Fast Talk: 9/11/02

It’s one year later. Where were you then? Where are you now? How have you changed?

Rono Dutta

United Airlines
Elk Grove Township, Illinois
The world has been through a lot. The employees of United Airlines have been through a lot — and more. It wasn’t until two weeks after September 11 that I gave myself permission to grieve. I was at the opening night of the Chicago Symphony. I just listened to the music and cried. And kept crying.


I am still grieving. But shock has given way to determination. September 11 forced us to get rid of the BS in our thinking. Before September 11, we wanted to be the biggest and best airline. Today, we just want to survive. Before September 11, we believed that size would forgive a lot of our errors. Now we have no room for error. Before September 11, we took a lot of things for granted: that business would always get better, that demand would grow. We no longer take anything for granted.

That said, our sense of purpose has never been greater. We are returning to our core values. Whether it’s in advertising, product positioning, or the way that we view ourselves and our customers, we’re more sincere in what we say and what we do.

Business has become more real.


Rono Dutta ( and another top executive at United Airlines had gathered in then-CEO James Goodwin’s office to report that air-traffic control had lost contact with United Airlines Flight 175 when Goodwin notified them that a plane, which was reported and later confirmed to be American Airlines Flight 11, had just struck the World Trade Center. From there, they watched on TV as their own plane struck the South Tower. Moments later, they learned that they had lost contact with United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania about an hour after the initial attack.

Tom Leighton

Cofounder and chief scientist
Akamai Technologies Inc.
Cambridge, Massachusetts
The day that took the life of my friend and cofounder was also the day that demonstrated the value and the power of our technology.

It was Danny Lewin’s idea to take an academic project that we’d been working on, enter a business-plan contest at MIT, and create Akamai. He was our chief technology officer, and he was on board American Airlines Flight 11. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about how Danny’s death has changed the lives of the people here.


Yet the day that we lost Danny was also the day that this company shined. It was a peak day for Internet volume, and many sites simply couldn’t handle it. We signed up all kinds of new customers on September 11 — news sites, airlines, and government agencies — and handled their traffic. For many Internet-service providers, the only traffic they could deliver that day was Akamai traffic.

Today, there is a heightened sense of urgency. We’ve always believed that the work we do is important; now we believe it more strongly. We always took our work personally; now it’s even more so. I spent at least four hours a day with Danny for several years. He was killed while working for the company that we created. If that doesn’t create an extra edge, what would?

Tom Leighton cofounded Akamai Technologies in 1998 with Danny Lewin and a team of scientists at MIT. Leighton had been working late with Lewin the night before September 11.


Joseph Noviello

Executive vice president, chief information officer, and director
eSpeed Inc.
New York, New York
We are proof that when tested, even under brutal circumstances, people rise to the occasion in miraculous ways.

The morning after September 11 and the days and weeks that followed, we worked around the clock to restore our systems and save the company. People did whatever it took. Those whose managers had died showed their skills as natural leaders. Their instincts for what to do were so strong. They figured out how to contribute based on what they knew. Many of us slept on cots at our computing center in Rochelle Park, New Jersey, where we had duplicates of everything that was destroyed at our offices in the World Trade Center. ESpeed was up and running when the bond market reopened two days after the attacks.

The need to get back to work was intense, and it was amazing how much everyone accomplished. We worked to restore this company for Fred Varacchi, our president, who was such a mentor to me, and for Joe Giaccone, our global infrastructure manager. I can walk into Rochelle Park today and see the eSpeed-orange wall that Joe insisted we paint. It was his passion and persistence that convinced us to create the backup data center in the first place.


Fred, Joe, and so many of the people we lost that day had such an effect on me. I am now more aware than ever of the effect that I can have on other people — and the commitment that requires.

Joseph Noviello and four eSpeed executives were scheduled to go on a fishing trip the morning of September 11. Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading firm, and eSpeed, an electronic-trading operation almost wholly owned by Cantor, lost 658 of their 900 employees.

Anna Switzer

Public School 234
New York, New York
People think we were evacuated. We weren’t evacuated. We evacuated ourselves. Parents were calling the school and alarms were going off and the building was shaking. As we left, the second tower fell.


I am a much better principal because of what happened. And we have much better teachers too. We share something that’s hard for other people to understand. I am much more aware of the power of leadership in a crisis and that leadership can come from so many people, regardless of their formal roles.

At the time, we didn’t realize that we wouldn’t be back in our school for another five months. The kids wanted normalcy — their old classroom. We couldn’t give them their building. But we could give them their work. In the course of their daily assignments, the kids found comfort. So now we have beautiful artifacts that show what we all experienced this past year. The work is what got us through.

Anna Switzer ( was in the school yard of Public School 234, which is four blocks away from what is now ground zero, when she saw the first plane hit. When the second plane hit, she says, “all hell broke loose.” Of the school’s 655 children, all were safely relocated. As the second tower collapsed, the last 90 kids were marched two and a half miles uptown by Switzer and a handful of staffers. Over the next five months, students and staff moved three times before returning to their school.


Paul Steiger

Managing editor and VP
The Wall Street Journal
New York, New York
I turned 60 in August, and I’ve been in this business for 36 years. I can’t say that work has become more important as a result of what happened — it’s always been important. But the tape has been running so much faster. There was the horror of September 11. There was the horror of Danny Pearl’s death. And it’s been one of the most intense years for business coverage: Enron, Andersen, WorldCom, among others.

Our resolve to get stories into the paper and to get them right has never been greater. The Journal‘s culture has dominated in just an extraordinary way. What we’ve done is to apply our existing values with greater rigor and more focus — because the challenges are so much bigger. I have seen such amazing performances from so many people — at a time when you might expect nothing but sand in the gears.

Paul Steiger (paul.steiger@wsj. com) was in his office in the World Financial Center, across from the World Trade Center, when the first plane crashed into the North Tower. The Journal’s main offices were evacuated by 9:15 AM, and its staff members were scattered for the rest of the day. Some regrouped at the Journal’s South Brunswick, New Jersey office, while others worked from home. On September 12, the paper reached 1.6 million of its 1.8 million readers. Under Steiger’s leadership, the Journal won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for breaking news.


David Emil

Former owner
Windows on the World
New York, New York
I lost my business on September 11. Big fucking deal. My loss shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as the loss of life.

The fact that 79 people died while working for my company has radically changed my life. I feel a huge responsibility to the people who lost their jobs. I feel an entirely different level of responsibility to the families of the people who lost their lives.

But I’m not superhuman. The physical destruction of our place of business meant the destruction of the business itself. I can’t create 350 jobs from whole cloth for the survivors. And no matter how much I do to help raise money for the victims’ families, I understand that there will always be raw emotion — anger and distress — over an inconceivable loss.


So all I can do is keep building and creating. Noche, a restaurant that we opened in Times Square last June, was the completion of the work of Christine Olender, a senior employee who was killed on September 11. Five years from now, I can imagine that there will be a fabulous building in lower Manhattan, and there will be a restaurant at the top of it that I would like to operate.

David Emil’s Night Sky restaurants operated Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. Windows, along with another restaurant and a bar on the top floor of the North Tower, employed 450 people. All 79 who were on duty that morning died. Windows of Hope, a fund that assists families of victims in the food-service industry, has raised more than $18 million.

Joseph Pfeifer

Deputy chief
New York City Fire Department
New York, New York
Heroism? It’s about doing an ordinary thing at an extraordinary time. It’s what those 343 firefighters who died on September 11 did, including my brother. I know now that when he was coming down from the 30th floor of Tower One, he stopped on the 10th floor and told the captain of Engine 7 that his crew needed to switch to the other set of stairs that led out directly into the lobby. About 30 seconds after they evacuated the building, the tower came down. My brother didn’t make it out.


You don’t run into a burning building if you don’t believe that your essence is being a firefighter, if you don’t believe that you can make a real difference in someone’s life. But we can’t always run toward everything. We did as much as we could that day. We knew what was happening. But what we didn’t know was that a high-rise building could collapse. The concept wasn’t part of our language, our procedures.

Today, I’m working with a team to help make fire departments safer. Firefighters will always be the first responders no matter what acts of terrorism are wreaked upon Americans, so we’re trying to figure out how to make that response safer and still save lives.

Joseph Pfeifer was the first fire chief to arrive at the World Trade Center on September 11 — in under four minutes. He recently finished working with the New York City Fire Department and McKinsey & Co. on a report on September 11.


Bernadette Kingham

VP, communications and marketing
Saint Vincent Catholic
Medical Centers
New York, New York
There is no such thing as being too prepared for the next disaster, and planning, we have come to learn, requires a serious commitment to collaboration.

September 11 tested the flexibility of more than 100 hospitals in the New York area to respond collectively to a tragedy. Early on, it became clear that our disaster plans were too insular — families in search of loved ones had to go through the mental anguish of traveling from hospital to hospital, because there was no single place to find out if and where a patient had been admitted. Today, we are developing a central system to locate patients and share information.

We feel a tremendous sense of urgency to be prepared for the next disaster. Nationwide, hospitals know they need to beef up their planning efforts. But in New York, we’re actually sitting around a table and making that happen.


Bernadette Kingham (bking heard the first plane flying low overhead from her office at St. Vincent’s Manhattan, the closest trauma center to the World Trade Center and one of eight hospitals in the Saint Vincent Catholic Medical Centers system. More than 1,000 victims were treated by the network.