I was sitting at my desk in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working on a proposal with my colleague, John Devanney, when the news arrived. A young coworker had called from lower Manhattan moments after the first plane hit the first tower. She would be late to the office, she told John, debris was falling all over the place. John told her to be safe, not to worry about getting to work. Photo by Jake Rajs.
A 9/11 elegy
Note to readers: The original version of this essay was published several years ago. Each year, I revisit and refresh it with new memories and insights, ensuring it remains a living document that connects me to what we lost and must never forget.
“Where were you on 9/11?” I hear this question half a dozen times each year. Once asked, it changes the mood of the conversation, bringing back memories and pain that, while lessened with the passage of 17 years, are no less powerful.
I was sitting at my desk in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working on a proposal with my colleague, John Devanney, when the news arrived. A young coworker had called from lower Manhattan moments after the first plane hit the first tower. She would be late to the office, she told John, debris was falling all over the place. John told her to be safe, not to worry about getting to work.
Trying to process what he was saying, I turned to my web browser and hit refresh over and over. CNN.com revealed what happens when a commercial airplane and a NYC skyscraper collide. We rushed down to the lobby restaurant. We saw the towers collapse and the Pentagon burning. The co-CEOs of my company huddled with us, deciding to shut the company down and inquire about the employees’ safety. I went home, bringing two colleagues who could not return to their own homes because all flights had been grounded.
That night, I said to my wife that we would measure the rest of our days from the horror of that morning. In many ways, we have.
Remembering the twin towers
In the 1980s, my father was a successful real estate lawyer who held the corner office on the 100th floor of the north tower. For a child, coming up from the subway and entering the towers was fascinating. Energetic New Yorkers were everywhere, scrambling toward their workday. My dad would hold my hand and navigate so I wouldn’t get trampled. Flags from around the world hung in the lobby, making me feel important as I walked to the elevators. We had to take two elevators to reach the top. “They move fast,” my dad would say. “And your ears will pop, so chew this gum as we ride up.”
In his office, I remember shaking hands with secretaries and partners he introduced to me. “This is my youngest son, Danny,” dad would say. Looking out the window at Brooklyn, I could feel the building sway in the wind. I would sit at his desk with my feet up and a notepad in my hand trying to copy him. While he attended important meetings, I would “work” in the firm’s mail room. We would sometimes eat lunch at the Windows on the World restaurant, sitting next to Ron Darling, Keith Hernandez, and other famous baseball players during father/son events with the NY Mets. Somehow, my dad always made sure I was sitting at the head table. (Thank you for that, dad.)
During the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1983, dozens of people packed into my father’s corner office. The view was spectacular. My sister Lynn and I sipped Shirley Temples with extra cherries as the Grucci family fireworks unfolded. A radio was tuned to an FM station as they had set the fireworks to music for the first time. The room was loud with many voices, cocktails firmly in the adults’ hands, though it quieted when white light reflected in our eyes. Sparks streamed down like a waterfall from the bridge into the river. One of the partners commented that this would likely be the only time we would experience fireworks from above.
Years later, on a cold, snowy Saturday afternoon in the winter of 2000, I stood outside the twin towers in Tobin Plaza. The space was empty and draped in yellow construction tape. I dropped to one knee and asked Nancy Harvier to marry me. She paused dramatically before saying “yes.” We went inside to have drinks at Windows on the World. We sat at the bar with two British tourists who were the first to hear the news that we were engaged. No cellphones were there to capture it all, but I don’t mind—every moment is etched in my mind, including the millions of lights staring back at us from across New York as we looked out the window 110 stories high.
Nancy and I have been married for nearly 18 years now, and we have been joined by two beautiful children with whom we slowly and carefully share the story and lessons of 9/11. One day we will take them to the 9/11 Memorial Museum and to the monument of the Horse Solider who gathered intelligence in Afghanistan to help stop the most infamous man in the world from ever doing something like this again.
What we must learn from 9/11
The Congressional report commissioned after 9/11 to try to make sense of what happened called the events that led to the fateful day “a failure of imagination.” It was failure to imagine such a thing could happen that made it possible. To this day, I am haunted by that line and what it means to our leaders now. We must never stop imagining what could happen by those who wish us ill. In today’s climate of social media overload and political posturing, we must also be more careful about how we spend our energy and attention. Leaders are only as effective as what they give sustained attention to.
The risks we face today are no less complex or profound than they were in 2001. From cybersecurity to the vulnerability of our infrastructure, we are facing new existential threats that leaders across the public and private sectors must imagine and proactively address. Our Homeland Security Secretary recently noted that “The pace of innovation, our hyperconnectivity, and our digital dependence have opened cracks in our defenses, creating new opportunities and new vectors through which… nefarious actors can strike us.”
Should an attack come again, how will we look back at what our government did to prepare for the event? What wisdom will we tap to recover?
Together, with hope
Recently I took my wife and mom to see the new Broadway musical Come from Away. The show captures the kindness of a Canadian town that took in thousands of international travelers whose planes were not allowed to go to America on the afternoon of 9/11. It is a hopeful show that reminded me of the many acts of kindness and sense of oneness that people felt around the world after 9/11. It is that oneness and hopefulness that I offer today. We must remind ourselves to come together and appreciate the moments we are living through, as one of the characters sang:
“And here we are
Where the world has come together
And she will be
In this picture, forever”
May God bless all those who lost their lives on 9/11 and in the years of war that followed.