9/11 attacks: Industry remembers 20 years on

Scenes of chaos, tragedy, humanity and strength still resonate

By: Louise Esola | September 1, 2021

The insurance industry had a large presence in the World Trade Center, and Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, began like any other morning in lower Manhattan. People had gotten their coffee on the way from the trains. They took the elevators up. They chatted with colleagues and made plans for lunch. Meetings were in session or about to begin.

But some were running late. They had doctor or dentist appointments, or they missed the train. Had gotten called to a meeting in another city. A child was sick. Or they were stuck in New York’s infamous morning commute.

Chance and circumstance determined the fate of so many people in the industry when, a short while later, lives ended and many more were changed when al-Qaida terrorists flew hijacked planes into the iconic Twin Towers.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Business Insurance interviewed industry professionals who survived the attacks, who could have been there, who should have been there, and who can’t forget. These are the colleagues of the more than 500 insurance industry executives who lost their lives.

For an industry that knows disaster and aftermath well, the event shattered companies, broke the hearts of many, and eventually forced them to move forward to become whole. It wasn’t easy, and, as some have said, it still isn’t. For some, time only passes as much as memory will allow.

These are just five survivor stories but, as we heard over and over, they could be the voices of hundreds.

John Trace: in an early morning meeting on the 52nd floor of the south tower.

John Trace was meeting with a small group on the 52nd floor of the World Trade Center’s south tower, the headquarters for Guy Carpenter & Co. LLC., when a loud boom had everybody rush to the wide windows to look down: People in the plaza were running in different directions.

“We assumed it was something below,” said Mr. Trace, who then worked as a facultative broker and is now CEO North America for the reinsurance broker. “And it was pretty big. There was debris in the air. … I ran down the hall and everybody was standing around. Nobody knew what was going on. We just knew we needed to get out of the building.”

From there groups of colleagues poured into a stairwell, moving calmly, as more and more entered from other floors. At about the 30th floor landing, another large, and more proximate-sounding boom knocked people off their footing. “That’s when tensions became heightened. But people were terrific, helping people up,” Mr. Trace said.

“Ultimately, we got down to what was the mezzanine and there were all these shoes and stuff on the floor; people were running as fast as they could and left their shoes,” he said. From there, Mr. Trace saw a firefighter directing people to the lower level, where it was dark but where they could access the street.

“It was the most harrowing scene; at that point we started seeing people who jumped out of the building,” Mr. Trace said.

It didn’t occur to Mr. Trace and his colleagues — as they made their way together through lower Manhattan, scrambling and confused — that it had been an event of an unfathomable nature for people in the insurance industry, whose job is to predict and prepare for the worst: Passenger airliners had been flown into a famous pair of skyscrapers that dominated the New York skyline for nearly three decades.

“We realized it was a terrorist attack, people on the street were talking,” he said. “Then we heard this incredible noise. The building I had just been in just started pancaking. You just couldn’t believe what you were seeing. We were left with that horrific thought of what was happening, watching the building come down.”

The image of chaos is still fresh from what Mr. Trace recalls had been a “beautiful, beautiful day” before the mayhem. But so is the scene of what came next: strangers helping strangers. “There’s a moment in time, I will never forget, that as horrific as it was, you saw the best in humanity — people coming together.”

For the Guy Carpenter workers who survived — several hundred people worked at the company headquarters in the World Trade Center and 23 were killed — the day was “a seminal date that divides your life,” Mr. Trace said. The company holds an annual breakfast to remember those who were lost.

Although he is a senior executive in the industry, Mr. Trace said he feels tasked with something beyond that.

“We want to make sure future generations never forget — not only the atrocity but the moments, the period after, when we all came together,” he said.

Jennifer Fahey: in her office on a top floor in the south tower, facing a blue sky to the north.

Moments after the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., people in the top floors of the south tower had front row seats to the horror of the day.

So recalled Jennifer Fahey, an early riser who worked on the 100th floor as a senior leader in financial lines for Aon PLC and was among the first to know what had happened. She was in her office, large windows facing a crisp blue sky, when she saw a large plane zoom past and hit the neighboring tower. A plume of smoke and fire ignited a sense of urgency. Run.

Unaware it was a terrorist attack, Ms. Fahey’s first concern was that the billowing smoke would affect the building she was in, so she urged colleagues on her floor, rounding up as many as she could in a sweep of the office, to begin evacuating down a stairwell, where they found a stream of others intent on evacuating.

The escape route led to another floor to cross in search of another stairwell or elevator. Immediacy and confusion, and the instinct to run came to a halt — everybody froze — when the large windows facing north gave a panoramic view of something that would revisit them in nightmares.

A massive gash in the steel and glass of the other tower, smoke and fire, and people leaping intentionally or falling to their deaths. “People were paralyzed watching. They were literally paralyzed by the horror,” she said.

Ms. Fahey and others continued on, crowding into elevators in minutes, moments many would later discover meant the difference between life and death. By the time they reached the ground floor there was metal falling. Water was pouring out of somewhere.

“At that point there were a lot of people running,” Ms. Fahey said. Outside, “it was like a war zone.”

From there police were directing them to “don’t look up, don’t look around, just leave,” she said. She and her colleagues were about a block away when the second tower — theirs — was hit.

“There’s always sadness,” she said. Aon lost 176 employees in the attack.

There’s “constantly wondering if we did everything we could to get everybody out … when we couldn’t get people to leave. When we heard later that people went back upstairs, that they were told to go back — thinking about things like that is horrible.”

Ms. Fahey, who still works in Manhattan but now as a managing director for Marsh LLC, hasn’t been back to the scene. She tries not to work on the anniversary of that day, and she watches memorials on television. “This year I would love to be brave and go down there. Remembering that day and the people we lost is so important.”

Al Tobin: in a car heading for Manhattan, the skyline in view moments before impact.

Al Tobin was in a car service vehicle in heavy morning traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway heading into Manhattan from the airport, watching the distant skyline grow larger and larger, when he saw an airplane smack into the north tower of the World Trade Center. His destination was the south tower, where he had been working for Aon PLC since 1995. That tower was hit 17 minutes later.

Seeing the two smoldering buildings “instantaneously I knew we were under attack,” he said, calling the scene “surreal.”

Mr. Tobin, who now works for Alliant Insurance Services Inc. in New York, had been a guest speaker at a Risk and Insurance Management Society Inc. Cleveland chapter meeting the night prior and was all set to take an earlier flight home to New York but was invited to watch Monday Night Football at a bar instead. The New York Giants were playing.

Otherwise, he would have been in his office on the 102nd floor, where he had just moved from the 100th floor after a promotion. Outgoing, he knew many on those top floors at Aon and lost several colleagues who had worked with him over the years. An assistant. People he had gone to lunch with a lot. If he didn’t know names, he knew faces. A lot of familiar ones made the list of those lost.

“All I could think about were my colleagues and their families,” he said. “It was just a terrible time,” he said of the aftermath. “It was a plethora of funerals and memorials — just the saddest time of your life.”

It was also a time of learning more about the people who were gone, he said. Looking back, he regrets not getting to know some of them better. “You know them nine-to-five and they are doing a great job and you are happy for them, but you never really get to know them until tragedy hits. … It’s a terrible way to find out how great people were,” he said.

Following the attacks, surviving Aon colleagues worked from scratch, he said. Everything was gone: computers, phone numbers, client files. They had to regroup.

“So many people helped — from the little things, bringing food to families, to the big things, helping counsel employees,” he said. “Tragedy brings people together, and I saw that. I saw people absolutely overwhelmed, losing colleagues they’d known for such a long time. I always looked at it as, we had to put the company back together again for the people we lost, for their families.”

Mr. Tobin hasn’t yet been to the Sept. 11 memorial but said the 20th anniversary, to him, means “it’s time.”

“I have been close to it. I have driven past it. But to see and read the names, it is going to be difficult,” he said.

John Zeni: eating breakfast, chatting with colleagues on the 48th floor of the south tower.

A computer programmer for Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co., John Zeni was making his normal rounds, breakfast sandwich and coffee in hand, chatting with colleagues on the 48th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center when a flicker and a shake proved ominous. Then came the smell of burnt rubber, and the sound of debris hitting the windows of the building.

Having been in the same building in 1993 when terrorists detonated a bomb in the parking garage, he chose to evacuate with colleagues down a stairwell. Learning that it was an incident isolated to the other tower and hearing a loudspeaker message telling workers to return to their offices, he had by then paired up with a pregnant colleague whose instinct to leave the building trumped any advice that they would be safer in their office. They continued to trek down, dozens of floors.

A loud blast that shook the stairwell confirmed that leaving was the right thing to do. Mr. Zeni said this was when their tower was hit by a second plane.

“As we were going down you could hear people from the top, rushing down,” he said. “We didn’t know what happened. … To me it felt as though the building were crumbling down.”

Outside the building there was soot, smoke and falling debris. A New York native who’s never lived outside of a five-mile radius of the city, he led a group away from the scene.

“It was total chaos,” he said. “Nobody knew what it was. No one knew what to do. People were just screaming and running.”

Mr. Zeni and his pregnant colleague traversed through the crowds, sirens screeching, and made it several blocks north to Chinatown before a deafening noise had them look back and up. One of the towers was buckling, and then, surreally, the skyscraper collapsed. Their building.

In time, they would learn that everyone on their floor survived. The next floor up was not so lucky, he said. Two of his relatives who also worked in the towers were killed. A member of an insurance bowling league at the time, he also lost friends who worked for other companies in the towers.

“I have become so emotional since that day,” he said. “I don’t know if it was everything I had seen. The thought of what if I didn’t get out. Of who didn’t. Seeing all of that really affected me. I still get emotional, but it is getting easier.”

Dan McGarvey: last-minute trip to San Antonio for a client meeting.

As United States Naval Academy midshipmen and fighting men in training, Dan McGarvey and his classmate Michael McGinty had a notion that either of them could be lost in some mire of war. They teach that in the services.

After graduating together in 1981 and joining the fleet as naval officers — eventually serving as best man in each other’s weddings along the way — they found themselves in their post-naval careers on the same team in Marsh LLC’s power practice. A terrorist attack minutes before a regular team meeting in the north tower of the World Trade Center on what was just a normal Tuesday in business attire wasn’t expected.

But that’s what Mr. McGarvey, who now serves as a managing director for Marsh’s power and renewable energy practice out of Asheville, North Carolina, was watching on a television set in a hotel lobby in San Antonio, having missed the New York meeting for a board presentation with a client. A closer look at the smoldering building on the screen brought the jarring realization: The first airliner hit at just the place where Marsh meetings were held, on the 96th floor of the north tower.

“I convinced myself that my colleagues would have been late,” he said, adding that it was unlikely that would be the case. The team, many former military professionals like himself, were never late. “I feared the worst and hoped for the best,” he said.

He went to his client meeting and by the time it was finished, news that the tower had collapsed confirmed a growing fear. “I knew then at least some of them didn’t make it out,” he said. Later, after frantic calls and confirmations, he knew the toll — four team colleagues killed on impact, his classmate and best man among them.

With 295 Marsh professionals gone, including losses at Guy Carpenter, the company scrambled to assist families, to make sense of what happened, and to eventually, somehow, get back to work.

Mr. McGarvey spoke of the notion of battlefield promotions, a war term for personnel immediately filling the role of another who is killed. In the aftermath of 9/11, as it would happen, he took over for his colleague and friend Mike.

“Like anybody at Marsh, I lost 30 friends that day and every one was a tragedy, but this one hit close to home,” he said. The anniversary is “never easy,” he added. “It will show up as the news of the day and it’s like it is happening again.”

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