It started out as just another Tuesday; I had my reservation at the Times Square Hilton and I was on the bus from South Jersey to Manhattan. For the last three years I had been commuting into Manhattan to my job as president of IKON’s NYC Marketplace. I was fortunate; IKON had agreed to foot the bill for me to stay in the city whenever I wanted, so I didn’t need to endure the four-hour daily commute like most on the bus. Unless you’ve experienced the bus commute to Manhattan you’d never be able to imagine that it is actually a community unto itself. Many had been making this daily trek for 15+ years. They had their seats and their seatmates; their routines were well developed including the specific bus they rode each day. Since I only commuted a couple of days a week, and didn’t mind if I caught the 6:02 AM, 6:12 AM or another one of the buses that left every 10 minutes or so, I was still a newbie, a relative unknown, even after almost three years.
Arriving at the station on 42nd Street I slipped my arm through the shoulder strap of my “suiter,” grabbed my briefcase, and started down 8th Avenue to my office at One Penn Center on 34th Street. I certainly didn’t travel as much back then as I do today or I would have been smart enough to have a suitcase with wheels, but back then I thought the suiter looked more like a “guy’s suitcase” so that was my choice. It was a beautiful fall day in Manhattan and I stopped at Starbucks for my morning latte before reaching “One Penn” and eventually my office on the 53rd floor.
My office infamous within IKON because one of my predecessors, twice removed, had spared no expense in locating at One Penn. The glass designer desk was impressive—I didn’t realize how impressive until a space designer was sitting in my office and started drooling on it—but the most impressive aspect of the office was the view. For those of you that are familiar with Manhattan, One Penn is located in “lower mid-town.” Actually, it's the last tall building until the financial district. If you were sitting in the chair in front of my desk you would have had a clear view of the World Trade Centers and the Statue of Liberty. Out my other window you’d be looking at the Empire State Building. Even seasoned New Yorkers were astonished when we had meetings: It would be unusual if I didn’t hear “this has to be the best view in NY.”
That morning I wasn’t spending a lot of time in my office as I had an all employee meeting at 8:00 AM across the street at the New Yorker Hotel for business services employees and the leadership of the other IKON business units. I dropped my suitcase and briefcase and went back to the elevator bank so I could get to the meeting. There were a lot of guests at this meeting because it was the kickoff of our annual United Way campaign. We had speakers in from non-profits to educate the employees on how contributions help their organizations. We also had employees from the customer service center who were speaking at the sales meeting scheduled to start after the United Way speakers were finished.
Just after 8:30 AM the United Way campaign portion of the meeting finished so the operations and service employees all left to go back to the office or out to service our customers. The room was too large for the 200 employees at the all employee meeting but we now had 60 sales employees and guests in a room half the size of a football field. There was a short break to move the sales employees to the front rows and the meeting continued. We were 30 minutes or so into the meeting; I was sitting on the end of the front row as my sales leadership went through results and recognition. Then the door at the back of the room opened with the type of thud you have when a room is far too large for the size of the audience. I turned and saw my VP of Service, Mike Assunto walking toward me. Even though Mike was 150 or so feet away I could tell by his ashen complexion that something was terribly wrong. I walked back to meet him thinking to myself that one of our employees was shot; you get weird thoughts when it is clear that somebody is coming to deliver really bad news.
I met Mike and he told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Centers and we, the Nation, were under attack. I replied that it was probably just a terrible accident and that’s when Mike told me that in fact two planes had crashed into both towers and it wasn’t an accident. He went on to tell me that a group of employees had witnessed the attack from our office and they had evacuated our building. I walked up to the stage and apologized for interrupting the speaker, telling my sales team of the attack on the World Trade Centers and recommended that we all return to our office. I had no idea of the magnitude of the situation at this point.
When I crossed 34th and 8th and walked up to our building there was pandemonium outside. A large group of my employees were standing outside with scores of other employees from the building. I asked a couple of the managers why they were outside rather than in the office and was told that the building had been evacuated. I asked the building security if the building was evacuated and they replied no, with a smirk. One key fact is that you could not see downtown from the street. From our 53rd floor office we were at least 30 stories higher than any building between One Penn and the WTC; from the street you could not see through the buildings. That fact will become surreal later in the morning. Although I asked the employees to return to the office “so we could take care of our customers,” they pleaded with me not to go up to our office. They had already seen the WTC carnage and were afraid of our building being attacked. The rumors were strong that there were other planes headed to NYC. I was still ignorant to the situation.
The magnitude of the situation was clear when I opened my office door; the tops of both towers were fully engulfed in flames and thick smoke. My attention quickly turned to the IKON employees in NYC and informing IKON HQ of the situation. I was only in the office for about 45 minutes but the time just flew. My brother e-mailed and called multiple times to tell me to get out of the building. I was calling the business unit leaders to ensure we could account for all of our employees, particularly technicians, outsourcing employees, and our group that occupied offices in the building directly adjacent to the WTC. And I had to keep HQ informed of our efforts. I also looked up every 30 seconds or so and watched the WTC towers burning; I was in a slight state of shock. I occasionally heard jets and I certainly had a level of fear but I found out later they were military planes protecting NYC.
At 9:59 AM I was looking at the towers and the top of the south tower looked as if it was twisting off and would fall to the ground. I remember thinking about the people that would be killed when that large chunk of a building hit the ground. It was a subtle movement that seemed very pronounced from my perspective but was quickly overshadowed by the event we have all seen numerous times. That twisting top suddenly collapsed into the building and the entire structure came down. I was now in complete shock; I just witnessed something that seemed incomprehensible….a 100+ story building collapsed. I thought about all of the damage, death, and destruction. I assumed the collapsing building took out multiple blocks, never imaging that it could disintegrate into its own foundation. I also suddenly worried about the collapse causing an earthquake and causing One Penn to collapse. My mind was racing—stunned by the death I knew just occurred and suddenly scared about being 53 stories above the ground.
I didn’t need to think very long because the alarms in the building started going off and it was announced over the fire system that the building was being evacuated. I grabbed my laptop and suitcase and headed for the elevator with the handful of senior managers that had come up to the office with me. When I got to the street it was chaos. The mass transit system was shut down. The garage, which was under One Penn, was sealed shut so our plan of driving to our uptown office in Patrick Fitzpatrick’s car, my VP of Sales, wouldn’t pan out. Other than Patrick my DFO, Christine Besser, and top sales person, Jack Thackrah were by my side. We decided to walk to our office on 54th. I now really wished I had wheels on my suitcase.
The streets were packed with cars and pedestrians, as all mass transit was shutdown. We started up 8th Avenue before cutting across 37th or 38th to 7th Ave. Once we arrived in Times Square the jumbo screens were showing the scene at the World Trade Centers; it was while standing in Times Square, watching on the jumbo screens, that I saw the north tower collapse. What a contrast I had experienced in less than an hour, from watching the south tower collapse in front of me while alone in my office to watching the north tower collapse as one of many thousands staring at a screen in Times Square.
We continued uptown and the scene became surreal once we were out of Times Square, away from the crowds and the attack prominently displayed on screens 40 feet high; people were sitting outside at restaurants leisurely enjoying their meals, laughing, holding what appeared to be normal conversation. I thought to myself, and out loud to my companions, don’t they know the world is ending? The US is under attack and clearly NYC is one of the targets (having seen the attack on the Pentagon on those same screens in Times Square).
We eventually made it to our office and were able to verify that all but two of our employees were accounted for; IKON didn’t lose any employees in the WTC attack. It was late afternoon and now it was time to figure out how we were all going to get home. After numerous attempts to find trains, buses or rental cars we decided our only option of getting out of the city was to try to get Patrick’s car out of the One Penn garage, assuming it reopened, and drive with him to Connecticut. We thought we’d have a better chance of finding a rental car there, as there were none available in Manhattan.
One Penn, as the name implies, is directly above Penn Station, the main Manhattan train station. After walking the 20+ blocks back, schlepping that “suiter” again, we were happy to find that the garage was allowing people to get their vehicles. Patrick entered the garage to get his car and I asked Jack just to run across the street to the train station on the hope that trains were running again. Jack reappeared just as Patrick was exiting the garage and said there is one train in the station, it is leaving now and headed to Trenton. We asked Patrick to wait a couple of minutes to ensure we made the train and Christine, Jack, and I ran to the train, which we were able to board.
The train ride was another surreal event. Packed far beyond capacity—we stood in the section between two cars—I don’t think the scores of people that surrounded us spoke a single word the entire trip. There were no conductors, tickets weren’t necessary for this ride, and there was a single destination in Trenton, NJ. I had called my wife and she was picking us up from the Trenton station, which was about 40 minutes from our home. Christine and my car were both at the bus station in Mt Laurel and we were dropping Jack off on the way.
My wife, Lisa, knew I had a lot on my hands that day and had not called; I had sent her a few e-mails so she knew I was fine. On the ride home I discovered that my oldest daughter had been sent home from school because she had heard that “Tower One” had collapsed and only knew that the building I worked in was “One something” and was big. The school was concerned that I worked at the WTC.
The next day I was on the train with Christine headed to Manhattan; I felt like I had to get into the city so I was there, with my senior staff, for any employees that made it in. I didn’t expect many to be there but thought it would send a bad signal if I wasn’t there. The train ride was filled with cautious conversation of the attack and the difficulty in getting home Tuesday. At the end of the NJ Turnpike, close to where you exit for the Lincoln Tunnel, you come around a curve and the south end of Manhattan became prominent. Again, TV did not prepare us for what we saw in front of us; the thickest smoke you could image was pouring out of the WTC site. A stream of this thick smoke seemed to go on forever into the atmosphere. Not another word was said for the remaining 10 minutes of the ride.
Even mid-town seemed like a war zone; the sirens were deafening and police, military and fire vehicles seemed to be going in every direction. Emergency personnel certainly outnumbered non-uniformed personnel. About six employees from our West Street office, which had collapsed in the shadow of the WTC collapse, came to our office for a place to work. Not much work was getting done but it all ended by mid-morning when the building alarms again started blaring and we were told to evacuate. We were ushered out of the building and down the street by a battalion of police, fire, and military personnel. Somebody had called in a bomb threat on One Penn. After the building was cleared those six employees from West Street would not even come back up to get their laptops. After watching the second plane crash into the WTC I was surprised that they returned to work the next day. They were certainly braver than me and I didn’t blame them a bit for not wanting to go up 53 stories today.
We all remember where we were for the big events in our lives. I can visualize sitting in the conference room at my dealership watching the Oklahoma City bombing aftermath on TV. I can tell you everybody who was with me that day. But, I hope, nothing will ever be as real as what I witnessed in NYC on September 11, 2001 out my window in One Penn. I also had the pleasure of experiencing how a lot of dedicated employees, and “NYers” as a whole, were able to recover from the attack. Witnessing the NY community come together was a nice outcome to a terrible event.