Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9/11/2001: Remodelers Remember

9/11/2013: This article originally appeared on d5R two years ago. Seems appropriate to publish it again today, along with these words from President Obama today, in an observance at the Pentagon in memorial of the attacks 12 years ago. 

"Together we pause and we pray and we give humble thanks -- as families and as a nation -- for the strength and the grace that from the depths of our despair has brought us up again, has revived us again, has given us strength to keep on."

See the original for photos and reader comments

John Rusk, Rusk Renovations, New York, N.Y.
September 11th was one of those beautiful days. Clear, crisp, sunny. We had our 10-year-old daughter in middle school at 65th Street, our seven-year-old daughter at 96th Street and my wife, Mary, at 115th Street. Our offices and home were on 215th Street.

When we heard of the first plane, we turned on the TV and saw the second plane hit. I called my wife, and her immediate response was that we had to pick up the kids. It took me a moment of suggesting that over-reacting would be more damaging and that staying in school would be the most normal thing until my idiot brain turned off. I picked up Mary first and we hardly spoke as we drove to get our seven-year-old. We had no idea what was going on, how many more attacks there would be. Mary went into the school.

Our daughter kind of bounced into the back seat talking a mile a minute asking why we’d picked her up and whether she could eat her lunch. Suddenly, all my personal worries and fears got knocked out of my mind as we talked with her. She was up and she was seven, and she took us along with her. We drove down to 65th and picked up her sister. Her school was already getting calls for the children whose parents worked at the Twin Towers.

We went back home to 215th Street. It was still a sunny day. The smoke hadn’t started to drift up yet, the fighter planes hadn’t started their flyovers. And we sat and watched TV and talked about it until all the questions were talked out. Then we never went back. We did not go to the site of the attacks, ever. While watching the events on TV gave my daughters information and answers, I wanted to protect them from the trauma of those crushed buildings and screaming people. I also knew there would be environmental hazards that I did not want to subject them or us to.

We were lucky; none of our friends or acquaintances died that day. Driving down the West Side Highway, we saw the field hospitals set up north of 14th Street, waiting for the injured that never came. There were hardly any injured people. There were just those who were able to make it out, and those who never did.

I remember one of our painters calling me that afternoon. He was doing a punchlist in an apartment, taking some blemishes out of a windowsill, and he admitted that in the scale of recent events, this didn’t make sense to him anymore. I agreed and he went home.

New York has not been the same since. 9/11 had an unintended consequence: It made New York a kinder, more rational place. A few years later there was a massive blackout across the whole city and there was hardly a drop of violence. I think that's because on 9/11, we learned how much we all cared for each other, and when things got really bad, we could all take care of each other the best we could and mourn our city together.

A week after September 11th, we went to a wedding. The groom was a recent immigrant, a Muslim, and the bride’s family had been in the States for generations. They had thought of cancelling the wedding but decided not to. The wedding was very quiet, and the reception started very quietly. We all sat mixed together and heard the story of the poor band -- Muslims driving an unmarked white van had been stopped twice at gunpoint on the way to the reception.

But what the bride and groom understood was that they were in love with each other. And as the reception progressed and cultural traditions became manifest, the friends of the bride and groom could not help but see what we all had in common. Soon we were learning to make the craziest noises behind our hands to spur on the festivities.

It was only as we left the wedding, where we had stayed too late, that we saw those poor musicians pulled over again with guns aimed at their heads. We remembered that we had left a hopeful pocket of humanity while other concerns played out in real time as we did everything we could to protect ourselves.

Whatever issues I may have with government and law enforcement and our military, we have not sustained another serious attack. I think New Yorkers share my affection for what they’ve managed to do through grit and determination.

Our girls never had nightmares. 9/11 became part of their lives but it has had no part in defining them. As for our business, while projects were halted for a while, we too are stronger now than then.

And it was nice that for a brief period the rest of the country reached out to us. I remember great tour groups from the Midwest and Ireland coming to Broadway and how much we loved them for their acts of courage.
John Rusk, Rusk Renovations, New York, N.Y.

Neil Parsons, Design Build Profit, Toms River, N.J.
In 2001 I was the sales director for a large home improvement company in New Jersey (the photo is from that time). September 11th was a Tuesday. While 9/11/01 is a day that no one will ever forget, I remember the day of the week because we had a very expensive full-page ad running in a major newspaper that day. Needless to say, that advertisement was useless.

The Twin Towers stood 15 miles from our main office. Watching the events unfold caused our emotions and thoughts to run the gamut. We made a decision that we should try to conduct business as usual as best we could under the circumstances.

Wednesday mornings were our regularly scheduled sales meetings. As it turned out, on 9/11 we had sold three projects, just below our daily average, even though many client meetings had been cancelled or were impossible to hold. That sales meeting was very informal -- like a roundtable discussion that turned into an effective therapy session. Each sales rep, in turn, told of their client meeting from the day before. The common themes included fear and worry, but these were over-ridden by a sense of Americans uniting and standing strong.

We did get a small amount of criticism for running appointments, but most people applauded our efforts to maintain the status quo.

We decided to pitch in collectively to do our small part to help. Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial services company based in the Twin Towers, lost 658 employees on 9/11, two-thirds of its work force. For the remainder of the year we donated a percentage of each sale to the Cantor Fitzgerald family relief fund.
Neil Parsons, Design Build Profit, Toms River, N.J.

Saxon Henry, Adroyt, Brooklyn, N.Y.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was working, ironically, on an article about the McArthur Airport on Long Island. My mother called after she had seen news footage of the plane hitting the first tower. I pulled away from the computer to turn on the television and watched in horror as the second plane hit.

I wondered how in the world I could make a deadline given how upset I was feeling, so I called my editor, who is now a dear friend, and she said, “Don’t even think about finishing that piece, Saxon. Air travel is likely going to change so significantly after today that it would have to be rewritten anyway.” How right she was! When I revisited the subject nearly a year later to rewrite the piece, air travel had morphed into something unrecognizable from the experience it had been before 9/11.

I have never written publicly about my experience or about my feelings pertaining to the event because I do not feel my story has any weight compared to those who lost loved ones that day or later, as a result of the illnesses our first responders contracted from working on the site afterwards.

I didn’t lose friends, but I have close friends who did and it is never an easy time of year for them. I was having dinner with one of them last week when she turned to me in the beautifully warm evening air and said, “Isn’t this weather wonderful?” I said, “Yes, it is.” She said, “It’s 9/11 weather.” That is how New Yorkers are; you might not see it as we charge our way through the world, but bubbling beneath our tough veneers is the poignancy that the date brings. What she was really saying is that she still can’t believe something so unthinkable could have happened on such a beautiful day.

Many people never fully recovered their sense of security. I was in the grocery store in 2003 when the blackout occurred. A woman became hysterical because she was convinced it was another terror attack. She was inconsolable, collapsing onto the dirty linoleum floor, her oranges scattering around her, and sobbing into her arms, “Not again, not again, not again!” It was tough to watch but it was honest, and knowing that it’s there is just something you live with subconsciously while not letting it slow you down.

I watch the Naudet brothers’ documentary every year on the date because I don’t want to forget the consequences of our culture refusing to try to understand others who are different. As tough as it is to see that footage, I believe I have to remind myself that this is what happens if we allow ourselves to be close-minded.

Here's a poem I wrote a few months after 9/11:
The Paradise of Sadness
from "A Season in Hell" by Arthur Rimbaud
The light on the still water of the lake
charms the eye. The first touch
of yellow has burgeoned on the limb
as I listen to the scattered warble of the birds.
The cleft in the tree that beckons them home
will become a trap when the crows move in.

Natural enemies. Prolific ferocity.
Safety's illusion. The death pose of road kill:
the curved body of the squirrel
curled on its side on the yellow line
imitating gentle rest.
Swift lull. Slumber. Pitch of night.

We list toward the dark sea of death
in this paradise of sadness.
"What will I do for a cloak?"
Susie asks her son on Halloween.
"Let your darkness be your cloak," he replies.

How will the darkness find us?
In the road, flat on the back, reaching skyward,
eyes dazed as they mirror the soft glow
of a dusk-laden sky;
or turned on the side like a baby in the womb?
They role the footage for the hundredth time.
I watch the floors pancake, the dust rise,
the paper drift rhythmically earthward.
What would those ghosts
who now parade down the altered canyons
have us believe about living?
Saxon Henry, Adroyt, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Saxon is a design/architecture journalist and a principal at Adroyt, a social media consultancy. She has written for many top publications, blogs at Roaming by Design and The Road to Promise, and is the author of Four Florida Moderns, a book about four modernist architects.

Iris Harrell, Harrell Remodeling, Mountain View, Calif.
Excluding the recent economic meltdown, I think 9/11 was the scariest time for our business. We had finally outgrown our prior showroom and office space, after clipping along at 30 percent annual growth for a decade. We were so busy that we literally couldn't take on any new business. That's never a good thing; I learned a long time ago that you have to continually increase your capacity so you can do something productive with every lead you get.
So we took a big expansion step and a giant risk: My partner Ann and I decided to sell the old HRI building and buy a new larger building, along with a warehouse behind it that we would lease out. I'm not a big risk-taker, but this was a very calculated risk. We knew we had to grow and expand.

We bought the building in January of 2001, started the remodel in April and were scheduled to move in the week after September 11.

Well, 9/11 hit our business hard. Calls seemed to just stop for a while. Jobs went on hold. The old building didn’t sell, the warehouse didn’t lease. We knew we had to do just over $7 million to keep our ship afloat. We managed to do that -- I worked more, we all did Sandler Sales training, we marketed more, we all ran as fast as we could -- but it was tough.

We've gone through other ups and downs since, of course, and our 9/11 challenges prepared us for them. It also taught us that we have to try to be ready for anything, and that experience has helped us survive and even thrive during “the great recession.” I've also learned that a leader has to be calm in the middle of a storm, and that you don't want to go through it alone. Gather your team. See a therapist if you must. Pray. It takes a lot of courage to live in today's world
Iris Harrell, Harrell Remodeling, Mountain View, Calif.

Brian Nevins, Total Remodeling, Union, N.J.
I will never forget waking up that morning to the sound of my father leaving a message on my answering machine about a plane crashing into the Twin Towers (this was before I had kids and was often able to sleep late). I turned on the TV and saw what I initially thought was a freak accident, but the awful reality soon became clear.

I realized how quiet it was outside. In our part of Jersey you can always hear commercial airlines flying high. It was strange to not hear any ... anywhere ... everything was grounded, except for a few patrolling fighter jets that shot by at one point.

At the time I was working as a manager at Home Depot. I remember driving to work up Route 78W, looking toward the east and seeing the unforgettable sight of the smoke from where the towers stood. I was probably about 20 miles west of New York City. American flags were already being hung from almost every overpass.  I'm sure everyone remembers the patriotic displays and unity that were instantly everywhere. Of course, Home Depot was open for business but the store was empty and the entire staff was in shock. Employees walking around not really knowing the point of being there.

A woman that lived upstairs in my apartment building at the time worked in one of the towers. Her fiance' came home frantic. He had been talking to her on her cell phone as she was trying to get out. The call was cut off and he didn't hear from her for what must have seemed like days. He was a wreck for hours and hours. Eventually she called. She was one of the lucky ones.

When you think about it, it may not be possible to ever completely recover as a society from something like that. But who could argue with the fact that we have done a damn good job doing the best we can? Now the Freedom Tower is going up -- I can see it from the Jersey side, and it's a good feeling.  I like that message: never quit, never give up.

When this time of year comes around I always remember how everyone was a little nicer to each other ... a little more patient ... a little more tolerant. That lasted a while after that. There was unity. Very little horn honking and much less rushing. I think we all developed a higher level of gratitude for one another and for the goodness of our lives and loved ones. It's amazing that it takes something like that to happen to make us all slow down a little and be a bit friendlier.

What a tragic day.  God bless the families of the people lost, and all the rescue workers that ran toward World Trade to help save a life. Of course, many lost their own in the process.
Brian Nevins, Total Remodeling, Union, N.J.