A Tale Of Renewal

For the 9/11 survivors of Cantor Fitzgerald, working to rebuild their firm has been the key to healing

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"We always thought we'd fall apart at some point," Howard Lutnick is saying two weeks before the fifth anniversary of the terror attacks that decimated Cantor Fitzgerald and took his brother's life. "I'd tell people it was like I was surfing in front of a very large wave and as long as I kept going forward as fast as I possibly could, the wave would never get me. But if I ever stopped, and took a moment to look back...." He turns to look at an imaginary wave. "Whoosh, the wave would crash over me, and I'd get crushed. But if I kept moving forward, the wave would get smaller and smaller, and that's what happened."

Lutnick's temporary office is on 59th and Lexington in Manhattan, near Bloomingdale's. For a CEO, the view is pedestrian at best. At eye level is a corporate gym in the office building across the street, where a few white collars are sweating away on stationary bikes. It's a far cry from the spectacular vistas at the World Trade Center, where Cantor Fitzgerald occupied Floors 101 through 105 in Tower One. But since September 11, Lutnick has insisted on low floors. Behind his desk are pictures of his brother, Gary; his best friend and right-hand man, Doug Gardner; and his fellow board members, Fred Varacchi and Joe Shea -- all of whom died in the attack.

For five years, Lutnick and his brokerage firm have been fighting back from the horror and heartache of 9/11. The worst terror attacks in America's history killed every one of the 658 Cantor Fitzgerald brokers, traders, technology specialists, and secretaries who were at their desks that morning. It was the single greatest loss suffered by any company or organization. After three moves and countless business crises, the firm's future is secure again, and it now has more employees than before the attacks.

Lutnick, who lived because he was taking his son to his first day of kindergarten, calls the recovery "miraculous" and credits those whose lives were spared and stayed with Cantor. "The normal course of events is you have a crisis, and you go for weeks sorting it out. But in the fall of 2001, we'd have a crisis at nine and another at eleven and then another at one. We were in crisis mode for basically a year."

Survivors are quick to share stories of 90-hour weeks, of adrenaline-fueled problem-solving, and of an unshakable belief in one another. Work was not just a distraction; most say it healed them.

As the country reflects again on the meaning of the events of September 11, 2001, and as politicians invoke the day in campaign ads and stump speeches, the story of Cantor Fitzgerald has morphed from one of unfathomable loss to one of ingenuity, perseverance, and finding meaning through work.

Cantor people are starting to take vacations and reflect on their good fortune. Still the anniversary fills many of them with dread because no matter how far they've come, they will be asked to tell their 9/11 story again. Where were they? Why did they live? How did they feel? And they're simply tired of reliving that day one more time. It just might be that the Americans most able to move on from the events of September 11 are the men and women of Cantor Fitzgerald who lived through them.

On a recent Tuesday evening after work, four Cantor colleagues meet for drinks at at PJ Carney's, a saloon two blocks from the office. Maryann Burns, Lutnick's administrative assistant on 9/11, missed her train that morning and arrived after the devastation had begun. Heidi Olson, now chief administrative officer for equities, had left Cantor when the firm downsized just before the attacks; she came back to work the next day. Chris Crosby and Jim Johnson are both members of the technology team at eSpeed, Cantor's electronic bond-trading system. Crosby was setting out on a fishing trip when the Twin Towers were hit. Johnson was working in Cantor's London office.

The conversation is about the Ground Zero memorial service and whether people will attend and about Oliver Stone's film World Trade Center, which no one intends to see. "Why would I subject myself to that," says Olson. Crosby says he might see World Trade Center on DVD someday but not in a room full of people he doesn't know.

For a long time, Crosby and Burns agree, it was tough to talk with anyone outside of Cantor about what they'd been through. "The only place where I felt like myself was work," says Burns. "I needed to be around other people who'd been where I'd been. I didn't want to have to explain myself. In groups of other people I often felt detached, you know? Distracted." Work, Crosby says, "made me feel sane. I wanted to go into work every day. I still do."

All of them tell stories of changing the channel or leaving a room when 9/11 gets brought up. Sometimes it feels as if there's no escape. (On our way out of the bar, we pass a man seated on a folding chair wearing a hard hat on which sits a tin foil model of the Trade Center. Burns says: "I rest my case.")

"And yet," Crosby says, "there are times when I'll be out to dinner with my wife and I'll hear someone talking about 9/11 and getting it wrong, and I'll feel the need to go over and correct them."

"You tell them where you work, and they give you that look," Burns says making a sad, sympathetic face, and the others nod in recognition.

They all know the look.

Harry Waizer, Cantor's tax specialist, was out to dinner recently with his wife, Karen, and someone he hadn't met before. "It came out that I'd been in the building on 9/11, and I got the look," Waizer tells me the next day in his office.

"She asked if I minded telling my story and for the first time ever, I turned to Karen and said, 'Why don't you tell it?' I've thought about why I did that. For one thing, my children where there. I don't think I've ever told the story of that day to my children. But I also think it was part of...just putting it behind you. I went through a period in which I told the story multiple times because everyone who visited wanted to hear it. But that has stopped. I don't particularly want to go back to that time."

Waizer was in an elevator high in the North Tower when the plane struck. Flames ignited inside the car and he was badly burned on his body and face and in his throat. Now he's back at the firm working three days a week for General Counsel Stephen Merkel's legal team. He says he wishes he'd been with his colleagues from day one.

"While they were burning the midnight oil, I was, for two months, lying in an induced coma, and for months more I was in a hospital bed, and then I was going through rehabilitation. So I never had the chance to deal with it in a group way, day in and day out. What I dealt with was the personal impact of 9/11."

Now Waizer's oldest daughter is heading to college. At 55, he looks 10 years younger. The burns are still visible. But he says one of the procedures he underwent was the equivalent of a skin tuck and jokes that looking younger is a side benefit.

What triggers his memory of The Day? "It isn't fire that does it," he says. "It's elevators. For a very long time, I couldn't get on an elevator without thinking back, and every time something out of the ordinary happens on an elevator, I get taken back. Say it comes to an imperfect stop. It'll just rock a little bit. Nothing that would make a person nervous, but for me it's a reminder."

Stephen Merkel was on a different elevator on the lobby level when the plane hit. Merkel was physically unharmed but recognizes how close he came to a different outcome. "What I learned was that I had the capacity to shut down emotionally and just work, and that might not be the best trait for a husband, a father, or a friend, but for what we had to do, it was necessary."

Merkel says the anniversary is something he and his friends simply want to get through. Talking about The Day, he says, is neither as hard nor as complicated as it used to be.

"What's lost from then is the intensity. You can't easily describe it, whether it's the fear or the grief...all those feelings that were so powerful are less so now, which I'm grateful for. Recently I was at the site. I had to walk over the overpass I used to walk on, and everyone was rushing to get their trains, and I felt a tinge of what I felt back then, like a switch that was turned on."

Frank Walczak felt that same switch turn on when he took his children to see Pirates of the Caribbean.

"Kids' movie, right? Pretty harmless stuff. But then while we're sitting through the previews, they show the one for that Trade Center movie. Instantly I got taken back there. I felt distraught and wrecked. I started crying."

Walczak, a life-long surfer, had taken the day off on September 11 to catch the swells kicked up by Hurricane Erin. Sitting on his board in the water off Sandy Hook, just south of the city in New Jersey, Walczak saw smoke pouring out of the Trade Center. He began calling the office and the homes of his colleagues. No one else on the foreign exchange desk where he worked survived. Walczak had to reinvent himself as an equities trader.

"I still feel a tremendous sense of loss. You start to think of how much time you spent with these people. More time than with your own family." Walczak says he has been able to honor his friends through work. "I needed to do this. I can't imagine going somewhere else. I feel like what we're doing comes from within. We're rebuilding the company and rebuilding ourselves. It gives you a sense of completion."

The bombings in London last year and the recent discovery of a 9/11 style plot "sent a shock through my body," he says. "We were planning a trip to London, and we just canceled it."

Overall, though, he feels happy. He now works in Cantor's Shrewsbury (N.J.) office, eight minutes away from home. He can surf nearly every summer evening if he wants.

"I had a lot of guilt with this. I still get the feeling that people look at me and think, 'Why weren't you there?' But in general I'm doing much better. I know I'm here because of luck, because I surf, and because there was a hurricane. But I'm going to make the best of my life, because I know I can't take anything for granted."

'I've told the story so many times I can recite it in my sleep," says Cantor Partner David Kravette, a childhood friend of Lutnick and one of only two Cantor survivors who had been in the office that morning and left before the plane hit. Kravette is speaking from a vacation house in Jackson Hole, Wyo. "The new guys will ask me for my story, and I sort of give them the Cliff's Notes version."

Kravette's story is not an easy one to forget. He lived because a customer had forgotten his photo ID and Kravette needed to clear him through lobby security. He had considered sending his secretary but decided to go himself because she was seven and a half months pregnant. After the initial explosion, he saw an elevator free-fall to the ground and a fireball of jet fuel rage through the lobby straight at him before "it just stopped and sucked back in on itself."

In the firm's post 9/11 realignment Kravette was forced, like Walczak, to switch jobs and become an equities trader after a dozen years trading bonds. He's progressed quickly and is more successful than he's ever been, he says.

For a year after the attacks, Kravette says he woke up often in the night, short of breath and full of panic. He saw a therapist for a few weeks, but then stopped because he said it wasn't helping. "The only thing that helped was work, really."

He said he thinks often about the friends he lost and why he's been unable to maintain a close relationship with the families of those friends. "I started to think I was making them depressed and uncomfortable, you know? They'd answer the phone in a happy voice, and they'd hear my voice, and there'd be a few seconds of silence. I guess I gave them bad memories. That's what I felt, like an old boyfriend calling. At some point I just stopped."

Harry Waizer says he felt the same awkwardness when he reached out. "You could hear the walls go up when you spoke to people. But you had to understand it, because they were hurting and they were protecting themselves. And why would anyone want to open themselves up to more pain?"

`Each year, September comes and you start to feel a little weird," says Joe Noviello, chief product architect at eSpeed. "You feel it coming. The days are beautiful. Summer's coming to a close."

Noviello, Crosby, Matt Claus, and two others survived because they were preparing to take a fishing trip. When they heard about the attacks, they convened at Cantor's disaster recovery site in Rochelle Park, N.J. (built after the 1993 World Trade Center attack), and began the Herculean task of restoring Cantor's bond trading system.

While he was working around the clock, Noviello was also preparing for his wedding, which was scheduled for Sept. 29. Joe and his fiancée, Lynley, considered changing the date, as so many of the guests had died, but Noviello is happy they went through with it. It gives him another association with September. "Instead of the attacks, it's my wedding month."

Did he seek out help after September 11? "I didn't talk to anyone about it. I didn't see a [grief] counselor. I think I just dealt with it through work. Working through this together and watching each other rise to the occasion, that helped. And then you'd think of one of the guys we lost, and it would just whack you." Like Lutnick, Noviello keeps photos of friends who perished around his office. "I just like having them near me," he says.

An hour before she hits the Broadway stage in The Color Purple, LaChanze Fordjour, whose husband, Calvin Gooding, died in the attacks, meets me at Maison, a French bistro where she often eats before performances. LaChanze, who won the Tony Award this year for best actress, says she's continually amazed at where life has taken her since the attacks that stole Calvin, her husband and my college friend.

Like the traders, LaChanze says work is what has kept her sane and restored her happiness. "I can't imagine my life with Calvin now because I'm married to someone else," she said. "But I wish he was here. I miss him."

LaChanze was in her ninth month of pregnancy on September 11. She was one of thirty-eight wives of Cantor Fitzgerald victims who were pregnant. I visited her in the hospital shortly after the attacks. She told me then she could never imagine remarrying. She was irritated with those who suggested that she would someday move on.

The December after the attacks, Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, who'd heard about LaChanze's loss, called her and told her she needed to get out of the house and start working. Ensler knew LaChanze only through her work but gave her a role reading the play for a three-week run at an Off-Broadway theater near Times Square. It changed everything, LaChanze says.

"I really was spiraling down," she says. "I was an unemployed actress with two children, a husband who had died. My prospects were slim. I got that job, and I saw that I could be productive. That I had things I could bring to people."

She says her children were instrumental in her healing. "I call them my earth angels because they forced me out of myself. It was important to be able to take care of someone else."

She said she thinks of Calvin every day when she puts her children to bed. Her older daughter, six-year-old Celia, shares Calvin's features and his boisterous personality. Zaya is more introspective, though just as smart. "She's four and reading at a second-grade level," her mother says.

Two years ago she met the artist Derek Fordjour when she commissioned one of his paintings as a gift for an attorney who had handled her post 9/11 finances pro bono. They married in the summer of 2005.

LaChanze says she's tiring of September 11 memorials. She has been to them each year and will sing at this year's event in Central Park. "You know what it's like. Think of losing someone you love. Now imagine going to a funeral for them every year for five years. It's hard. I don't want to go back there over and over again," she says.

`For a good six months my life was a black hole," says Phil Marber, the popular head of Cantor Fitzgerald Equities. "For a long time I couldn't really figure out why I wasn't there with everybody else. And then you ask, what's my purpose in life? Things like that. All I wanted was to get the company back to where it was, to the level we were at in 2000."

Marber says he can't imagine what life would be like if the firm had gone under. He has too much of himself invested in it. Now that his division is doing better than ever, he's beginning to let himself relax and spend more time with his two teenage daughters. And he takes great pride in the fact that the firm has paid out more than $180 million of its profits to the families. "We've survived, and we've lived up to our promises, and I feel very good about that."

Like his colleagues, Howard Lutnick recognizes that work has kept him from dwelling on the devastation and from slipping into a prolonged depression.

"I used to get very sad and reflective when I was alone in the car or alone in the dark. As time went on, it happened less, and I just stopped one day. Just this past weekend, I was at a party, and I met one of the firefighters. He told me how he'd been at the scene that day and then we told each other stories with much more color and granularity and clarity than we would normally tell them with. Because we'd both lived through it. I could see everything as we talked, and so that makes me know that it's all still very present in me. It just doesn't come out in front of everyone."

While he values time with his wife and children, he says he now equally cherishes his days at the firm with the other Cantor survivors.

"We stood at hell's doors, and we held the line. It doesn't matter what you throw at us. [Our people] will hold their line, and I'll hold mine. It's much more personal now."

By Tom Barbash

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