As quoted in NJ magazine::
Robert Zito is the founder of Zito Partners in Warren. On 9/11, he was the executive vice president of the New York Stock Exchange and a member of its management committee, responsible for developing and building the NYSE brand globally.
I had 9/11 penciled in on my 2001 calendar for days.
My middle daughter, a high school freshman, had earned a starting spot on the school’s varsity soccer team.
I wasn’t going to miss her first game.
So, instead of taking my usual route to work at the New York Stock Exchange, one that sent me through the Holland Tunnel and to a garage at Battery Park, I parked at Exchange Place in Jersey City.
I took the PATH to the South Tower, where about 120 NYSE employees had offices, met a friend for a coffee, and left for the three-block walk to the NYSE and my office by 8:15 a.m.
The plan was to leave early, catch the train under the Twin Towers, and head back to New Jersey.
Thirty minutes later, everything changed.
When the first plane hit the North Tower, it sounded as if the air had been sucked out of Lower Manhattan. I just didn’t know why. A member of my team came running down the hall to my office, imploring me to look out my window.
It looked like a ticker tape parade … except much of the ‘confetti’ was burning.
There obviously was much confusion. But Dick Grasso, the CEO of the NYSE, quickly made a decision that may have saved lives.
Many on the staff of the NYSE were veterans of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Grasso remembered it well and didn’t want to take any chances, ordering all employees out of the Towers.
Like everyone else, I was trying to figure out what had happened. I had eight televisions in my office, so I could monitor the daily business media reporting. Each one was focusing on the ‘small plane accident’ at the World Trade Center.
Then a friend called me from his office above Madison Square Garden and sounded frantic.
‘Bob, that was no accident,’ he said. ‘I watched that plane fly down the Hudson and straight into the … oh, my God.
‘There’s another one coming. Bob, I’m leaving. Get out of there.’
The plane came from the west and turned over Lower Manhattan. As I watched on the monitors and saw the plane coming over Jersey City and veering toward the South Tower, it was painfully obvious we were under attack.
The sound was deafening.
‘The Ramp’ was the designated spot on the NYSE trading floor where our management committee met whenever there was a trading incident at the exchange.
Usually, this involved five or six of us assessing what was happening in the market, and quickly putting plans in place to deal with the issue, and then communicating to members, member firms and the public what we were doing.
It was the best ‘crisis assessment and communications’ function I have ever been part of.
I immediately headed there. When I arrived, Grasso was fielding calls from New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Harvey Pitt, who was chairman of the SEC. Grasso, with the mayor and chairman, was gathering information, assuming we would need to delay the opening.
Not taking any chances, Grasso ordered me to get my staff down from the 12th floor of our building at 11 Wall.
‘Get all your people down here,’ he said. ‘I don’t want anyone on the floors upstairs.’
We had returned to the floor of the exchange when the unthinkable happened: The South Tower came down, and the trading floor shook as if an earthquake had hit.
I’ll never forget the moment. The room went dark; the sun that lit the floor through the glass behind the façade columns and the skylights disappeared as the building was covered in soot and debris from the falling building.
Most knew the NYSE was a target since the failed attempt on the towers in 1993. Few knew all of the precautions that had been put in place.
After the South Tower came down, Grasso ordered the building sealed, which meant steel grates came down in front of the entrances on Broad Street, and at Wall.
We were watching the television monitors when the North Tower came down.
There was stunned silence on the usually hectic trading floor.
Later in the day, Giuliani told Grasso it was most likely safe to let our people leave the building and head home. They were instructed to walk east, away from the burning debris.
Most on the Management Committee stayed. Bob Britz, the incoming NYSE president, and I stayed with Grasso until about 8 p.m. By that time, there was no way back to Jersey from a deserted Wall Street, so the NYPD offered to get Britz and me back to Jersey City via a police launch.
We were speechless as we circled Lower Manhattan and saw the columns of smoke where the buildings had been. Floodlights already lit the site, as rescue workers tried to save more victims. We didn’t yet understand the magnitude of the heroic effort to save lives.
After we docked in Jersey City, Britz and I walked up the ramp at the now-closed parking garage. Soot covered the cars. We realized even then that many of those people were never coming back.
The drive in on Sept. 12 was eerie.
A handful of us in management at the NYSE were considered ‘essential’ employees, meaning we had to be there when difficult situations hit the market. The Office of Emergency Management issued us passes that enabled us to get through the numerous police blockades on the streets and the tunnels.
(It also enabled us to get a free car wash. Just not why you would think. For the next few months, since I was allowed into the restricted zones, my car was given a wash with high-powered hoses on the way out to ensure I wasn’t taking anything toxic out of the area.)
There were few cars on Sept. 12. The roads were empty and smoke was still billowing up from the columns that had been the Twin Towers.
And the NYSE, usually bustling, was silent.
We met with the leaders of all the major Wall Street firms that afternoon in the Park Avenue offices of Bear Stearns, and tried to assess the firms’ damages. Con Ed and Verizon were there, too. At that point, their heads said they didn’t yet know the extent of the damage. And we knew we couldn’t reopen the exchange until we had full power.
We agreed to meet the next day, this time at Credit Suisse, when we might have a better understanding.
Grasso, meanwhile, was making sure we were doing as much as we could to help in the effort. He opened the NYSE building to the rescue workers and brought in as much food and water as we could get to the building. I will never forget the looks on the rescue workers’ faces. Determined. Sorrowful. Resolved.
By the end of the week, Grasso and the heads of the firms determined the market must reopen as soon as possible as a symbol of our strength and fortitude.
Con Ed and Verizon worked tirelessly to ensure we would have the technological capabilities to do so. And I’ll never forget the willingness of competing firms to help each other with office space and other needs, and government officials to be on hand as a sign of support as we prepared to ring the bell on Monday morning, Sept. 17.
Business and the American economy went on.
Yet, everything was now different.
The attackers wanted to take down the World Trade towers because they stood as a symbol of our country’s economic system.
And while they took down the towers, they failed to crumble our economy. The stock market, down more than 10 percent after the attack, has rebounded. Doubling. Twice.
They clearly were unable to take away our spirit, either. We must not allow them to take away our memories, too.
Many years have passed since that day, but it remains important to me to never forget.
While I left the Stock Exchange in 2004, I still carry my own personal memories, and think about that day, and the heroism of so many people, every day.
The Twin Towers were special buildings to me.
My dad loved going to Windows on the World, the restaurant on the top floor of the North Tower, for dinner. A photo of my two older daughters when they were young girls, playing in their white dresses while we were waiting for the elevator in the lobby, hangs in my living room today.
My middle daughter went on to have a great soccer career, although her first game was delayed by more than a week.
The expected memory of seeing her on the field that day is replaced by another: The hug I got when I returned home that night. It is a hug, with all of its meaning, I will never forget.
After all, we were the lucky ones.
Thousands of families, including some of my daughter’s schoolmates, didn’t get that hug.
That is why, 15 years later, we must never forget.
Fallen Heroes Fund
As told by Robert Zito.
One of the solemn traditions at the New York Stock Exchange was the “passing of the hat,” a task undertaken by an NYSE member after a New York City police officer or firefighter was killed in the line of duty. The money collected would be brought to the widow — typically at the fallen hero’s wake — to help with the immediate costs prior to the New York City death benefit kicking in.
In December 1998, following a fire that claimed the lives of three FDNY firefighters, Dick Grasso, the chairman and CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, asked me to modernize the process. So we did.
We created the “NYSE Fallen Heroes Fund.”
I asked the members to make a contribution, matched their contributions out of the NYSE Foundation, and launched the fund with more than enough money to assume we could pay $20,000 to any impacted family with never a worry about raising additional money.
Then came 9/11.
Included in the nearly 3,000 innocent lives lost on that day, were 23 NYPD officers, 37 Port Authority officers and 343 FDNY personnel.
When we reopened the market on Sept. 17, I walked the floor and reminded the traders that we had a commitment to the families of the firefighters and police officers who were lost that day. The traders simply nodded.
By the end of the week, nearly $5 million had been contributed by the trading floor community to the fund. We matched it out of the NYSE Foundation and then worked with various officials and departments to make sure each family received some financial aid as quickly as possible.
The FDNY asked me to go on its foundation board following 9/11, and now I am vice chair. I’m also the honorary commissioner of the FDNY, and do everything I can to help that organization. I am eternally grateful to them, and the NYPD and the PAPD. Anyone who saw the determination on those faces, working to save one last person trapped in that rubble, would do the same.
Our mission continues today. If you would like to contribute to the foundation, contact fdnyfoundation.org.