I had left my job at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, two years before. We were getting together as a group for the first time since I had left my job.
Of course I had visited my friends since, at different times, at different locations, but this was going to be special. We were going to bring our families together to have dinner at Windows on the World: the training director, the former training manager and I, the former human resources director. We had between us five adults, two infants and a toddler.
Normally a fine dining restaurant like Windows discourages children from dining as it distracts from the enjoyment of other diners, but tonight we were family, and treated like royalty in a way only possible if you are an insider at a restaurant, as we were that special night.
It was a perfect evening — wonderful food, laughing over “old times,” greeting previous colleagues and old friends. Even the children were well behaved, a minor miracle in itself. There we were a quarter mile in the sky with only a few of their handprints between us and our view of the East River and Manhattan’s bridges lined with lights, 107 floors in the sky. It was Sept. 9, 2001.
Thirty-five hours later, I was attending our morning meeting at Trump International Hotel & Tower; a manager comes in to tell us that a plane has hit the World Trade Center, the north tower, my tower. My first thought is ‘He is playing a joke on me’ (strange how no matter what the event or how big, we personalize it).
We were in the basement of a 57-story building about four and a half miles from the epicenter. We ran to the spa to watch the live coverage on the treadmill television monitors. I saw the plane hit the tower over and over, with the commentators questioning what had happened. I ran back to my desk and started calling my closest friends — people who attended my wedding.
Is the training director OK? The chef? The executive sous chef? The restaurant manager? The bar manager?
My fingers flew as I made call after call. My thoughts racing, ‘Restaurants operate at night, everyone should be fine. Why is no one answering their phones?’
I am told that the second tower is hit. I go to check the televisions — it’s true — what does it mean? I ran back, made more calls. Some of my team is going to the roof to see if they can see the towers. I continue my calls and think, ‘They will be fine, we had training for emergencies, there had been a bombing in ’93, we had done the safety drills, we know to go to the roof, that’s what they did the last time and everything was fine.’ Then my friend, the guest services director, comes to my office, white-faced. She had been up to the roof. She had seen it. The tower fell.
The following 24 hours, no one knew what to do. Traffic came to a standstill. Subways were shut down. Airports, bridges and tunnels were closed. People couldn’t get home. It took New Yorkers a couple of days to start sorting it out. Impromptu memorials began appearing all over the city. Most of my friends had survived, some through close calls and twists of fate; some through the flukes of scheduling and crazy restaurant hours. I had made contact with everyone except my training director; no one could find him. People were lost.
Doris, the World Trade Center club manager, a wonderful woman I had recruited from another job, was gone. Howard, the controller with whom I had worked every day, and Christine, the assistant to the general manager, were gone as well. The death that preyed upon me most was Gilbert, the union rep who had given me so much trouble, who spent more time in my office than actually working, complaining about everything. When I had left Windows in 1999, I had never said goodbye. I had never closed that relationship, had never told him it wasn’t personal. I found his death the hardest to put to rest.
The following Friday, Sept. 14, while I was manager on duty, the restaurant manager sought me out and said, “Please come and dine with us tonight.” I said, “Thank you, but I can’t. I have my infant daughter with me and a fine dining restaurant like yours discourages children from dining. I can’t promise she’ll behave.” He then replied, “The restaurant is far too quiet, please come and bring your family. People want to forget, even for a moment; they will welcome your daughter.”
And so it was another perfect evening; wonderful food, a wonderful view and surrounded by the warmth of friends and colleagues, but never to be the same.
In the following weeks there were innumerable funerals and memorial services to attend. This is where I finally found my training director (he had been living downtown amid the rubble, dust and smoke, with no electricity or phone service). My clearest memory of that time was the two minutes of silence for those who were killed. We all went outside. We, New Yorkers, took two minutes and came together outside as a community to memorialize our dead.
The chef and cooks from my current job stood in their whites holding candles, glowing in the evening light, so much like those who were lost.
Nicole Winslow is the former director of human resources for Solage Resort.