The Story of Sean
"RTG wrote The Story of Sean for a 4th of July post a couple years back. It's the single most moving account of 9/11 that I've ever read" ....You can get the link to this page at: http://rightthinkinggirl.com/ (sorry, I still haven't figured out to link stuff)
Sean woke up that morning at seven o'clock. His son and his wife continued to sleep while he got up, brushed his teeth, and took a shower. As he shut off the shower, his wife's alarm started beeping. Her routine was to get up, put on her robe, and go into their son's room to wake M. M was three years old, a perfect blue-eyed little boy who was the center of his parent's life. Strictly speaking, he did not have to get up that early. The nanny would arrive at a 7:30, but Sean and his wife liked to share breakfast with M before work.
Coming out of the restroom, he could hear her across the hall, and M whining a little. His wife came back into the sleeping suite, put M on the bed so Sean could talk to him, and went in to take a shower. It was a familiar, comforting routine, one done for a thousand days - ever since M was born. M sleepily sucked his thumb while Sean put on his suit. That morning he chose a nice Brooks Brothers suit -charcoal grey, a fresh white button-down, and a sky-blue tie that his wife would tell him "brought out his eyes." While he tied the knot of his tie, he could hear the water in the bathroom stop, and hear the shower door open.
Sean took M into the kitchen and started making coffee. While the coffee dripped, he took M back into his room and dressed him. Coming out of M's room, his wife asked him a question about work. They both worked for the same company, in different divisions. He worked in the North Tower, she worked in the South. Sean held M and talked briefly about work while his wife adjusted her clothing. She was a typical New York woman who loved fashion. She had meetings planned in the afternoon and had chosen a dove gray pantsuit with a white shirt. It was new. That weekend, she'd gone shopping at Barney's and had bought herself a designer suit. It looked perfect on her.
She was barefoot, and her hair was pinned up - still not dry - as she breezed by them, kissed M and took the child from her husband. In the kitchen, Sean poured two cups of coffee, a cup of milk, and gave his son the milk and a banana. M's real breakfast was usually eggs or frozen waffles and was served at nine by the nanny. This meal was primarily an opportunity for the small family to connect before the day would separate them.
Sean's wife cooed over their son, asking if the banana tasted good, and asking what animals ate bananas. "Monkeys and me!" was his reply.
After the coffee, she jumped up, went back to the bathroom to dry out her hair and put on her makeup. The nanny came at eight, and Sean let her take M back to bed. He went into the bathroom just as his wife came out shaking her hair, and trying to choose shoes. "We're running late-ish," Sean informed her.
She grabbed her jacket, walked across the hall to say hi to the nanny and to kiss her son. M was still awake, and said bye-bye. She kissed his cheek, told the nanny to have a good day, and said she'd see them at six.
Sean and his wife arrived at the WTC at 8:20am. They normally had lunch together but his wife wasn't sure about her afternoon schedule and told Sean to call her at 11. Sean went to the North Tower. His wife went to the South.
Normally Sean was not hungry when he just woke up. He'd drink the coffee but he couldn't eat that early. What he did was, he'd go downstairs to get a cup of coffee and something to nibble on then be back at his desk by the time the markets opened. That day, he turned on his computer and began downloading his email. He read a message from a coworker that had been sent last night and marked urgent. It was about somebody's birthday celebration. He decided all of it could wait, and pushed away from his desk. He grabbed his cell phone and left to get breakfast.
He went from his office on the 104th floor a quarter-mile downstairs to a delicatessen and bought himself a bagel and coffee. His credit card receipt - he'd forgotten to get cash - shows that the purchase took place at 8:44am Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
He was standing in the lobby when the airplane hit. He did not feel it or see it or hear it. With others in the lobby, he got into an elevator car and rode up. At the 78th floor Sky Lobby, he got out to switch elevators. The elevators were running very slow. Sean impatiently waited, feeling the urgency to get back to his desk so he could be there when the markets opened. His phone rang. He set his coffee down on the top of a brushed aluminum trash can, and fished in his pocket for the phone. His wife's number flashed on the screen.
"Hey," he said. Just then, he saw somebody he knew step off the elevator.
"I'll call you back," he said, and hung up. The fellow bond-trader said, "Don't go back up. There's been a bomb."
Sean's phone rang again. The wife. He told his friend, "Just a sec," and he answered the phone. "What's up?"
"One of the girls here says that your building was just hit by a plane."
He turned to his friend and said, "Could it have been a plane?"
"Sean!" His wife snapped.
"Your building is on fire. Valerie said it hit in the upper floors, like where you work."
"I'll find out," Sean said. "Let me call you right back."
"I don't know what it was," his friend said. "I'm just getting the hell out of Dodge. Were you here in '93? It took ten hours to evacuate. I'm outta here."
His friend, perhaps one of the first to realize the danger they were in, left. Sean dialed his boss, who did not answer the phone. He dialed his secretary, and she didn't answer either.
Around him, people began to get word of an explosion in the upper floors. Momentum was gathering, a buzz-saw of expectation and questions, rumors that went from the explosion being a bomb to an airplane to an exploded transformer.
It had been about three minutes since American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. Later, Sean would discover that the airplane had literally flown right through his office. But at that moment he knew nothing of the kind.
He decided he wasn't going to take any chances. Once decided, it was as if the whole situation had become immediately clear to him, just how much danger he was in. He got back on the down elevator. He called his wife. She didn't answer at her desk, so he tried her cell.
"Oh my God, your office is burning," she answered. She told him she was in a different office, one where she could see his building.
"I'm leaving," he said. "Meet me outside somewhere."
"I have meetings," she answered almost robotically.
"I don't like this at all," he said. "I'm coming over to get you."
"Sean, no, I'm fine. I hope everybody's okay in your office..."
The elevator stopped at the 45th floor. It swung on its cables like a pendulum back and forth. The doors didn't open. The car ascended one level. Sean looked at the others in the elevator. Faces were a little anxious but nobody was panicking yet. If he understood the situation that was going on sixty floors above, something else was gnawing at him now: an idea of just how much damage the explosion had caused. The elevator began to descend again.
"Get out," he ordered his wife on the phone. "Get out of the building."
It went back and forth like that until Sean reached the lobby. His wife was saying, "I think we're okay," when he heard a crash on the other end of the phone. "Oh God," his wife said and then there was nothing.
Confetti was falling from the sky. Papers flew in the sky like a ticker tape parade. Some of it was burned, the edges black but the body of the financial statements or per diem requests still perfectly in tact. For whatever reason, Sean grabbed one of the papers and folded it and put it in his pocket. Later he would recognize it as something he had been working on.
Outside the lobby on West Street, firemen were staging up to go inside his building. He grabbed one and asked, "Was it a bomb?"
The fireman answered, "Nope, it was a 747."
From the street, facing both buildings, his wife's building would have been on the right, rising high above the Marriott Hotel where they sometimes met for after-work drinks with their officemates.
Sean called his wife again. "There's a fire," she said immediately.
Sean exhaled. She was alive. "Okay, can you get out?"
"I don't think so," she said. "We're trying."
"Who are you with?"
She rattled off three names. Names that Sean knew - names of people that Sean and his wife had dinner with, whose kids were sometimes playdates for little M.
"There are firemen down here," he said absently. They were in fact everywhere. Police too. And he was standing there on West Street in the middle of it all, trying to figure out what does one do when one's wife is trapped on the 85th floor of a burning building. There was an impulse to try and go inside the tower, find her, and bring her out but Sean did not know which office she was in, or where the fire was located. She said, "I will call you back," and hung up.
Sean called his boss again and the phone didn't ring so he dialed his boss's cell phone, and when he didn't get an answer he left a voicemail. He then called his secretary, and a few more people he had seen just that morning at their desks. Nobody was answering. He left voicemails with a perpetually growing sick feeling in his stomach.
His phone rang. His home number flashed on the screen. "Oh thank God!" the nanny wailed. "I just saw it on the news!"
Sean still hadn't had any confirmation that it was an airplane. The fireman had said so but it seemed so unreal. In a daze, he said, "What happened?"
"An airplane crashed into one of the towers and I was watching it on the tv and as I was watching it, another airplane crashed into the other building! On live tv!"
"Okay, I have to call you back. Is M okay?"
"He's fine. He's asleep. I was going to wake him at nine but this happened and ...."
"Let him get some extra sleep," Sean said. Then after a promise to call her back in an hour, he hung up.
People were starting to jump from the buildings. A flash of white dropped in his peripheral vision, and then he was aware of something slamming into the street. It exploded on impact. He didn't make the connection until later that it was a person. It didn't look or act like a person. But it was a person.
He called his wife's phone again. He described her voice as "wrought". She had come to some understanding that the situation was serious, that she was, in fact, trapped. His wife told him that she had run through the offices, trying to find a way out but the stairs and elevators were blocked and now the walls were on fire and the situation was dire. Somebody was trying to open a window. "No!" she yelled. There had been some debate about that. She didn't want the windows open because the fresh air would feed the flames. Others were starting to choke on the smoke and were desperate for fresh air. She'd ripped off her cute Barney's jacket, doused it with a bottle of Evian that she kept in her desk, and was breathing through that. "Listen to me," she said. "Tell M..."
"No! That is bullshit. You're not going to do this," Sean snapped.
"Sean, I am burning up. Please let me talk."
Sean was quiet.
"Tell M that I love him. Tell mom and dad that I love them. And remember that I love you. I want you to be happy. I'll still try to get out, but if I don't, please just know I love you. I want you to be happy, and you're the type who needs a wife ---"
"I need you."
"....So please find somebody to make you happy, somebody who is good for M."
"I have to go. I love you. I'll call again if I can. I love you. Bye."
The line disconnected.
What the hell was that? Was that goodbye?
He looked up at his wife's building, trying to detect her in the perfect silver rectangle windows. A perfect silver tower. A twin.
And it started to crumble. Right before his eyes it started to sink in on itself. Pancake was the word that would be used to describe it. His wife, somewhere in the middle-top of the building - was in the building, alive as far as he knew, as the building began to slide. A colossal plume of filthy gray smoke rose up, engulfing entire city blocks. Sean saw an SUV parked on the street, and he ran to that, and dived in his nice charcoal Brooks Brothers suit under the SUV. He put his arms over his head, his face pressed to the asphalt.
It was loud. The worst rainstorm ever, screaming and blotting out everything else, even the fear of being swept away in it. Objects pounded the SUV for what seemed like hours. Wind blew fiercely by the tires. He kept his eyes closed, and held on tight.
After the storm quieted, Sean rolled out from under the vehicle and looked at his changed world. There was nothing around him that he recognized. He was knee deep in debris. The air was swirling with dust and miasma.
The cell phone was still in his hand. He hit redial. His wife's voicemail greeting came on. He cut the connection and put the phone in his pocket. People had been calling. Calls he hadn't taken, from his in-laws in Virginia, from his wife's sister in Boston, from friends.
In shock, Sean walked toward the wreckage. Police were yelling over the squawking radios. Firemen and rescue personnel were forcing him back. Sean could not leave, so he simply stood there, looking up at his own building. Firemen were filing out of the lobbies with people. He walked around to the corner of Vesey and Church where the police command was. A policeman looked at him and Sean looked back evenly. Not a question, not a demand, just a shared look. Sean's phone rang. It was the wife of one of his coworkers. She burst into tears as soon as she heard his voice. "Is John alive?" she asked through her sobs. "I can't reach ..."
"I don't know," he replied.
"You have to call Howard," she said. Howard Lutnick, the CEO of Cantor.
Sean didn't understand what the woman was trying to say and he was too shocked to be of much help. He assured her he'd call if he saw John, and hung up.
His building came down. Falling away from an invisible spine, it slipped just as his wife's building had slipped. At some point he realized it was all over. His wife, his job, all of it was gone. His son was at home, but he could not go home, so he just walked around. The city of New York was covered in ash. It looked like nuclear war. At some point he saw a Ford Taurus that was covered with an inch of pure ash. It looked fresh as snow. With his finger, he wrote in the ash: "I AM ALIVE" and kept walking. He walked the streets like a homeless person, trying to figure out if he was really alive at all, or maybe this was death? Maybe he was a ghost. If he were dead, this was certainly hell.
Howard called his cell phone. Howard was sobbing. "I'm trying to... we have ten."
"Ten people alive right now."
"Okay," Sean replied. What do you say to that? When you start the day out with your wife and your 300 best friends, and suddenly you have ten people alive. What can you say? Sean simply said okay to everything Howard said, and hung up.
The thing you must understand is that Cantor's policy was nepotism, nepotism, nepotism. They loved to hire brothers and sisters and best friends. Sean's best friend in college worked one floor below him. His best man at his wedding worked on the same floor. The friends were gone. The building was gone, as if it had been dreamed into place by the force of their friendship, and then vanished when the bonds erupted.
When there was nowhere left to walk, Sean staggered home. His parents, who lived in the city, had come over. When they saw him, they rushed to him, relieved and weeping, and after a moment asked the question he did not know how to answer: "Is she okay?" Sean shook his head, more to remove the question than to answer it, and walked back to his son's room. The nanny was playing with M. Sean picked up the boy and kissed him, holding his warm comforting weight in his arms. This is it, he wanted to tell his son. This is your first lesson in loss. This is your first quiet splintering. He gave his son back to the nanny and went into the bedroom. He got in the shower with his Brooks Brothers suit still on, and undressed as the water poured over him. After getting the grime off, he changed into jeans and a polo shirt, and some sneakers, and he told his parents he'd call later.
He walked back out to the frozen city. The buildings had crashed and there was no such thing as a wife anymore. No such thing as anything anymore. Where had his life gone? This morning was so ordinary and now it was ... He felt like he was dying. He thought of his wife and knew he wouldn't live through the night. After all, you can't live very long without a heart.
He taxied back to midtown Manhattan. It was the center of the universe that day. It was a black hole, with a gravitational pull that would not leave him. He knew there was nothing to do. He knew, on some level, that those words on the phone had been the very last. But there was a tiny flicker of hope, a little bit of hope that maybe when the building came down, she'd managed to somehow survive it.
He gave some blood for victims who never came to claim it.
Howard Lutnick talked to the families twice a day. He set up a suite of rooms for the employees of Cantor at the St Pierre Hotel. Nobody slept more than an hour or two a night, and everybody was losing weight. Sean who was a trim 185 pounds on 9/11 weighed in at 173 ten days later. Wives and husbands and families of the "assumed dead" hung around, begging for information about their loved ones. Sean found somebody from Carr Futures who had seen his wife that morning, but nobody saw her after 8:46am because she'd gone to somebody else's office to see the damage to the first tower.
Sean kept calling her cell phone just to hear her voicemail message. He posted flyers with her picture on surfaces all over the city. He knew she must be dead. If she were alive, she'd find a way out. She'd find a way to contact him. But he put her information up anyway, and after a while he accepted that it was a memorial, and not a plea for help. She was beyond help but she wasn't beyond memory. She never would be, for that matter.
Sean and his family and the dear friends of Cantor closed ranks. Sean, always intensely private, gave no sobbing interviews. He would not speak about anyone or to anyone but those whom he trusted. Instinct told him that to survive, he would have to grapple with the emotional fallout later. He had to take care of M and he had to help with the rescue mission of Cantor. There was some controversy when Howard Lutnick shut down the bank accounts and didn't distribute paychecks. Ever pragmatic, Sean understood the necessity. In order for the survivors to have a job to go back to, all the people who survived pulled together, sacrificed like they were a young Silicon Valley startup instead of one of the largest, most aggressive and prestigious bond trading firms in New York.
Sean did not sleep for four months. He worked, and he took care of M, and he visited the families of the dead. For over a year, he would attend ten funerals a week. He would coordinate with other survivors" if he couldn't attend, somebody else would go in his stead. And vise versa. If somebody couldn't make a funeral, they would ask Sean and Sean would go. No questions asked. There were weeks when he attended two or three funerals a day. Every day. Monday through Sunday. The tears never seemed to stop.
Sean didn't want a memorial service for his wife. He would wait, he decided. He wanted a body to bury. His in-laws agreed. His inlaws had temporarily moved from Virginia to one of Sean's guest bedrooms. Though they were present, Sean still had the nanny come over every day. It was important, he believed, to keep the pillars of normalcy as much as possible. Meanwhile, he moved through the days like a ghost on tv, taking care of M, trying to explain the situation to the three year old, trying to tell him that Mommy was in Heaven, and Mommy loved him very much. One afternoon he sat his son down at the kitchen table and gently said, "Tell me everything you remember about Mommy." And his son listed things, and Sean wrote them down. Mommy smells good. Mommy tickles my belly. Mommy sings "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Mommy is the prettiest lady in the whole wide world.
Cantor recovered. Sean recovered, as much as one can recover from something like that. Even M recovered. There are still little shocks in their lives, however, that bring them back to that day, remind them of the enormous loss that they suffered. In mid-2002 The authorities found some remains of his wife and a small memorial service was held for her in New York. Then in 2004 the NYC Medical Examiner called Sean and informed him that they'd discovered "some more of your wife's DNA." Without telling his son, he took the remains to his vacation home on Nantucket. He sailed his boat out to the deeper waters of the Atlantic and scattered her remains into the lufting Massachusetts wind and the eternal rolling ocean. When he got back to the vacation home that afternoon, he planted a tree in the backyard.
I met Sean when I needed him most. I think he needed me too. It was like two friends finding each other after a long separation. Despite the fact that we were jetting back and forth between New York and Washington, there was not a lot of excitement, which is exactly what we both needed. We both needed serenity and acceptance, a relationship built on the tenets of friendship and blameless, guiltless love. That is what we got. We talked about his wife often and I started to feel like we'd have been good friends, had I known her.
One afternoon in New York, Sean and I took M out to a small park. Sean sat on a bench in the shade while I pushed M on the swings. When he reached momentum, M turned to me and said, "You are nice. I think my mom would like you."
I had to look away. I didn't want him to see the tears in my eyes