“Crippled but free. I was blind by the time I was learning to see.”
It was a beautiful, crisp September morning as I looked up from my Wall Street Journal to watch the sunrise over the East River. It was a peaceful moment, and I paused to reflect on the beauty of the landscape and my place in life. That was the first thing I remember about 9/11, how sharp the horizon was as day broke over lower Manhattan.
I was president of a $400 million hedge fund and while bearish on the macro landscape, we were positioned for a counter-trend rally heading into that fateful day. As I settled into my trading turret and downed a second cup of coffee, Nokia (NOK) pre-announced a negative quarter -- they released news that business was worse than expected -- and the stock shot 5% higher. It was a telltale sign that the market was washed out, proof positive that traders had bet on further declines and were being forced to buy back their negative exposure. We pressed our upside bet and furiously bought SPY and QQQ hand over fist, twisting the knife into the sides of the bears that overstayed their welcome.
The first boom shook our office walls. I scanned my trading desk and asked my team “What the hell was that?”
One of our analysts yelled “The World Trade Center’s on fire!” We turned to see flames raging and black smoke billowing into the clear blue sky.
At 40 Fulton Street, we were a few short blocks away and on the 24th floor, had a bird’s eye view. The mainstream media had yet to pick up the story, which only added to the confusion we felt as we watched it unfold in real-time. I instinctively posted commentary online at 8:47 AM. “A bomb has exploded in the WTC, may God have mercy on those innocent souls.”
The S&P and NASDAQ futures traded wildly in ten, twenty-handle clips. We made some sales, but when it was reported that a small commuter plane crashed, we scooped back our inventory back and then some. All of this occurred in a matter of minutes, if that.
I’ve since learned that the reason we couldn’t look away from the towers was that our mind had no way to process the information. That, no matter how hard we tried to mentally digest what we saw, there was nowhere to “file” the images of human beings holding hands and jumping from atop the World Trade Center. It’s an image I can’t shake to this day -- bodies falling through a maze of confetti like ants from a tree. It’s a sight I wish to God I had never seen.
We huddled by our window with our mouths gaped open as somebody repeated “Oh my God!” over and over again. The second plane circled behind the tower and entered it from behind. In slow motion, the impact shook the foundation of our building as the fireball exploded directly toward us. I thought to myself “This is how I’m going to die” as we gathered our staff and ushered them toward the stairwell. I stopped at my turret and quickly wrote “I’m evacuating our building...” and sent it to my editors, unsure if they would ever receive it.
The Duck and Cover
We left our building and ran toward the South Street Seaport. I remember thinking that we could dive in the East River and take our chances there. We overheard someone say that the Pentagon was attacked. The Pentagon? Weren’t missiles supposed to shoot down anything that threatened that air space? The Verizon switching center was damaged and we had no cell phones or Blackberries, no voice of reason to assuage our fears. We were, for all intents and purposes, cut off from the world.
I thought of friends that worked in the towers. I resisted the urge to run to Ground Zero to find them and tried to put on a brave face to calm my shaken staff.
The crumbling began with a whisper and grew to a growl as the first tower imploded. We naturally assumed another wave of attacks had begun. Everyone scrambled and our staff scattered among thousands of other confused people as the wave of white smoke approached.
I’m not sure how my partner Jeff Berkowitz and I found each other but we somehow connected and ran north along the river towards the FDR Drive. I eyed the water on our right as a precaution -- it was an option I wanted to keep open as we broke into a sprint.
We somehow flagged down a taxi and Jeff offered the driver $500 to take him out of the city while I tried to calm a woman in the back seat who was on the verge of hyperventilation. Between gasps, she told me that her boyfriend worked in an office high up in the World Trade Center. As I looked out the rear-view window and saw that one of the towers was already gone, I was at a loss for words. How could I ease her pain? What was happening to our country? Was it really happening at all?
I made my way to my home on 57th Street as lines formed at convenience stores in my neighborhood. People were hoarding bottled water, canned food, flashlights, and other necessities. I had none of that and I didn’t care. I just wanted to find my family and my friends. I needed to understand what had happened and establish a framework of relativity, a place where I could begin to assess and digest my experience. The images on TV portrayed downtown Manhattan as a cloud of smoke, a war zone with body parts strewn like yesterday’s laundry on the bedroom floor.
Friends and family began to gather at my apartment; five at first, then ten, then twenty. It was the other side of disaster, a dose of humanity in a sea of horror, a refuge of comfort in a maze of confusion. I found myself sitting at my desk, looking for a semblance of normalcy and a familiar setting.
Instinctively I wrote this column, which was published that evening on TheStreet.com:
The Day the World Changed
By Todd Harrison
09/11/2001 08:33 PM EDT
Numbness. Shock. Anger. Sadness.
As I sit here with family and friends, awaiting calls that may never come, I am drawn to my keyboard -- and I'm not quite sure why.
Perhaps it's an attempt to somehow release the tremendous sadness that's locked inside me. Maybe I have hopes that sharing my grief will stop these images... stop the shaking.
It's ten hours after the fact, and I still feel the "boom" that shook my trading room.
I can still see the bodies falling from the first struck tower, one after another, as we gathered by the window in shock and confusion.
I can still hear the screams in my office "Oh my God! Oh my God!, Oh my God!" as the second plane hit ... and the image of that fireball rolling toward us will forever be etched in my mind.
I often write that "this too shall pass," but I will never be the same. Maybe that's a selfish thought, as tens of thousands of people won't have the opportunity to put this behind them.
Each time my phone rings and I hear the voice of a friend who I feared was lost, I break into tears.
Every time I get a call from someone who "just wanted to make sure" I'm still here, I'm reminded of how lucky I am to share relationships, memories, and a past.
I know many of you read my column to make money, but do yourself a favor and surround yourself with loved ones this evening.
Some of the wealthiest people I know don't have two dimes to rub together, and a few of them will never see their children, parents, or friends again.
More than anything else, I wish I'd kept my date to share a drink with my good friend Bill Meehan at Cantor Fitz.
I was tired, opting to grab a good night's sleep rather than down a couple of apple martinis with my sage friend.
I'm sitting by my phone, brother, waiting for your call.
Drinks are on me.
Picking up the Pieces
People who shared a similar 9/11 experience dealt with their grief differently. Some left the business entirely, opting to enjoy a life where bells didn’t bookend their days. Some married and others divorced as the specter of death shifted their path in life. Still others fell into drug and alcohol addictions with hopes that self-medication would dull their pain. We each did what we could; we all did what we had to. My personal path was reflexive and subconscious, guided by motivations I didn't fully understand at the time. I spent one more year at the hedge fund before stepping down, shifting course and founding Minyanville.
Most of my peers thought I was crazy to relinquish such a lucrative position and perhaps I was, but I wanted to create an existence where self-worth wasn't dictated by net worth and validation wasn’t found in my bank account. Trading, for all its vices and virtues, offers little in the way of personal redemption or societal benefit.
I didn't realize it at the time but for a period following the attacks, I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and deep depression. I worked twenty-hour days and when I wasn't lost in my work, I locked my doors, turned off the phone, closed my window shades, and stayed in bed. I didn't see my friends or seek the comfort of family, I simply passed time until I was again too busy to digest the overwhelming sadness that saturated my soul and spirit.
I always believed I was humble, particularly in a business where humility is viewed as a weakness, but during that dark and vulnerable time, I discovered what true humility was.
Lou Mannheim once said, “Man looks in the abyss, there's nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.”
I put on a brave face following 9/11 largely because others looked to me for guidance. Ironically, it was that purpose -- that self-imposed obligation -- that allowed me to summon the strength to pull myself out of that seemingly endless crevasse. It was day by day; sometimes it was hour by hour. It felt endless.
I often tell people that New York City, America, and the world forever changed that day but I sometimes wonder if it's me who changed. I'm not the same person I was before the attacks but I’m entirely certain that I'm a better man because of them.
Life Goes On
Something good comes from all things bad and the blessing of September 11th, for me, was one of perspective.
I appreciate the things I once took for granted but never thought to question. I understand the difference between having fun and being happy. I realize time is a precious commodity and the arbiter of fate. I’ve learned a dream is only as powerful as those who believe in it, the difference between lessons and mistakes are the ability to learn from them, and friction between opinions is where true education is born. And after a long, hard road, I’ve found that negative energy is wasted energy, money comes and goes, and viewing obstacles as opportunities defines success.
Ten years after that fateful day -- a full decade -- our country finds itself in a fragile socioeconomic state and a false sense of security. It’s easy to be angry, place blame and lash out as the ramifications of the financial crisis ripple, the next wave approaches and policymakers seek solutions that will lower the standard of living for our children.
Sunday, however, is a day of reflection, a day of remembrance, a day of personal introspection. If the greatest wisdom is bred as a function of pain, we’re blessed with the opportunity to evolve and the experience to remember.
It should never take something bad for to realize we've got it good, and all of us have profound reasons for gratitude. On September 11th, take a moment to appreciate what we have rather than lament about what we don’t, for tomorrow is promised to nobody.
May peace be with you.
(Also click here to listen to a musical piece by our own Peter Atwater, written as a tribute to the events of September 11, 2001.)