My Turn: Memories still vivid for survivor of attacks on 9/11

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

Today, Sept. 12, is the day after a milestone anniversary, 10 years removed from the events of a morning that shook the world.

Jon Voigtman, a friend and the son of longtime friends from the Ann Arbor area, undoubtedly was awash with emotions as 9/11 observances took place in New York, Washington, D.C., and in a field in rural Pennsylvania.

He was there that fateful day -- a decade ago -- at the World Trade Center site. He worked for Lehman Brothers, as a senior vice president, at the time. His office was on the ninth floor of Three World Financial Center, at 739 feet the tallest of the four buildings adjacent to the Twin Towers.

"One thing I'll always remember about that day was how beautiful it was before it all came apart," said Voigtman, now managing director and head of securitized products for RBC Capital Markets, the investment banking arm of Royal Bank of Canada.

Voigtman remembers it as a picture-postcard type of day in lower Manhattan. Blue skies, warm, and sun-drenched. A hint of fall in the air.

He was in a meeting with colleagues from Lehman Brothers when his world -- the world -- began to unravel.

"We heard this giant explosion around 8:45 that shook our office," Voigtman recalled in a story that I wrote for a different paper at the time. "At that point, I didn't have any idea what happened. Some of my colleagues who were around when the building was bombed in 1993 thought for sure that it was another bomb. Debris began hitting our windows, but the damage was so far up on the other building that it didn't seem to pose an immediate danger to us."

Minutes later, the horror of it all began to unfold before his eyes.

"I was on the phone with my brother Chris when we actually saw the second plane hit the other tower," Voigtman said. "That's when it began to sink in what was really happening.

"There were people on the window ledges, some forced to jump out of the building because they were on fire. Smoke was billowing out of the buildings and panic was setting in because we didn't know if we were going to get hit a third or a fourth time. When you see people literally jumping for their lives, it's something you can hardly comprehend. There was a real sense of helplessness."

By then, the phones were "literally ringing off the hook," Voigtman said, as families, friends, and co-workers were calling, desperate for information on the well-being of those in the World Trade Center buildings.

"I ended up staying in the office for probably another 20 minutes, answering the phones, trying to tell those who called that their friends or loved ones were on their way out to safety," said Voigtman, who was unable to convey the same message to his own family.

"I was finally summoned by someone who told me it was time to get out, that I was the last trader left on the floor."

His descent was delayed by a stairwell jammed with hundreds of frightened workers, each of whom wondering if yet a third or possibly a fourth airplane was bearing down on the World Trade Center site.

In the meantime, Voigtman's wife and then 9-year-old son were left in a different state of wonderment as they awaited word if husband-and-father had survived the World Trade Center attacks. His parents, some 500 miles away from Ground Zero, could only watch and listen to broadcast reports of the harrowing drama, and the grisly reminders of the mounting death toll.

"Cell phones weren't working after the attacks and explosions, so there was no way to communicate with them to tell them that I was all right," Voigtman said. "I finally got through around 11 a.m."

By Friday of that week, Voigtman and his colleagues were back to work in makeshift quarters in New Jersey, "four people to a phone and a terminal," he recalled. By April, the company moved into a building it purchased in the heart of Times Square.

The collapse of the Twin Towers wiped out a front section of the office building that Voigtman called his work home.

"Virtually everything in the office was destroyed, but they were able to salvage a couple of family pictures for me," he said. "They were both coated in that thick white dust, but they were mine -- something to hold onto from that day."

Last week, as the 10th anniversary observance approached, Voigtman had a bird's-eye view of preparations for the memorial event.

"Ironically, I now sit about 25 feet from where I did on 9/11," Voigtman said. "Lehman expected that Three World Financial would be condemned after the South Tower fell onto it, crushing part of the 9th floor on top of the 8th, and taking out the southeast corner and east face of the building. Lehman immediately bought a brand-new midtown building from Morgan Stanley. Three World was rebuilt as it houses the headquarters of American Express, but the Lehman floors stayed vacant for 7 years, until RBC moved in during 2008. The trading floor is now one of the newest and most advanced in the city today."

Lehman, according to Voigtman, "miraculously only lost one employee" on 9/11, although the firm's demise would come seven years later in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis. Voigtman was fortunate to have moved on by then, successfully weathering the banking meltdown that engulfed Wall Street. That crisis, and the tragedy of 9/11, are beyond comparison, of course.

"For the last four years, every day, and throughout the day, I have been able to watch the development of the 9/11 Memorial and One World Trade as they make progress on the sacred site," Voigtman said. "They add about a floor a week on the new tower, and the construction process is amazing. It was a memorable milestone when the square waterfalls in the footprint of the towers were first turned on - the water has an amazing sparkle as it flows down along the footprint walls. A couple weeks ago, I watched as a crane lowered a 9/11 fire truck and steel beams from the tower down into the museum on the grounds. But as much as the site has changed, I can still perfectly picture the towers."

Published: Mon, Sep 12, 2011