My daughter, Jennifer, hadn’t been feeling well so I drove her to school a little late that morning. She had just started 2nd Grade in our comfortable, suburban town of Fair Haven, NJ. As I walked in the house, the phone was ringing. When I answered, a friend said, “Lisa, which tower is Ted in?!”
“The one with the antennae on it, “ I replied.
“Well, turn on the TV because a plane just hit it and took off the top 15 floors,” she said.
That was the first of many incorrect pieces of information of my 9/11 experience. Ted’s company, Cantor Fitzgerald, occupied offices in the North Tower on the 104th and 105th floors of the 107-story building. Floors were not taken off by the plane, but it was definitely Ted’s Tower that was hit.
I was holding my 4-month-old, Timmy, against my shoulder and had my 4-year-old Billy’s hand in mine. We turned on the television that was still set on PBS Channel 13 because of the children’s programming. I knew that WNET-TV Channel 13’s antenna was on the North Tower. When the picture came into view, I saw the black, black smoke billowing and streaming from Ted’s building.
I know I started to scream, “Ted! Ted! Ted!” Billy says I was stomping my feet too. I don’t remember that. As we watched, we saw the second plane hit the South Tower and I knew we were in trouble.
After only a few minutes numbness set in and I was fully functional. I guess it was shock. I was a mother of young children, and they came first. I followed my instincts and experienced an innate confidence to trust my judgement. Nature is an amazing thing. It will give you what you need, when you need it.
Shortly after I had turned on the television, the station went dark. 9/11 was in full swing. I called my parents in Maryland who headed up immediately. By 10 am a dozen friends were at my house. The phone started ringing then and rang continuously for the next 3 months. Everyone was trying to find and account for family members and friends that worked in and around the Trade Centers . Lower Manhattan was in chaos. An hour later all the cell phones crashed.
The stories of people fleeing the city that day are remarkable and heroic. One friend ran all the way across the Brooklyn Bridge before stopping. A documentary called Boat Lift is about the ’emergency all call to all ships’ to come to southern Manhattan and shuttle people to safety. Almost 500,000 people were evacuated that morning via the hundreds public ferries and commercial and private craft in the area who ran to answered the call.
Any house you called that morning, the wife answered. We were all hoping it would be our husband on the phone. I called my friends whose husbands worked in the Towers. They were all okay. As the morning progressed, more and more people were accounted for. I heard that a few Cantor wives had spoken to their men. I never heard from Ted nor did any of the other wives from E-Speed. They had gone in for an early sales meeting. Their offices were located in the southwest corner of the building and I believe the plane came up from underneath them.
Ted had walked out from the explosion in January 1993 after a 4½-hour slow march down the fire escape and out of the building. When he arrived home he was completely black from soot. In that attack, there had been no visible smoke outside any of the buildings.
This time it was much different. When I saw the smoke I knew it was fatal. For a short time I held onto the fantasy of him climbing to the roof. When Cantor Fitzgerald re-opened its doors in the spring of 1993, and people went back to the 104th and 105th floors, the guys would joke about keeping parachutes and/or gas masks in their desks. They all agreed that they would go to the roof if it happened again. Now looking at the buildings, logic dictated that they were engulfed in choking smoke and intense heat from the fire that was raging beneath them. There was no getting to the roof. For a few days I held onto shaky hope. The people around me were desperate with hope for us. But deep inside, from the moment I saw the smoke, I knew in my heart that Ted was dead.
By 10:30a, 30-plus people were in my house. Milling around. Crying. Stunned. Wringing their hands. Watching the news. It was on every channel. We were spinning. I went upstairs to nurse Timmy and gained a moment of peace. I did not turn on the television.
A few minutes later, a friend came in my room. His face was ashen. He said, “Lisa, Ted’s building just collapsed.” We turned on the television only to find that it had been the South Tower, not the North. Ted was still ‘okay.’
The next thing I knew my closest girlfriends were in my room with me. Sitting on the foot of my bed we all watched as the North Tower fell silently and in slow motion. I whispered, “Goodbye, Teddy.” And he was gone.
And so began my amazing experience of 9/11. Sometime mid-morning, I had several prescient thoughts. I clearly realized how much worse it could have been. It could have been like the first attacks that occurred at 12:30p when the buildings were busy and full; this had happened before 9am. The early hour had saved so many lives. In the 73 minutes after the first plane hit, thousands of people were able to get out. The rescue and recovery workers did an incredible job before our Towers fell. So many lost their lives saving others. There are no words to describe my appreciation of them. They are the true heroes in a war they didn’t know they’d be fighting.
Secondly, I knew it would be two years. Two years until we would have a new normal. I had worked in a job in New York that prepared me for this. I was a National Radio Rep, meaning I brokered radio-advertising time for radio stations in the top 150 US markets to the media buyers at advertising agencies in NYC. In other words, I had more than 150 bosses and 50+ customers that could demand anything they wanted from me at anytime. It was a job of prioritizing fires and working at an insane and frenetic pace for months on end. It was the perfect preparation for 9/11. I knew to put my head down and go. To take things one at a time as they presented themselves. To not look ahead, to not look back. To stay steady and focused and just keep going.
Lastly, the most important gift of 9/11. As I looked around at all the friends, family and neighbors milling around my house not knowing what to do, all I wanted to do was help them. In the most bizarre way I was fine, actually quite normal. The numbness from the shock cocooned me and I was completely functional. Everyone was so desperate to help me and there was nothing they could do. I could see and feel their pain. I witnessed their confusion, fear and horror from the realization that we were no longer safe in our country. The profound shock and sadness about Teddy and all the others was too much to bear. Our future was precarious and like everyone else, all I wanted to do was help someone.
Then it dawned on me like a big ‘Aha!” . In order to help them, I had to ACTUALLY LET THEM HELP ME! AHHH NO!!! That was about the worst thing I could think of and the last thing I wanted. I am an American woman born in the New York Tri-State metro in 1960 and raised through the 70s and 80s. We were told that women could do it all. We were superhuman. I would never ask for help. I didn’t want any help now. But I had no choice. It was the only thing I could do to help them. So I opened the metaphoric door and let them in. Everyone. I let them touch me. Talk to me. Bring me food. Do laundry. Help with the kids. I allowed them access to me and our world so they would know if it happened to them that they too would be okay. By learning to receive, I discovered humility and gratitude for the first time. It is because of this that my heart and soul opened that morning and have remained open ever since.