Skip to main content

Many, many of you called Tuesday to find out what and how I was doing. I was so overwhelmed with your concern and interest that I thought I would send this as general letter to let you know what went on, just in an overall sense.

First, I want to thank God for His hand in every step. I know that the lack of panic and the presence of clear thinking helped me, and ultimately us, to weather the considerable storm. From the very first realization that the first World Trade Center tower was under attack, until my wife Nancy picked me up in Montvale, we were protected all the way.

I was settling into my office to read some research at around 8:45 a.m. I had just talked to Nancy to hear that I had forgotten to transfer my wallet from my gym bag ( I had been to the gym that morning) to my work/office bag. It was no big deal as I had my train, ferry passes and my building-security pass, so I was fine for the day.

I hung up with Nancy and started to review the daily research, when I felt something I never thought I would feel in New York: an earthquake. Or so it seemed. I looked up at Rob out in the hall, and he looked at me – not having been through an earthquake before – and he asked me what was with his eyes. Before I could answer, we felt an other-worldly explosion. I looked out my south-facing window on the 34th floor in time to see thousands and thousands of pieces of papers in the air. Looking down on the ground below, there were dozens of burning pieces of something.

I went to the eastern-facing window, assuming that it had to be something to do with the WTC. I looked out in horror to see the first tower engulfed in flames from about the 80th floor all the way up to the top. I was the only one on my floor to check it out and announced to the other brokers and workers that the trade center had been bombed and that we had to leave immediately.

Having enough presence to grab my laptop and bag, we began an incredibly orderly evacuation of the building down the emergency staircase. Lights were on and no one was panicking. It took about 10 minutes to make our way down. At the end, we opened up the door and faced out to the West Side Highway, which for us, meant that we were facing east. We looked up and saw, smelled, heard the impact of the first tower burning. Then people on the ground started to scream in terror – people were jumping from the top of the WTC! Being faced with the choice of burning or jumping, more than a few chose to jump. This is probably the scene which will haunt me more than the next, or any other, Tuesday.

While we were trying to grasp the fact that people were being forced to jump because of flames, or whatever was going on up there, an engine roar began to get louder. Was it a missile, a bomber, a jet? Then the seconds of not knowing were abruptly ended when a huge commercial airliner came over the buildings, flew over our heads (literally), and flew right into the second WTC building! Something about our perceptions went berserk at that point. We all thought it was a video movie or a stunt, and someone would yell, "Cut! Try it again, and get a better shot." But there was no one to ease the horror. What took place was beyond anyone's realm of experience, and no one was able to immediately grasp what had happened. So we all just stared at the building.

From our perspective, the building had just swallowed up this huge jumbo jet. No one had stopped to think about the people on the plane. We were trying to grasp that this plane had just plowed into one of the world's largest manmade edifices! There was no fire, explosion or anything. It had this other-worldly, surreal impression. What we were unable to see was the massive explosion on the other side. It wasn't until we saw the video on TV, where we could see the impact from the other side, that we actually saw what the impact was.

While we were standing there dumbfounded, the building began to shudder and catch fire. It dawned on us that if it fell, it might fall right on us, and we all began to run.

I ran to the only way out that I knew, my N.Y. Waterway ferry. But thousands were already there and appeared to be overwhelming the dock, the ramp and possibly the ferry. My strategy in these events is twofold: Act quickly and decisively, and stay away from large groups of people. If this was indeed a terrorist act, they might try to follow up by injuring those attempting to flee, especially if they were all in one place. The ferry was the only thing running, and I was not going to go down on a dock with too many people after having survived the WTC attacks.

So, I walked quite a way north on the boardwalk, hoping to catch a point where the people had gotten over and I could get on the ferry and go home. This is what I had told my wife and the one client I was able to get through to in Los Angeles.

As I waited and watched, more people were jumping out, and it got to the point that we just were unable to watch this horrifying scene. Many just started walking and stopped looking. That went on for about 30 minutes. As I stayed away from crowds, it appeared that the numbers crossing on the ferry stayed strong and were not going down any time soon. Given that it was the only way I knew to get off the island, I just decided to wait.

Then the unthinkable happened – the first of the two towers collapsed! For a second, many of us thought it was another jet. We could not tell the difference in sound from where we were. We couldn't understand why the Air Force had not come to help. And then we realized that it was the tremendous energy released from the tower finally giving in to the melting of the upper part of the structure. At that point, I knew I had to start walking ... not sure how far, maybe to the George Washington Bridge, a good seven to eight miles up the West Side Highway. But the police made it clear that we could not stay there. So I started walking in earnest at that point.

We got around the first large marina, and I realized I needed to try to reach Nancy to alert her to the change in plans. She figured I would be home in the next couple of hours. Now no one knew how long it would take. So I stopped to try to dial out. At that point, people started gasping again, and I turned around to watch the second building go down. Long, long silver shards of steel stripped away while the now too-heavy infrastructure gave way. The northerly wind kept the cloud from following us up to that point, but even the wind was unable to hold back this unstoppable envelope of dust and bits of glass. So we really started moving fast for the first time.

Enough time had lapsed that I felt any further direct attacks were at least not probable. But I had read stories of terrorists planting bombs in cars to kill those fleeing. So we stayed on the walk away from any vehicles. By this time, I was part of a "pick up team" – that is, three of us who had banded together for safety, and probably more so, for fellowship and wisdom.

Sherri was a lady probably my age, dressed in a simple black dress – the uniform of Wall Street – wearing what I would find out later were new shoes, and tough to walk in. She was here, living in the city in the Embassy Suites, and had been there for a month or so. All of her worldly goods were in the hotel. That is the good news. The bad news: That hotel is – no, was – right across the street from the second tower! This lady was now homeless and had no where to go. So I suggested that she come home with me, and that Nancy and I would help her to piece her life back together. This was a rather forward proposition to someone I had known all of 20 minutes, but it seemed the right thing to do. Surprisingly, she accepted!

Then, a gentleman named Rich joined our group when I asked him how we might get off the island with the WFC ferry not working. He said there was a ferry up on 38th. It was a hike, but we would be OK.

At Chelsea Piers, after we had been walking for some time, several people were asking the crowd if anyone needed to get to Jersey. They were offering their substantially large luxury cruise boats to be used for ferry service. We decided after a brief ad hoc committee meeting that we would be better off the island rather than on, period. So we elected to get in line. A half-hour later, we got on this boat, which was able to seat and feed around 500 people. We took about another 30 minutes to get over and dock at Weehauken, directly across the river.

Rich had parked a little north of there and offered to drive us home, what with him living in Rockland County. So we decided that Montvale train station would work. We didn't know at that time about the truck load of bombs apprehended by the police, so we were clueless as to why the George Washington Bridge was sealed off the way it was. That made it virtually impassable for Rich. But he was very patient, even as he was suspecting that one of his guys might have been in the WTC and was not responding to a page. Once we got past the GW, traffic was a piece of cake, as they say.

As we drove up Kinderkemack road, we began to unwind. Nancy, and a friend who drove her there, were waiting to receive Sharon and me, and we transferred into Phil's car. Our ordeal was over. But it was only starting for dozens of others.

It was at this point, when I got home, that I found so many had tried to reach me and make sure I was OK. That meant more to me than you will ever know. The stories will now start coming out. But having been through several major earthquakes and riots in Southern California, I can assure everyone of one thing: The behavior of people in general in this city was something I never thought I would see. Not once did I see any one take advantage of the situation, there was no looting, and no one tried to hassle any one! It was so civilized that it was almost like it was rehearsed! I was impressed beyond words.

But now we have to face the aftermath. Our community had many, many people associated with Wall Street. Unfortunately, many of them worked in the WTC. Benjamin, my son, revealed the fear and terror in the high school as hundreds of children watched this unfold, not knowing if their parents were there or not. Unfortunately, Benjamin was one. We were unable to get word to him right away because of the phones. But we finally got to him and assured him of my safety. Others of his friends and classmates will not be so fortunate. It is now that we hope to reach out to them. Nancy called this morning to volunteer her time to help with the kids. Understandably, the school is shell-shocked. It will be days before the impact is known for sure.

To those of you who believe in prayer, please pray for our community and others. We have been put into an indirect war zone and will need all of the reserves we can muster.

I give all of you my love and thanks, your calls meant a tremendous amount to me. Hopefully, this will give you a brief picture of what I saw and lived through.

Bob Evenden
CIBC Oppenheimer