Never Forget: 9/11/01 Through One Man's Eyes

On this 9th anniversary of the WTC attacks, I wanted to remember all those who died including cousin, Steve Schlag, Tim Finnerty, Zach Zeng and the 3,000 other souls by sharing with you my story from that day. Actually began the night before on the train ride home, while trying to avoid seeing cousin Steve so I could begin writing. Anyway, if you have a few minutes…

We miss you all. We will always remember you and do our best to make sure your deaths were not in vein.

9:11 fireman

My intent in writing this story began as a reminder that long before the Twin Towers bombing of ’93 and Oklahoma City in ’95 there were other horrific terrorist attacks on US soil. On January 24, 1975, at Fraunces Tavern in down town NY my 33-year old father, Frank Connor and three other equally forgettable people, Alejandro Berger, James Gezor,k and Harold Sherbourne, lost their lives to an FALN bomb.

I also wanted Americans never to forget the infamous clemencies of those murderous, remorseless terrorists by the equally remorseless President Clinton. I wanted to document for our family the fight just a few of us private citizens raged against the clemencies. It was both a very low and somehow high point of my life.

Bottom line is I didn’t want America to forget Frank Connor, the man or our struggle against the mighty waged in his name. Maybe because as the years passed, I was afraid I might forget.

September 11, 2001 changed the focus of “my story” from a somewhat clinical documentary to a story of life, love, and tragedy and ultimately, how we have tried to overcome.

If we’ve learned anything it’s that life is fleeting, precious, and there is always hope if you believe in yourself, your family and your God. If you carry in you the faith and love for the person you lost you will never let them down.

Ironically my story was finally begun on September 10, 2001 on the commute home from downtown Manhattan. I have left the following words as I wrote them that fateful afternoon. Not sure if they fit into my story as it’s been shaped since but I see these paragraphs as a sort of time capsule. So for what they are worth…

September 10, 2001

There is no event in a person’s life nearly as monumental as the birth of his children; particularly his first child. Being the second child I feel justified in making that statement. Please my Kathleen do not hold this against me. You and your brother Frank are by far the greatest things your mother and I have ever been associated with in our lives. Joy intertwined with the overwhelming sense of responsibility for a new life and the feeling that your life will forever be connected with that of another softens the hardest of men.

Perhaps equally monumental would be the loss of a child. Luckily I have not had to experience such pain but my mother and grandmother have not been so fortunate. My mother lost Martin, my brother, in his infancy. Martin died shortly after his birth in 1967 due to complications from the rh blood factor. This affected many children until the 1970s. I was not quite 2 years old when Martin was born and died and do not remember him nor the pain my family endured.

My mother Mary, suffered terribly both physically and mentally due to his death. My father, Frank Connor, having lost his father the previous month, had to keep the family together through Mary’s bouts with depression and pain. He was not afforded the luxury of grief. He not only had to bury his father and son alone in less than a month, but had, along with Mary and Margaret his bereaved mother, to care for my brother Tom and me who would be 4 and 2 respectively the following January. All this time, Frank Connor, only 26 years old, went each day to work on Wall Street to pay the bills for his young struggling family.

Frank Thomas Connor was born on July 12, 1941 in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, New York City. The only child of Margaret and Thomas Connor, Frank was the center of Margaret and Tom’s universe. Margaret especially thanked God every day for her son. He was an unexpected gift for Margaret who, at the age of 37, was unusually old in 1941 to have her first child.

So these are the words I started my story with that afternoon on the train. A lot has changed since September 10, 2001…

Tuesday, September 25, 2001

Danielle’s mother offered once again to come out from eastern Long Island to watch the kids, Frank 4 and Kathleen only 2. We needed the help. The last two weeks had been some of the most difficult of our lives together, but as we got dressed that morning we realized that in some ways this day may be the most difficult of all.

Checking the clock I realized that the world had changed forever exactly two weeks before. Once again our lives had been shattered as had the lives of thousands of others. Today Steve’s family and friends would meet in the clubhouse of one of his favorite golf courses. Some of us would speak, addressing the mourners. But were they really mourners? To know Steven Schlag let alone to be his cousin, was to think of his laugh, his antics, his zest for fun, for skiing, for his wife and kids, parents and sisters, for life itself.

Maybe Steve knew he would die young. After all, his grandfather, Johnny dropped dead of a heart attack in his early forties. Donald, his father, had his first heart bypass surgery in his early forties and even Steven had a run in with the heart doctor. Even his God father cousin, my father, Frank Connor, had died young, at the age of 33; having been killed by the FALN in a terrorist in attack in New York City. By age 41, we all agreed, Steve had done more living than most would do in two lifetimes.

My brother Tom and sister in law Regina would be here soon to bring us to the memorial service. My mother and stepfather would be there along with many friend and relatives. Grandma Connor would not be there this day. My beloved 97-year-old grandmother, my father’s mother, the family matriarch had broken her hip and was confined to a nursing home nearby. We told her about the WTC attack but not about her nephew’s death. We knew she’d be with her son and Steven all too soon and there was no point in upsetting her last days with us.

As Danielle and I settled into Tom’s Volvo, I reviewed what to say about Steve. Should the tone be solemn, funny, stoic or emotional? I’d know what to say and how to act once it started. I least I hoped so. While we headed north toward Orange County New York that morning, in my mind I was heading back in time. Not too far back at first, just 15 days to a simpler time, a time when my immediate concerns were the Giants and beginning a book, or more accurately a story about my father, his life and death and our family’s fight against the unjust clemency president Clinton offered his killers.

I finally began writing my story on September 10, 2001 during my train ride home from work in downtown Manhattan. I have included in the preface the four paragraphs as I wrote them that afternoon. While they don’t seem to fit into the story as it played out, I felt the need to keep those lines in tact.

I was determined to begin my story that night but was concerned that I may be interrupted by my cousin Steve who also worked downtown. I often saw Steve on the train when leaving work early which I did that day for a 5:00 pm physical exam. As luck would have it, I didn’t see Steve that night and though I began my story, I will always regret not seeing him.

I had not been to the Doctor for several years but fortunately felt good and after the results of a few tests would be given a clean bill of health. I took this good news for granted and went home to my wife Danielle and the kids looking forward to watching my Giants open the NFL season at the new stadium in Denver on Monday Night Football. Like many people who work in New York, I went to bed late that night with my major source of stress coming from the Giants defeat to the Broncos.

A lot has changed since September 10, 2001.

Tuesday, September 11, 2001 was a beautiful day in the New York area. I rode my customary 7:39am train to Hoboken and the 12-minute PATH train ride under the Hudson River from Hoboken to The World Trade Center that morning with my brother Tom. As usual we talked politics and sports. The main political news that morning was Israel’s fight against terrorism and suicide bombers. Tom and I agreed that morning that Israel needed to declare and fight a real war against these fanatics.

I was scheduled to go to our Brooklyn office that morning to represent my department at a job fair. But having said good-bye to Tom in the mall under the World Trade Center at about 8:30, I walked to my office on Wall Street to plug in my laptop and check emails before taking the subway to Brooklyn with my colleague Jennifer.

The timing of the next events is only known because of how they have been reported since that day. I was standing at my desk on the 36th floor of 60 Wall St. plugging in the laptop at 8:46 am with my back to the large windows facing west behind me when suddenly more felt than heard the concussion of an explosion. I whirled around to look out the window and witnessed the side of the upper floors of the north tower of The WTC explode in a slow motion fireball. A plume of hideous black smoke emerged from the building like a terrible genie and what looked like a giant burning air conditioner tumbled in flames through the eastside of the building. I instinctively yelled, “A bomb!” Just then two colleagues whose view was to the north side of the floor ran around the corner and screamed, “No it was a plane, an American Airlines plane. We saw it buzzing low down Manhattan.”

Incredulous, I replied that it must have been a small plane to which one colleague Joe said. “No it was big, an airliner. It was a 727.” Thinking that 727s are not common these days, I thought Joe must be confused, it had to be a small plane. But as the fire roared and the reams of paper no different from the papers I had at my desk continued to float gently from the upper floors of the great tower, inside I knew it was not a small plane and something terrible was happening. Sensing there were hundreds or even thousands of people who may have already died or would die shortly, oddly, I was struck most by the indignity of the world seeing the victims’ private papers. Not only had they been killed horrendously but their thoughts and work were now being exposed to the world.

By now, the tower was burning with more intensity that anything I had ever seen before. I realized with horror that my cousin Steve worked on an upper floor of one of the towers but did not know which floor or tower. I called home right away and left a message on the answering machine for my wife Danielle that I was ok and that Tom, who worked on Broadway, closer to the WTC was probably at work and ok too.

It was the kids’ first day of preschool that fall and I figured Danielle was dropping them off. Frank was beginning his third year of pre K and Kathleen, only 2, was starting her first ever day of school. Danielle would likely wait with Kathleen who would be upset to be left for the first time, so I figured I might not hear from Danielle for a while.

I then called my mother and told her Tom and I were ok. She was unaware of what had happened but I reassured her. After the death of my father to terrorism, my mother as anyone would imagine, has been extraordinarily sensitive to the ramifications of these acts. She was inconsolable, afraid for the lives of her sons, during the first WTC attack in 1993. This time it would only be worse.

I asked my friend Julio (whose client, Cantor Fitzgerald was the company Steve worked for) if he knew what building Cantor was in. He thought it was the north tower and had been trying to get through to his friends there. Finally I found Steven’s number in my Rolodex and called him still not sure what floor or even what building he was in. His card said he was in One World Trade Center, but although I commuted into the complex every day for one day shy of 13 years, I did not know which tower was one or two. It was now about 8:50 am. My call to Steve just kept ringing. No one picked up. Very concerned and unsure, I left a message on his cell phone for him to call me. Steven Schlag, father of three young children, son, husband, big brother; funny, obnoxious, great skier, not athletic, generous, money conscious, loud, sometimes rude, thoughtful, and above all a great friend, father and husband, may already have been dead.

I then tried to reach Tom. But like with Steve, there was no answer for what seemed like forever. Finally at what must have been 9:00 am he picked up his phone. We talked about what we should do. What was really happening? Was it terrorists? Was it an accident? The north tower was now an inferno as I could see the fire rage from my window about one third of a mile from what is now called Ground Zero.

At what I know now was 9:03, as I spoke to Tom and watched the great tower burn, colleagues began to yell, “Oh my God, my God.” I did not know what they were screaming about. The tower had been hit, what possibly could be happening now? Then I saw it. Suddenly the south tower exploded. I said to Tom, eerily calmly (at least in my mind it was calm), “They’ve hit the second tower.” He hesitated as if he could not comprehend what I had said. Then it was suddenly clear. It was terrorism. Not the terrorism that we have seen before. Not the terrorism that killed my father, but terrorism brought to levels we could never have imagined. Were there other planes in coming toward us? What poisons were burning into the air? Was anthrax or ebola or smallpox being released from those planes? What should we do? Would we ever get home? Would we ever see our families again or would we be killed at work by terrorists no more than a few hundred yards from where our father was killed? We had to act. I had to get off the 36th floor of 60 Wall Street.

Tom suggested that we go to the east side, away from the inferno. We should meet at a Wendy’s on Water Street. I agreed and hastily announced to colleagues that I was leaving the building. Just as I grabbed for my cell phone and bag, the phone rang simultaneously on two lines. Two of my oldest friends, Fred and Brendan were calling separately to make sure I was okay. I quickly thanked them, told them I loved them and began to move to the elevator.

Many of my coworkers began to leave as well, but some decided to stay. I made a commitment to meet my brother and there was nothing or nobody that would stop me. I needed to find him and to get home. I did not want my children to grow up with their father’s murder following them, the way I did. When I got out of my building into the chaotic and crowded streets, I realized that I did not know where the Wendy’s was. Could I possibly find Tom among all these people? And if I didn’t what would I do? Approaching panic, but strangely at the same time, feeling out of body and therefore removed from the horror, I asked frantic people on Water Street were Wendy’s was until finally someone told me I was moving in the right direction. Suddenly there he was; my older brother.

60 Wall St.

Tom had seen people jumping from the floors above the impact. He was shaken but strong. He seemed to immediately grasp the gravity of the situation. He repeatedly said, “This is the worst day in US history, worse than Pearl Harbor…”

We quickly began to move north away from the black smoke that was being blown south. Recalling the terrorist plot to blow up New York landmarks, our plan was to avoid targets, though the Brooklyn Bridge (directly in our path) would be unavoidable, and head to the low buildings of Greenwich Village. Suddenly I turned and out of nowhere found a colleague, Yxa, standing alone among thousands. She had been in a cab when the attacks struck and was left off alone on Water Street. The three of us quickly ran under and past the Brooklyn Bridge and found a small park. Sitting on a bench still within view of the burning buildings, we tried to catch our breath and think of what to do. We now felt like soldiers in a war.

Heading north on foot, our cell phones not working, we searched for a phone to tell our families that we were ok. As we passed through China Town we stopped and prayed in St. Patrick’s; a small church. We left the church to more screams in the street and agreeing to get as much cash as we could from the next ATM and keep moving north. Upon finding an ATM in a small deli nearby we were horrified to learn that the screams we had heard while in St. Patrick’s were from witnesses to the collapse of the south tower. While we prayed for the horror to end, it just got far worse.

The deli owner turned over his landline phone to us. Tom and I finally got through to our wives. Danielle was shaken but coherent. I told her I loved her but did not know when I’d see her again and pleaded with her to get the kids at school. Bring them home. I needed to think the family was together. That was very important.

We were horrified to hear that a helicopter had hit the Pentagon and a 747 had gone down in Pittsburgh.

Not knowing where exactly to go, we, like many others as it turned out “camped out” in the village at a coffee shop connected to the Angelica Theater. Crowds that had gathered in the streets watched in horror as the north tower came down. Tom, Yxa and I listened intently to radio and TV reports that there were still 11 planes in the air and unaccounted for. There was a report about a suspicious plane over New Jersey. Were our families now in danger also?

We decided to wait at the coffee shop until after noon. Greenwich Village seemed to become a haven of sorts for refugees from downtown. The Village was at least a mile from the twin towers and did not have any tall buildings we instinctively believed were targets.

Inside, we met two very different men sticking together who worked together but probably did not know each other’s names. Both of the men worked for Brown & Wood an international law firm on the 49th floor of the south tower and were at their offices when the plane hit the building. One man was a middle-aged lawyer. White and polished, he was probably a partner who did not pay any attention to the man with whom he escaped. Black and stoic, the second man introduced himself as a messenger for the firm. Both men needed each other and were incredibly in control considering what they had just experienced. I often wonder if when they see each other at work, the mutual respect they shared that day is still there. Are they friends? Have they gone back to the lawyer/messenger roles?

Thinking that if there was another wave of attacks they may be planned for around noon (given the first attacks were at 9:00am), at 12:15 pm we left the coffee shop. Yxa headed east and north towards her apartment on the Upper East Side. Tom and I headed west toward the Hudson River and New Jersey. We thought we may be able to find a boat from Chelsea Piers across the river. Upon reaching the west side highway, we found hundreds of refugees like ourselves heading north as an endless stream of fire trucks, police cars and trucks, ambulances and emergency vehicles poured south toward what was now a massive black cloud obscuring all of lower Manhattan.

The city had already assembled aid workers who were passing out cold water and offering shelter from the hot sun to the desperate masses. Tom and I finally made our way to Chelsea peers and much to our relief, there were boats shuttling the thousands of people to New Jersey. When we got to Weehawken, there were busses at the ready to bring us refugees to the Giants Stadium parking lot. Some passengers cried, some to our horror were laughing and joking, but most were very quiet, perhaps in shock, or deep in thought or prayer about their own lives or the tens of thousands of lives that we believed were lost that day.

Route 3 West to Giants Stadium is usually one of the busiest roads in the area. On September 11, it was eerily empty; like a scene from The Day After. There were now reports of terrorists being chased through New Jersey and roads being closed down. When we got to the parking lot we encountered hundreds if not thousands of refugees. Fortunately, the cell phone was working now and our families knew we were almost home. Tom and I grabbed a ride into Rutherford from a couple in a SUV leaving the parking lot. There, Tom’s wife’s cousin Justin who had a twelve pack of Bud in the car picked us up and said, “there ain’t a cop in America who would give me a ticket for this today.” That was my first real laugh since 8:45 that morning.

I will never forget looking at all the cars in the train station as Justin dropped us off at our cars that afternoon. How many of them would stay there that night or get driven home by a grieving but hopeful friend or family member? Ironically, later that night, as President Bush addressed the nation, I sadly drove Steve’s car home from the train station.

Something else I will never forget was getting home that day; opening that door and hugging Danielle, knowing that the kids were safely napping in their beds. We just cried.

Shortly after being reunited with our families, Tom and I somberly drove the 10 miles to Franklin Lakes to Steven and his wife, Tomoko’s house to sit and wait for word on Steven. After witnessing the events of that day, we were sure there was no hope. Steven worked on the 104th floor of the north tower. His only chance of survival would have been, if by some miracle, he was off the floor when the first plane hit. But if that was the case, he certainly would have contacted home by that evening. While Tomoko, his parents, friends and sisters held out hope, Tom and I kept a positive face although we knew it was futile. Although horribly similar to the vigil for my father 26 years earlier, we knew that not only was there no hope, but as Cantor was all but wiped out, there would be no one left to deliver the news.

As the Volvo pulled on to Route 17 North that day on the way to his memorial service, Steven’s body had still not yet been found. He was missing and presumed dead like most of the three thousand other victims.

Steven Schlag’s body was found and identified the week before Christmas, 2001. At least he had been found. That gave some comfort to his wife, parents and sisters; cold comfort to his three little kids. God bless your soul Steven. You will always be in our hearts. Your laugh. That crazy, obnoxious, infectious laugh. Who could ever forget it?

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