From the Brink

When tragedy strikes, no one is prepared for the grief and anger that follow. In the aftermath of September 11, multiply that grief exponentially. It's a Herculean task for the survivors: trying to find a way to cope with the loss of livelihoods and loved ones while also dealing with a larger collective context.

At 8:45 a.m. on September 11, 2001, Owen May was sitting in his car, its turn signal blinking, first in line to turn left into a parking garage beneath the World Trade Center. Gil Scharf had just finished a business lunch in London. Karen Preziosi was on a city bus headed downtown on the Avenue of the Americas. Then the minute hand moved forward, and life changed.

" The morning of the eleventh, I had the alarm clock set early," says May M.B.A. '83, whose investment firm, May Davis Group, had on September 10 put to rest a lengthy and difficult battle with a much larger financial company. The protracted struggle had nearly cost the firm everything, May says, and the settlement had come just in time to keep the doors open and allow the small company to begin to recoup.

" On Monday, everybody was high-fiving in the office," he says. "We could move on. As I was leaving, I said, 'Listen, I'll be here first thing in the morning, and we'll do what we need to do to get back in the game.' I was really happy. When the alarm clock went off Tuesday at six-something, my daughter was lying in the bed with me, kicking all over the bed, and I said, I'm going to hang out for just a little longer. And now I get up at 7:15 or so, really behind, and I rush and get into the car and start my work from the car."

Preziosi B.S.E. '84 had also planned an early arrival at her office. Vice president of information technology financial and business software at Euro Brokers Inc., she was responsible for software issues, and Tuesday morning, new software was being launched. A co-worker had offered to be the one to come in at seven that morning to deal with it, but Preziosi felt she should be there. It didn't happen.

May, meanwhile, was driving in from New Jersey, making calls and assigning tasks. "I probably called the office fifteen times between my house and there," he says. "Everyone's saying, 'Owen, where are you?' I get down to just about West Street, I say, 'Listen, I'm a couple of minutes away, I'll be upstairs in a second.' 'Okay, Owen, we'll see you in a couple of minutes. Bye.' I get right in front of the Trade Center, and there's a red light where I turn in and park my car inside the garage every day, and I hear an explosion."" Monday night the Giants were playing, and I watched the game to the end, a little after one o'clock," she says. "And when the alarm went off the next morning for me to go in early, I couldn't get up." Knowing her co-worker would be there, she left at her regular time, catching a bus in Sea Bright, New Jersey, sitting down by the driver and settling in for a ride that would have gotten her to the office around nine.

Construction noise is just part of the New York soundscape, and May says a large project had been going on nearby. "I'm thinking they're dynamiting. It was a little louder than expected, but, hey, there's a whole lot of rock. I see a woman looking up, and the blood had drained from her face and she was pale white. And I try to look up--I was too close to the building, and I had to look underneath my rear-view mirror. I see flames coming out, I see little papers coming out, just now sprinkling down, and I'm the first car in line there, and I call upstairs."

The offices at May Davis were in 1 World Trade Center, on the eigthty-seventh floor, a suite chosen by May in the mid-1990s when tenants had left after the 1993 bombing and rents were low. He built up the firm from the thirty-five employees who moved in to a high of eighty, then restructured in 2000 and settled at sixty. Fourteen of those employees were already at work that morning, and one of them answered May's 8:46 call.

" She's saying, 'What do I do?' and I'm counting windows. I look up at Windows on the World and I'm counting down," May says. "I don't want to tell everybody to run out the door knowing they're going to run into the fire, so I said, 'I don't know.' "

Tragic vista: Altman's view from his parents' 19th-floor apartment

Tragic vista: Altman's view from his parents' 19th-floor apartment. Greg Altman '95.

On the bus, Preziosi was chatting with the driver. "All of a sudden, somebody says on the [dispatch] radio, 'Don't bring the buses toward Wall Street. There's smoke pouring out of the World Trade Center.' I got up to get a better look out the window, because we're still driving down towards Canal Street at this point, and I said, 'Oh my God, there is smoke.' So I get on my cell phone."

Preziosi reached a co-worker, who told her things were "okay; it's a small plane." "I'm like, 'It is not small. I'm telling you that I'm looking at at least a five-story hole in First Tower, you've got to get out of there!' And the bus stopped, right near Canal Street."

" I was sitting at one of our trading desks," says Gil Scharf '70, chairman of Euro Brokers Inc., a financial services firm with offices in New York City and in London. He was in the London office that week and, after lunching with a client, had taken a moment to check television news headlines. "All of a sudden, a flash comes across that a plane has hit the World Trade Center."

The London and New York offices have transatlantic telephone connections between the trading desks. "We heard that the plane hit Tower One, the north tower, and we were in Tower Two, the south tower," Scharf says. "I have guys on the link lines telling people to get out. Then the Port Authority came on the loudspeaker system and made an announcement that Building Two is secure, go back to your offices. We had people going down, and they heard that announcement, and some of them went back up."

In Tower One, the May Davis employees had begun to evacuate. On the street, May began to try to figure out how to get his car out of the way, and then he began to try to figure out how to get into the building to help his employees. As he stood below the towers, he recalls, "I'm watching this next plane from the Statue of Liberty. The day was so clear, it was so calm--it was a beautiful day--and I'm saying, why is this plane coming into the area? Don't they know there's a problem?"

In his eigthy-seventh floor office, May says, he had gotten used to the patterns of the air traffic that swirled around the southern tip of Manhattan. This plane didn't fit. Thinking logically, he decided it must be trying to dump water on the blazing tower. "Then I'm saying, this guy isn't dropping water. This guy's close! Maybe he's lost. Maybe he just doesn't know what he's doing. And as he's getting closer, I'm hearing him rev his engine up, and I'm watching him, and I'm standing there saying, push over, push over, because he's going toward the east side of the building, but he's tipping his wings so it looks like maybe he's trying to get out of the way, and now I see, this thing is going to hit. I'm standing there, I'm realizing that as he hits, I am right here" on the opposite side of the tower. "This plane is going to go through the building and it's going to come out the other side and it's going to kill me."

It was 9:02. In Tower One, May's employees were on their way down eighty-seven flights of stairs. In Tower Two, many Euro Brokers employees were evacuating, but some had remained--most at the trading desks on the eighty-fourth floor. Scharf was watching CNN in London. Preziosi--cell- phone service down--was waiting for a pay phone, hoping to reach her co-workers. May was standing below the south tower, "and I watched him hit the building."

" First, you're in shock," May remembers. "You have no clue. Then something real kicks in and says, 'Owen, you'd better run.' And I run real quick and huddle in a corner, just a little concrete corner, with a couple of women." Their lives were saved when the fireball shattered out sideways over the plaza instead of directly through the building as the first had done.

" You're just standing there," says Scharf of his reaction to seeing the explosion happen in front of him on television, but 3,500 miles away. "You can't say anything. And looking at the pictures, seeing the plane hit, you know the fireball probably went right through the trading floor."

" Out of the thousands of people leaving the area," May recalls, he was spotted by friend Derek Penn '79 M.B.A. '84. Penn talked May out of returning into the burning tower to try to find his employees. "It was fate that brought Derek to me. He was the voice of reason to get me out of there--no question I would have died had he left me."

Within ninety minutes, both towers had crumbled. Karen Preziosi was caught up in the tsunami of dust and debris, but survived by helping and being helped by strangers. Penn took May to his home, where he began making phone calls, trying to account for people. All but one of his co-workers survived. In the impact, explosion, and aftermath, Scharf lost sixty-one employees, including Peter Ortale '87.

Almost a year later, two weeks before the anniversary, Scharf, May, and Preziosi tell their stories separately, each focusing on something different about their survival and the rebuilding of their lives and livelihoods. Their reactions in the intervening months have run the gamut from determination to depression, from struggle to resolve.

Crazy quilt: a sample of memorial art Altman observed on anniversary walkabout

Crazy quilt: a sample of memorial art Altman observed on anniversary walkabout. Greg Altman '95.

The offices of Euro Brokers are now on the sixteenth floor of One New York Plaza, a relatively small skyscraper just at the southern tip of the island, next to the ferry docks on the East River. Computers crowd desks that crowd aisles that are filled with traders, sitting and standing, on the phones, on the computers, making trades and transactions. The atmosphere is noisy and energetic, the large rooms filled with light. One would never suspect what has brought the firm to this point.

Scharf sits in his office, door open to the trading floor, windows behind him overlooking the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. He is quiet as he tells the story, pausing at times to collect his thoughts or emotions, acknowledging his own "saving grace" of being in London while honoring the memories of the dead and the difficulties of the survivors.

Being in London, he says, "gave us a base of operations that we wouldn't have had immediately in New York. We had a firm meeting, and then, that night, we started making calls." The London offices had copies of employee lists, and Scharf and his team were able to make a start at finding out who had survived and who had not. "We tried to patch things together. After the first twenty-four hours, we thought we had lost eighty people." As more people were able to communicate, that number decreased, and by the time Scharf was able to return to New York on Friday, the firm knew it had lost sixty-one.

This was the biggest loss, the most irreplaceable, and next to it, Scharf doesn't dwell on the loss of infrastructure and records. Instead, he speaks of making decisions that would keep his company together. Even while in London, for instance, he had a business acquaintance call him to offer office space--this space in which the offices are housed. A skyscraper. In the city. Downtown.

" You had all sorts of reactions, obviously," Scharf says. "Some people didn't want to come to New York City. Some people certainly didn't want to be downtown. Other people didn't want to be above the second story. All understandable." But it was the only offer Scharf had that didn't split up his employees among several different sites.

Creation from destruction: a tile project in a Manhattan neighborhood

Creation from destruction: a tile project in a Manhattan neighborhood. Greg Altman '95.

"This company is very family-oriented," he says. "We're pretty close. And I felt very strongly that we really needed to be together as a firm in one location. If we were to splinter, we'd never recover." So he held a managers' meeting, there at One New York Plaza, giving his team an opportunity to reconnect with one another, to walk around the space and get a feel for it, to hear him make the case for keeping the company intact. It was September 16.

" We had to act. If you didn't act, the fragility of people on their own would have worsened." He acknowledges that One New York Plaza "wasn't a perfect solution," but it was the solution that would bring people back together, helping both the employees and the firm get back on their feet. At a firm-wide meeting the next day at a midtown hotel, he gave people the opportunity to spend time together, to "mingle and hug and cry," and after he presented the office- space plan, gave them time to react.

Euro Brokers would continue to give its employees time. Scharf recalls some of what he said at that meeting. "'Beginning tomorrow,' I said, 'I'm going to be there. If you can't make it tomorrow, that's fine. If you can't make it next week, that's fine, too. If it takes you a month, it doesn't matter. But I'm going to be down there, and we're going to be setting up, and we're going to be open tomorrow.' And we came in here the next day, and we were all out on the floor, and we probably had 60 percent attendance."

Preziosi had actually returned to work on Friday the fourteenth, at a small Euro Brokers office in Parsippany, New Jersey. "I was never there before," she says. "Once we got to the office, I had to hug everyone there." A co-worker told her that the body of a friend had been found, news that "just made it all too real" and made work difficult that day.

When the offices at One New York Plaza opened, Preziosi changed her commute from the bus--which couldn't get through the roadblocks that had shut down lower Manhattan--to the ferry. "I cried as we stood on line on the dock, looking at the New York skyline," she says. "The towers were gone, smoke still coming up where they once stood, and I wanted so to go back to my old office." Having inhaled a large amount of dust on the eleventh, she wore a respirator as she walked through the downtown streets.

Getting back to work, she says, kept her mind busy. "The disaster recovery process started at the software and hardware levels, which included my staff and the hardware and networking staff and the communications people. We worked long extra hours getting the systems back together and running for the brokers to be able to return to work."

By the end of that week, Scharf says, more than 90 percent of his employees were coming in. The next hurdle, which Preziosi and her co-workers were overcoming, was infrastructure. "We had forty dial-up lines," Scharf says, comparing that to the 2,000 direct lines that the firm had had at the Trade Center. "We didn't have any direct lines, we were getting our infrastructure back, our software back--but we started doing business." He gives the credit to his employees, the managers and traders who "stepped up." "Everyone was very determined and committed. We were committed to rebuilding--we had responsibilities to the survivors, we had responsibilities to the families, we had responsibilities to the company as a whole, and there was no way we were just going to fold our tent."

" We did this to feel useful--like this would not defeat us," Preziosi says. "This is what our lost friends would want us to do. It was also helpful to be with people who went through it, because if you did not live it, you really have no idea what it means to run for your life."

Owen May's employees were going through similar stresses. He, too, had a friend who called in the days immediately following the attacks to offer workspace. It was also downtown, at 120 Broadway, a difficult location behind the barricades and near enough to the World Trade Center site that it is visible from the building, "right there in the thick of things." He says the firm was trying to come to terms with the trauma and the loss of head trader Harry Ramos, and trying to get back to work.

" For certain people, it was hard, emotionally, to get back into the game," he says. "Some people couldn't leave their house. Some people were suffering traumatic stress already. And I didn't want to disrupt anybody's grief, make it harder on them."

Added to the emotional toll was the loss of every record the company had. Housed in Tower One, the May Davis Group archived its back-up records in Tower Two, off-site but near at hand. The offices of the firm's attorneys were in the towers. Even the records from the firm's Baltimore office were in New York that day, on-site in preparation for an audit. With only the personal records of a few employees available to them, May Davis was starting from scratch.

" People would come up to me and say, 'Owen, you have the most difficult task in the world.' But I built the company with a business plan, and if I didn't learn anything the first time around?" He shakes his head and laughs once, letting that rhetorical question trail off before returning to the "how" of rebuilding at 120 Broadway.

" We've got one phone line," he says. "Chase Plaza was right there, and I spotted an outlet, and they had chairs, and I would sit out there with all my paperwork and plug in my cell phone and set up my laptop, and I'd have an office. Those were the kinds of things that we had to do."

While some employees were dealing with severe emotional trauma, he says, those who were able to return to work did so with the attitude that the firm wouldn't be defeated. "We fought so hard until September 10 to keep it alive," he says, recalling the company's earlier struggle. "Everybody started to chip in and do what they needed to do, in one effort. 'I'll take care of this.' 'Okay, I'll take care of that.' 'I'm going to call these people.' And I had all my friends, all my friends called me up. My friends from Duke would take time off from work to help us put things together."

In April, representatives from the recovery crews at the World Trade Center site arrived at the office. May was in London that day, and so he missed the delivery of the plaque that had graced the company's front door on the eighty-seventh floor. "It was emotional for everybody," he says. "They said, this is one of the few things that survived out of any firm. They found it at the bottom of the rubble."

Owen May,                   Chairman, May Davis Group

"First, you're in shock. You have no clue. Then something real kicks in and says, 'Owen, you'd better run.'"
Owen May
Chairman, May Davis Group. 
Chris Hildreth.

With months of effort, that rubble was cleared away. But it's harder for survivors to cope with the emotional debris. Both Euro Brokers and May Davis employees had counselors available, but even so, you can hear the tension in some workers' voices when they speak of how their lives have changed.

" The hardest thing has been dealing with the depression," says May. "It didn't come to me until six or seven months later because I was so busy dealing with everyone else. And when it does hit, it's just crazy--you don't even know what it is at first, because you never went through it before." He says he tries to set an example for his co-workers by having a counselor come to the office. "I don't try to hide it. I figure I should do it openly."

Preziosi says while she insisted her staff members participate in counseling, it has been less helpful for her. "Survivor guilt has plagued me. I wonder why I was spared and not some or all of the others. For a while, I did very little--just got through the days going to work, working long hours, on the weekend just going in and out of bed crying and remembering what life was like and what it was supposed to be."

The anniversary presented its own difficulties. Separately, two weeks before, Scharf, Preziosi, and May each expressed a need for September 12 to arrive. "It's going to be very hard. People are tense--it's going to be very emotional," Scharf says. "I'll be glad when it's over--I will be glad when it's over."

" Over the last couple of weeks I've been very stressed, very depressed," May says. He's given dozens of interviews, but at the same time, telling the story has been "like rehashing it and rehashing it and rehashing it."

" Some days it feels like it all happened years and years ago," Preziosi says. "On other days, it feels like it just happened yesterday. How life can change so drastically, in a split second, is still unbelievable to me."

On September 11, 2002, as bells tolled throughout the city and each victim's name was read, May was with his family in Mexico. Preziosi and Scharf were with other Euro Brokers employees at the firm's memorial service at the site of their soon-to-be new offices, at the Seaport.

" That day, it felt like I had fallen down eight rungs of the healing ladder," says Preziosi. "I had spent the past year struggling so hard to climb ten steps up. Prior to the anniversary, I kept thinking I couldn't wait for September 12 to come because it would give me a new lease on life and a new beginning--but this didn't actually happen. Every day is a struggle. Some days are better than others, but it is getting better now that the anniversary has passed."

Recovery means different things to different people, and may be difficult for some to ever achieve. As a company, Euro Brokers has clearly rebounded and is now in a position described by its chairman as one of "growth." "Prior to 9/11," says Scharf, "our company was really on a roll. There was a great positive attitude, we were gaining market share in virtually every business we were in, we were adding new businesses. We were in the process of negotiating with some other groups to come and join us, and they were going to provide a higher-margin business than we were used to.

" We had to put all that on hold--we had to focus on survival, not building. But it's interesting that since we had to end those discussions, and after we finally got things to a state where our business was back, we started renegotiating with some of those groups. Two of those businesses are here with us now. We've started some other businesses within our Euro Brokers subsidiary that we didn't have before, and we've gained market share in every business that we're in."

There has been some rebounding on the personal level, too. Euro Brokers kept grief counselors on site through the end of 2001. Scharf points to the Euro Brokers Relief Fund, set up for the families of the company's lost employees. Money was provided by the firm, by employees, by competitors and customers, and by the revenues generated on a "charity day," March 11, the six-month anniversary. There are people available to help families work through the maze of bureaucracy surrounding relief funds. And Karen Preziosi started a memorial website, first as a small personal project, which then received management approval as a firm project and grew into the publication of a memorial book.

A co-worker called the website "the most depressing project I've ever worked on." As she spoke with family members, gathered photographs, and put the site together, Preziosi also had some of those moments. "It can help you heal to honor someone, but there were times when I found myself withdrawn and upset over it," she says. "Yet I kept working on it. Some days it was literally therapeutic for me to work on it."

The website went public in February--after permission and support were given from upper management, the book was developed this summer and distributed at the firm's one-year anniversary tribute. Preziosi treasures the notes and e-mail messages from family members thanking her and her colleagues at Euro Brokers for doing it. In a letter to co-workers about the website, she wrote, "I am hopeful that this website will assist everyone in some way in the healing process and help us all to remember fondly the ones we loved and lost and keep them close in our thoughts." "If I achieved this for at least one person," she says, "it was worth the emotional pain and difficulty it took to create."

At May Davis, healing and survival have been hard-won. The markets have been dismal. An article in The Baltimore Sun reports that the firm now has twenty-three employees, with some lost to other firms, some to stress and trauma. But the same article also reports new market opportunities for the company, and a new business plan.

A year before, just before the terrorist attacks, The Sun had written a different article on May Davis and the business battle it had fought that summer. "The headline of the article was 'Failure is Not an Option,'" May says. "For me, it was never an option. It's going to take more than the Taliban."

" I'm going to kick and fight all the way down," he adds. "Anybody who knows me knows I don't lie down easily--we're still around, after all we've been through."

The proof, if needed, waits in his office--the old plaque, battered, shining brass no longer, but mostly intact, and still proclaiming the firm.

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