Remember 9/11/2001 – My Story

 It’ s been 15 years since that fateful day and it seems that many may have forgotten how horrific it was but also how inspiring it was as well. How we all forgot our differences and bickering and everyday nonsense and

came together as one people, Americans. Not what religion you were, or political persuasion or ethnicity, but as Americans. It again meant something to sing God Bless America and the Star Spangled Banner (standing) and no one asked you to take God out of the songs. There were countless stories of men rushing in to help, risking everything for their fellow citizens. The untold stories of friends in the buildings who made calls to their loved ones knowing there was no escape, the brave souls on that last plane who should and did inspire many to show their love for this country… We all know where we were that day.

This is how I came to be in the city that day and how I saw 9/11… my not so short story!
At some point in my life after being a concert photographer and a young man I started getting serious about “growing up” and started a business thanks to a mentor who showed me the ropes of the parking lot business. I was successful and started a family and wanted more. He introduced me to the “securities trading” business. I had no idea what this was. I jumped in, as I do everything – all the way. It became my life. I sold my cameras and unfortunately lost most of my concert photo work from the 70’s (don’t ask who I lost) in a symbolic “growing up” and leaving that life behind move. Yeah a silly move.

Being a security trader, a hard one to explain to friends and family and to this day my father still asks me “so what does a security trader do?” “What do you mean you make markets and buy and sell for people like a broker? Well not quite…. Let’s just say there is a part of Wall Street that exists that is like a brotherhood. We are not the brokers who handle mom and pop customers and advise them on what to do with their money. We are the people that the brokers had to go to, to facilitate the transactions that complete the buy or sell of stocks on behalf of their customers. You used to see these guys on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in the blue coats that symbolized our end of the business. It’s all computers now but it was a people business. Where our brotherhood was though, was that we were the “over the counter guys” who did all the business over the phone, not on a floor of an exchange. We were associates, competitors, friends, family (many fathers brought their sons and daughters in – you couldn’t just apply to be a trader – you were brought in, you needed street smarts not a finance degree for this end of the business — we could be oriental rug traders or ticket scalpers or street hustlers — these were the skills you needed to help your firms or customers get their transactions done), and we all did our business over the phone based on our word. “Dictum Meum Pactum” our word is our bond. We had to be fast, talk fast and act fast, make decisions quickly and trade. And at the end of the day we were all friends. We are not the phony money managers, rogue brokers who rip people off or any of the countless other criminals who have given the business a bad name. We are the traders, the mechanics, and the guys in the trenches. Now most of this business is electronic and only a few of us remain. The sales traders, wholesale traders, retail traders, institutional traders, assistants, prop traders, and block traders all were a family back in the days of 9/11.

Most of us were glued together by our trade organization the Security Traders Association. The STA had an affiliate organization in every state. My personality was well suited to helping to start and ultimately running the Florida affiliate. Through the ranks of this affiliate my family and I became known to many of the leaders of the business. Being in Florida made it hard to connect with the many other traders especially the large contingent in NY who partied together and saw each other often. The Security Traders Association gave me that vehicle. Darla, my wife and partner of 30 plus years also lived the life and even became a trader for several years as well. We planned our vacations around the trader events in other cities and our kids experienced some wonderful times around trader conferences from all over our country and Canada. Over the years we became the glue that ran the Florida affiliate and its conventions and my kids worked the conferences and got to know many of our friends while growing up “around the business/the street”. This is how we connected to the street.

By 2001 I had risen to a level of Head Trader/Supervisor in my business but South Florida and the natural evolution of the business meant being at more than one firm as firms were bought out and or simply did not make it. My mentor, after many years apart, came to me with an opportunity to lead him and a team of traders to open a Florida based trading arm for Gaines Berland, a New York based retail Brokerage firm. We were in business a couple of years when Ladenburg Thalmann a well-respected New York Investment Banking firm bought us out. They liked how our independent office worked, the efficiency, the profitability and low overhead that was our model and they allowed us to keep operating, while they assimilated the firm and analyzed the rest of the departments. My partner and I were asked to evaluate what was happening in our parent’s trading department, and were given the responsibility to make it more efficient. I was asked to come to New York and discuss taking over trading supervision of the whole firm.

I went to the airport on Monday 9/10 to catch my flight and it was cancelled for mechanical reasons. This was back when we didn’t track everything and the crazy apps didn’t exist to make moves about flight changes quicker yet. I called the office and said I was coming back and would take the morning flight tomorrow. Marc, my partner, suggested I run over to Jet Blue and see if I could get on the next flight. Why wait, just get up there you know. So I tried and it actually worked and I managed to get in to New York late that night. (Fate I guess)- Instead of being in the air on the 6 am flight Tuesday 9/11 I was already there.

At the office at 7:30 am I hung with the traders on the desk while waiting for my meeting with the CEO, Victor. The trading department was on the 40th or 41st floor and overlooked lower Manhattan. You could see the towers in the distance, a beautiful view on this clear morning at 590 Madison (the IBM Building) uptown. It was a good group of guys, the Traders, some were friends of mine from the business previously. I always felt most comfortable with the traders not the brass. We are a different breed. Not heroes necessarily but we are always the last ones out in a crisis. We make sure everyone else gets out in a fire alarm or bomb scare etc, etc, but we always are the last out. While waiting for my meeting we chatted and the TVs had the financial news station on and we prepared for the day listening with one ear. My meeting with Victor was in his office and I sat across his desk from him. He had the usual computer screen in front of him and a small TV to the side that I could see partially. As we started to discuss the business at hand his eyes widened and he was looking at the TV screen puzzled. Just then my cell phone rang and it was my wife.

She has called me at the most inopportune moments while I was away and I have been prone to just quickly hang up or talk briefly and leave her wondering. As an example once while on a golf trip to Scotland we were traveling in a van with one of the guys driving on the wrong side of the road barreling thorough a roundabout with some barricades in it. As we were yelling at the guy we now call “magoo” my phone rang. I picked it up and as she asked me the usual “how’s it going”, we screamed “watch out!” as he hit several barricades. All she heard was watch out, noooooo, and click! I of course called her several days later after remembering that she might be wondering what happened! This was our relationship. She is a special woman. To her credit she didn’t need to talk every night like many of the other golfers and their wives needed to. The trips usually consisted of other traders and friends. We could talk just once or twice during a 10 day golf trip and she was good! Another time she called and left several messages as I wandered around Ireland playing golf. Apparently she was trying to warn me about a bomb going off at Glasgow Airport in Scotland where I was headed the next day. After an 11 hours delay my golf buddies and I arrived at Glasgow to a military lockdown of the airport with soldiers, dogs, and tanks all over the place. I finally turned my phone on only to hear frantic messages about staying away from Glasgow – please call me!! Sorry Honey!

But I digress
I answered the phone exasperated (I was in a high level meeting and didn’t turn my phone off!) Her – “where are you!!” Are you down by the World Trade Center?? me – What are you talking about I am in a meeting, uptown! CLICK and OFF!!! I am extremely insensitive sometimes and a little oblivious. Victor looked at me and turned the TV – they were describing what looked like a small plane had hit one of the towers. I pondered how stupid a pilot would be to do that but he insisted it must be on purpose. Our meeting was over.

I went out to the desk where it was a mish mosh of people joking, as traders do at times of crisis, of an idiot pilot crashing a small plane, but as we began to realize that was no small plane, seriousness started to take hold. I saw Murph whose brother worked at Cantor staring downtown at the smoke. Victor called me back in and we started to discuss rescheduling and boom, the second plane hit! He yelled we are under attack! We need to clear the building! I ran out to be with my traders. Phones were lighting up. Eddie Donovan frantically calling his girlfriend, a trader at Smith Barney across from the towers… Lisa Utasi – “ I have to find her – I can’t reach her!” others were doing the same thing. We all had friends in the building and the surrounding buildings – What was going on!! The Security Traders Assoc was in the building. Cantor was at the top of building above where the plane hit! Other firms, other people, we were in shock! The whole country was in shock and we were seeing it live on TV. I thought of the Challenger explosion, of JFK and even Jack Ruby getting shot, live on TV. This was crazy, was it real?? There are people who say this never happened, the holocaust never happened, or this was a plot by George Bush and his friends – Morons! Idiots this really happened and it is personal. And then we heard about the Pentagon – this was nuts!!!

As the building was being evacuated Victor told us to get out. We waited until the last people loaded on to the completely full elevators. Victor was frantic that we were not to stay behind – This was the IBM building and it could be a target! After the last elevator took off we looked at each other, the remaining traders and me, and we took to the stairs. To give you an idea of how hard it is and how long it takes to run down 41 flights believe me it is no picnic. Some were in better shape and moved quicker. I was at the back, last one in with John Meade the head trader, and John McFarland my good friend. We moved slower. We had to stop twice to catch our breath and I have to tell you fear started to seep in that we didn’t want to be stuck in the stairwell if our building was hit. We kept moving. It took maybe 30 exhausting minutes or so to make it down those stairs completely drained and spent. I thought of the people and friends in the buildings. Above the holes no one was getting out, below the holes how long would it take. How many would get out? I knew the traders above would try to get everyone out as best they could but that they would be the last ones if it was even possible. There was no way there would be enough time… I may have already been weeping for them as I ran.

As we exited the building we all regrouped in front of an electronics store. We were mesmerized at what we were seeing on the TVs in the windows. I remembered seeing world series games in storefront windows like this as a kid, staying put in front of the store so as not to miss a moment that may happen if you continued traveling. New Yorkers were all out in the streets uptown. Many of us were screaming “where is the air force” we were under attack – where was our response! Cell phones were not working now or spotty, we decided to move over to a bar one of the traders owned, and moved across town. The shock was still on our faces. We entered the bar and all eyes were glued to the TV. No One could reach friends or their loved ones, I think Ed found Lisa though I can’t remember exactly when but she was ok. I began to think of my friend Tim Grazioso who was in charge of equity trading at Cantor. Tim commuted between Florida and NY and was active in helping us with Security Traders of Florida. He and his wife and kids participated in our events. Tim was surely at work. I thought of what it must be like for people seeing this on TV.. Later I heard Julie Zipper another friend who worked for Brass was in a meeting in the tower unfortunately, and I could go on, Richie Tipaldi’s son, and so many more. I urge people to read the story of Cantor Fitzgerald and their CEO, Howard Lutnick, who as fate would have it was late to work as he was dropping his kid off for his first day of school. His story and the story of his firm and all the people, and what happened in the years since, is one everyone should hear.

I decided to go back to my hotel as the city was in lockdown – no cars in, no cars out…no way out except to walk out over the 59th Street bridge or higher uptown. Private citizens were rescuing people by boat, but many people walked all the way uptown to get out of the city – no cars no trains …I had checked out earlier and now I realized I better get my room back. When I got there the scene was like some crazy movie with crowds of people screaming they need a room and the clerks saying it was sold out. I made my way through the crowd and got a sympathetic clerk to give me back my room for the next two nights so I could figure out what to do. The whole country was shut down in an unprecedented “all air grounded” move that had never been done before. I thought of my family and wanted to get home. On my walk back to the bar I stopped in an electronics store and bought more batteries and a charger for my phone – spotty cell service but better to be prepared. Outside there was a crowd forming into two lines to give blood, I will never forget CEO Victor out there helping to organize this effort! I made it back to the bar just as the first tower collapsed – this was simply unbelievable. We knew our people were lost and so were the people trying to save them. I thought I was going to throw up. I will never forget the faces of the traders whose loved ones were in the building. We broke up and I left. We were all on our own now.

On the way back to the hotel I saw the first wave of people who walked all the way uptown. They were covered in white powder/dust/ – they looked like zombies from a movie set – lost looks on their white faces , clothes in tatters, wandering , trying to get out a city under attack, moving in unison. People were crying. A couple of fighter jets buzzed the sky and we cheered! I remember thinking what it is in war when the jets come and you don’t know if they are yours or theirs, like in movies, and how some knew earlier than others shouting “ they’re ours!!! Exhausted I made it back to my hotel and watched TV until I fell asleep. We heard the story of the plane that went down in Pennsylvania but we didn’t know the details and the bravery that was their story yet. At some point I called home and told my wife and friends what happened. At around 10 pm with no food in the hotel I wandered out to get a slice of pizza. There was an eerie silence and I became keenly aware not to make any moves that may attract attention. I saw what appeared to be soldiers or cops in riot gear but some in camouflage patrolling. Eyeballing me and the other stragglers out trying to find food or supplies. I found an open pizza place got my stuff and went back to the hotel. The next day I called Victor not knowing what to do next. He and John Meade stayed in the city. Wall Street was closed. We took the day and tried to process. I hung with John for a while and went back to the hotel. Thursday morning with no end in sight to the air shut down and no way home, Victor called a car service and I made my way to my Dad’s apartment in Queens.

My Dad and stepmother were like everyone glued to the TV and were so happy that I wasn’t anywhere near the buildings that day. My Dad at this point knew what it was like to sacrifice for someone else as my stepmother had a disease that was like Parkinson’s on steroids and needed round the clock attention. I witnessed how he took care of her while I stayed with them and wondered if I would have the strength to do that if I had to. She is no longer with us now, but I remember how sharp her mind was then, as we chatted about the horrible events. Even though her ability to communicate was so impacted by her disease, her mind was still very sharp. I saw my Dad very differently from then on.

I was on a mission to get home by this time. One minute my flight was scheduled and the next no flights out. One time I was ready to go to the airport and then there was a “scare” at LaGuardia and boom, shut down again. I figured since so many people were stuck in NY that there must be all kinds of rental cars at the airport. I left in a rental later that day, my Dad thought I was crazy. As I drove around Manhattan in the dark, bridges and tunnels were closed — I had to go around the top and down along the jersey side for my trip. It was weird no lights no airplanes not many other cars as I drove past the city. I was struck by how different the horizon looked. The landmarks I would normally see were gone. Now, I could see light (from the workers) but no towers. A silent, somber drive. I found a radio station and made my way south. I stopped for the night near DC. I didn’t sleep much as again, I was glued to the constant TV coverage.

As I started the drive early the next morning there was a slight drizzle continuing the morbid mood, and I remember driving past the Pentagon and quickly seeing the damage from the highway. I did a double take. OMG it was hard to imagine that damage still smoldering and workers still working to clear it out. I pulled off the next exit as something was pulling me back. I drove back to DC and parked up the hill from the monument. I sat on the grassy hill looking down towards the monument with the White House up to the right. I tried to process what I had seen and why I had stopped here. The rain was letting up but it was damp and dreary. Then I noticed the snipers on the roof of the White House. I suddenly felt like I shouldn’t make any quick moves again. I saw more snipers on buildings. But I stayed for a while. This was the day that the President and others paid respects at the Church in DC and then traveled to the site of the horrific act in NY, where the famous pictures were taken of Bush and the wreckage. The sky, which I had seen nothing in except birds, became filled with small helicopters. They were doing some kind of crazy, evasive maneuvers. In, out, around, and then a large one landed on the grass 300 yards from me. Limos came shooting down the hill and people quickly got out. The back of the helicopter opened up and they quickly got on. Several plainclothes but well-armed men protected this operation. I don’t know if it was the President or his entourage, but there were reporters and photographers as part of this group as well. Then the small helicopters were back with the evasive maneuvers and boom the big helicopter was gone. Crazy! Well executed I thought! I continued my journey home.

After I stopped for the night and found a TV, I saw the President’s visit to the site on the news. I felt like I was meant to see all this on my journey to get home. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and drive until I got home to my family.

In the days that ensued we attended many memorials for our friends and loved ones lost that day. The Security Traders Association honored our lost ones at meetings and memorials and conferences and so did each affiliate. Along with Coletta Dorado, then the president of the Security Traders of Florida, I planned the events honoring our lost friends back in Florida. These were difficult. While many innocent people lost their lives that day from all walks of life, an inordinate amount of people from our brotherhood were part of the group. It seemed we were doing memorials every day! Our lives and our business would never be the same. Tim’s wife, Debbie and their two girls were with us. As was my family, as we paid our respects here in Florida. We vowed to Never Forget! It will always hurt.

It has been 15 years now and we have seen and heard many heroic stories from that day. I honor all the first responders who rushed into those buildings to help. My wife and I have several family members who are firefighters, police, rescue workers etc. We are proud of all of them. These are the people who regardless of race, religion, or gender, rush into the most dangerous situations to help and protect. Ordinary citizens also did heroic things that day and also embody what it is to be an American. The plane in Shanksville – men and women of various ethnic backgrounds and race, took that plane down so it wouldn’t accomplish its mission. They didn’t argue about how horrible America is! They didn’t sit when they should stand! Heroes come in all sizes. I wonder if the people who criticize this great country or dishonor our flag would run into one of the buildings or take down one of those planes to protect other AMERICANS in a time of great peril.

Final thought: The people in those buildings were simply at work or on an airplane that day and they were targeted by religious fanatics who do not value life or freedom; The freedom that makes this the greatest country in the world; The freedom that Americans have fought and died for, for hundreds of years so that each of us can try to make a better life for ourselves and our families. These were innocent, unarmed civilians, a favorite target of the cowardly fanatics. Our people who died that day 9/11/2001 and in the years since (from working in the wreckage of the buildings looking for survivors and remains of those lost) -these people and their stories of that day must not be forgotten. Please tell their story to your children. Don’t let them rewrite the history books or water it down like what is happening with the Holocaust. The Holocaust happened and so did 9/11 — WE MUST NEVER FORGET!