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Kellogg Alums describe their Sept. 11 experiences.
(L to R): Brian Lessig '99, Liz Kaiser '00 and Carol Spomer '78 describe their Sept. 11 experiences.
© Nathan Mandell

In the shadow of the towers
Kellogg School alums near the WTC when the planes hit share what they saw, and how their lives changed in the aftermath of Sept. 11

By Matt Golosinski

  Brian Lessig ('99)
© Nathan Mandell
  Brian Lessig '99 fled a 20-story-tall cloud of debris.
It was not an ordinary dust cloud that chased Brian Lessig ’99 up West Broadway the morning of Sept. 11, filling him with the certainty that he was about to die. What pursued the young investment banker and thousands of others who ran screaming from the epicenter of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center was a roiling, angry avalanche of ash, steel, office furniture and human carnage.

And glass. Lots of it.

As the south tower fell, Lessig remembers standing in the street, mesmerized by the enormity of the spectacle. He watched the first dozen floors implode one after another and then, only when it appeared that the blazing skyscraper was toppling directly onto him, did he run.

“I had dress shoes on and I ran faster than I’d ever run in my life,” said Lessig, an associate with Merrill Lynch, who was late for work that day and so had not entered the corporate offices located in 4 World Financial Center, about 400 feet from the WTC complex, when the first plane hit the north tower. He ran for what seemed like blocks, but the nightmare clung to his heels. “When I looked back, there was a 20-story mushrooming explosion coming toward me. I said ‘I’m dead. I am going to die.’”

He could have died earlier that morning. If he hadn’t been exhausted after a weekend at a Kellogg wedding in Wisconsin, he would have never hit the snooze button on his alarm. If his buddy hadn’t bought Lessig a ticket to the Green Bay Packers game a day earlier, the Kellogg alum wouldn’t have had to stop, remembering his obligation just as he was leaving his apartment, and return to his desk inside where he wrote his friend a check and thank-you note. The effort took only a few minutes, but minutes wasted that morning may have saved Lessig’s life.

Other Kellogg alums found themselves even closer to the disaster as it unfolded.

Liz Kaiser ('00)  
© Nathan Mandell
"Everything looked like a target," said
Liz Kaiser '00.
Nowhere to run
“I was in a meeting when I heard a big ‘boom.’ I thought somebody dropped a copier machine in the building,” remembers Liz Kaiser ’00, an associate at Merrill Lynch. Just three weeks earlier, Kaiser had transferred from Merrill’s Chicago offices to Manhattan. She hadn’t even had time to learn where the stairs were in her new building at 2 World Financial Center.

Kaiser and some colleagues gathered along the row of windows in their 40th-floor suite that overlooked the World Trade Center. What Kaiser saw didn’t make sense: an icon building on fire and “miniature chairs” tumbling out of it to the ground 400 feet below. Just as she thought that some “stupid Cessna pilot” must have accidentally crashed into the tower, a gigantic fireball erupted from WTC One, rushing across West Street at Kaiser, threatening to slam into her own office.

“Our windows shook and we stood there with our eyes wide open,” says Kaiser. “Then all hell broke loose. Everyone was screaming. I pulled one of my co-workers off the phone and said ‘We’re going!’ I didn’t get my purse.”

Kaiser and her “escape buddy” became part of the herd of people fleeing the building, filling the hot stairwell and trying to make their way outside. The crowd remained orderly, she recalls, although everyone feared it was taking too long to exit the office. At any moment, they thought, the floors above them might also come crashing down. With people fainting and coughing around her, “it took everything to stay calm,” says Kaiser.

When she reached the street, Kaiser emerged into chaos. Flames and noxious smoke engulfed the WTC complex. Sirens screamed. Debris lay everywhere. Papers fluttered down from the sky. Kaiser remembers seeing org charts, memos, PowerPoint presentations -- things that had meant so much minutes earlier, turned into litter.

“You could make out the company names on the paper,” she says. “That’s one of the things that made it so human.”

Kaiser walked for three hours in high-heeled shoes, joining a parade of refugees dressed in ash-smeared business suits. The crowd marched out of Manhattan in near total silence.

As she fled, Kaiser looked around at a landscape transformed into something terribly alien. “Suddenly, everything looked like a target,” she says. “You look at the Statue of Liberty, and it’s a target. You look at the Stock Exchange, and it’s a target.”

In fact, Lessig, who found himself alongside New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani as the Financial District was evacuated, says that people didn’t want to walk within 20 blocks of the Empire State Building. After the second plane hit, New Yorkers thought the entire city was under attack.

“People just wanted to get away. They dove into the river and tried swimming across to New Jersey,” Lessig reports. “They didn’t even want to be on the ferries.”

Even a few miles uptown, panic gripped people evacuating their offices as a precaution. Carol Spomer ’78 was among those worried. The director of financial services for Entrust, an Internet security firm, was feeling anything but secure as she filed out onto Madison Avenue with her colleagues.

“Someone reported smelling gas,” says Spomer, whose office lies between Grand Central Station and Times Square. “I had already seen the two towers go down and now I’m thinking this gas leak is part of the next terrorist attack.”

She waited for the subway below her feet to explode. “We felt really vulnerable,” Spomer says. “I couldn’t sleep that week. I just kept watching CNN, trying to understand the reality of this.”

Kaiser, a native New Yorker, also found herself searching to comprehend the devastation.

“As I walked home that day, all I kept thinking about was moving to Iowa and opening a little one-story shop,” she says.

Pulling out white-hot steel
Two months later smoke continues to rise from the volcano of WTC wreckage that covers more than six acres and whose foundations reach 70 feet into the earth.

The sickly sweet odor -- a gruesome reek feeding on plastic, diesel and a thousand other materials -- has hovered over Manhattan since Sept. 11 and still remains. It is through the ash and smell that the tragedy quite literally becomes part of anyone visiting the scene.

“We’re still pulling white-hot steel out of the debris, and we’re going to be doing that for months,” says Lee Benish ’82, vice president of strategic relationship management for AMEC, a preeminent international high-rise construction management company. AMEC was among the handful of companies called upon by the state and city of New York after the attacks for their construction expertise.

“The core temperature of the rubble is still 1,700 degrees,” adds Benish, an EMP-7 graduate, during an interview in October. He was at the site hours after the attacks, assisting his company’s operations. “To see this mass of destruction, even now, is a humbling, overwhelming experience. Three blocks away windows are broken. You go to an adjacent building and there’s a steel beam penetrating the façade.”

Benish, whose company also is assisting with recovery efforts at the Pentagon, is surprised the WTC disaster didn’t claim more lives.

“I’m amazed we didn’t lose 50,000 people,” he says. “The tragedy of the numbers killed is horrific, but when you realize that these 110-story buildings collapsed into 80 feet -- that’s all the file cabinets, the ceiling tiles, the concrete, the mechanical systems, rebar floors, 22,000 windows -- you can imagine how the losses might have spiraled higher.”

The reason the death toll didn’t rise higher than it did, says Benish, is that the towers collapsed as they were designed to do: more or less straight down, preventing excessive lateral damage.

The aftermath
Many Americans fear that the events of Sept. 11 may prove less rare than one would imagine. New Yorkers are universally known for their toughness, but some, including Rick Linde, Kellogg’s class representative for 1982, don’t hide their concern.

“Yes, I’m afraid of living in New York now, but I’ve lived here with my family for 20 years and to leave would be a cowardly abdication,” says the executive recruiter for Battalia Winston, whose offices are located about three miles from where the WTC stood.

“I refuse to let these terrorists disrupt my life any more than they already have,” he adds. Linde believes the best thing people can do now is follow the advice of Mayor Giuliani, whose motto has been “Get back to business.” Go to a show, says Linde, or enjoy dinner out on the town. Spending money in New York, he suggests, is one way people can help the city recover.

Such action may seem difficult, even futile, in the face of an enormous tragedy, and Linde himself didn’t begin to appreciate the advice until weeks after the attacks. In fact, he nearly declined to submit his class news for Kellogg World. But then he realized that doing his part to maintain the Kellogg network represented an important contribution to his own recovery, and the recovery of others.

“Here I had all these chipper notes from classmates talking about the new boat they bought,” says Linde, who received the updates before Sept. 11. “I felt that submitting this material was totally irrelevant. Then I started thinking about how things that really help people forge and rebuild human relationships, like Kellogg World, are even more important to us now.”

Kaiser agrees. She says that part of what sustained her through the attacks was the Kellogg network, especially the hundreds of alums who flooded the school’s Web site and an associated site called, either providing information about a Kellogg peer, or inquiring about the status of a classmate.

“Knowing that you have these people looking out for you is just amazing,” says Kaiser.

  Doug Bell ('89)
© Nathan Mandell
  Doug Bell '89 volunteered in the rescue efforts by driving a Red Cross shuttle.

The generosity of people around the world has also touched Doug Bell ’89, president of the NYC-based advertising firm that bears his name.

This benevolence serves as the counterpoint to the horror surrounding the attacks, and in some ways, it’s made it more difficult to sort out his feelings. “There are all these emotional angles coming at you,” says Bell. “In The New York Times we’ve read all these stories, thousands of them, about the victims. At the same time, people are again learning how to appreciate a nice day and enjoy their friends. It’s confusing. We don’t yet have a place to put this.”

The “deep, deep sorrow” created by the attacks has profoundly affected Bell. “It keeps coming back,” he says. “You see something on the television or hear a story about someone, and there’s nothing to say, nothing to do. It’s really bad.”

But Bell, like others who volunteered their services after the attacks, did find a way to help, though he points out that volunteers with specialized emergency training were the ones in high demand.

“You totally feel helpless,” admits Bell, who was “lucky enough” to help staff a Red Cross center and then work as a shuttle driver and dispatcher for the agency.

Beth Adler ('86)  
© Nathan Mandell
In the attack's aftermath, Beth Adler '86 says New Yorkers have become more considerate.  

For Beth Adler ’86, until recently a senior vice president at Sony Classical, the Sept. 11 aftermath has rekindled in her an appreciation for simple social graces. “People are starting to be more humane to one another,” she says. “People in my apartment building are reaching out more to neighbors, not just coming home with the take-out dinner and the video.”

Lessig agrees. “People have really mellowed out since this happened,” he says.

These welcome changes come, of course, at a great cost. For Adler, flying back into New York will never be the same. “Suddenly your landmarks are gone,” she says. “It’s like a piece of your heart is cut out.”

When Bell contemplates the site’s wreckage, he finds himself struck by the terror and power he sees in the twisted girders.

“Here’s all this potential energy that was up 110 floors above the earth,” says Bell. “All the amazing energy and capability that went into that building came down at one time.”

The tragedy of Sept. 11 cannot be undone, Bell knows, but part of him believes that “we still have all that power, that energy, and the capability to build it all again.”

Ed. note: In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Kellogg World solicited reactions from alumni who live and work in New York. We invited those who could attend an October fundraiser in Manhattan to share their stories with us there for this feature. We are grateful for their contributions, and for the efforts of Kellogg’s NYC alumni club which organized the event. The money raised has been donated to funds established in the names of the Kellogg alumni who died in the attacks.

"In Memoriam" for those alumni lost in the attacks of Sept. 11

©2001 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University