Brokedown Palace: A Tribute to September 11th, 2001
Today is a day of reflection, a day of remembrance, a day of personal introspection.
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, a pause 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 dawn illuminated 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 my driver navigated the FDR and I soaked in the scene, none of it mattered for a few, short seconds.
As we settled into our turrets and downed our second cup of coffee, Nokia (NOK) pre-announced a negative quarter and the stock shot 5% higher.
It was a classic sign that the market was washed out, proof positive that traders were caught short and scrambling to cover. We pressed our bet and furiously bought SPY and QQQ hand over fist, twisting the knife into the sides of the bears that were short and 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!" as 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 from the towers and on the 24th floor, had a bird's eye view.
The mainstream media had yet to pick up the story, adding to the confusion we felt as we watched it unfold in real-time.
I turned to write on TheStreet.com (TSCM), posting commentary 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.
No matter how hard we tried to mentally digest what our eyes were seeing, there was nowhere to "file" 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; it's a sight I wish I never saw.
We huddled by our window with our mouths gaped open as somebody repeated "Oh my God!" over and over again. The second plane circled the tower and entered it from behind. In slow motion, the KA-BOOM again shook our office as the fireball exploded directly towards us.
I thought to myself "This is how I'm going to die" as we gathered our staff and ushered them towards the stairwell.
I stopped at my turret and quickly wrote "I'm evacuating our building…" and sent it to my editor, unsure if they would ever receive it.
The Duck and Cover
Our staff left the building and ran towards 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 and resisted the urge to run to ground zero to find them. I was riddled with anxiety but 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 were on an island unto ourselves in terms of location and communication and naturally assumed that another wave of attacks had begun. Everyone scrambled as hysteria broke out, scattering our personnel among thousands of 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. 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.
Jeff offered a taxi driver $500 to take us out of the city while I tried to calm a woman in the back seat who was on the verge of hyperventilating. Between weeps, she told me that her boyfriend worked in an office high up in the towers. 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 found my way to my home on 57th Street as lines formed at convenience stores. 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, my friends, myself. I needed to understand what happened and establish a framework of relativity, a place where I could begin to assess and digest my experience.
Thirty minutes later, my mother crashed through the door and held me tighter than I've ever been held. 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 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 love in a maze of confusion.
I found myself 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 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 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. Folks 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 quit TheStreet.com and spent one more year with our fund before stepping down, shifting course and starting Minyanville.
Most of my peers thought I was crazy to relinquish a high profile, lucrative position -- and perhaps I was -- but I wanted to do more with my life and create an existence where self-worth wasn't dictated by net worth and validation wasn't predicated on a bank account.
Trading, for all its vices and virtues, offers little in the way of social redemption or societal benefit.
It wasn't easy -- in fact, the following years were the most difficult of my life as I simultaneously launched a fund, was the only writer on Minyanville and created The Ruby Peck Foundation for Children's Education to honor my grandfather and best friend, who had died a few months prior.
I didn't realize it at the time but for a period following the attacks, I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. I worked twenty-hour days and when I wasn't hiding in work, I locked my doors, turned off the phone, closed my blinds and stayed in bed.
I didn't see my friends or seek the comfort of family. I simply wanted to pass 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. During that dark and vulnerable time as I looked deep within myself, 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 each day largely because others were looking 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 when I say that, I sometimes wonder if it's me who's changed.
I'm not the same person I was before the attacks but that's alright; I'm entirely sure 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 that 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 that the 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.
Nine years after that fateful day, 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.
Today, 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 to make us realize we've got it good and we have profound reasons for gratitude.
On this day, September 11th, let's take a moment to appreciate what we have rather than lament about what we don't.
Tomorrow, as they say, is promised to nobody.
May peace be with you.
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