9/11: Recollections of that day and of one colleague.

September 9, 2010

From Bill Singer: 

The materials below are reprinted as originally published on the dates indicated. 

 

September 14, 2001 

Dear Reader: 

In these days following the World Trade Center tragedy one feels an immense frustration.  Individually there is little any of us can do; and the talents of an attorney are of little help ---I have few abilities other than that of the written and spoken word. Below you will find a brief account of what Tuesday, September 11th was like. I hope it will answer the many questions that have been posed to me by those who only witnessed the events on television.   

Bill Singer 

I define my life by several attributes.  I am 50 years old. I am of less than average height at 5 feet 6 Ĺ inches.  I'm a bit overweight at 178 pounds.  I have been happily married for 19 years.  I remain deeply in love with my wife, who is a federal prosecutor. I have worked as a lawyer in the securities industry for nearly 20 years. I am the partner of a securities-industry law firm located in the heart of Manhattan's financial district. I have nearly a dozen employees and colleagues in my law firm and care deeply for them --- we are a family.  Until September 11, 2001, the defining moments in my life were the Cuban Missile crisis, the Kennedy assassinations, Watergate, my father's death when I was 19 and he 46, my first date with my wife, my wedding, and my graduation from law school.  I'm sure that you have similar milestones along your way. 

However on September 11th much of what I am and will be changed, irrevocably.  My wife and I left for work on the number 92 express bus at about 8 a.m. We tend to go to work together. Sometimes we take the 92, which ends on Broad Street, near the tip of Manhattan.  Sometime we take the 90, which is designated as the World Trade Center run. My wife gets off before me and walks to the Jacob Javits Federal Building, amidst the federal and state courthouses and within the shadow of the World Trade Center. I usually get off a few stops later near Wall Street. On Tuesday we both took the 92. 

When my wife got off the bus, I kissed her goodbye and watched her head to work.  She loves her job. She is a fine lawyer and very dedicated.  We often argue about her working on weekends or late nights.  I mean it's a government job, but she doesn't care. You'd think she was getting paid twice her present salary and working in some deluxe, windowed, corner office. As the 92 pulled into the near corner of Wall Street,  the Metropolitan Transit Authority broadcast a message to the driver. In essence, it said that there had been an "incident" at the World Trade Center and that he should discharge his passengers immediately.  All of the passengers got off the bus.  It was about 8:45 a.m. 

I looked up in the sky and saw papers fluttering down. I assumed that the incident was some plane dropping pamphlets on lower Manhattan. I couldn't even imagine what kind of stupid political issue was involved. We New Yorkers are a pretty hard-boiled group.  Who gives a shit about some political cause --- we simply want to get to work, get through the day, and get home.  I walked a few blocks from the bus stop to my office on Exchange Place and some of the papers had begun to land on the sidewalk.  Curiously, some of the papers were charred. I then noticed a fine white mist was descending. 

Inside the lobby of my office building, people were awaiting the elevators. The security guard announced that the radio said a plane had hit the World Trade Center. As far as we were concerned, it was a small Piper Cub and an accident.  I got up to my offices and unlocked the doors. I went to my office and turned on the radio.  There were reports of a plane hitting the World Trade Center.  A few years earlier I had been in the same building when the World Trade Center was bombed. But for some reason this incident just wasn't registering as a cause for alarm. Eventually the office receptionist and another lawyer joined me around my radio.  They both commented that I was covered with soot.  I looked at my suit and noticed a white film covered my jacket and shook the grit from my hair.  

And then life as we knew it ended.  The offices shook violently.  It was as if a nuclear bomb had detonated or a moderate earthquake had struck Manhattan. For the first time I sensed that there was something seriously wrong.  The radio confirmed reports that a "second" plane had hit the World Trade Center. At this point we didn't really know whether one or two towers were hit, but clearly something other than an accident or an incident was going on. I made a decision to evacuate the offices.

I got my two colleagues and put a sign on the door saying that we were closed because of the World Trade Center bombing. I don't know why I used the word "bombing," but I guess I assumed that we were having a re-do of the attempt years earlier.  I dialed my wife's cellphone from mine, but couldn't get an outside line. I was very concerned about her safety as she worked in the federal office building, which could also have been a target. There was nothing I could do.  I was frustrated and angry. 

John, the attorney with me, left to return to his home in Staten Island. He hoped to get the ferry. I wished him well and said I'd call him later.  De'sha, our receptionist, needed to get to Brooklyn.  I decided to avoid the subways because I was concerned that if there were some kind of attack that the electric power would be hit.  She decided to walk towards the Brooklyn Bridge and cross over it. I decided to accompany her and make sure she safely got to where she was going. As we looked back on our journey east towards the river, we saw a sight that will forever be burned in my memory. Both towers of the World Trade Center were on fire.  Because our offices are so close to the World Trade Center it is difficult to see the buildings. I know this sounds odd, but the financial district is a number of small streets with office buildings right next to each other, and right across the street. One's view is usually into the window of the offices directly across the street; you simply cannot see above the building in front of you.  Consequently, until you reach a certain point, usually a larger thoroughfare, it's virtually impossible to see the Towers from most street-level vantage points around the immediate area east of Broadway, around Wall Street. But as De'sha and I looked back, we could see the Towers; and there were bright, orange flames coming out of two gaping holes. Smoke streamed from the buildings. Papers and soot descended upon the streets.  We continued to walk towards the bridge. 

Soon I became aware of thousands of people making their way to safety. No one was screaming. No one was panicking. In many respects, it reminded me of the exodus of displaced persons on their way back home after World War II. De'sha and I stopped and again looked back towards the towers.  The fire had spread, the smoke and increased, and, worse, we saw people jumping to their deaths. And now one became aware of some of the anguished screams from the mass of humanity on the streets.  

About this time I remembered that months earlier I was given a free radio during a promotion for Bloomberg, a media company. The free radio was a bit odd; it was permanently tuned to one channel --- the Bloomberg business station.  So I rummaged around my briefcase and pulled out the small, black box. Were the batteries still working? I turned on the radio and got the station, and people gathered round to listen.  But there wasn't any real hardcore news, mainly rumors about the attacks. About this time De'sha and I arrived at the Brooklyn Bridge.  She said that she would walk over to Brooklyn.  I kissed her goodbye, wished her well, and made my way uptown.  I again tried to reach my wife, but couldn't get an outside line. 

I stopped for a while near the Brooklyn Bridge.  Crowds of people were gathering around me to listen to my radio.  The fires at the towers were noticeably worse.  But no one thought either tower would collapse.  There were two holes, on fire, but we knew that the buildings were built to last --- the World Trade Center would not fall.  At this point I decided to walk home; I live in the 90s in upper Manhattan, some six to seven miles from my office. 

On my walk away from ground zero, I began to notice the individuals around me. There were young women sobbing, standing in the streets.  They often held cellphones.  They cried that they couldn't reach their husband, their brother, their father, their sister, their mother, their friends. And strangers would simply walk up to them; put their arms around them; comfort them. My radio began to make some announcements.  The incidents were now being deemed intentional attacks by terrorists. There were reports about attacks on the Pentagon and the White House.  I continued to walk among the crowd.  I still could not reach my wife.  I tried other friends and family, but the phone lines were dead.  The radio then stated that phone lines were overwhelmed and service compromised by the fires. 

I made my way through Chinatown. I then passed through the Bowery. People followed me to listen to my radio.  Strangers came up to me and simply starting talking.  They told me that had just missed being hit by falling debris.  One guy told me that his office mate had broken his ankle over the weekend and had asked him to go downstairs to Starbucks and get him a cup of coffee. He told me that he had left his suit jacket and briefcase upstairs.  His eyes then glazed over. He said if it weren't for his friend he'd probably be dead --- and then he said that his friend was likely stuck upstairs.  Others told me similar stories.  

At some point I heard a voice scream, "Oh my God!" We all turned around and saw the unthinkable. One of the towers collapsed. The street was more than merely silent, it was numb.  No one moved. And then we saw a huge cloud of smoke.  Someone yelled that everyone downtown was dead.  Shortly thereafter the second tower fell.  I began to think what the scene would be like if two 100-story office buildings collapsed. I wondered where my wife was and fought back the thoughts as to how wide the debris field would be. I tried my cellphone again. It remained dead. There were lines at the payphones, but many of them could not get an outside line. 

Somewhere around 34th Street I found a working payphone. I called my wife's cellphone number, but couldn't get through.  I called my mother. She was somewhat hysterical as she knew where I worked.  She cried when I told her I was okay.  I asked if she had heard from my wife. She said "no." I asked her to call my wife's mother and let her know I was okay.  I told her to tell my wife that I was safe and on my way home.  About a half-hour later I called my mother again and learned that my wife too was walking home and was safe. 

About three hours after I left my offices, I reached my neighborhood. I passed by a bakery. I stopped and went inside. I saw my reflection in the mirror behind the counter and noticed I was covered in ash. The woman behind the counter looked at me, not quite sure what to say or do.  She asked me if I had heard the news.  I told her I had just left the scene and walked from Wall Street.  I told her of the horrors I had seen.  I then asked for a jelly donut and a black-and-white cookie, my wife's favorites. I wanted something for her when she got home. 

When I finally reached my apartment building, the staff were all in the lobby listening to a radio.  I think I was one of --- if not the first --- tenant to return from downtown. Usually I joke with the guys and most of them call me "Bill."  This afternoon there was no joking.  They referred to me as "Mr. Singer" and wanted to know if I was okay, if there was anything they could do.  I asked if my wife had arrived.  They all seemed uncomfortable and worried by the question.  They promised to let her know I was home when they saw her.  I then took the elevator upstairs. 

When I got home I took my clothes off and left them in a pile on the coffee table.  I called my mother and she told me that my wife had again called and was on her way home. I dumped out the garbage can and filled it up with cold water and ice.  I put my bleeding, blistered feet in the can.  I then turned on the television and watched the horror.  I saw videos of jets hitting the towers, from one angle and another. I saw the fires and the smoke and the plummeting bodies.  I learned of the heroic firemen and police who had likely lost their lives. And then I sat, transfixed by the humanity that unfolded during the ensuing hours. 

Eventually my wife came home. We hugged. We kissed. She cried and I comforted her. I got up and made her sit down and eat the cake I had bought.  She resisted but I insisted she eat at least one, something. Yes, it was symbolic, but I needed to complete the circle.  She ate the jelly donut. 

I tried to send out e-mails, but my connection was down. I was able to get some outgoing phone lines and left as many voice messages as I could.  By evening, I had spoken with most of my employees.  Some never made it to work and were caught in transit; some were at meetings in other places in the City.  One employee had the misfortune of arriving after I had evacuated the premises and stayed too late, getting caught in the debris field from the falling towers. She made it out safely but was quite distraught. 

And then there was Susan.  I had known Susan longer than anyone at the firm.  Sue and I met around 1989, when I was just starting out in private practice and she was a securities industry consultant.  We met at an office where I sublet space and she worked part-time. When I opened my own firm, I asked her to join me. For the past 12 years, we continued our relationship.  Sue was an incredible person.  She was one of those rare people who never got angry.  Her life was virtually one personal crisis after the other. Her family difficulties were simply unimaginable, but she confronted each challenge with grace and the expectation that time would heal the wounds. Sue wasn't from New York, but born and raised in the state of Washington. She loved to grow things and would often bring tomatoes from her garden. She also would bring me in the world's best homemade horseradish and jams.  I would get her dried apricots and olives. 

A few weeks ago, my office manager, Bernice, celebrated her birthday. I took her out for lunch and asked Sue to join us.  Sue's husband was seriously ill and she was obviously in need of a pick-up. I asked Bernice if she wouldn't mind if Sue joined us.  Since the two of them were friendly, Bernice agreed that Sue could certainly use some time away from the office and a drink and lunch would be just the ticket. The three of us had a great lunch. We ordered a bottle of wine, had appetizers, main course, and dessert.  At the end of the meal Sue kissed me and thanked me for thinking about her. She said that if people only knew how good hearted I was . . . I asked her not to ruin my reputation. 

On Tuesdays Sue worked as a consultant at Sandler O'Neil & Partners (SOP) at the World Trade Center. The firm is on the 102nd floor.  Sue got the assignment from her close friend May, who was an officer at the company. Last year I spoke at the firm and delivered the annual continuing education lecture. May's husband, Vinnie, was someone I had worked closely with when he was employed at one of my clients. Vinnie's firm had recently closed and Sue would continuously ask me if I could find him a job. Sue never returned my calls on Tuesday. I tried calling her home, but couldn't get an outside line.  I don't know why, but I never thought there was a problem. 

On Wednesday morning I received a call from Brian. When Sue's husband took ill I knew that her three-times-a-week commute from southern New Jersey to our offices was putting a strain on her.  I contacted Brian, who ran a prominent securities consulting firm from Princeton, New Jersey and asked if he could use a top-notch consultant. Brian said "yes," and I spoke with Sue. Sue was initially concerned that she would be letting me down.  I told her not to worry, that she needed to focus on helping her husband. With great reluctance, she took the job. I hoped that although I'd only see her once a week that, in time, we'd be working together again more regularly.  Brian asked me if I had heard from Sue.  I told him that I hadn't.  He said that Sue's husband hadn't heard from her in 24 hours. He also told me that he had heard that Sue had telephoned her husband to let him know that she had seen the first jet hit the North Tower. That was the last her husband had heard from her. 

I was shocked.  How could I not have thought about this?  I then realized that Sue was likely at SOP.  I again called her home, but either couldn't get an outside line or got her voice mail. Wednesday evening I got a phone message from Vinnie, May's husband.  I hesitated to call Vinnie back as I assumed May had likely perished in the collapse of the building.  I assumed he was calling me to tell me of his wife's death. I called Vinnie at home.  To my shock, May picked up the phone.  I told May that her voice was the most incredible thing I could recall hearing in my life. May told me that her daughter had just celebrated her first birthday and that she decided to take Tuesday off to take the baby to the pediatrician. She wanted to know if I had heard from Sue or her husband.  I couldn't tell May exactly what I knew.  I then spoke with Vinnie and brought him up to date --- Susan had certainly been at SOP just before the jet's crash. 

As of Friday, September 14, 2001 we have not had any word from or about Sue. I have spoken to her husband, who remains hopeful that she will be found. We, her friends, know that Sue has an indomitable spirit.  We trust that she has survived.  But we also know that many have not.  We keep them in our thoughts and prayers.  And if Sue is not located, those of us who knew and loved her will celebrate that wonderful life and will remain much better people for having known her. 

During the past few days I have received many calls and messages from friends, clients, and even my usual adversaries.  It has been heartwarming. And I have made many similar calls. My staff is doing remarkably well, but among them there is much pain and hurt. Yes, we will return to work, but we will never be the same. 

This story cannot end tonight or next week or next month or possibly for months and years to come.  One cannot witness what we who were downtown on Tuesday saw and not be changed. We are healing, but we are not healed. Our hearts will ache forever. I have seen grown men cry. I have seen hardboiled stockbrokers comforting their colleagues and their grieving families. I have seen sights that will haunt me for a lifetime. 

There is no good way to end this story, but let me share a recent occurrence. On Friday evening, September 14, my wife and I were walking around our neighborhood. New York City is a place for walkers --- we tend to hit the sidewalks around here. It's a cool summer evening and the streets are filled with pedestrians.  The neighborhood is subdued and I noticed that everyone is making eye contact; we just don't do that around here.  Hell, I don't think I've ever learned the name of any neighbor in any apartment building I've lived in since I've been married. 

But this evening, as we walked around, I noticed several people carrying candles. As my wife and I passed restaurants, we noticed the proprietors were leaving boxes of candles outside their establishments.  Passersby were taking the candles, lighting them, cupping their hands around the flames, and walking on.  I told my wife to grab two tapers and we borrowed a flame from someone on the street. I followed a growing mass of light and we eventually wound up in front of the neighborhood fire station. About the time of our arrival there must have been nearly several hundred people on the sidewalks around the station and in the street.  Suddenly I heard applause and whistles from the far end of the street. A hook-and-ladder truck began to turn the corner from the avenue, onto the street, and towards the station. 

As the truck made its way towards the middle of the block, the crowd surrounded the vehicle.  The cheering rose to a deafening crescendo.  The firemen, still wearing their coats, slowly exited the truck, leaving the driver alone to steer into the station.  These men had done not just a superb job, but an heroic one.  They had every right to expect a hero's welcome, but from the tears in their eyes you could tell that this spontaneous outpouring of gratitude --- of love --- was overwhelming.  And after the truck was parked, the crew stood in a line just between the station house and the sidewalk.  The men looked down nervously, uncomfortable with the adulation.  At this point someone started singing "God Bless America," and then a few people joined in, and then everyone, and then the firemen. And on this special September night in the cold and uncaring metropolis of New York City, a few days after a tragedy of immeasurable evil, strangers who days earlier wouldn't have even looked each other in the eyes sang together --- and cried. And when we finished our song hundreds of unnamed neighbors stood in line. And the stunned crew of this small station house formed a receiving line. One by one the neighborhood shook their hands, kissed them on the cheeks, hugged them, and the tears streamed. We learned that they had likely lost nine of their brothers.  And we began to fill an empty water cooler jug with money.  And grown men cried. And a long, flickering line of candles passed into the firehouse, and out onto the streets, and back towards those solitary apartments where we will continue our lives --- but never quite the same. 

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September 2002
 
Dear Friends:
 
It has been nearly a year since the horrific events of September 11, 2001.  As many of you will recall, on September 14, 2001, I published a very personal account of that day.  I wrote the article more as a cathartic exercise for myself than for any other reason.  The response to my story was overwhelming . . . both in terms of the sheer numbers of people who contacted me and their poignant messages and prayers.  I  received e-mails from all over the world; from strangers who poured their hearts out to me.  I kept the story posted on rrbdlaw.com for a few months and then removed it.  
 
Many visitors to my website and many of the strangers who wrote me continue to ask for updates . . . you ask what happened to Susan, to my employees, my law firm, my wife, and me.  I would like to take a brief opportunity to respond to your questions.
 
A few months after Sept. 11th Susan's remains were identified.  She was only 55 years old and left a husband, daughter, and son.  Her husband had been battling cancer  shortly before her death and continues with his struggle. I read with disgust a newspaper account that on a day when Sue's husband was getting chemotherapy,  a  neighbor's son burglarized her home.  I cannot even begin to describe the outrage those of us who knew her felt.  
 
I recently received a very personal, heartfelt, and moving letter from a stranger, who turned out to be an old High School friend of Sue's.  I would urge you to read this letter because it adds that human dimension that all too often doesn't get portrayed on television or in the newspapers.  More than anything, this personal account explains the tragedy of 9/11 --- the loss of loved ones, of friends, of colleagues. 
 
My law partner and I decided not to renew the expiring lease to our premises near the former World Trade Center, and after some 12 years as the partner in my own law firm, I closed my practice.  Our staff has dispersed, some relocating out of New York, others found jobs with other law firms.  I am presently a partner  with the broker-dealer law firm of Gusrae, Kaplan & Bruno PLLC. 
 
Life goes on.  My wife and I still talk about how much everything has changed since that day.  Everyone I know seems to talk about life as if it were divided between pre- and post-9/11.  For many of us who lived through that day --- close up and personal --- it has been a life-altering experience.  Some have left jobs and careers.  Some take things a bit slower.  Many of us no longer watch low flying planes with the same childish awe we once had.  

And I have a frame on my desk.  Its background is the note we pasted on the law firm's door when we evacuated our premises: "Closed on account of the bombings".  The foreground contains the newspaper notice of the identification of Susan's remains and her business card.  I suspect I will keep that frame for the rest of my life.

Wishing you all well and thanks for your best wishes,

Bill Singer

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Bill,

My name is Mike Savage. I am Director of Labor Relations for Tri-Met, the Bus and Rail transit provider for a tri-county area around Portland, Oregon. I read with interest, on the internet, your accounting of events in your life since 9/11/01 and your comments about Susan Schuler.

Sue and I met in the 4th grade in a brand new grade school here in Portland. She was Sue Laspa back then. We lived two blocks apart and became great friends, spending much time together. Her folks had a pool table in their family room, my folks had a ping-pong table in our family room and we spent hours listening to 45 RPM rock and roll records and competing against each other. When we didn't see each other we were talking on the phone. It was 'puppy love' and good, clean fun. We bet on which of us would be the first to marry, the first to have kids, the first to make a million dollars and other nonsense. We never bet on who would be the first to die or who would do it in the most spectacular fashion. Throughout grade school and until the end of our sophomore year in high school we hung out together. Unfortunately, my folks divorced and I had to move to Montana with my mom. I saw Sue one time the summer after high school graduation. She was getting ready to go to college. I was working and getting ready to be drafted.

I always thought about Sue but I waited too long to find her. I heard she had married a whiz kid named Ted Slanker, who apparently was making huge money buying and selling gold. I thought, "good for Sue, too bad for me" because when I found out I could never have her I realized how much I had really loved her.

Some friends convinced me to attend the Wilson High School (here in Portland) 20 year reunion in 1984. I walked in the building and felt a poke in the back. I turned around and it was Sue. She was Sue Kennedy then, apparently the marriage to Slanker ended in divorce. Sue and I immediately rekindled feelings for each other but I was married and could not/would not leave my wife to pursue Sue. I lost track of Sue until I saw a story in the Oregonian newspaper about a former Portland woman missing in the WTC disaster. My heart shattered when I found out it was Sue. I will never get over it!

Sue had an older brother, Jude Laspa, who went on to become a top executive with Bechtel Corp. She had an older sister, Kathy. Apparently Kathy lived here in Portland in 1984, I have no information now. Sue also had a younger brother, Tevis, who I believe owns an aftermarket company producing accessories for trucks. I think he lives in Ridgefield, WA, which is not far from Portland. Sue's parents were avid golfers and I expect she maintained that interest.

I am saddened to hear about Sue's husband's battle with cancer and the burglary of her house. I read about Sue's interest in gardening. Sue has been a part of my heart and mind for years. I'm glad you got the chance to spend time with her. I really had no need to send you this but, selfishly, maybe I needed to do it for myself. Frankly, given all of the events, I don't know what to think.

Sincerely,

Mike Savage  

 

Bill, the attached is an excerpt from the 1960 Hayhurst School (here in Portland) 8th grade yearbook. On the right side, above the cowboy with the squirt gun, are side-by-side pictures. The goofy looking guy to the right of Susan is me. The goofy looking gal to the left of me is Susan. Since Susan and I were inseparable, the kids editing the yearbook thought it appropriate to put our pictures together.