I emerged from my first class at 10 am on September 11th to hear a few classmates saying that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York a short while ago. The World Trade Center. New York. My first reaction was one of disbelief &- we New Yorkers tend to think that the City is protected, that it marches on in its pursuits irrespective of circumstances. This is largely true &- until New York itself is drawn into the fray.
I spent the next few hours with a mobile phone in one hand and a fixed line phone in the other trying to track down my fianc‚. After finally getting through, no one picked up the phone at his office on Wall Street. No one picked up the phone at any other number I kept transferring to in the company. Finally, I decided to dial the corporate switchboard and did get a voice. I explained I was trying to get through to someone and asked, did she know whether the building had already been evacuated? No, she replied, the building had not officially been evacuated, but most people had left.
I went back to trying Ignacio every way I could. The images flashed across the television screen as I dialed endlessly. Around me my friends were trying to call their families. The television networks played the images of the two World Trade Center towers crumbling again and again. They showed the people that had tried to jump out of the windows as the towers were coming down. They showed any people they could find to comment &- bystanders, journalists, structural engineers, former New York City officials, the President during his pit stops from Florida to Nebraska &- you name it.
The fact is, no one had a clue. No one knew what had happened, what was still to come, who was responsible, how many people had been in the buildings, whether the Pentagon had already been evacuated before the third plane hit it, how many people were trapped in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon . . . Even if one made the folly of thinking New York City well-protected, who would think an attack on the Pentagon could take place so easily? But who would think a country’s own commercial jets can become both the means of and the instrument for an attack?
The Taliban Foreign Minister on CNN. They were very sorry, he said. No, Afghanistan did not condone such terrorist attacks as a general matter, he said. Yes, they were still harboring Osama Bin Laden. No the Minister didn’t know exactly where Bin Laden was, but he was certainly not responsible for these attacks. No, said the Minister, Afghanistan did not consider harboring Bin Laden – a self-declared terrorist – problematic.
I wondered at the Taliban’s gall at getting on the soapbox to pre-emptively distance themselves from Bin Laden. His own country, Saudi Arabia, revoked his citizenship. But the Taliban gave him refuge. He has to be well-funded beyond his own means, given the scope of his activities. What is the root of his organization? How does one destroy his lifeline?
I couldn’t stop watching the Taliban Minister. A friend told me of news reports in the Middle East. They claimed the attacks could not have been carried out by Muslim terrorists. They lacked the technical expertise, went the reasoning. It was more likely the Yugoslavian rebels, concluded the Middle Eastern news authorities. The Yugoslavians were very annoyed at America’s (not NATO’s, mind you) dealings in the Central European problems of the last several years.
“Technical expertise?” I wondered.
The irony swirled in my head, “Engineering PhDs only please. We need volunteers to hijack a few planes. All you need is a knife and a desire to die in the name of the cause. You won’t be alone. The afterlife will be better. That much better if you die taking down innocent people with you. A non-stop ticket to heaven.”
Was this the pitch to the hijackers? That a few individuals were behind this sickened me. They claimed to act for their people. Images of people rejoicing in Palestine. Has the lack of understanding between people come to this?
That afternoon, I received an email from Ignacio’s sister saying he was fine and at home. After trying him for ages, I finally got through to him at our home in New York. He said he had gotten a call from his sister at his office moments after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Ignacio had heard the sound when the plane struck the building but had no idea what it had been from. He then turned on the television. Initial reports said a small plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Some guy sitting in his loft in Tribeca had watched it happen and thought it was a small plane. Ignacio was surprised but not unduly alarmed.
Imagine his subsequent horror when he looked out of his window and saw the second plane fly past and bank sharply to turn into the World Trade Center. Two blocks away from him, one of the World Trade Center towers burst into flames. He ran to round up the few people on his floor that had already arrived in to work. They managed to take the elevators down from the 26th floor. He then went back upstairs to make sure no one else had arrived in the interim. Finding a pregnant colleague, he pulled her out of there and managed to get out of the building.
Outside the building, a stampede was coming at them, fleeing from the World Trade Center. With no transportation in sight, the only way out was to walk. Ignacio and his colleague walked from Wall Street to her home in Columbus Circle. Six months pregnant, they stopped every few blocks so she wouldn’t exhaust herself. He then walked home to the Upper East Side.
A friend of Ignacio’s whose company was housed on floors 85 to 90 of one of the World Trade Center towers didn’t get out. The fire took hold too quickly and they were too high up. A classmate’s sister had a doctor’s appointment that morning and didn’t go in to her office in time. Her colleagues however, did. A friend’s husband neglected to tell her he was spending the day at a client’s in New Jersey. He couldn’t get through to her on the phone. She thought he was dead. He finally came home that night. The stories are surreal. The fallout tremendous.
We at The Harbus are here to help in any way we can. Please contact either any member of the staff or our office if there is any assistance at all we can provide. In addition, HBS has various counselors and professionals on hand to help. We must all come together in a time such as this.