My Dad, Windows on the World and 9/11

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Published September 09, 2011

| FoxNews.com

I can still see my teacher’s face when the guidance counselor came to the door and asked for me third period. I can still feel everyone’s eyes on me as she called my name. I can still feel my best friend Danielle’s hand squeeze mine telling me to go. And it didn’t take long for me to run down the hallway away from the news she was about to tell me. This is my account as to what happened during the terrifying minutes that I had thought I lost my best friend on September 11, 2001.

On September 10, 2001, the New York Giants played the Denver Broncos. Dad and I usually watched the Giants together but that night, he was going out to a local bar, “Sunset Grill” with friends, fathers from the soccer team I played on.

I refused to talk to him when he told me he was going out. I was mad at him for leaving me home with nobody to watch the game with. It was our ritual; my sister was too young to care and Mom hated football. I’m sure I would too if I didn’t see it as an opportunity to get all of Dad’s attention. Mom was just as mad because he was going out on a weeknight. The only one talking to him was my then eight-year-old sister, Taylor.

He came home early from work that night, but still too late to have dinner with us. Taylor lingered around the kitchen table, picking out all of the olives in his salad bowl. She nonchalantly asked a random question, “Dad, when was the last time your buildings got bombed?” He looked at her strangely but she just kept picking the olives and waited for the answer. That question to this day still boggles our minds. She doesn’t remember asking it, and she never answered him when he asked why that night.
He answered her and she hopped down and went off to bed. 

He came to kiss me good night before he left and I was still furious. I went to sleep angry with my favorite person in the entire world, thinking tomorrow, he’d bring me home something to make up for it. Our beloved Giants played horrifically that first half and Dad was ready to leave the bar. His friend Rich convinced him to stay a little longer and see if the Giants could come back. He stayed, and it saved his life.

Dad got up on time Tuesday morning, went downstairs, showered and got dressed. We assumed he was on his 7 a.m. train into work as the Director of Catering at Windows on the World, located on the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. The train would have him in his office by 8 a.m. and out of my life for the time being. What happened next was in thanks to the boys the night before; he fell asleep on the couch downstairs and missed his train by minutes.

I left the house unaware of him downstairs, and waited for my school bus. Taylor was dropped off at school and Mom got ready for her own daily routine, all the while we all thought he was long gone. Dad got on the next train instead of racing his to the next station, and was unknowingly on his way into a hellish nightmare.

Right before third period an older student walking past my English teacher called out, “It was two planes right? They hit the Twin Towers right?” She shushed him as our eyes locked. Thinking Dad was on his usual train I went numb. I don’t remember the next few minutes I just know that somehow I got into my Language Arts class and sat in silence.

Minutes after the bell my guidance counselor was at the door and the class fell silent. My teacher’s face was sympathetic as she pointed in my direction. I knew what she was about to say. I rose gingerly out of my seat towards this young, blonde, pregnant woman I had met only once before. Her smile didn’t fool me as her eyes leaked agonizing pain. I knew I wasn’t the only one she’d be visiting today. She opened her mouth to speak and I stared intently into her face as a warning not to say it. She went on, “Alex, there has been an accident at the World Trade Center,” and before she could finish I was gone.

I don’t know where I was running, I don’t know what I was looking for, I just had to get away from her and her awful news. Eventually I collapsed and she along with all of her dreadful news caught up to me. She helped me up as I shook uncontrollably, unable to grasp an emotion to hold onto. She walked me to the office where Mom and Grandma were waiting. They were both crying and I repeated to myself over and over, “he’s dead. Dad’s gone.” Mom spoke first, “He’s okay,” she whispered. 

Somehow he had survived.

The numbers didn’t match up I didn’t understand, there was no way he could have run down those stairs and he couldn’t survive that jump, I didn’t get it. “He missed his train, he got there late,” Mom said.

I had just been up there; I spent many of my Saturdays up there. My last memory I have is making posters for the New York Mets’ game with his coworkers instead of doing my homework. “Piazza Delivery Please.” My mind was spinning, if Dad was okay what about the rest of them? What happened to Dad’s second family?

“What about Jackie? What about Jay?,” Dad’s two closest friends up there, and admittedly, my favorites. At the time Mom did what every parent wanting to protect their child from harm or anymore pain would do, “We’ve heard from them, they’re okay.” I later learned that wasn’t the “okay” I was looking for. That “okay” was in a voicemail left from Dad’s office phone to their boss’ cell phone. Their words formed something along the lines of, “There is a lot of smoke, we’re doing our best, it doesn’t look great but we’ll try our hardest to get out we love you all and we are ‘okay.’” To this day, that word doesn’t sit well with me.

As I’m trying to process this, Dad was frantically searching for a phone line to call out on; we didn’t have cell phones or pagers back then. He couldn’t get in touch with us and he needed to check back in with Mom to say he was ‘okay.’ When the second plane hit, he was crouched below a bus stop dodging debris, people and suitcases. His initial reaction was to run in and save his friends, but security shoved him out of the way and he took cover. He looked up and watched his world crumble. He could see his own chefs waving tablecloths out of the windows.

As a family, we are adamant believers of trying to keep things as normal as possible, leading to the decision to keep me in school for the remainder of the day. It felt like that day would never end. People were coming up to me asking if he was dead or alive. Such a cold, callous question. Taylor wasn’t told until she was picked up from school but by then word had gotten out. Everyone knew where Dad worked, as kids we weren’t shy about it. Teachers begged Mom, “Say it isn’t so.” Taylor came to the car in hysterics because the eight-year-old was being told by other kids, “There’s no way your dad is alive. He has to be dead.”

Dad eventually found friends from the catering world that he was able to borrow a phone from. He called Mom and began to piece together his journey home.

My universe, the man who taught me everything I know about life, stumbled through the door too many hours later, his suit and shoes dirty, his hair disheveled, and his voice quivering, “Alex, I made it home for you buddy, I came home for you.” I have never had a better hug, never felt better, and never wanted anything more than to have my dad home at that moment. I held him, my rock and my life and never wanted to let go.

Our phone didn’t stop ringing for days; our front door was a revolving one, the cards, flowers, and food and well wishes didn’t stop coming for weeks. People would see him and think they were seeing a ghost, not believing that he was alive. There we were the four of us, changed forever, given a new bond. “Taylor, why did you ask me that question?” “Dad, I don’t know.”

I’m the first to say we’re fortunate. I know firsthand that there are thousands of others who were not as lucky us. I don’t know why things worked out this way where I got to keep my dad, and so many others lost theirs. I don’t know why my mom gets to kiss her husband, and others will never kiss their spouses again. I say my prayers and thank my stars for still having my hero at my side. Mom always says, “If I lost Greg, I’d have lost Alex as well.”

In total he lost 83 employees that day, some of who were there early for a meeting he himself had called. His therapy came through the eulogies he delivered, and I don’t know if he will ever look at a black suit the same. He went on to work at the Waldorf Astoria, but it wasn’t the same for me. He lost that signature twinkle in his eye, and I lost the passion to share his work with him, ultimately changing my career dreams.

Even though Dad was alive, I suffered a tremendous loss. At twelve I felt like nothing around me was safe. I grew reluctant to share anything with anyone, even turning against my own hero for a while. I didn’t open up about what I was feeling; I didn’t want to talk to him about what was going through my mind. As if being a teenager wasn’t hard enough, I was grieving over something I couldn’t begin to understand. It was a difficult few years to follow.

Now he works at a waste transfer station. His brother bought it and the two of them, best of friends who knew nothing about garbage go to work together in jeans and work boots. It’s a far cry from the tuxedos he wore and the lavish parties he threw, entertaining celebrities and even the president. 

It’s a major shift in the way our family lives now; set the table for four instead of three, expect him to be at family events and be angered when he’s not. He still shakes the hands of politicians but not ones I know; mostly the ones who will help him get permits in his sanitation work.

Now he leaves work when he wants, was able to watch my field hockey games at Fairfield University, travel with Taylor and her softball team, vacation with Mom, and yeah, he plays a ton of golf. All things he couldn’t dream of doing in the restaurant world.
You would think that after an experience like this, as a family we would never miss an opportunity to say I love you, but we are still in essence just like every other family. Mom still gets aggravated when he goes out with friends, and she still hates football. I still resent not being invited to Sunday games, and Taylor is a typical teen not wanting much to do with embarrassing old Dad. 

We have our occasional fights, but when we do catch a moment and say I love you, it means that much more.

I think about the time Dad was almost taken from me daily. And sometimes I think about the other things, not nearly as important, that were taken too. Access to celebrities, politicians, athletes, and award ceremonies, petty things that in the grand scheme of life certainly don’t matter or amount to anything, but still it’s a world now cut off to us. On a daily basis I saw Dad glamorous as ever in a tux, handsome in a suit, and literally on top of his own world, for a while it was like he was unstoppable.

Dad’s office at Windows was lined with countless pictures and memorabilia. The giant size bottles of champagne that are seen only on display or at extravagant parties were given as gifts for his hard work. From his collection, only one remains in our house, buried in a corner collecting dust, a metaphor of the life we once knew.

These days the sports memorabilia crowding the walls of our den are no longer given to him in appreciation, they are bought at auctions benefiting one charity or cause after another. They have a different meaning as they continue to irritate Mom, but for us the meaning behind them is just as great. He’s a changed man, and we love this one just as much as we did the other one, if not more.

There are things about him 9/11 mercilessly ripped away, some of his most meaningful friendships and for a while, his livelihood. But there are things it’ll never touch, his true core, his heart, his soul and it’s all reflected in our family. It’s obvious he misses that atmosphere, all of the action and certainly his friends; I’m not sure if anything will replace it for him, but I am positive he’ll go back into it on his own terms, maybe I’ll be fortunate enough to join him. 

As I learned ten years ago, nobody knows for certain what will happen tomorrow. What we do know for certain, and what we will be thankful for the most on this anniversary as we mourn the many losses is that as a family, we survived.

Alexandria Hein is a FoxNews.com news editor.

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