|New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, with Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro L'81, speaks at a news conference during better times before 9/11 transformed his city and the nation|
It's been said of New Yorkers that there are eight million stories in the "Naked City." And to this day every New Yorker I know has a vivid story to tell of where they were on September 11, 2001. This is my story.
That morning started out like any other. I walked my five year old daughter to school and then hopped on the subway to my law firm's midtown Manhattan office tower. But then things took a decidedly abnormal turn. And like most New Yorkers, I would never be the same.
I got off the elevator at the 48th Floor of the Met Life Building above Grand Central Station and was greeted by our receptionist telling me that a small plane had just hit one of the World Trade Center towers. I went immediately to my office facing south over Park Avenue with a perfect view of the "Twin Towers." I could see the smoke billowing. I turned on the TV in my office, and colleagues gathered there to watch with me. To my surprise, and horror, within minutes, I saw a second plane hit the other tower and, turning to my colleagues, said, "This has to be terrorists."
Then, the phone rang. It was a CNN reporter. I had recently been a deputy mayor in the Giuliani Administration and often got press calls. The reporter said he was having trouble reaching anyone at City Hall and wanted me to come over to CNN's broadcast headquarters on Manhattan's Westside to talk about the city's emergency preparedness. Not yet appreciating the severity of what had just happened but knowing the city had put in place rapid emergency response protocols generally, I agreed to go on the air and made my way over to CNN's studio. I was escorted to the roof of the building facing south and interviewed by Aaron Brown. As we were talking on a live international feed, one of the towers collapsed in a huge mushroom cloud of devastation.
I understood instantly that thousands had probably died at that moment, including many city rescue workers. Brown then turned to me and asked, "Where do you think Rudy Giuliani is right now?" I gave some lame, ambiguous response, knowing that Rudy would certainly have gone to the scene of the crisis, and might well have already lost his life in the process. (I learned only later that he was, in fact, there, but got trapped in a nearby building by the falling debris, and was able to escape through an underground passage, allowing him to lead the rescue effort).
At the next on-air break, I excused myself and rushed home to my Manhattan apartment on East 102nd Street. Family, friends and work colleagues were already congregating there, unable to get to their suburban homes because Manhattan was literally closed down for security reasons: no one could enter or leave it. Several stayed the night.
Over the next several hours and days, the news came fast and hard. Dozens of friends had died that day, including almost the entire hierarchy of the New York City Fire Department. In the immediate aftermath, Rudy Giuliani, asked at a press conference to estimate the death toll, captured what all of us were feeling: "The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear."
In the immediate aftermath, I, like so many other New Yorkers, wanted to help and worked as volunteers. I obtained credentials to visit the downtown disaster scene. It was a shocking sight. Hell on earth: a smoldering, glowing fire pit, smoke billowing, with strewn, twisted metal piled high around it. Even more than five miles away where I lived uptown, I could still smell the odor of burning rubble that continued to hang over Manhattan for weeks.
As each week passed, the funerals came in ever increasing numbers. That first Saturday, I travelled to Washington, D.C., by train – since there were no flights being permitted – to attend the funeral of Barbara Olson, the prominent TV commentator and spouse of my current law partner, Ted Olson, who was then the U.S. Solicitor General. Barbara died tragically that day, having delayed her cross-country trip to be with her husband on his birthday, only to have the flight she ultimately took that morning hijacked by terrorists and crashed into the Pentagon. It was like a State funeral, attended by Cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices, and Senators, yet so personal and moving.
Then came the New York funerals: more than 300 New York City firefighters and other emergency workers sacrificed their lives to save others that day. One of them was Captain Terry Hatton, the firefighting husband of Rudy's long-time assistant, Beth Petrone, who learned just after her husband went missing on 9/11 that she was pregnant with their first child.
It took weeks before the missing could be confirmed dead, and their funerals occurred largely on a series of heartbreaking fall weekends where as many as a dozen deceased firefighters were memorialized on a single day. Rudy Giuliani tried to attend all of their funerals, but that proved impossible, so he turned to me and others to eulogize the fallen when he could not be in multiple places at the same time. We spoke the stirring words he would have: "This was the greatest rescue operation in history: more than 25,000 lives were saved that day." But nobody could say them with more comfort and conviction than Rudy. At one funeral, he arrived late from another memorial just in time to speak. And what I witnessed that day was inspiring. He left the pulpit to approach the family, leaned down next to the deceased firefighter's two young children, and told them in hushed tones: "Know that your father is a hero. He lives inside you. And he always will." There was not a dry eye in the entire church.
Over those same weeks, I experienced the tumult of post 9/11 life in New York: bomb scares and building evacuations, anthrax scares, a Yankee Stadium interfaith prayer rally hosted by Oprah Winfrey, and a World Series where our beloved Yankees lost a nail-biter and fans wept openly every time famed Irish tenor Ronan Tynan sang "God Bless America."
As time passed, I returned full–time to my law practice at Gibson Dunn, spearheaded a fundraising drive for 9/11 charities (my firm and colleagues all over the world were extraordinarily generous), and found myself drawn to cases helping 9/11 victims' families.
First, I represented, pro bono, more than 80 fallen firefighters' families in challenging the union's refusal to distribute to them the $70 million that Americans so generously contributed to its "Widows and Orphans Fund" after 9/11. The New York Daily News broke the story, running a front page banner headline, "Firestorm." The union quickly caved, agreeing to distribute almost all of the money to the families for whom it was intended, regardless of marital status.
Later, my fellow deputy mayor, Rudy Washington, who was in perfect health before 9/11, became a fixture downtown during the recovery effort, and then suffered horrific, life-threatening breathing problems afterward, applied for health benefits as a result of his work-related condition, only to be denied by the Bloomberg Administration.
I took up his cause, again on a pro bono basis.
He won an administrative ruling entitling him to health benefits due to 9/11 related injuries. But the Bloomberg Administration appealed. We then went public with the case, and the public was outraged. The day after the story broke, Mayor Bloomberg held a press conference to announce he was ordering his lawyers to drop the appeal. Justice was done, but even with the health care he deserved, my friend will never be the same.
That is part of 9/11's legacy. It continues to leave a hole in New York's skyline. And a hole in our hearts. We are rebuilding. Not only at Ground Zero, but within families devastated by the tragedy.
We are looking forward, but we will never forget. For New Yorkers, the memories of 9/11 remain fresh a decade later. But the memories we hold most dear are of the many heroic and generous acts, big and small, that have restored and transformed us.