly heard explosions.
I looked out the window and saw something different. My regular view was a gorgeous glimpse of the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty, who greeted me every morning with her gaze of hope and encouragement. At that very moment, I swear I saw a tear in her eye.
My vision was quickly obscured by falling debris. I thought that a bomb had exploded upstairs. This was not a regular fire, which starts slowly and gradually. This was premeditated.
I hung up the phone: “Ricardo, I gotta go” and heard my boss yelling, “Let’s get out.”
Art was a smart, quick thinker. He had survived the 1993 WTC bombing, in the same office. He knew, just as I did, that something serious had happened. I sensed the urgency in his deep blue eyes. I had a split second to decide what belongings to take and what to do. I grabbed my purse and left.
Our stairway descent was engulfed in an eerie silence. There was no panic and no smoke, as our tower was the second to get hit. Few words were spoken. The tension was palpable, and we were proceeding down as quickly as we could. I worried about whether the exit doors downstairs were open, and if we were ever really going to reach the ground floor.
But open they were, and I left the building through its center courtyard. I lost sight of my colleagues.
I looked up to the burning North Tower, and immediately realized that they’d never extinguish that fire. That building was going to keep burning, and I knew I should walk as far away from it as I could. I ran out of the courtyard and hoped that I wasn’t going to be killed by falling debris.
The whole descent must have taken less than 15 minutes, as I never saw my tower be hit by the second plane, 18 minutes later.
I walked toward South Street Seaport and stopped at the first free pay phone I saw. I worried that my grandma in Brazil would have a heart attack if she saw this on TV and was not aware I’d escaped. I managed to speak to her for a few minutes and calmly told her not to worry — that “there was a small fire” in my building, but that I was already out, on my way home, and that I loved her very much. She was leaving for the dentist and was very calm, as I was surprisingly calm myself.
My mother, who was planning to travel from Brazil to New York that very evening, was was out, making last minute preparations for the trip. When she told someone in the travel agency that she would be flying that night, he politely corrected her.
Madam, You’re Not Traveling Today
“Madam, you’re not traveling today, all flights are canceled, look at the TV and see what’s happening.”
She panicked, and in a catatonic state, returned home and tried to dial me. But by then all the phone lines were jammed. My grandmother hadn’t left any note, as she didn’t think the incident was serious. So for a few hours, so my mom had no idea whether or not I was alive.
I ran into a few colleagues near the Seaport, who had also managed to call their families before the lines jammed. It was great to see them alive.
Suddenly, a wave of white dust approached us. We started fleeing north, away from it. I didn’t know at the time, but that was the dust from our own tower collapsing.
I walked with our trader Eamon for a while. At one point, he looked back and remarked that there was only one tower in the horizon. Depending on the viewing angle, on a normal day, one tower could block the sight of the other. So I wasn’t sure if he was seeing things.
“Eamon,” I said, “we need to get home to talk to our loved ones, let’s just keep walking and look ahead, not back.”
I was living in the New York’s Upper East Side at the time; it was going to be a six-mile, two-hour walk. By then, fighter jets were flying overhead. We had no idea what else might be coming.
It never occurred to me to check whether the subways or buses were running. At that point, I only trusted one thing, and that was my two little feet still attached to me.
I got blisters, as I forgot to switch into my Birkenstock sandals, and was walking in high heels instead. I bought a pair of cheap rubber shoes in mismatched colors and different sizes, as that was all that was left in the store. The walk became a little less painful.
Miraculously, two cell phone calls came through as I walked, one from my friend José, the other from my cousin from Chico in Brazil. I asked Chico to call my family in Porto Alegre again, and to tell them I was OK.
I walked a few blocks past the UN, and hoped that it didn’t get blown up too. Because I’d stopped only once, to buy the shoes and water, I ironically knew little of what was going on. It was my cousin who told me about the Pentagon and Pennsylvania flights. The shopkeepers told me about the planes, and the towers that were gone by then.
People around me were walking stunned, like zombies. I had never seen New York so quiet. We tried to help each other. New Yorkers have always rallied in times of distress, and this was no exception. I saw a blind man covered in white ashes being guided by another person.
I arrived home around noon and tried calling Brazil and my friends in New York, but the phone lines were still jammed.
I watched the images of destruction on TV for an hour and then turned it off. I wanted to forget it all and start healing.
I put some music on and proceeded to clean the apartment. I was symbolically trying to wash away what happened, as I had to stay home waiting for phone calls that I hoped would eventually start. My apartment was a one-room studio and my Internet connection was old-fashioned DSL line, so I had to choose between trying to send emails and keeping the phone line unobstructed.
Several hours later I finally reached Brazil, and spoke to my mother and grandmother. By then, all the neighbors had converged into in my grandmother’s apartment, as if for a funeral. It almost felt like a funeral, except, by a miracle, it was not mine.
This is where the love comes in. I spent the next 14 hours on phone calls and emails. Relatives, friends, ex-boyfriends and co-workers were all calling. I heard from people I hadn’t spoken with in years, people with whom I ended up reconnecting, and am still in touch with now. Some people called the universities I graduated from in Pennsylvania and Japan, inquiring how to reach me; others called Oppenheimer’s emergency line in Denver, or mutual friends.
Calls poured in from the around the U.S., South America, Europe and Japan. I didn’t get to sleep until almost 2 am. The acrid smell of burnt material had invaded my apartment, but from the outpouring of love that I had received, the scent was sweet.
I learned later that all of my Oppenheimer colleagues, and my friend Teresa, who worked in the North Tower, were safe.
That was not the case for a few former colleagues at Fuji Bank (in the South Tower, on the 79th floor, exactly where the second plane hit). I learned about the head of HR, who must have been trying to account for the safety of all employees. And a colleague who, after making it to the ground floor, decided to return upstairs, because she had forgotten her building ID, and thought she’d have a difficult time returning to the office without it. Or a few Japanese employees who faithfully followed orders to return to their offices, after being told that the fire was in the other tower, and that they were safe. May their families and friends have found peace by now.
I consider myself very fortunate, and will be forever thankful that I am here writing this. If there’s something to be learned is that one should enjoy the present, as the future is uncertain and may never come.
Nine Years Later
At this time of year I inevitably recall these events, and mark our collective progress since.
We gathered at Art’s apartment three days later, exchanging hugs and survival stories. We ended up working in an emergency barrack in New Jersey, and also from home, for the next three months. Our International Bond Fund maintained its number one performance rank through yearend, and our story made The New York Times.
But Wall Street is ruthless, and several colleagues whose funds had experienced severe losses were fired at the end of the year.
When my group returned to the World Financial Center two years later, my new office faced Ground Zero.
I was actually happy to be back, as I loved downtown Manhattan, and this was part of my own rebuilding and moving on.
Our team stayed together until 2004, when a few colleagues left for JP Morgan proprietary trading. Art was promoted to co-CIO of OppenheimerFunds.
My closest Fuji Bank colleagues had a reunion a few days after 9/11. All of them later either moved on to other jobs, or back to Japan.
Eamon is now our sales rep at the investment company Libertas, and we remain in touch. He received a phone call months after 9/11 telling him that his briefcase had been found. Under the scratches and dust, all of its contents were intact.
Ricardo moved to Goldman Sachs and is rising up the ranks.
Teresa still works for Port Authority. She survived the 1993 bombing too.
Jose bought a house in 2003, and is still renovating it. His garden looks spectacular.
My former roommate Linda and I, who reconnected on 9/11 after not having spoken for 15 years, are still in touch.
My cousin Chico is the father of two beautiful daughters, and working in IT in Rio.
My mother managed to take the first flight to New York, after the airports reopened. But a year later she was denied entry to the U.S., and had her tourist visa revoked, on the back of stricter post-9/11 immigration controls. She became a U.S. citizen in 2008.
My grandmother passed away in 2010, six weeks before her 92nd birthday. I honored her life and recited Kaddish at Kehilat Gesher in Paris.
In 2004 I left OppenheimerFunds for Invesco, a step up in my career. I built up a team from scratch, and have been entrusted by our clients with over $1 billion to look after.
I became a U.S. citizen one year after 9/11, and am very proud of it, as it represents everything we were attacked for. Challenges and setbacks in have not been lacking in my life - this being one of them - but I’ve so far managed to learn from them and move ahead. To this day, I continue exploring this wonderful path of ours, called life.