It’s hard to believe we’re approaching the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This article features a moving account of one employee’s experience on September 11, 2001, in New York. We also touch on our efforts to rebuild from the damage caused that day, but more importantly, the sense of renewal and hope it brought to those involved.
We honor and remember the people whose lives were lost or forever changed, their families, all first responders, and those who courageously helped to rebuild from the ashes.
Tom Spoth likes to start his day early, and September 11, 2001, was no different. Tom took NJ Transit to Newark and then the PATH train from Newark to the World Trade Center station in lower Manhattan, where he walked the three short blocks to the Parsons office at 110 William Street. He was in the office by 7:00 a.m.
It was a cloudless, sunny day, and Tom had closed his office blinds to reduce the glare on his computer. At 8:46, he heard jet engine thunder, and a horrific explosion as American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. He opened the blinds, thinking it must be some type of air show or demonstration, only to see the tower engulfed in flames and debris falling all around.
Stunned and not suspecting terrorism at that point, Tom called his mother to let her know he was OK. As they spoke, Tom could hear the blare of the TV news in the background at his mom’s, and then he heard, simultaneously, the crash of another plane—both over the phone and in real life—as United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower at 9:03.
The office lost all communications at that point. Phones and computers were down. Employees could no longer reach their loved ones to let them know they were still all right. Even though they had no access to news, they grew more concerned as they contemplated the fact (which was soon to be confirmed) that two crashes indicated a very serious situation.
Next, Tom heard what sounded like the loud crackling of machine guns. He had the sudden thought that the steel columns in the towers could probably not withstand the heat from the burning fires, and, in fact, he was hearing those girders snap. At that moment, he saw the South Tower tilt slightly, and he knew it was going to come down. “Well, I guess this is the end,” he remembers thinking. He didn’t move or run or hide; there was nowhere to go. The South Tower collapsed at 9:59 but did so in a progressive manner that was more vertical than horizontal, thereby not affecting as many adjacent buildings as it could have.
“And then a plume of blackness,” remembers Tom. “It was like nighttime; we couldn’t see anything out the windows.” The blackness faded to gray as ash descended to permeate every crevice of the streets. The North Tower collapsed at 10:25 and again followed the darkness and more ash.
Employees still had no way to reach their families until a former employee from another office somehow got through to an NYC employee on his desk phone, and they devised a way to conduct rolling conference calls through the phone. Employees took turns conferencing in with loved ones to inform them that they were unharmed.
Tom and several other employees devised plans to get employees to safety. Turning to the office emergency closet for masks and water, they gathered people in groups to walk to their homes in other city boroughs and elsewhere in Manhattan. Once all were on their way, Tom and several others (who saw no way to safely return to New Jersey) set out to walk to an employee’s midtown apartment. Tom remembers that the ash was 4 to 5 inches deep, like snow, and covered everything. On the way, they saw a pizza shop that was still selling pies and bottled water, and since they hadn’t eaten, they stopped in for pizza to go. Outside again, they saw some emergency first responders and decided to give most of the food to them in thanks for their bravery. Tom remembers sleeping on the kitchen floor at his coworker’s that night before finally making it home safely late the next day.
The skyline burned for a month. Employees returned to work several weeks later, once power had been restored by laying emergency power lines along the streets. A makeshift memorial emerged near Ground Zero, with photos, flowers, firefighter helmets, and other mementos.
One year later, on September 11, ironically, Tom was booked on United Airlines Flight 93 out of Newark (the same flight that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania the year before, on 9/11) for a meeting in San Francisco. After a formal moment of silence held by the airline pilots, he boarded the plane. “That took a little courage,” he reflects.
When asked what stands out most from September 11, 2001, Tom doesn’t hesitate and simply says, “We all looked out for each other.”
The events of September 11, 2001, changed our world forever. It was apparent in the aftermath that there was much work to be done, not only to mend structures that were damaged and destroyed but also to mend hearts. The work ahead of us was accompanied by a sense of urgency and a deep-seated commitment, fueling productivity and serving as a crucial part of the healing process for many.
We had been involved with the Pentagon Renovation (PenRen) program since 1992, when the PenRen Office began making upgrades to the Pentagon, transforming it into a modern, flexible, efficient workspace. In joint venture, we provided A/E management and construction management services within a design-build framework.
In fact, our team’s new blast-resistant and force-protection features that we incorporated in the PenRen design before the 9/11 attack saved the lives of many Pentagon workers.
After the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, our team accelerated the original renovation schedule by three years to address the immediate need to complete life safety and security enhancements and to rebuild the portion of the Pentagon (Wedge 1) that was damaged.
“The repercussions of 9/11 are still a vivid memory for many of us. But we’re proud of our efforts on the Phoenix project to rebuild the impacted Wedge in less than a year and of our support on the 9/11 Memorial construction. Through these efforts, we proved our nation’s resiliency and created a space to honor the 184 souls lost in the attack at the Pentagon,” said Sean Buckley, our PenRen JV deputy program manager from 2010 to 2011.
As part of the Downtown Design Partnership (DDP), and in association with renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, we worked to rebuild the WTC Port Authority Trans-Hudson PATH Station that had been destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. Our team performed design and construction support services, first for the temporary PATH station and ultimately for the DDP endeavor.
Calatrava envisioned the $3 billion terminal as a dove rising from the ashes of the devastated WTC site. It was built with two 150-feet-tall canopies extending from a glass- and steel-ribbed body, and it sits at street level like a bird poised for flight, delivering natural light to the PATH train platform 60 feet below ground. The hub’s facilities incorporate sustainable design, including natural light and state-of-the-art security strategies and blast-resistance measures.
“Seeing the new Path Station come to life was an amazing process. The transportation hub, where the PATH lines and many subway lines converge, sees an average of 250,000 pedestrians a day,” said Allen Klein, who served as CAD manager for the project. “As part of the DDP, we worked closely with the Port Authority to build a unique, world-class structure that sends a clear message to all that the spirit of New York (and New Yorkers) stands strong.”
The events of the last 20 years have also driven advancements in our corporate benefits for service members, which were further enhanced last year. Before 9/11, employees who were in the military reserve did not receive company compensation while actively mobilized.
Glenn Goddard, one of our program managers who recently returned from a 2-year activation in the US Army Reserve, recalls, “Jim McNulty, a retired Army officer and Parsons CEO at the time, changed all that when he convinced the board of directors that all reservists called to mobilize after 9/11 should be compensated in full for the first six months of their active duty.”
The policy was updated in 2020, and employees are now compensated for the full duration of their mobilization, regardless of length.
While nothing can erase the devastation of that Tuesday morning in 2001, the feeling of solidarity and a sense of purpose that arose from it has also had lasting effects on our employees. We’re proud of the part our firm played in rebuilding landmarks in New York and Washington, DC. We’re uplifted by the creation and evolution of our MILVET program, which today provides enhanced benefits for reservists and National Guard members and focuses heavily on veteran recruitment and retention. We’re humbled by the role we’ve played in supporting advancements in national security and critical infrastructure.
Twenty years later, we remember, and we remain strong.