What I remember the most about 9/11 is that it started out as a beautiful day: amazing sunshine, about 70 degrees and crystal-clear skies. It did not end that way, of course.
In a few short hours, a cloud of smoke and dust enveloped much of Manhattan. Terrorists had just crashed jets into the city’s two tallest buildings, the North and South towers of the World Trade Center. Nearly 3,000 people died. The US economy ground to halt. Life would never be the same.
At the time, I was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, and our offices were across the street in the World Financial Center. Because of a doctor’s appointment, I escaped being at Ground Zero when the planes hit, but I was close enough to downtown Manhattan to see the smoldering buildings and people running for their lives.
I learned what happened by ducking into a gym where I watched on TV the Twin Towers crumble like they had been held together by glue. I made it back to my apartment just off the East River amid the roar of F-16s flying over Manhattan — and I began covering a war.
For several reasons the Trade Center loomed particularly large in my life. My sources were bankers and traders who worked there. We ate lunch and dinner at the amazing Windows on the World restaurant on the 106th and 107th floor of the North Tower. (More than 70 restaurant employees were killed that day.)
My gym was in the Trade Center. And my dad helped build what was then the world’s tallest buildings. I would always brag to my colleagues at the paper that my dad, William Gasparino, an ex-Marine, was a blue-collar ironworker who decades earlier had labored at the towers.
He was one of those guys who tied rebar into foundations and walls before concrete was poured. Tough, grueling work that eventually left him disabled.
But along the way, he built stuff and was proud of the product. No prouder than when the Trade Center was completed around 1972. One day he took my brother and me to the site because he wanted to show off to his sons what he did for a living. We were treated to a grand tour of the WTC’s massive lobby. He quietly explained his role in the construction and what was to come: A monument to business and commerce that would soon emerge.
My dad died in 1986. On 9/11, for the only time in my life, I was glad he wasn’t alive to see what had happened to the work in which he had taken so much pride.
The nation was under attack. Firefighters, cops, first responders, bankers, brokers and clerks had perished for no logical reason. A friend and WSJ colleague, escaping the imploding structure, was covered with that nasty gray dust that spread across the Financial District when the towers came down. He was lucky to survive but spent weeks in the hospital recovering from a near-fatal infection from inhaling the soot.
Telling these stories consumed our coverage for some time, though not long after the attacks it was clear that the terrorists had also hit the US economy. For obvious reasons, oil prices surged, air traffic all but stopped. Tourist destinations had shut down.
The Trade Center housed various Wall Street firms, as did the adjacent World Financial Center, which suffered as well. Firms like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch scrambled to find temporary offices.
Even more pressing was the destruction of the electronic infrastructure that was the glue of the financial markets. A Verizon switching station that connected every firm to the NYSE was near Ground Zero and destroyed.
Stock trading, the lifeblood of the US economy, had stopped. Economists love to say how the stock market isn’t the economy, but such glib statements don’t convey the importance of the market. If stocks can’t trade, businesses find it difficult to raise money and grow. If there is no trading, how do you gauge the value of the nation’s biggest companies?
It took six frenzied days to repair this infrastructure. As we look back on those events 20 years ago, the first responders who gave their lives are certainly heroes, as are the soldiers who then fought the War on Terror. The second-day responders are heroes as well. They are the construction workers who sifted through the rubble looking in vain for survivors. My dad could have been one of those guys, and my brother was. He is a critical-care doctor and decided to move his practice to Ground Zero, joining the cleanup effort and praying to find someone alive.
Other second-day heroes are the men and women who helped repair the economic infrastructure of the markets. They worked at Verizon, Con Ed and the NYSE. We survived 9/11 economically because of the people who ran these organizations, Dick Grasso at the NYSE, Ivan Seidenberg and Larry Babbio at Verizon. But also, the people on the ground working night and day reinstalling all that wiring, ensuring that the markets would reopen in less than a week, and the US economy could come back to life.