Remembering September 11, 2001

By Kurt L. Balderson

The day started out just like any other. Same routine - alarm sounding at 5:15 AM, pushing snooze 2 or 3 times before getting out of bed exhausted as a result of getting up a couple of times during the night to tend to our two daughters, an almost 1 and a 2 Ĺ year old. But once out of the shower and driving to work with a cup of coffee, I was on top of the world. This is Wall Street, and I will be trading millions of dollars worth of securities at the World Financial Center in NYC, the financial capital of the world. I specifically remember this particular morning... it was a significantly beautiful morning. On the 10 minute ferry ride I took from Jersey City, NJ to downtown Manhattan I stood on the outside upper deck as the sun was just rising behind the World Trade Center. I thought I worked in the best place in the world... it was the most prestigious and one of the most elegant.

Work also started as usual... another cup of coffee, preparing for the day ahead, talking with annalists, finding out the latest news on Biotech companiesí earnings reports, and gathering information on what happened around the world in the Asian and European markets. Then came the daily 7:30 AM morning call with hundreds of Sales people and Traders. Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary!

Around 8:40 AM, I went to the company cafeteria to grab a quick breakfast before the trading day started with the opening bell sounding at the New York Stock Exchange. That is when something happened that would change my life (and everyone elseís) forever... the building shook!

I specifically remember that as I was ordering my eggs, a colleague interrupted me and asked if I felt the building shake? I did not. But in the next couple of minutes, more and more people started coming down to the cafeteria and saying that there was an explosion in the building right next to ours and that there was debris flying all around outside our trading floorís window. I immediately thought it was the Merrill Lynch building that is right next to ours. I also worked in that building a number of years and knew a lot of people in that building. I got my breakfast, paid for it, and walked to the elevator and pushed the up button to go back up to the trading floor not knowing the extent of what was happening outside. Someone yelled to me... "Kurt, we have to leave the building and take the emergency staircase." I complied. The whole way down the emergency staircase I was praying for my friends who worked in the Merrill Lynch building where I thought the explosion happened.

The emergency stairs exited my building right in front of where the World Trade Center Marriott Hotel used to be. I was right across the street and had unobstructed views of both of the WTC towers. There was debris flying everywhere. I looked up and saw that the top 30 or so floors of the North tower were on fire. It was really, really bad! I thought to myself that there were people dying up there. Nearly everyone who left the building with me saw people jumping. I donít remember seeing that, perhaps I am just blocking it out of my mind. I remember how no one really knew how to act. Many people pulled out their cell phones, called whomever, and just stared up watching the inferno as they talked. For lack of a better word, I panicked. I looked at a colleague next to me and said, "Iím out of here." I started to run towards the Hudson River, to where my ferry departs. Very few people were reacting. I remember running around literally hundreds of people who were just staring up at the WTC. I saw my ferry coming across the river and kept on running, hoping I would make it in time. I kept on thinking I have to make it half way across the river, and then I would be safe. I reacted very differently than I did after I experienced the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. At that time I remained nearby and watched, and took pictures. Now with a wife and two daughters, responsibility for them made survival my primary concern.

I got to the ferry dock as my ferry was pulling up. I would have taken any ferry to get off the island. I remember so many people getting off the ferry to enter Manhattan. I was screaming at them at the top of my voice, "Get out of here. The World Trade Center is on fire. Get back on the boat". However, everyone looked at me with that blank NY face thinking I was crazy. I guess they thought who cares, I have to go to work and I donít work in the WTC.

I specifically remember walking over the crack between the ferry dock and my ferry thinking to myself... am I having a nervous breakdown? Is this not really happening, am I over reacting, am I going to be the only one over in Jersey when everyone else is at work wondering where I am? Very few people got on the boat with me, and many got off. I didnít even know how I was going to get home... my car keys, cell phone, and Palm Pilot were still back in my office in my desk drawer.

The few of us who got on the ferry headed up to the outside upper deck. We were looking back at the burning WTC as the boat pulled out. None of us knew what had happened... we all thought it was just an explosion. Then from the corner of my eye, I saw the second plane approaching. I was about 300 yards away and clearly remember reading United Airlines on the side of the plane. I had enough time to look at the guy next to me and say, "What the xxxx!" Then I saw a huge ball of fire. I remember seeing everything very clearly, but I donít remember hearing any sound. I must have blocked that from my memory as well. I was in such a state of shock. I fell to my knees and got sick. I was certain that everyone I had just left, everyone with whom I worked for the past 10 plus years was dead. At that moment I thought I was one of the few who made it out alive.

When I regained my composure, the few of us who were on the ferry went to the captain of the ferry. We were all yelling, "Go!, Go! Itís a terrorist attack! Go!" He yelled back at us, "Get out of here! Get out of the cockpit!" There was absolute chaos amongst the few of us.

I remember finally asking the captain very calmly if I could borrow his cell phone. I just wanted to let my wife and family know that I was OK and on my way home. But I could not get through. It took a while to get to the Jersey side and into the marina because of the congestion of large boats that had left the Jersey side marina and had turned around after seeing what had happened.

Although my car was parked at the ferry drop off, I was still without my car keys since I had left them in my desk drawer when I left my building. A complete stranger who lived in the opposite direction gave me a ride home to Madison (approximately 25 miles away).

I remember sitting in the passenger seat with my head between my legs. I was in shock. We were listening to a news channel on the car radio. As we were driving past Newark Airport we heard that the Pentagon had been hit. I remember he turned off the radio, and we drove in silence. I thought that the entire nation was under attack! Every city!

Finally my wife and kids came home. Because my wife was with my daughters at pre-school, she really did not know what was happening or the extent of what was going on. I was a complete mess. She kept telling me to call my friends who worked with me downtown, and I kept on responding with each name, "Gail... theyíre dead." When I did finally talk with family and friends, I kept repeating, "Itís bad, itís so bad! All my friends are dead!" I could not stop thinking of what I had just experienced.

Fortunately I was wrong, and most of my friends made it out safely. However, I did lose four close friends, three who worked in the towers and one who was just there for a breakfast meeting at Windows on the World. Two of those friends worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, a company which lost nearly 750 employees. I was out with one of them on Monday night, the night before the tragedy. The other got me interviews and a job offer from Cantor when I was job hunting the year before. He was so proud of where he worked, on the 104th floor, above everyone. Had I taken that job offer, I would not be sitting here trying to explain my experience on September 11th.

Over the days that followed, I received calls from practically everyone who is or once was close to me. I continued to hear about friends and colleagues who were still missing in the tragedy.

The weeks following the attacks were also very hard. The employees of the investment bank I was working for were displaced because of severe damage to our building. We were scattered between Mid-town, Jersey City, and some worked out of their homes. Because we did not have a permanent building in which to go back, a few weeks later the company reduced its NYC work force by 40%. I was one of the employees who was "let go" as a result of downsizing. Then there were the funerals, where there were no caskets, just pictures. There were constant reminders of how these young lives with young kids were taken.

I am finally getting over the shock of what had happened and how close I was to it. After getting laid-off in September 2001, I decided to take the fall off and not even look for another job. I spent time thinking while painting our house. I spent quality time with my wife, two daughters, family, and friends. However, once the new year began, Iíve been focused on the future and plans for my own business. I did not what to return to corporate America and had no interest in working back in the NYC. I focused on turning a long term dream into a quick reality... hence the creation of StuffitsTM, a sandwich shop in my hometown of Doylestown, PA.

Looking back on this tragic experience I guess I learned several important things about life that I would like to share:

  • Never, ever take life for granted. It could end in a second.
  • Always kiss and tell the ones you love that you love them. It could be the last time you get the opportunity to do so.
  • Donít hold grudges.
  • Try to make people smile.
  • Do the things that make you happy in life. Health and happiness are really the only things that are important. If you have them, then everything else will fall into place.
  • Take time out for yourself, family, and friends and treasure those moments.

When people ask me what I remember most about September 11, 2001, it really isnít the debris, the panic, running to the ferry, the explosion when the second plane hit, or the twin towers collapsing. My most vivid memory is really of the night before when I said "Good Bye" to my friend who worked for Cantor on the 104th floor. We said "Good Bye" for the very last time. When we shook hands, he winked and he said, "Iíll see you soon." That "soon" will now be at the end of my life.


Copyright © 2002 Kurt L. Balderson. All rights reserved.


Stuffits TM
A note about September 11, 2001

For over 10 years prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center I worked as a Wall Street Trader at the World Financial Center in New York City. My sole purpose was to buy and sell financial instruments to maximize profits (i.e. make money). I neither created anything nor added any value. I learned the true meaning of greed and the lack of compassion of corporate America.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was below the World Trade Center. For lack of a better word, I panicked and literally ran for my life. I was traumatized and devastated in losing several friends and colleagues who never made it out, being displaced, and then finding myself out of work when the company I was working for downsized a few weeks later.

I focused my energies into turning a long term dream into a quick reality. Hence, the creation of StuffitsTM. My goal is to create a product that will add value, put a smile on peopleís faces, and help people interact and enjoy each otherís company.

My philosophy is that if it doesnít make life more enjoyable or put a smile on peopleís faces, then I donít want to sell it. I personally pledge that my company, StuffitsTM, will both produce the highest quality product and treat its customers and employees with the dignity, respect, and passion we all deserve. If StuffitsTM can brighten someoneís day or make someone a little happier, then there is a purpose and it is all worth it!

I hope you enjoy,

Kurt L. Balderson
President

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