Never Lose Sight of What Happened
Few events will have a profound impact on both your business and personal lives, and that statement could not be truer than in reflection of what we experienced 20 years ago. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in a meeting with a number of reinsurers and our attorneys in a New York City skyscraper on the corner of Park Avenue and 50th Street. There were about 20 of us in a boardroom discussing a legal matter in which we had a common interest. There was an arbitration coming, and we were discussing strategy and timing.
At about 9:15 a.m., a woman came into the room and approached one of the host attorneys. She said that a small plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center (WTC). About 20 minutes later, she came back into the room and said that there were some conflicting reports, but, apparently, a second plane had crashed into the WTC as well.
After that, the meeting broke up, and they rolled a TV into the room and put on the news. Most people didn’t say much, but as the situation unfolded, it got pretty emotional with surprise, horror, disgust and anger felt by those watching.
I called my parents’ house at about 10:20 a.m., which is 8:20 a.m. back in Saskatchewan. My dad picked up the phone, and I told him that there had been a terrorist attack in New York City, but that I was fine, and they shouldn’t worry. My dad interrupted me and said, “Okay, I’ve got another call coming in, so let me grab that.” He hung up the phone, and I sat there listening for about a minute thinking he would come back on the line, but he never did.
I found out afterward that the call my dad had picked up was a telemarketing call for carpet cleaning. He hung up the phone, and my mom asked him who had called, and he said it was just some carpet cleaning business. Then my mom said, “Well, what about before that?” And Dad said, “Oh, it was Mark – he said something about there being a terrorist attack in New York City but not to worry, he’s fine.”
As you can imagine, my mom got pretty anxious. They had not yet turned on the TV, so they had no idea what was happening. Needless-to-say, things were a little frosty in the Lawrence household for a few days afterward.
As we were walking out of that building at around 11 a.m. that morning, there were just a couple of taxis on Park Avenue, but there were thousands of people walking on the sidewalks and in the streets – all heading in the same direction – north. The attorney who represented our company, David Silva, joined that crowd, walking north to the Queensboro Bridge, crossing from Manhattan to Queens and then making his way south to his home in Brooklyn. He told us later that it was about a seven to eight mile walk home.
When I think about 9/11, I think about the people who were impacted. There were two reinsurance brokers from Aon with whom I had done some business – Noel Foster and Robert Halligan. They both worked on the 99th floor of Two WTC and never made it out of the building.
At the time, I worked for Canada Life, and we did a lot of life catastrophe covers. In the year after 9/11, our cedants sent us binders full of death certificates to substantiate their catastrophe claims. It was never lost on me that those binders were filled with real people, who had lives and families.
In September of 2002, I moved from Canada to New Jersey and met people who had lost family members and friends on 9/11. I saw the clean-up of the WTC site and watched the construction of the Memorial that is there today. I saw Black Hawk helicopters sitting at the South Street Seaport and the subway signs that said, “If you see something, say something.” I saw the towns with 9/11 memorials built from the twisted, melted girders of the WTC buildings. I played softball with and against FDNY firefighters and NYPD police officers. I played softball in Central Park on the Saturday after the Navy Seals killed Osama Bin Laden; there was a palpable sense of relief that day.
One of my teammates and good friends from my Central Park team was a retired FDNY firefighter who had rushed to the WTC buildings on that Tuesday morning. He went up into the Towers and helped save people that day. He worked for many consecutive days afterward at the WTC site, searching for survivors and then for the remains of victims, including his colleagues. On 9/11, 343 FDNY firefighters died. By the time I had met him, he was retired from the FDNY, but he suffered significant physical and mental challenges. He didn’t like to talk about it, but he wore what happened on September 11, 2001, every day.
Twenty years is a long time, but the impacts to America and our collective way of life will last even longer. Some things are minor inconveniences, like the increased security at the airports and train stations. But what I think about the most are the families of Noel Foster and Robert Halligan, who saw their loved ones off to work one day, and they never came home. I’ll always think about the families like theirs and the people who were there that day doing their jobs and heroically helping other people – those who ran into burning buildings to save the people trapped inside.
That day, an event we could not foresee became reality, and over the decades following, we’ve felt the far-reaching impact both personally and professionally. It gave us a different perspective. I will spend time on September 11 thinking about that day 20 years ago, and I hope each of you will do so as well.