Today is the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Every American over the age of 3 remembers where they were that day. I say 3 years old, because I was 3 when JFK was assassinated and I remember it. They are just bits and pieces — my parents being very sad and then driving us to an overlook — but they are powerful images in my mind.
For those of us who recall 9/11, there is an entire range of experience. Some heard about it from teachers in school. Or some on ranches out West might have heard about the attack on the radio that evening. And for some in New York City, who were told their daughter or father was in one of the Twin Towers or on one of the planes, it was a moment of horror, and a demarcation that will live with them forever.
Luckily for me, my experience comes nowhere near those who lost someone close. I was in Manhattan that day, though, and I did feel some of the terror. The death of acquaintances and of friends. So many memories of that day, both big and small. Like after I was first processing the attack that morning and a Washington, D.C. guy telling me in a deep voice: “This is Al Qaeda.” What the hell is that?
As everyone who was there remembers, it was a beautiful day. Just lovely, brilliant blue skies and balmy warm. I had just dropped off my older daughter (then 7) at school, and I then was scheduled to do a shoot for ABC News about some luxury fashion company on the Upper East Side. As I walked through Central Park, I called to check on my crew. They had been diverted to a shoot downtown, I was told. “Some knucklehead crashed their plane into the World Trade Center.” Great, I groaned, this is going to mess up my day.
I emerged from the park at 59th Street and began to walk south down Sixth Avenue to the Time Life Building at 50th Street where I also worked as a writer at Fortune Magazine. And my phone lit up. It was a big plane that hit, not some Cessna. And then I looked up and could see the Tower smoking all the way downtown. Somewhere on those nine blocks I came to understand this was an act of terrorism. I remember almost hearing Hans Zimmer music from a Christopher Nolan movie in my head. Evil was here.
When I walked into our building, I could tell some people knew (ashen faced) and some didn’t (laughing.) I went up to Fortune. The second plane had just hit, and my colleague Bethany McLean saw it. We huddled around TVs and watched one Tower fall. Then the other. I remember thinking, I just watched thousands of people die right in front of my eyes. I felt sick.
We reached out to our families. Where is everyone? Are they OK? And then OMG, our friends who work in the Towers! Are they OK? And I started to receive email messages from friends with people’s names in the subject lines. Opening them was like Russian roulette. Were they alive or dead? Peter T. He was OK. He had an argument with his wife and was late to work. Too late to die in the Towers. Kate A. She was also OK. She had a meeting in another building that morning. What about Jimmy R.? No. He was on one of the planes. He was dead. Danny Lewin, co-founder of Akamai. He was dead. Same for Bill Meehan, chief market analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald and a CNBC commentator, he was dead too. And thousands and thousands of others.
The city began to lock down. The entire rush hour was all day and on foot. You could see the people walking uptown, covered in ash. Barefoot. My wife had rushed to pick our oldest at school. There were stories of parents who never came. They too were dead.
And there was work. We had to cover this story, sitting in midtown Manhattan wondering if another plane was going to come our way.
At that point I was writing a daily online column for Fortune, called Street Life. Fortunately, we archived the columns from that week, which are here. On that day as it was happening I wrote simply: “This changes everything.”
And this as well
“Bottom line: Let's be real. They tried to destroy Wall Street and they did destroy a big chunk of it. But I'm not so sure that this is going to tip us into recession. We may have one anyway, AND often times the market recovers from this kind of thing. We are seeing New Yorkers rally together, lining up to donate blood, and I think they will persevere. People are comparing this to Pearl Harbor, it could also be like London in the Blitz in WWII, after which a city and a nation were galvanized and fought back.”
That night we hugged our kids in relief, but also fear. Would more attacks come? We drank Wild Turkey. And our friend, the aforementioned Kate A, couldn’t leave the city and spent the night with us.
No peace came after that. The days after were surreal. The weather continued to be lovely and yet there was nothing but smoke rising from lower Manhattan from the ruin, (which persisted for 100 days), as well as fear in the city. Like this from Sept. 12, the day after.
“And today, a new feature, bomb scares across Manhattan. I heard there were incidents at Conde Nast, Bear Stearns, Penn Station, and the old Morgan Stanley place next door. Standing outside the Time Life building with evacuees from next door, there was a large crash at a construction site nearby. 500 people jumped.”
Along with all the other chaos and horror that week, there was still the work and decisions to be made. ABC News called me that week and asked me to come in and talk. My contract was up for renewal. Business wasn’t good, they said, companies were pulling their ads from 9/11 coverage. Recession talk was in the air. And, more than that, I just wasn’t a good fit. And they were right. And so I was let go.
Luckily for me, my boss John Huey, editor-in-chief of Time Inc, called the then head of CNN, Walter Isaacson, and asked him if CNN could use me. The answer was affirmative and my first day was to be that next Monday, Sept. 17, 2001. It was another day I will never forget.
I was told to report that morning to 5 Penn Plaza, catty-corner to Madison Square Garden in midtown. There I was directed to an outdoor balcony set that faced south looking straight down Manhattan, with smoke from the wrecked Towers wafted upwards. “You’re on with Paula in three minutes,” the director said. “You guys are going to open up the New York Stock Exchange.” Live. Wow, CNN doesn't mess around. Mind you the NYSE had been closed since 9/11, for four days, the longest it had been shut ever (until last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, though that was different, as trading continued uninterrupted).
They sat me in a director’s chair next to Paula, who turned out to be Paula Zahn. She looked at me quizzically. “Who are you?” Zahn asked. I told her I worked at Fortune and was a new CNN employee. “Ah,” she said. “I take it you know about the stock market. I’m not much of an expert. We have Lou Dobbs on the floor of the stock exchange, do you know him?” Yes I do know about the NYSE and as for Dobbs, a little bit, I told Zahn.
And before I knew it, the director was counting us in, “Coming in, in five, four, three…” Zahn set the scene and then turned to me and asked, “Andy Serwer, what does it mean to you and for this country and for the world to reopen the New Stock Exchange?”
I told her and whoever was watching around the country and the world that this was both a symbolic and very practical restarting of our country’s economy. While the market might take a hit, I told her, America was back. (The market most certainly did take a hit, with the Dow falling 684 points or just over 7%.) And then we went to Dobbs on the floor.
And I will never forget any of that, either.
9/11 has stayed with me. I had dreams soon after of a plane crashing into the Hudson River near my apartment. I thought about my daughters and how lucky we were to be alive. I thought about our dead friend Jimmy. I remember talking to his brother Dave a few years after 9/11, and him telling me that Jimmy hadn’t been killed — he had been murdered. That stuck with me. And so did the thousand, million other events, strands and narratives that sprang from the terrible day, all the way to the U.S. leaving Afghanistan just days ago, all these years later, with nothing accomplished.
As I was writing this column yesterday, I texted my younger daughter to ask her about that day 20 years ago.
DAD: “You remember 9/11, right?”
DAUGHTER: “Yes. One of my first memories.”
DAD: “Anything about it?”
DAUGHTER: “I remember being home with [my babysitter] and her brushing my hair while I was watching cartoons. And then there was an emergency warning telling us to turn to the news and she was crying but I didn’t know why.”
Just then I realized it. Twenty years ago, my younger daughter was 3 years old. The same age I was when John Kennedy was killed. My memory of that terrible day is as abbreviated and fragmented but also as indelible as hers is of 9/11.
There are those of us who remember, in some shape or form, and those who weren’t there, who can learn. The passage of time will never erase the memories that should be shared. So none of us ever forget.
This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on September 11, 2021. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer