Feature writing

Special feature

9/11 Ten Years On: The Survivors – The Chairman

The Times

September 3, 2011


Ten years have passed since September 11, 2001, but what has happened to some of the people caught up in that momentous day? In this special feature, we meet the survivors, such as the dust-covered bank teller and the businessman whose images came to symbolise New York’s remarkable spirit.

We speak to the retired fireman who went to the site to help and ended up standing next to President Bush, and to an injured young woman and the marshal who carried her from the ruins of the twin towersBrian Clark and Stanley Praimnath recount their escape from the southern tower, two of only four survivors from above the point of impact. Howard W. Lutnick, CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, reveals the emotional cost of losing 658 employees, including his brother, and four widows describe grieving for their husbands.

Vivid, shocking, upsetting, inspiring: their stories embody a day that remains impossible to forget. 


Howard W. Lutnick is chairman and CEO of the investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald, the hardest-hit company on September 11: 658 of its employees – including Lutnik’s brother, Gary, and his best friend, Doug Gardner – were killed in the northern tower. Lutnick, who is married with four children, faced controversy in the weeks after the tragedy when the company was accused of not doing enough to compensate victims’ relatives. He is also chairman and CEO of the brokerage firm BGC Partners, Inc. 

“If I could somehow do it all over again, I would stand by the doors of the World Trade Centre and not let anyone in. It’s so hard to square what happened to our firm; it’s not possible for all of these people to have been killed together. We hired people we liked. Inside Cantor we really were a great group of people who cared for each other, combining friends and co-workers in a special way. What other firm employs 48 sets of brothers?

“After September 11, the purpose of our business became to support the families of those who died. For a long time I couldn’t say the number 658 without crying. I was not capable of dealing with the magnitude. Someone would ask what had happened to someone who had died, and I would see them in my mind’s eye and that was the moment they were killed. I would tell myself, ‘Pull yourself together,’ but it would happen again and again and it went on for months.

“That morning, I was taking my son Kyle to his first day of kindergarten. The school administrator told me a plane had hit the building. Immediately I knew I had to go get my guys, help my friends. As we drove down Fifth Avenue, I could see one tower burning. I knew right away it was ours. It was instantly horrible. The driver was crying, ‘It’s bad, it’s bad,’ all the way. I got to the doorway of the building and grabbed people as they came out, asking what floor they were from. I wanted to hear that someone had made it out from ours.

“If the northern tower, our building, had collapsed first, I wouldn’t be here. When the southern tower collapsed it sounded gargantuan, combining the roar of a jet engine and a giant creak, like the boat in Titanic. Everyone ran. This tornado of black smoke seemed to be chasing me. I dived under a car, certain I was going to die. I didn’t know what was in the air, but I knew instinctively not to breathe. I thought: ‘I was uptown. I was safe. Now I’m gonna die, son of a gun, I’m gonna die.’ The world was black and silent. I didn’t know if I was blind or deaf. Then I saw my hand, and as the world became grey, I knew I was alive and had to get out of there.

“Over the next few weeks, every time I saw someone who worked for us or had worked for us I was so ecstatic I grabbed their face and kissed them. I wrote 2,000 condolence notes. I did it from 2am to 5am. I was having nightmares, so I wrote these notes, sometimes five pages if I knew the person. I would tell stories about them, thinking their children would want the notes some day.

“Of course, I had survivor guilt. I wasn’t responsible for what happened to those who had died, but I was responsible for helping their families. That’s what drove me and the employees. I could not have cared less about work. Going home and hugging my wife and family was the number one thing I wanted to do. The only reason to work was to help the families. To the surviving employees I said: ‘We can either shut the firm and go to 20 funerals on 35 days in a row, or work harder than we ever have for the families.’ Our London office was the reason we survived. I don’t know if all those who brought us flowers or sent us food realised how their care and love helped us to survive. Amazingly, we were able to be a profitable company in the first full quarter after 9/11.

“Early on I said that the best way to show people who were killed that we loved them was to care for those they loved. In October there was a brief period where the media questioned our commitment. But I didn’t mishandle it. I would do it the same way again. We were so decimated we could not afford to make mistakes. We only had criticism from people who didn’t know our plan. With 20/20 hindsight this is what happened. Let’s say we’d written to a young woman who lost her husband. But our human relations department has been wiped out, so we’d written to her at her last-known address – it might not even be current – and anyway, she’s staying at her mother’s. She doesn’t know we have offered 10 years of healthcare and a minimum of $100,000 per family. With 658 families affected, that’s $65 million. “That young woman might have felt we hadn’t done anything for her yet, and of course we hadn’t. But we would. We calculated what we needed to survive, then distributed the money to the families. The figure exceeded everyone’s expectations. We gave 25 per cent of our profits to the families. The surviving workers never let down their dead colleagues in working to support their families. We had so many people join us afterwards. They knew we were in a tough spot and they probably earned less money than they could have gotten elsewhere, but they accepted that we had to take care of the families. There was a relief fund, a victims’ compensation fund; I held ‘town hall’ meetings. My wife set up support groups.

“I always felt I would have time to grieve for my brother later. He was mine, he was inside me. I didn’t plan his memorial for months; I didn’t bury the fragments of his bones for almost a year. I had too much to do. I had to go to so many funerals. I had to make sure the firm was capable of caring for these families. I had a spectacular relationship with my brother – I always did. I didn’t really have any unfinished business with him. He knew I loved him and how much I loved him. He helped me because, ultimately, I was able to really talk to the families who had lost loved ones because I was one of them.

“Every September 11 we hold a memorial service. We read the names of everyone who died. We have a special charity day every year and a day when everyone forgoes their pay for the day to raise money. We have tried to turn a difficult day into something beautiful. I am proud of how we took care of the families, proud that so many children of those who died have come to work for us. It’s an extraordinary compliment. We are the world’s pre-eminent middle-market investor bank; BGC is the No 2 in the world in the inter-dealer broker market. I am honoured to be associated with both. In the worst of circumstances, these employees covered themselves in glory. It makes me proud every day to walk in the door.”