Some days are diamonds and some days are rocks.
One or two days in your life can take your breath away and bring you to your knees.
Terrorism has colored my life on two separate occasions at the very same spot- The World Trade Center in New York City. I still swallow hard whenever I say the name of the place that has stolen a permanent place in my soul.
I first experienced terror on the 95th floor of 2 WTC during a snowy February 1993 afternoon.
My second encounter on September 11th, 2001, was like most Americans via the television. Unlike most Americans, I knew that somebody I loved and cared deeply about was trapped at Windows on the World.
My first experience eventually took me on a five-city tour over a span of six years before I began to somewhat understand my physical and emotional reaction to that day.
The second experience nearly broke me, reawakened previous ghosts, and ultimately led to a resolution to use my grief as fuel to move forward in all facets of life.
What did I learn?
Some random events will never be explained or understood.
Only you can make the decision to get off the canvas and answer the bell for the next round.
Finally, with a little love and luck, you will get by.
Starting At The Top
When I graduated from Fairfield University in 1986, I began my professional career on Wall Street in the U.S. Treasury Bond Market.
During high school and college, I worked at a local country club. Through a stroke of luck, I began to regularly caddy for a wonderful man named Philip Francis McManus.
Brooklyn born & bred; Phil grew up in the Great Depression. He worked in the financial markets in downtown Manhattan for over 50 years. Phil was a legend both for his street-smart knowledge as well as being a true gentleman.
Whenever a tense moment would happen on the trading floor, he would light up a cigarette, pull up a chair next to you, and whisper something like
“The secret to the longball is clubhead speed kid. Don’t you ever forget it”
He was part mentor, part grandfather, and the master at keeping things light.
Longball Phil hired me straight out of college. We worked together at a major Japanese securities firm, Yamaichi International America, selling US Treasury securities to institutional clients all around the world. The US trade & budget deficits were just starting to balloon, and Japan was the country holding all the trade surplus dollars.
In short, I was in the right market with the right mentor at the right time. To make it all even sweeter, I worked on the 96th floor of 2 World Trade Center, probably the most premier commercial real estate in the business world at that time. I always bragged to my friends and family that I worked in the clouds in downtown Manhattan. The sunsets and sunrises were breathtaking, and you couldn’t help but feel that you were sitting on top of the world.
February 26th, 1993
At 12:18 on February 26th, 1993, I was sitting against the window of the 95th floor of 2 World Trade Center. While reviewing some bond trades with a settlement analyst, my life changed forever.
A 1336-pound nitrate-hydrogen gas truck bomb, intended to send the North Tower crashing into the South Tower, detonated in the World Trade Center parking garage. The explosion caused the towers to shake and knocked out power immediately.
Our trading floor suddenly became quiet as an empty church.
That’s the moment that I always remember most clearly. The immediate sound of silence. The look on everybody’s face that said, “What the hell just happened?”
To this day, the silence immediately following a power outage still brings me a chill.
A few minutes later, smoke began to pour into the office and breathing became a mild challenge. I went into the bathroom, took off my t shirt, doused it in water, and placed it over my mouth. I threw some cold water on my face, took a few breaths, and said a quick prayer.
After a short while, a few of us decided to try walking down the stairs. On lighter days in the past, some of us made bets on who could “walk” down 95 floors the fastest.
Not on this day.
The smokey unlit staircase was packed with people going nowhere. I walked back into the office and called my dad from the only working phone on the fax machine. I asked him to turn on the radio and try to find out what just happened. None of us in the office knew that a bomb exploded below us. No internet or cell phones existed.
For the first time in my life, I began to consider my mortality. Was smoke inhalation going to be the end game?
The smoke was getting slightly more intense and I remember asking my dad to tell everybody that I loved them.
Just in case.
My coworkers and I finally walked down the stairs about four hours later. When we got out of the building, many of us walked straight to a local watering hole to catch the 6 PM national news. We still didn’t know exactly what happened. Judging by the smoke on everybody’s face and the massive NYPD & NYFD presence outside, it seemed clear that it was much more than a transformer explosion.
I got very sick a few days later and wound up in the hospital twice with a virus. During my time recovering throughout the next month, I thought long and hard about returning to work. I used to love coming to work early to see a sunrise or stay late to see a sunset. Now I couldn’t step inside the express elevator to the 78th floor.
I requested a transfer to our Chicago office. For me, the attack felt like a precursor and I knew I could never work in the towers again. So, I left my beloved Hoboken and took a Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale, Long Island, St. Petersburgh, Jacksonville tour from 1994-1999.
A part of me felt disappointed that my Wall Street career basically ended because I left the big tent. Another part felt relieved that I no longer worked in a skyscraper. And another part still occasionally felt the feeling one does when you experience a big psychological shock.
Little did anybody know that Round 2 was around the corner and the wolf was back at the door.
September 11th, 2001
On September 11th, 2001, I was planning to fly home from a fly-fishing trip in Montana with two of my close childhood buddies- Brian Lamb & Tom Callaghan. We took an annual trip together and Glacier National Park was the latest adventure.
With a long day of travel ahead of me, I arose early about 7:00 AM to grab breakfast and shake off the effects of our last night together. When I went outside the lodge to get the newspaper, I saw the National Guard loading their rifles. People were shouting instructions and it didn’t seem like a drill. When I asked what was happening, one of the men replied, “The U.S. is under attack.”
I walked back inside the lodge to find a small crowd of early risers standing around the lone television set. A few minutes earlier, United Airlines flight #175 struck the south tower.
Both towers were now engulfed in flames and the country now realized it was no longer an accident. The dark feelings of 1993 flooded me as I watched world history unfold.
I woke up my friends and grabbed Brian’s cell phone. I called my parents to let them know that I was ok and I that I had not yet boarded my flight back to Jacksonville.
After my brief call to Long Island, Brian, Tom & I sat down to grab breakfast and keep an eye on the television. About fifteen minutes later, I asked Brian for his cell phone. I wanted to call my mom again because something in her voice sounded unfamiliar. She seemed distant and a bit evasive.
When I called back, she said something that completely took my breath away.
“Dad didn’t want to tell you, but Katie is visiting the building and she is trapped on the top floor of Tower 1.”
Katherine McGarry Noack had just begun a new job with Telekurs USA in Connecticut. On the evening of September 10th, she received a call from her new boss. He asked her to attend the Risk Waters Financial Technology Congress at Windows on the World- the 106th floor of the North Tower.
Married just five months, she headed to the World Trade Center on 9/11 with her new husband who worked for Lehman Brothers in the North Tower on the 40th floor. They said goodbye and she took the express elevator to the top.
Katie arrived at Windows a mere few minutes before American Airlines flight #11 struck the North Tower at 8:46 AM EST.
My sister was in the wrong place at the wrong time along with thousands of others.
My own personal nightmare from eight years earlier, the one that I never shared with family and friends, was playing out on live television and my little sister had replaced me. I remember watching the television and wishing that I could literally reach through the screen and somehow help her.
I wanted to swap places.
The feeling of utter helplessness was immensely saddening, horrifying, and frustrating all at once.
I watched the buildings fall on television a short while later, walked outside, dropped to my knees, and became physically ill. By the evening, I was completely convinced that I was simply having another nightmare.
This simply could not be real.
Before I could travel to Long Island to be with my family, I needed to first return to Jacksonville, Florida. When I returned to my home after a four-day adventure in Montana and various airport terminals, I received the first of many incredible acts of kindness. My close friend, Glenn Edmonds, called me and told me to pack my bags. He would be arriving to my house in an hour to drive me to New York.
It was an act of compassion that still brings tears to my eyes today. Truth be told, I had not slept in three days and I had no strength to make the drive myself. Flights to New York were not exactly available in the immediate aftermath either.
More than anything in the world, I simply wanted to be home with my family.
While it all seems strange now, we clung to some hope that she might be trapped or in a hospital somewhere. Manhattan became flooded with “Missing” posters. Some flicker of hope existed, and I wanted to try to help in the search.
Glenn drove me straight to Long Island and then hopped on a ghost flight back to Jacksonville. Not many people had the courage to fly in the immediate aftermath of September 11th. Lucky for me, Glenn feared nothing.
The next two weeks were hazy. I came to understand that I also lost a cousin and several friends from grammar school, high school, college, work, and my parish. I started to become numb to the news.
To some extent, each day seemed like Groundhog Day.
The goal each morning was clear. Survive and advance to tomorrow.
In time, I would come to understand the concept of survivor’s guilt and the human cognitive bias of being completely unaware of the existence of randomness
After our family called off the search for my sister, we scheduled a memorial service at Sacred Heart Church. Our relatives from Detroit bravely got on a flight to NY to be with us. Little did I know, they were also bringing a special gift for me that would bless my life forever.
Through an incredible stroke of fortune and perhaps divine intervention, my cousin indirectly introduced me to my future wife at my sister’s memorial service. She gave me Mariana Price’s phone number on the back of a business card. Some words were spoken about failed previous attempts to introduce us to each other during my time in Ft. Lauderdale. She suggested that it would be good for me to call her someday. I smiled and tucked it in my pocket.
While unpacking once I got back to Jacksonville, something moved me to take the card out of my sports jacket and call. We spoke for several hours that first night.
Mariana was attending graduate school at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. We began a long-distance relationship. After graduation, she received her dream job as a guidance counselor for a new Catholic high school. Mariana became one of the first people hired at Bishop John Snyder High School in Jacksonville. Bishop Snyder married us a few years later and baptized both of our sons.
Fooled by Randomness
During my thirty-two years of experience working on trading floors, I know one thing for certain. Luck is often mistaken for skill.
A few years after 9/11, a former coworker from Chicago encouraged me to read “Fooled by Randomness.” He knew that I was still struggling to make sense of my experiences with The World Trade Center.
How could I walk out in 1993 and my sister could not eight years later?
How could she get a call on the evening of September 10th to be at Windows on the World early the next morning?
How could Katie, who struggled to be on time for anything in her life, decide that day she would be prompt?
Why? Why? Why?
Written by a Lebanese-American former option trader/risk analyst, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the book addressed the hidden role of chance in life and the markets. Taleb introduced the concept that humans are often unaware of the existence of randomness.
The book basically taught the futility of asking why some things happen.
They just do. Always have. Always will.
Through time, prayer and experience, I also came to learn the following:
- Don’t run from your grief. Run towards it. Make it your kryptonite. Tap that energy to climb any mountain and deal with any setbacks.
- Life is short and the expiration date is known to nobody. Take ownership and responsibility for your own goals and dreams. Avoid the victim mentality. Add some sense of urgency to things that matter most to you.
- Learn to say no. If need be, walk away from toxic situations.
- Servant leadership. Turn your focus to helping others.
- Practice gratitude daily.
- Be empathetic to family, friends and work colleagues. You never know what is really going on inside somebody’s life.
- Forgiveness. The twelve greatest words in the English language are: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If you do not let go of hate, you are going nowhere fast. Get rid of that baggage as soon as possible.
- Comparison is the source of all unhappiness in life. Do not compare yourself or your circumstances with anybody. Each of us is a unique strand in the mystery of life.
Love & Luck
It is in your season of being broken that you simply realize the most awful thing that you thought seem ever to happen has provided an opportunity. For through being broken, you are reproduced to get one more shot at achieving your dreams and goals.
You realize that your most noteworthy days are ahead of you and not behind you.
And in the end, the love and luck that you take is equal to the love you make.
Trapped in Montana during 9/11, love & luck allowed me to be surrounded by my two unofficial brothers- Brian Lamb & Tom Callaghan. Those few days seemed like months.
Unable to get back to NYC, love and luck allowed me to have Glenn Edmonds get my butt back to Long Island quickly.
At the darkest moment of my life, love and luck allowed my Michigan cousin to introduce me to my wife. Mariana took my hand and walked me out of the dark. She turned on the light and brought love and children to my life.
With a little love and luck, you can get by any situation in life.