I remember the day vividly.
As I walked up the staircase from the Astor Place subway station and looked down Cooper Square, I saw a black cloud of smoke blowing from the west. One of those giant oil tanks in Jersey, I surmised; not unusual that one would have a problem now and then.
When I made it to our office at 20 Cooper Square, the doorman told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Immediately I asked if it was a small plane. He told me he thought so.
I had a window looking south, everyone crowded into my office to watch the burning tower. Someone said, it had to be a small plane; if it was a jetliner, the pilot would’ve ditched it into the ocean if he had trouble.
Then we gasped: what if the pilot wasn’t actually flying the plane?
When the second one hit, we knew something had gone terribly, terribly wrong. Then we heard about the Pentagon, and then Pennsylvania and suddenly realized the hundred or so of us were stuck together in an office in the East Village with no communications except email and no clue how to get home.
The most macabre experience in my life occurred a few minutes later. There was a TV in my office, positioned right next to the window looking out towards the towers. When the first tower started to wobble, lowering itself down, billowing black dust against a sparkling blue sky, we saw the same image side by side: television and window, electronic and live.
We were about three miles from the Towers. When they slowly collapsed upon themselves – like a giant rocket taking off from Cape Kennedy, except in the wrong direction – we couldn’t see the bodies of those jumping out windows, but somehow knew they were there.
Soon, Martin Sorrell sent me an email from London headquarters asking if all was OK. London? Jesus, it wasn’t just us watching this tragic event from an office overlooking a parking lot at 20 Cooper Square, it was the whole world..
I don’t remember how and when we decided to leave, but it was mid-afternoon. We walked all the way from Cooper Sq and E. Fourth to Grand Central Terminal. On the way up, we saw little kids in front of newspaper stands selling postcards of the World Trade Center, standing magestically over lower Manhattan, for ten dollars.
Just a few hours ago, they were real. Now they were being hawked as a souvenir, never to be real again.
I can’t tell you how scared we were to walk into Grand Central Terminal – a building we had known for years, a safe haven, now the next possible target for a terrorist strike. All trains went north, all stops along the way. I remember getting off in Stamford and members of the clergy – all denominations – were there to greet and console.
At home we were glued to the TV, 24/7. We watched as the NY City Police and Fire Departments and Iron Workers pulled bodies and debris from the morass. For years, we had taken these public servants and laborers for granted, maybe even complained about them at times, but on that day they rose to the ultimate occasion, teaching us lessons in bravery, duty and unselfish service.
Ten years later, something bothers me. It bothers me that we’ve forgotten about the heroism of these dedicated public servants, even villianized them in the last several months.
They make too much, they retire too early, they have cushy jobs, they create budget deficits.
Did any of the police officers, firefighters, or clean-up crews ask for a salary increase that day? Doubt it.
Did they think about their own lives each time they came out of the burning buildings alive, another victim in their arms or over their shoulders? No, most went right back up, many themselves succumbing to the flames and smoke.
Did any of them get a bonus for a job well done? Their only reward for a job well done was a job well done.
In a world increasingly judged by the yardstick of dollars and cents, let us not forget the time, a short ten years ago, when our public and union employees gave Wall Street – and all of us – the ultimate bailout.
And let us never again measure their contribution in mere dollars and cents.