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The economy shook after 9/11 – thanks to heroes it didn’t crumble

On 9/11 I remember best that it was a wonderful day: incredible sunshine, around 70 degrees and crystal clear skies. It didn’t end like that, of course.

Within a few hours, a cloud of smoke and dust enveloped much of Manhattan. Terrorists had just crashed jets into the city’s two tallest buildings, the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center. Almost 3,000 people died. The US economy came to a standstill. Life would never be the same again.

At the time, I was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and our offices were across the street in the World Financial Center. I missed Ground Zero when the planes hit because of a doctor’s appointment, but I was close enough to downtown Manhattan to see the smoldering buildings and the people running for their lives.

I learned what happened when I ducked into a gym where I was watching on TV the Twin Towers collapse like they’d been held together with glue. I made it back to my apartment right on the East River amid the roar of F-16s flying over Manhattan – and started reporting a war.

The Trade Center played a particularly important role in my life for several reasons. My sources were bankers and traders who worked there. We ate lunch and dinner at the fantastic Windows on the World restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower. (More than 70 restaurant workers were killed that day.)

My gym was in the Trade Center. And my father helped build what was then the tallest building in the world. I used to brag to my colleagues at the newspaper that my father, William Gasparino, a retired Marine, was a smelter who had worked in the towers decades earlier.

He was one of those who tied rebar into foundations and walls before concrete was poured. Hard, grueling work that ended up handicapping him.

Former Navy and World Trade Center construction worker William Gasparino.
Former Marine William Gasparino toiled endlessly building the foundations of the Twin Towers.

But he was building things on the side and was proud of the product. No prouder than the completion of the Trade Center in 1972. One day he took my brother and me to the construction site because he wanted to show his sons what he does for a living. We were invited to a big tour through the huge lobby of the WTC. He quietly explained his role in the construction and what was still to come: a monument to business and commerce that was soon to be built.

My father died in 1986. On September 11th, for the only time in my life, I was glad he was no longer alive to see what had happened to the work he was so proud of.

The nation was under attack. Firefighters, police officers, first responders, bankers, brokers and employees all died for no logical reason. A friend and WSJ colleague who escaped from the imploding building was covered in the horrific gray dust that spilled over the financial district when the towers collapsed. He was lucky to survive but spent weeks in the hospital recovering from an almost fatal infection from inhaling the soot.

Telling these stories took our coverage for some time, although not long after the attacks it was clear that the terrorists had hit the US economy as well. For obvious reasons, oil prices soared and air traffic all but ceased. Tourist destinations were closed.

The Trade Center was home to various Wall Street firms, as did the adjacent World Financial Center, which also suffered. Firms like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch were looking for temporary offices.

Even more urgent was the destruction of the electronic infrastructure that was the glue of the financial markets. A Verizon substation that connected every company to the NYSE was near Ground Zero and was destroyed.

Rescue workers search debris at Ground Zero of the remains of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, Sept. 24, 2001.Let’s not forget the Day Two Rescue workers who worked to clean up the rubble in their heartbreaking search for survivors.
REUTERS / John Roca / Pool

Stock trading, the lifeblood of the US economy, had ceased. Economists like to say that the stock market is not the economy, but such superficial statements do not convey the meaning of the market. When stocks can’t be traded, companies have a hard time making money and growing. If there is no trading, how do you estimate the value of the largest companies in the country?

It took six frenzied days to repair this infrastructure. If we look back on these events 20 years ago, the first responders who lost their lives are certainly heroes, as are the soldiers who fought the war on terror back then. The second day’s responders are heroes too. They are the construction workers who have sifted through the rubble looking in vain for survivors. My father could have been one of those guys and my brother was. He is an ICU and decided to move his practice to Ground Zero, join the cleanup, and pray to find someone alive.

Other heroes of the second day are the men and women who helped repair the economic infrastructure of the markets. They worked at Verizon, Con Ed, and the NYSE. We survived September 11 economically because of the people who ran these organizations, Dick Grasso of the NYSE, Ivan Seidenberg, and Larry Babbio of Verizon. But the local people are also working day and night to reinstall all of these cables to ensure that markets can reopen and the US economy come back to life in less than a week.

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