9/11/8–My Interview With a 9/11 Survivor
Rather than talk about 9/11 from my own perspective, I want to bring you an interview with somebody who was in the building.
On September 11th, 2001, one of the worst days in American history occurred, and I thank God that my friend Kevin survived.
Kevin had recently graduated from the University of Southern California, and worked as a trainee at my firm. I was a 29 year old manager that was attending USC’s MBA program at night. In my spare time I was a DJ on the campus radio station.
On Saturday, September 11th, 2004, Kevin and his fiancee were on campus for a football game. The USC Trojans were back to back national champions, and looking to win it three straight years. Kevin stopped by the campus radio station, where I interviewed him about that day three years ago.
Below is the transcript of the interview.
Eric: Three years ago I was working at a company in Burbank. We had a rookie trainee, 22 years old, stars in his eyes. The company ships him out to New York for some training. He was in the second tower, and got out with very little time to spare. His story is a harrowing one, but also life affirming. So Kevin, I am just going to turn it over to you. Tell us your story. What was that day like? How did the day start? Take us through that day.
Kevin: Thank you Eric. Taking me back, three years ago from today it’s amazing that we were at a training class of 300 people that were starting at the World Trade Center starting on Monday, September 10th. You couldn’t believe the view from the 61st floor as we met as a group, and we were so excited about our two month stay at the World Trade Center for our training program. September 11th started out as beautiful as the day before. We got to the building, went up to our floor, and went to the training program.
About an hour into the program, we were dismissed for a 20 minute break. It was during that break that the North Tower was struck by the first plane. We were actually able to see the fire. Still on break, I went over to this conference room, and saw that the North Tower was on fire. Here I was, standing there, like I had concrete shoes, because I couldn’t move. Yet I had to move because I had to warn the other people in my training class. So I ran over to the lobby area on my floor 61 and everybody was already evacuating. So I did like everybody else and joined the crowd and started down the stairs. We got down to about floor 55 when somebody came on the loudspeaker and said that an unidentified plane had struck the North Tower but that the South Tower was secure.
There was a discrepancy with the news media because reports came out that we were told everything was fine and we should go back to our office, but the speaker over the loudspeaker never said that. All he said was that we should, “remain calm, do not panic,” and people took that as “go back to our office.”
Well I stayed right there and felt like I was safer in the stairwell, and within 30 seconds the second plane hit the South Tower as we all saw on tv and all I could remember was that it was a huge jolt, a violent collision. The stairwells cracked, and we knew that something terrible had happened. We continued our descent rather down 55 more flights of stairs and got to the bottom, and as we got outside, we looked up at the towers, and both of them were on fire, in flames. For me, it was just a sense that this was probably not the best area to be around, so I tried to get as far away as I could. I got about 10 blocks away, and that’s when my tower, Tower 2, collapsed, about 20 minutes after I had gotten out of the building.
It was such an eerie thing, hearing the people screaming on the bottom of the streets, and you could hear the rumble of the towers collapse, and I thought, how many people had died. Soon after, the North Tower fell. It wasn’t until I was able to connect with my family that I felt some sense of strength. Especially with me being from California, I had no direction, nowhere to go. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that 3 years ago, 300 people from all over, our second day of training, that all of us were able to get out alive.
Eric: 20 minutes must seem to you like a lifetime now, but it was that soon after you had gotten out that the building collapsed.
Kevin: Absolutely. Everybody was wondering what had happened. We didn’t know if it was a bomb or a plane. Soon after the buildings were crumbling down. To think that as I was going down the stairs I watched 30 fireman go into the building. I thought afterwards that I don’t think they made it out. Those faces will always be etched in my mind.
Eric: I remember being in a cushy office in Burbank thinking it was going to be like any other day. When the towers got hit, the first thing I thought of was my family. I was born and raised in New York. Everybody was there. The second thing that occurred to me was that our firm had offices in that building, and I knew that you were in that building.
Now my job usually consisted of bureaucratic jobs like helping people figure out their paycheck, dealing with certain complaints. I’ll never forget the phone call I got from your father asking me, “Where’s my son?” There’s no amount of manager training that’s going to prepare you for a situation like that. The one thing your father told me on the phone was that he was not that close to you at the time.
Eric: He was worried that he would never get a chance to tell you so many things that fathers tell their sons.
Eric: He must have stayed on hold for 3 hours and I must have dialed a million numbers, and…I’d like you to just talk about your father, what that phone call was like, and how that relationship has been since.
Kevin: Well you’re right Eric, at the firm in Burbank, when you took that call, my dad and I had kind of lost touch for a few years for whatever reason. He had this sense on 9/11, I had mentioned in passing that I would be going out to New York for training, never told him when, never told him what day, never told him it was going to be at the World Trade Center, and he had this feeling as he saw it on tv, he had this feeling that I was there, and he made this call to the Burbank office.
It was then that he had called me in New York soon after I had spoken to you. We had this powerful phone conversation. He was in LA, I was in New York, on the phone, and we have…we’ve fostered a better relationship since then, and it’s been neat that we could look back. It’s unfortunate that it had to take something like this, but since then, our relationship has been great ever since that day.
Eric: One person who is in the studio today is your fiancee (now wife) Elena. I remember being on the phone with her and she was equally worried obviously. Elena, you being 3000 miles away….First of all, let me say, it’s good that after all this time you are both still a happy couple because a lot of couples could not handle the stress of that day. I would like you to talk about that day as somebody who was here in LA, but had a direct emotional connection to Kevin. What was that day like, and how have the days been since as you plan your wedding?
Elena: Well, that definitely was the most difficult day I have ever experienced. We didn’t know if Kevin was ok, and I automatically…we hoped for the best, but didn’t know if he was going to make it out. Like you, we made a million calls to the hotel, we both have family in the East Coast, in Boston. We prepped them up, told them to get in their cars and drive towards New York. We weren’t sure if Kevin would be in a hospital. Luckily Kevin was able to contact us 2 hours later. I then came to your office to tell you he was ok, and that was when I met you.
Since then, it has definitely made Kevin and I both kind of look at our lives differently. Every day is a day we should appreciate, and we appreciate each other, and our families, and our faith. We are excited about planning our wedding, and yeah, it was something tough to get through.
Eric: When is the wedding?
Elena: April 23rd.
Eric: Fantastic. I want to ask you Kevin, how tough was it for you to go back to work and go back in the office when you came back? Here you’ve almost been killed. You’re a rookie at the firm, and rookies in our industry, they eat dirt. They don’t get paid a decent salary. So you have to build a business from scratch. How are you able to just go to work?
Kevin: Well Eric, I think, when I got back to Burbank, I felt this overwhelming sense of purpose. I felt I was given a second chance. I was so happy with how the firm treated me as a survivor from that disaster, they really did all they could to help me build the business. I teamed up with some partners in the Burbank office, and that really was a great decision for me. 3 years later the business is strong, and healthy, and I really have learned a lot in that time. I am really happy with where I am at. I am happier to be marrying Elena, sitting next to me. She has been such an incredible force for me, she really is my best friend. That is going to help us as we get married. That will help my business, and we will be so happy together. Things are working out.
Eric: What did you do after you got to safety, after you got to the hotel? What did you do? Did you watch the news? What was going through your mind? How did you get through the next few hours just dealing with an incomprehensible situation?
Kevin: After the streets, and the smoke, and the debris, and the dust settled, we all got back to the hotel and met in the lobby. It was an incredible experience because every time a member of our group walked in we all cheered. We all had to sign in and they would then send a wire to our branches to let them know that I had checked in. Then we went immediately to the bar.
We were in the bar, watching CNN, and really just hung out as colleagues, hugged each other, embraced each other, cried with each other, and we actually that night were missing 20 trainees. They never checked in. Like anybody would, we thought the worst, that these people died in the tower. I had said before that everybody made it out.
There is actually one funny story. Most of the people, some lived in New York and New Jersey, they just went home. They never checked out, they just went home to their families. They were accounted for. One guy, a funny story, he exited the World Trade Center that morning, found the nearest taxicab, said, ‘take me to North Carolina.’
The cabbie just drove him to North Carolina. So that guy was unaccounted for for a few days, but eventually he did…he was fine. He put the cabbie up for a night or two.
The guy then went back to New York City.
So, it’s just amazing that all these people from all walks of life, we all came back, we all made it out. Our company actually lost 7 people out of 5000. We were the largest tenant in the South Tower, and it’s amazing that so many were saved.
Eric: Given that you were not from New York, and that was your first experience, what was your impression of New Yorkers throughout that whole tragedy? How did you find them as human beings?
Kevin: Well you know, going out there, everyone said that the typical New Yorker is brash, and abusive, and all this stuff…and I’ll tell you, those people, when the chips are down, those people are at their best. I don’t know how I would have gotten back to my hotel if it wasn’t for the New York people telling me which Shelbourne was, to go left, to go right, and extending helping hands to me as I traveled from the World Trade Center ruins up to my hotel which was actually 50 blocks North from the Towers. I had this overwhelming feeling that this group of people, that these people were united. What a great sense of unity amid so much tragedy that these people were there to help me.
Some guy from Burbank, from LA, and they extended a helping hand. They were tough, and they really were willing to help me, and that is something I will never forget. Elena and I have actually talked about going back to New York for the gorundbreaking of the New Tower, and it would be great for us to be there, and see all the strides that the city has made. I have nothing but great things to say about the New York people.
Eric: What is your faith in terms of your relationship with God before and after the tragedy? Did something like this reaffirm your faith, did it shake your faith, was there no change? Have you felt any spiritual connections since that day and those events?
Kevin: Well, obviously during the attacks, I remember going down those stairs and praying to God that we would all be saved. I mean there was a moment there when I was on the 55th floor, the 50th floor, the 40th floor, when I felt I was never going to get out of there. We knew that the building got hit pretty hard by the cracks in the walls and everything else, so yeah, I prayed, and said ‘Please, it’s not my time. I don’t want to go. There is so much more I have to do.’ As I got out of the tower and I knew I was safe there was still this sense that you know, was there another building that was going to be hit? I remember walking up the streets and thinking that maybe another building was going to be hit by an airplane, and was I safe at that point? Looking back 3 years later I think my faith is stronger. It’s hard not to think about getting a second chance, that it wasn’t my time. I think, gosh, I was on 55, and that plane hit on around 79 or 80, 20+ floors below, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today. I have a lot to be thankful for. Elena and I are so blessed. I think our faith is so much stronger since that day.
Eric: I can tell you that I issued a meaningless proclamation in our office that day. Because I knew that there was no teeth to it. Whenever somebody in my family would get sick, my grandfather would say, ‘Nobody is dying in this family.’ He will take care of it. Somebody in the family gets cancer, something will happen to take care of it. He finally died when he felt that everybody in the family could take care of themselves.
I remember in our office when one of the sales assistants was thinking the worst, I said to her, I must have snapped at her, ‘Nobody is dying in this office. Not in my office.’ Now I’m aware that there was nothing I could do about it, but I kept telling everybody ‘Not today. Nobody in this office is dying.’ I remember when we got the news, I went over the loudspeaker and announced that you were alive. People were high-fiving, they were hugging, because we realized that even though that there was going to be a lot of pain and suffering, and there was going to be plenty of time for that, ‘Not in our family.’
Eric: You were a member of our family. You were a new member, and it was good to know that you were ok.
One thing that I really like to ask you is how do you feel in terms of justice? Do you seek vengeance, do you have hatred in your heart towards the people who did this, do you feel that maybe there is something the United States did, are we too arrogant a country? Did we do anything at all to deserve what happened or was this just evil at its worst? Expand on that if you can.
Kevin: Well Eric, I’ve said many times, initially after the attacks, the anger was very obvious. I remember my cousin Lincoln and I were out in Boston because I actually took a train to Boston after the attacks and stayed with family for 5 days. We wanted to sign up and join the military. We obviously after a couple of beers had this epiphany that we wer egoing to be these soldiers that were going out to fight this war that we thought was justified.
You know, I think that I can’t believe that human beings would do this to other human beings. You know, whether it’s the West vs the East, or us vs them, I’m not sure about that, but all I can say is, God loving people I don’t think seek harm to other people. This was obviously a blatant attack on human lives. That’s the part I don’t understand and makes me angry, and how would people want to inflict such harm on other people.
Our course of action has been very strong, and I think it needed to be strong. I fully support our President, I think it’s justified, and we need to protect ourselves here on our own country’s soil. The ultimate idea is how human beings could do this to other human beings, that is the issue I think.
Eric: Now 3 years since this tragedy, on the anniversary of this tragedy, you are going to be doing what any normal person, what any decent person should be doing today. You are not only going to be going to a football game, but a USC football game.
So, is today completely normal for you, or in the back, little down deep, is it not?
Kevin: Well you know I think that I couldn’t imagine anything else better than being at a sold out 92,000 plus USC football game at the Coliseum on 9/11, especially 3 years after the anniversary, and yes, I have had many phone calls this morning from friends and family, and Eric, I want to thank you for the opportunity to be here. It was great to hear your voice yesterday. I think that is what is special for me, connecting with my loved ones on this day. They will always remember how it felt, and how worried they were for me, and I’ll always remember connecting with them and saying that I was ok. That will always be what this day reminds me of. It’ll be great to see…to be with my friends here at the game, and also think what a great country we have. So it’s a special day for us. It’s also great that we’re here with all the other USC fans as well.
Eric: What would make the perfect day for you one year from today? What would make September 11th, 2005, a fabulous day?
Kevin: While I think, a couple things. If there is another USC game a year from now, that would be fine.
I’m ok with that. Like I said before, if Elena and I can get back to New York, and if it’s on the 4 year anniversary, that would be awesome. Just to think back 4 years from that day that what a tragic experience, and yet here we are, 4 years later, married, doing so well, and that’s something that we’ll always remember.
Either being in New York or being with other USC Trojan fans I think would be a great thing for us.
Eric: Well, I can’t thank you enough Kevin. You’ve been very generous with your time. We can continue on if you’d like to, if you have other places you need to be we can bring it short. I have a million questions I could ask you, but I want to make sure I am not taking it out of your tailgating time because I know how important that is.
Kevin: Well I know that my cellphone keeps ringing so we probably have to get back to the tailgate. I do want to thank you for having us here. It was a wonderful time. It was great to see you as well. Again Eric, my family speaks highly of you and how you handled that situation that day. They all called the office and said, ‘Eric took care of it.’ So I wanted to thank you again.
Eric: Well I paid them handsomly to say that.
All I can say is that it’s impossible for me to think of September 11th without thinking of you, and even though you and I probably hadn’t talked in 11 months and 29 days…
Eric: September 9th and 10th rolls around, and I’m calling your office what seems like every 4 hours, desperate to get a hold of you…
Eric: Now that we’ve got this archived on cassette, and soon on CD, from now on, the world is going to hear your story.
Eric: I just want to say that on a day like this when we think of so many tragedies, and I don’t want to minimize the tragedies, because we have had Spain on 3/11, we’ve had Russian schoolchildren..there is a positive message that I think comes out of it. Correct me if I am wrong, but that positive message is that we are stronger than they are.
Eric: We are tougher than they are. The fact that you are here, that you are able to talk about it, and the fact that you’re able to go to a game and you’re able to laugh and joke, that you’re not having nightmares every night…is it fair to say that even though they won that battle that day that we’ve won the war of civilization?
Kevin: I think so because I think I’ll never forget the picture of the firemen that were in the rubble that held up the American flag. There was 3 of them that day, that even though there was burning building behind them, they realized that our country is going to continue and go on. I think that is what the terrorists didn’t realize. Our buildings might have been knocked down, and people died, but this country is so strong and our people are so united, and so that will never change. I think that if this was a wake up call for a lot of people to say, ‘We need to look at ourselves and look at the world and make sure that we are unified, and really unified for the causes of freedom.
Eric: Kevin, one of the reasons this country is so strong is because it has got people like you. I appreciate you taking the time to tell your story. Thank you very much.
Elena: Thanks Eric.
Kevin: Thanks Eric.
Eric: Be well and God Bless.
Kevin is now a successful stockbroker and a happily married man. Most years I still go about 11 months and 29 days without calling him. Then 9/11 rolls around, and he dominates my thoughts. Neither he or I will ever forget that day.
Rather than end today on a heavy note, I will say that my way of healing is by flying.
On September 11th, 2005, I broadcast my final radio show on the USC Campus.
I then vowed to fly every 9/11. It was my way of fighting back.
On September 11th, 2006, I flew from Los Angeles to Oakland to sit 50 yard line, front row, as the San Diego Chargers took on the Oakland Raiders on Monday Night Football. It was the first week of the season, and the jets flew on high and proud before the game.
On March 11th, 2007, the 3 year anniversary of the Madrid bombing and the exact midpoint from 9/11, I began blogging.
On September 11th, 2007, I was in Chicago on Business. I flew that morning to New York. It was the first time since 2001 that 9/11 fell on a Tuesday. I made my way to 6 Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey for Sean Hannity’s Freedom Concert featuring Lee Greenwood. The audience used their cellphones to light up the night sky during the song, “God Bless the U.S.A.”
On September 11th, 2008, I have a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. 9/11 is a day to hug your loved ones, and the love of my life, the Chicago Cannonball, will have a warm greeting for me.
Hug your loved ones, and get on a plane. When we fly, we win.
Below are the lyrics to “Permanent Flame,” the song I wrote on July 30th, 2006. It is dedicated to those we lost on United Flight 93.
7/30/6 PERMANENT FLAME
Chorus: NEVER FORGOTTEN…PERMANENT FLAME
NO LONGER HERE, BUT YOU’LL ALWAYS REMAIN
3000 GONE…BUT NEVER IN VAIN
HONOR THEIR MEMORY…TAKE BACK THE PLANE
1a) September 11th, 2001
Started so normal, ended so wrong
American airplanes, turned into guns
Fired on our towers, that stood proud and strong
1b) Black clouds from New York…to the Pentagon
60 years after 1941
American steel…will never yield
Look at the hole, in the Pennsylvania field
1c) Beamer and company, saw America attacked
Our Capitol saved, because they fought back
Ordinary people…scared but so bold
Rose to the challenge…told the world “let’s roll”
2a) Some blamed the US, but nothing we did
Justified the murder, of innocent kids
Since then we’ve had Bali, London and Madrid
We try to save the world, across the global grid
Liberated a nation, routed the Taliban
2003…war in Iraq
Saddam in jail…democracy on track
2c) September 11th, 2004
36 months, since the start of the war
Less people airborne, scared to the core
What can we do…we must do more
3a) An ordinary man…I see in the mirror
But now I understand…the picture is clearer
Only total victory…in the war on terror
Will make America…for all our children better
3b) Our soldiers fight…because the cause is right
So our children are safe…when tucked in at night
Donate your dollars to police…and those who firefight
Money left over…go book that flight
4a) September 11th, 2006
Chargers vs Raiders…I got my tix
From LAX…TO OAK
Don’t worry mom and dad, I’ll be ok
4b) I need to do this, it helps heal the pain
I’ll get home safely, so don’t be afraid
I’m only one link in an American chain
If others join me, we can take back the plane
4c) So call up United, Delta and Southwest
Show all the world our American best
Take back our freedom…take back the sky
For our fallen heroes…American Eagles let’s fly
May God Bless the USA…again…Let’s roll.
En route to New York…I point to the Heavens
The war we will win…and evil we’ll sever
September 11th, 2000-Forever
A peaceful September 11th to you all. God Bless America.