In the six days that followed the attacks on September 11th, the New York Stock Exchange was closed for the first and longest time ever since the Great Depression and World War I. The markets would reopen on September 17th, but to quite a rocky start. During the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the heartbeat of our nation’s economy stopped, suspended in time. And a forgotten class of Wall Street workers faced the difficult decision of whether or not to return to work. Those who did would return to a completely different world, one that had already changed them forever. And today, nine years later, many of them are still there. In a polarized political environment where the bad behavior of a few has unfairly demonized all of Wall Street’s workers, their contributions to our post-9/11 recovery have been largely ignored. But had these workers made the choice back in 2001 never to return again, what might have happened? This is one story, out of many, of the courage, determination and dignity of an entire class of forgotten patriots who stood by their country in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001 when it would have been so easy to simply walk away.
Nine years ago, my brother Will was working for a Wall Street brokerage firm just steps away from what is now known as Ground Zero. His office building overlooked Trinity Church on one side and the World Trade Center on the other. Just on the other side of the river, near his home in Hoboken, NJ, he boarded the PATH train every day, bound for the bustling station at the World Trade Center. Like so many others, he went to work on September 11th thinking that day would be just like any other.
Just before 8:46 am as Will was settling into his day with his co-workers, a loud, screeching sound of shearing metal boomed just outside their building. He looked up at the trading desk manager, and both were stunned. Will thought it might be a high rise construction accident; the desk manager suspected an explosion.
Papers and dust and rocks began swirling around the windows. They all stirred about the office for another fifteen minutes or so. Suddenly, an even louder sound came barreling toward the building – this one clearly that of an airplane, with a throttling noise and squealing, then an immense crash. There was a rumbling and their building shook. Startled, they made their way to the windows for a better view. Through the fire, smoke and debris, something fell past the window. They looked up, and caught the image of a live person, a man falling from the sky, flailing in midair as he plunged past their window and to the ground. Will could literally see the terror on the man’s face; he stood at the window in horror and disbelief at what he was seeing.
In all, he would witness another eight people jump and fall to their deaths before leaving that window to escape becoming a casualty himself. It happened in only minutes, maybe seconds. But it was an image that has stayed with him to this day, and it would challenge him, as it would so many others working in the financial district on September 11th, to ever return to work in this spot ever again.
A Decimated Wall Street & Historic Closing of the Markets
We often think about the first responders when remembering the bravery of September 11th. The firefighters, port authority and police officers, paramedics, doctors, nurses. And in the weeks following the attacks, there were military personnel, construction workers and other volunteers, even search and rescue dogs, and so many others. Over 400 first responders lost their lives on September 11th, and many more have died since of negative health effects. We are all so grateful and will always honor these heroes for their efforts. But how often have we stopped to think about the brave workers in the financial district who returned to work, overlooking the pit that had once been a symbol for their industry? In fact, in today’s economic and political environment, the manufactured rhetoric against Wall Street has put an entire class of would-be patriots into the undeserved category of traitors.
On September 11th and in the six days following the attacks, the New York Stock Exchange was closed. It was the first closure since 1933, when FDR shut down the banks just two days after being sworn into office. The only other closure was at the start of World War I in 1914, when exchanges all around the world suspended operations for up to four and half months. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the greatest concern was that of the human element. So many Wall Street workers in NY were now dead. Those who did survive were coping with the loss of tremendous numbers of their family, friends and co-workers – a loss that occurred all in a single day. Of the nearly 3,000 victims who perished in or near New York’s World Trade Center that day, over 1,200 were employees of financial services firms. Investment bank and brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald lost 658 employees alone. Marsh & McLennan Companies lost 295 employees; Aon Corporation lost 175; Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. lost 67.
For six days, a nation struggling to deal with the physical and emotional toll of this terrorist attack was now considering its potential catastrophic economic impacts. When terrorists selected the World Trade Center as a target, they targeted the American system, they targeted Freedom and Capitalism. They aimed to hurt trading and stall the country’s economy. They strived to create an environment of fear. Fear of flying. Fear of going into New York City. Fear of tall buildings. Fear of public crowds. Fear of strangers. All fears that would discourage Americans from spending money and would hurt the economy.
Terrorists expected that no one would return to work in New York ever again. They expected that people would be too afraid to work on Wall Street, for fear of remaining a target for additional attacks. They expected Americans would stop sending their kids to college to become financial investors and advisors.
But my brother and other Wall Street employees all instinctively knew one thing: If they didn’t go back, they’d be allowing the terrorists to win. The stock market is the heart of the American economy. For six days, the nation’s economy had stood still, as if our heart had stopped beating. With so many in their industry having perished, these people knew that it would take those of them that remained to start the heart back up again.
And that’s precisely what they did.
When the stock markets reopened on September 17th, 2001, a pile of debris still lay smoldering at Ground Zero. Much of Wall Street and its surrounding area still remained cordoned off for security and building safety reasons. As tentative financial workers reported to work for the first time in nearly a week, they found some big changes in their daily routine. The World Trade Center train service was shut down, so many took the ferry over to lower Manhattan and made their way deeper into the financial district, where they were met by guards who checked for identification.
Tragedy Brings Permanent Reminders, and Unity
Only days earlier, Will had run through the same streets as he tried to make his way out of his building and away from the immediate area, fearful the towers were about to fall. He was horrified as he dodged body parts scattered about the pavement. He pushed through crowds of onlookers walking toward the Twin Towers as he ran in the opposite direction, away from the WTC area. He described the scene as “quiet chaos” – a surreal image of people stopped in their tracks and staring like zombies, while others calmly walked toward the burning buildings to get a better look. At the same time, he and others with him who had just exited their shaking building were in more of a state of controlled panic. They had just witnessed the violent scenes of people jumping from the buildings. In contrast, it was a gorgeous sunny day and papers fluttered all around them like fresh snow, while the sirens of rescue vehicles calmly resonated more like muted hums in the background.
He and a friend walked the mile and half to and across the Brooklyn Bridge at a hurried pace. People scrambled to find their way out of the city by any means possible in the wake of the South Tower’s collapse. For hours my brother made his way on foot through Brooklyn and back into NJ over the Verrazano Bridge. A stranger who’d spotted them offered to drive them to Newark, where they arranged for someone else to pick them up. It wasn’t until nearly 5:00 pm on September 11th that my family and I had finally heard from my brother again. The whole day we hadn’t known for sure if he was alright. After he called from his cell phone, I drove to a nearby highway exit ramp, where their ride had dropped him off, and I brought him to our mom’s house where we all spent the evening overnight as a family, recounting the day’s events.
Now, here he was, heading back to work again. Initially, he spent the first few weeks in another location. After the attack, many companies did not even have a building to which they could return. Some buildings were gone, some were unstable, even some peripheral buildings were affected. But this was probably one of the first promising signs. Many firms, like National Securities Corporation, were well prepared with disaster recovery backup systems, and had arranged for secondary office space locations as part of those plans. Normally competitors to some extent, National Securities Corporation and companies like Fidelity, Bear Stearns, GunnAllen, and CIBC actually worked in concert in some instances by pooling their employees together in cramped shared spaces in nearby New Jersey locations until they had stable buildings to which they could return in Lower Manhattan. My brother recalls a feeling of comradery amongst them, almost like soldiers who had just survived a battle together. And in some real sense, they had. These were ordinary people who, six days earlier, had just experienced something extraordinary together. They lived through and witnessed things that soldiers would expect to see on a battlefield, things that many Americans will thankfully never, ever see in their lifetime.
President Bush was encouraging Americans to go out, to invest and spend money to show the terrorists that freedom would prevail. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Richard Grasso, the N.Y.S.E. chairman, rang the opening bell on the floor of the N.Y.S.E. with a group of police officers and firefighters on September 17th.
As my brother Will returned to work, he was fearful. Like so many others, he did expect the financial sector to remain a target. And he’d also lost friends in the attack. Some had lost hundreds of friends and co-workers. It would have been so simple to decide that the job was not worth the pain and to just walk away. When financial buildings finally started reopening in Lower Manhattan again, it wasn’t an easy time for any of the workers on Wall Street.
Will recalls the difficult walk through the secured area to his office building, describing the disconcerting burning smell of death, and being pelted in the face by rocky debris that persistently flurried around in the air. It continued this way for months. And every day he was reminded of the tragedy, as his window overlooked the pit at Ground Zero. For weeks on end, they could see the search workers sorting through the rubble, occasionally halting all activity to remove newly discovered remains in a dignified manner. Every day was a painful reminder of what occurred there.
Even today, it still is.
Sending a Message to the Terrorists
People expected the worst for our economy after September 11th , 2001. So many thought we’d never rebound. Others insisted (maybe even hoped) that capitalism was dead. Perhaps that sentiment was apparent when the Dow Jones industrial average plunged 7.1 percent on September 17th when the markets first reopened, the biggest one-day point loss ever. But Wall Street workers were resilient. When all the chips were stacked against them, and a huge chunk of their workforce had lost their lives, those who survived braved their fears and overcame challenges to show up for work every day. For a time, some companies couldn’t even pay their employees. Imagine if all of them had given into their fears, if many of them just never went back – it would have been so easy, no one would have blamed them. The markets never could have withstood that kind of mass exodus. Instead of a few months, it could have taken years to return to pre-9/11 levels.
But it wasn’t just about bringing back the economy; it was so much more about perception.
I remember my mom begging Will not to go back. “You can get a job anywhere, why do you have to go back to NY?” And he was adamant, “Because I have to. All of us do. If we don’t go back there, who is going to do this? It’s not going to happen all by itself. Besides, we gotta do it. We can’t all just live in fear and let some crazy terrorists scare us away.” Every friend I have that worked in the financial district all said the same thing, too. This was a bunch of people who knew the world was watching them. They knew that if they set the example, others would follow. Recovery would follow. And after those first few weeks, it did. Despite the billions of dollars in property damage and lost wages related to all three of the locations of the terrorist attacks from that day, the markets quickly rebounded. As my brother said to me, when you look at the financial stats over history, the period of time following September 11th as the markets rebuilt looks more like a sneeze than a massive heart attack, in the context of things.
Thanking, Not Bashing, Wall Street’s Patriots
Like any industry, Wall Street’s had a few bad apples, and no one condones the bad behavior from that 1% that have hurt our economy. I’ve protested the big bank bailouts myself, but I’m always careful to separate that 1% from the other 99% who are good, hard working average Americans. Unfortunately, judging by the ugly, manufactured rhetoric of today, you’d think that everyone who worked in the financial services sector was a greedy traitor to his country. Labor unions are constantly bashing Wall Street, protesting regularly, harassing workers, some even going so far as to yell obscenities at random financial employees on the street. Even President Obama uses Wall Street as the political boogeyman to rally his Democratic base, repeatedly broadly painting the entire industry as “shameful” for the actions of a few. His rhetoric has helped to create a populist disdain for everything Wall Street.
Let’s be reminded, however, of the dedication and patriotism that the other 99% of Wall Street workers showed during six of the darkest days of our nation’s history, and in the months that followed. First responders showed the terrorists what Americans are made of. And when the World Trade Center, the greatest symbol of Capitalism in the world, was diminished to smoldering rubble, it was the return of those financial district workers – Wall Street – only six days later that showed the terrorists that Capitalism remained standing. They rallied together, braved their fears and returned to reopen the markets, despite having themselves lost so many friends and co-workers. They could have made the easy choice never to return to Wall Street again. Instead, they made the hardest choice of all. They came back. And many of them still remain there today.
Nine years later, I know how difficult it still is for my brother to be reminded of that day, every day. I know it’s difficult for the rest of Wall Street’s workers, too. Especially when it seems like your whole country, including your President, is against you. That we’ve allowed these individuals, who had nothing to do with the bad behavior of a few, to become casualties of today’s political tactics is shameful. Much like I recognize what our first responders did for America then, I recognize what those financial workers did for our country, too. I thank them for bravely returning in the aftermath of September 11th , 2001. Even if that’s not the trendy stance to take these days.