While it is hard to believe it’s been twenty years, the terrorist attacks of September 11 are indelibly marked on our collective memory. It’s one of those rare moments in history when everyone remembers exactly where they were and what they were thinking.
At Coyne PR, the day began like most. A handful of employees arrived early to get a jump on the day, others were casually strolling in… we would all leave together. The news quickly spread throughout the office. It was first believed to have been a small plane crash but soon evolved into something much more sinister. No one could imagine the immense tragedy that was unfolding before us.
People began to gather in Tom Coyne’s office. It seemed like everyone was huddled around the radio listening to the live reports and praying for our friends, family and colleagues who were just across the Hudson and yet so far away. At one point, it became clear that there were multiple planes involved. Aircrafts were unaccounted for and the full gravity of the situation was very much unknown. That’s when Tom made the decision to close the office. He sent everyone home with instructions to gather their families close, stay safe and await further communication.
Those of us who were there will never forget that moment. We all left silently. There were no words.
As communications professionals in New Jersey and New York, we felt compelled to share some of our experiences, how we felt and how we feel on this somber anniversary. Of course, this is not our story alone. Sadly, 9/11 belongs to everyone.
Below are reflections on 9/11 from some Coyne PR staffers including our feature account as recalled by Linda Bernstein Jasper, who worked in the North Tower at the time.
Linda Bernstein Jasper, Senior Vice President, 31 on 9/11/01
At 8:35 a.m. on September 11, 2001, I sat down at my desk on the 28th floor of the North Tower in the World Trade Center to read The Wall Street Journal, part of my early morning ritual in my media relations job at Empire BlueCross BlueShield.
At 8:46, I heard – and felt – an explosion that was ear-crushing and jolted me from the inside out.
I looked out the window and saw paper raining from the sky and it smelled like gas. The building started to shake back and forth, and I thought it was going to topple over. It went eerily quiet throughout the entire floor, except for the “moaning” noises coming from the building as it swayed.
There was a muffled announcement on a loudspeaker, but I couldn’t make out what it was saying. Everyone knew something was wrong, but no one knew what had happened. I knew instinctively to get out.
Around 8:50, I went into the stairwell where it was packed with people moving way too slowly. I made my way into line and, one floor down, I saw Ed Bayea, who was a quadriplegic and worked as a computer programmer for Empire on the 27th floor. Ed sat in his wheelchair by the 27th floor exit door with his friend, Abe Zelmanowitz, a fellow programmer at Empire, anticipating that help would come. Both were killed that morning, and I can still see them waiting there together as clearly today as it was two decades ago.
Around the 20th floor, I saw firefighters running up, which forced those going down into a single line and made the descent go slower. All of those firefighters were killed.
I wore the worst possible shoes for a terrorist attack that day, and they made a “clicking” sound the whole way down. At 9:03, while I was still in the stairwell, the second plane hit the South Tower, which I had no idea about until hours later.
When I finally got to the sixth floor, the sprinklers went off, which made people move even more slowly. Around 9:30, I got out to the mezzanine and a security guard screamed at me, “GET OUT, NOW!” I ran outside through an emergency exit, and it looked like Armageddon, with smoke and fire everywhere. I was showered with falling glass.
I wasn’t sure what to do next and meandered alone in a daze. Cell phone communications were down and I couldn’t reach anyone at home.
I then heard “splat” noises, like you hear in a cartoon, but much louder. It was the sound of flying bodies hitting the ground from the 1,000+ feet at the top of the Towers. That was a choice people had to make that morning: jump 80 floors to your death or incinerate to death. To watch it in real-time is indescribable.
I was frantically trying to call my husband but couldn’t get through. Randomly, I was able to get through to my mom and let her know I had gotten out. Around 10:00, I heard a deafening rumble, like intense thunder, then watched the South Tower crumble to dust right in front of my eyes. I could hear screaming from every direction. At this point I turned north, walked three miles, and met my father-in-law on the corner of 28th and Madison. On my way, I turned around to see the North Tower disintegrate, where I had just been sitting at my desk. I went up into my FIL’s office, where all the TVs were on, which is when I first learned that hijacked jets flew into the buildings.
I was catatonic for days. My boss insisted that the media relations team return to work right away, since it was “a critical function.” In communications, we plan for crises all the time, but we don’t plan for when we’re part of the crisis. Thirteen people from my company were killed that day.
On 9/12, my husband said to me, “The voices of those who escaped the Towers are going to be like the voices of those who survived the Titanic. They become more important over time and more crucial as we get farther away from the event itself.”
Of course, I told him that was ridiculous. But, turns out he was right, which is why I have increasingly been speaking about my experience.
The most common question I get asked is, “Does it bother you to watch the footage from that day?” The answer is “no.” My personal footage is permanently etched in my brain. It’s the intangibles of the day that are the challenge…the bodily sensation of the explosion just 600 feet above me; the sounds of humans hitting pavement; and the overwhelming smell of fuel.
When I was going down the stairwell that day and inhaling the fumes, I was newly married and remember thinking, “Thank God I’m not pregnant.” On the 20th anniversary, my twin 17-year-olds are working on their college applications, testament to how the universe somehow always moves on.
Rob Schnapp, Senior Vice President, Executive Creative Director, 36
A week before that fateful day, I brought my young children to the Science Center at Liberty State Park. I vividly remember bringing them outside and pointing out the Twin Towers. A week later, they were gone. On reflection, it felt like my goodbye.
On September 11, I was on a high floor in my midtown Manhattan office. I saw with my own eyes as the first tower fell, not knowing the fate of a very close relative who worked there. Thankfully, he survived. The brave heroes he saw going up the stairs would never come back down.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years. On the 10th anniversary, I was compelled to make a video showing all the movies in which the World Trade Center appeared. See it here.
Julie Ann Geraghty, Vice President, Administration, 34
I remember that morning, I had planned on taking a later train from Morristown to Penn Station because I was mailing my wedding invitations. I dropped the invites in the mail, boarded the train and listened to some music. It was a gorgeous day when, all of the sudden, our train stopped in Maplewood. It wasn’t long before we knew something terrible had happened. I have a flag pin that I wear every day since, never forget.
Kelly Dencker, Executive Vice President, 33
I was working at an agency in Manhattan that morning (28th and Madison) and recall being on deadline for several client plans. I was listening to 95.5 WPLJ-FM (Scott and Todd in the Morning) when they paused the broadcast to say a plane hit one of the World Trade Center Towers. They were unaware of what type of plane had hit and were surprised such a thing could ever happen…then the second plane hit, and the tone of the broadcast changed along with confusion, fear, and alarm that took over the agency where I worked.
Staff were coming off the elevators for work shaken by the sight of the second low-flying passenger plane that crashed. Multiple TVs were rolled into common areas as we watched the buildings burn and fall before we were sent home. Ironically, I recall it being a beautiful fall day – bright blue sky, warm sun, low humidity. I stood in line for hours waiting to catch a ferry back to NJ (train service was suspended) alongside businesspeople in full work suits and dresses (everyone wore suits to work every day) covered head to toe in dust from the fallen buildings.
It took me about 7-9 hours to get home that day and all I could (and still) think about was the number of innocent people that couldn’t go home to their families that day. It’s still heartbreaking.
Tim Schramm, Executive Vice President, 33
I was working on Hudson Street in lower Manhattan. Our CEO was shouting updates from the radio on one side of the office while on the other side people watched the towers from the windows. We all tried to call our loved ones, but we just kept getting busy signals. Occasionally someone would get a connection.
It was total confusion and helplessness. In the coming days the streets would be filled with missing person flyers and posters attached to lamp posts, construction walls and subway stations. My dad had passed away earlier that year at 62 and I thought that was too young. Hundreds of flyers had pictures of people in their twenties. It’s still difficult to process the enormity of it all.
John Gogarty, President, 31
I was miserably working for a NJ firm at the time with offices near the Meadowlands. We got a first-hand view of the towers collapsing and I think seeing the towers clear as day from the offices had a major impact on many of us – it was just terrible. I recall someone half-jokingly said, “now we have time for that meeting we’ve been putting off.”
Driving home that afternoon I was thinking there must be something better than this job. Hard Rock was a client of mine, and a friend there started gathering supplies for the first responders. The Hard Rock on 57th became a drop-off location for food, water, cigarettes, ice… anything the first responders could need.
We travelled down to the site on the 13th and dropped off supplies – I remember firemen saying it was very unstable and wasn’t safe to be there, so we quickly left, but seeing the devastation first-hand and up-close was horrific. I started a dialogue with Tom soon after that and joined Coyne a couple of months later.
Deborah Sierchio, Senior Vice President, 29
I was on a train on the way to Hoboken where I then transferred to the PATH to head into the city. I never got off the Summit to Hoboken train. It stopped mid-way and we saw the smoke plummet. The mobile phones of everyone on the train started to ring simultaneously. My sister got through, she told me what she knew so far, and I told her I was okay. After that, no phones worked.
Once we arrived in the Hoboken station, we were asked to stay on the train and move over to allow the new passengers on the train that were pouring into the station, most of which were covered with soot. In silence, we watched the towers fall as the train pulled out of the station and back to summit. It took 4 hours to get back to Summit (usually a 20–30-minute ride), because the train kept stopping and people were getting nervous.
Later that day, I went for a run to clear my head and saw a woman collapsed on her front lawn weeping, surrounded by her kids and a priest.
Michelle Abril, Vice President, 22
I was living in Cancun and remember receiving an early phone call from my sister regarding the news. My stepfather worked in the area and my family was frantically trying to track his whereabouts. My mother worked in midtown and was trying to get home. One of my best friends was flying out to visit me and never arrived as her plane was grounded.
Being away was daunting but finally hearing that friends and family were thankfully alive and safe, albeit traumatized, was a huge relief. Flying back home post 9/11 was jarring as seeing all the military at the airport was sadly our new reality.
Paul Zakrzewski, Associate Creative Director, 21
It was a sunny and cool morning, and I was driving down Interstate 130 listening to Z100 on my way to the last few days of my internship in Dayton, NJ. I was ending my internship early to spend the next two weeks in London with a friend who was studying abroad. Excited for my first long distance Euro trip without family.
As I drove along, Elvis Duran cut from whatever they were talking about to mentioning a plane hitting the World Trade Center. Thinking it was a tourist plane, I got to work, and the entire office was buzzing. The phones were out as well as the internet, which I want to say didn’t start back up for another week.
As all the news came out, all I could think about was that I was supposed to be interning at American Express in the Financial District, but timing didn’t work out, so I had to pass on the opportunity. When we finally got TV reception again, photos of the Financial Center were shown with all the glass blown off the building.
My internship ended, my trip was cancelled, but luckily, I was safe in NJ. I moved back to school in Philadelphia, and for the next month or so, you could hear the low flying military planes making their rounds. I still listen to Z100 every year and join their moment of silence.
Shana Walther, Vice President, Marketing & New Business, 15
I was a sophomore in high school and was oblivious in my drivers ed class at the time. We had no clue what was going on because there were no TVs in the drivers ed classes. Suddenly, tons of students were being paged to the principal’s office because their parents were there to pick them up. Once the bell rang to change periods, everyone in the hallways filled me in on what was happening, and it was on all the TVs after that. I remember just sitting and watching in disbelief for the rest of the day.
Caroline Aponte, Senior Account Supervisor, 11
When I think about September 11th, 2001, the scenes and the feelings of that day always come rushing back. Remembering the worry on my parents’ faces and how they tried to calm me as I watched the unbelievable and heart-wrenching footage from a city I loved. I was only in middle school, and I remember my mom came to pick me up in the middle of the day. She explained gently what was happening and I barely understood and honestly couldn’t believe it. Yet with the hurt from that day, I’ll never forget how we all came together to help one another and rebuild.
Megan Schuster, Senior Social Media Strategist, 11
Though I knew it was an infamous day to be noted in future American history textbooks, the impact of 9/11 turned from an objective fear as a 6th grader surrounded by tears of adults and horrifying news to part of my personal makeup nearly a decade later.
As a Journalism and Media Studies student in 2011, I participated in Rutgers’ 9/11 Student Journalism Project – truly a lifechanging experience. For the 10th anniversary, I had the privilege of interviewing and sharing the stories of three girls from my hometown who lost their father on 9/11.
The project required a deep dive into narrative journalism and thus shaped my viewpoint on the importance of storytelling. Sharing their stories is one way to celebrate the legacy of those who were lost, honor their families and pay tribute to the heroes who arose that day and thereafter. May we never forget.
Melissa Thompson, Assistant Vice President, 11
I was in my 6th grade reading class, only a few days into the new school year after just moving to town. My teacher always kept an FM radio on for background noise, but that morning she paused suddenly to turn up the radio to hear the breaking news. Just a few minutes later, the entire school was called to shelter in the gym. When I finally got home, we watched the news on TV for what felt like weeks straight. I remember feeling so vulnerable after previously believing that the US was invincible.
Jaclyn LaSpata, Social Media Strategist, 9
On 9/11, I was in the 4th grade at Washington Elementary School in Westfield, New Jersey. I remember seeing the smoke from the Twin Towers while I waited outside of school for my mom to pick me up early. I remember teachers crying, but not fully grasping the reality of what had happened until I got home from school and my mom put on the news.
I remember my dad, an Elizabeth Police Sergeant, leaving for work to sift through the rubble. My dad came home and told us that amidst the chaos and devastation, he had found an unbroken ornament from the World Trade Center gift shop that said, “Peace on Earth.”
Stacey Cooney, Account Supervisor, 8
I’ll never forget sitting in my elementary school lunchroom looking at the adults, knowing there was something wrong but not understanding the magnitude of the situation. As they hurried everyone to their parents after school, the principal asked me to have my neighbor call him when I arrived home safely. I had permission to make my short walk to my neighbor’s house alone daily, so this new concern was strange. Over the next few hours, I saw what happened through a child’s eye, and with each anniversary that passed afterwards, I understood more of what I didn’t understand then.