"It was twenty years ago today..."
- Lennon & McCartney (and everyone else in the world)
It's astonishing to think back 20 years and remember how I awoke to what I expected to be a typical Tuesday, that turned out to be one of the most momentous of my life and of the post-WW2 era.
Noel Stephens lived in London. Gregg Bedol lived in Atlanta. Both were in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. And, years later, they reunited to help create Quantuvos. Here's the story in their own words:
Noel, London, July 2021
I was consulting at JPMorgan Chase on what for the time was an ambitious financial services project. I was spending quite a lot of time in New York and on that Tuesday, I did my usual game of choosing between the elegance and grandeur of Grand Central Station or the marginally closer station on 42nd Street for my commute down to lower Manhattan. On this day I chose Grand Central (as I did probably 65% of the time) and left my midtown apartment hotel.
A forgettable journey instantly changed on exiting from Wall St. station to find the whole sky filled with a shower of smoldering papers. When I looked up, I saw a multi-story gash in the side of the World Trade Centre, with smoke pouring out. However, despite the size of the gash, my first thought was only "That fire will take a while to put out." I then did the very British thing of just continuing to the office with hardly a backward glance. I guess I just assumed there had been some sort of internal fire/explosion that had caused the wall panels to blow out.
Gregg, Atlanta, August 2021
NYC was a trip I did almost weekly. We were working at Danice Stores in Brooklyn, getting close to the end of a system implementation. This week I was at the Hilton Millenium on Church Street. I used Priceline to get a nice hotel at a decent price. A lot of times it would put me at the Marriott between the Trade Centers. This time, it put me in the Hilton.
On Monday night, I did something I very rarely did: Stayed in the hotel and ate in the hotel restaurant. it was a Monday night, raining, and the restaurant was pretty empty, so I got a window seat overlooking the street. From there, I had a great view of the Twin Towers.
After dinner, I went back to my room, it was either on the 46th or 48th floor, something like that. And the view of the towers was magnificent. I remember calling my wife and telling her that she needed to come up here with me next time and we'd stay in the same place. The view was gorgeous.
We were going to start the office training for the new system the next morning, so I set my alarm a little earlier than normal. I didn't take time to do my normal workout. Instead, I left the hotel, went around the corner to my Starbucks, and headed down into the subway to go over to Brooklyn.
Once in the office, my boss and I chatted for a while about what was going on before deciding to go down to Starbucks, grab a coffee and find out what was happening.
Things got significantly more tense when the lift we were in shook, then unexpectedly stopped at the next floor. Just as we were about to explain this event to ourselves as a lift malfunction there was an announcement that we should evacuate the building. At that time we were on about the 12th floor and Rick and I joined others to start making our way down the stairwell.
By the time we reached the 10th floor the first signs of (what we thought was) smoke was coming up the stairs, and by the time we reached the 9th the early feelings of unease had become something a lot more intense. As the 'smoke' accelerated and was clearly being driven by some unseen force on the lower floors, the connection between smoke and fire was made and everyone's face became a picture of slow-motion panic.
By the 8th floor, the slow-motion part of the panic had vanished, and Rick and I decided that for our own safety we had to get out of the crush and noise of people trying to get out. We left the stairwell, and still driven by the growing panic of believing there was a huge fire on the lower floors, we looked for alternative ways to get out (including, I'm ashamed to admit, our own attempt to replicate the typical TV movie escape route of forcing the lift and climbing down - fortunately, we couldn't open the doors).
New York & British self-control reasserted itself as we sat in the lift lobby, and it was then that we noticed that the 'smoke' was falling and settling. This wasn't smoke, but dust!! As more people left the stairwell and we realized that they were in no immediate danger, an uneasy calm settled on everyone.
The subway trip was uneventful, as normal, and I made it to the office on Fulton Street. The trip was so quick that I was early! The office doors were still locked. So, I sat out in front of the offices, sipping coffee, until Mark Eckert showed up. Now, Mark's one of the calmest guys I know. This morning, he was anything but.
"Did you hear about the plane," he said, "that hit the Trade Center? We're not training this morning. Come on."
Mark led me down the block to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, about 20 minutes away (if we weren't walking/running). The site was truly unbelievable. There, right across the East River, both Trade Towers were burning.
Somehow, my first thought was I had to get pictures. We found a corner convenience store and bought disposable cameras and then went back to the promenade. Surprisingly, it wasn't packed with people, maybe twenty or thirty of us just standing there and watching. I started taking photos. And then came one of the most horrifying moments - and sounds - of my life. The South Tower collapsed as we watched. There was a collective gasp from those of us watching from the Promenade. I don't think any of us breathed for the next thirty seconds. Then the wailing started. Cries of "Oh no," and "Oh my God" split the air. The wailing was coming from us.
The next 2.5 hours were nervous as news about what was going on reached us. The realization that it was a terrorist attack aimed at all things American did little to calm my unease at being in one of the flagship buildings of a landmark American bank, that was conveniently located between the Twin Towers and the stock exchange! The 'excitement' when the windows on one side of the building blew in when the 2nd tower fell all made for a pretty tense 2.5 hours.
Eventually, the building and emergency services staff came and escorted us down through the basement of the building, eastwards and finally out into a completely silent, apocalyptic scene. No cars, people, birds, movement. New York had completely shut down.
We walked in a group of maybe a few hundred people through streets that were covered with a thick layer of building dust, and headed north to the Brooklyn Bridge, across the bridge (with a few moments of anxiety when aircraft were heard - that turned out to be US Air Force fighter jets) to the Marriott hotel in Brooklyn. Along the way, our group had merged with other small groups of people.
In the bar, we came across two women who had been in one of the towers and had ignored the instructions to stay in the building and left when the first plane hit. We watched as bar staff came to terms with the situation and decided to switch from refusing to serve drinks because they couldn't get card transactions to go through, to realizing that they were part of what they were watching on TV and doing what they could to help the people around them by providing drinks. Money became an issue that could be resolved later.
Of course, everyone was trying to call family and friends, but very few calls were connecting, and many telephone lines were dead. I knew that (being 5 hours ahead) what was happening would be on the news back in London. I was sure that my family would know that I might have arrived at the train station under the Towers and be pretty concerned. So, I was one of the hundreds of people vainly trying to get a call through to home.
When one chap managed to get through to his wife (who was in another part of America), and had confirmed he was safe, he announced that he had a connection and that anyone wanting to pass a message to loved ones should give the name and telephone number to his wife and she would call and let them know. On the surface a small thing, but in that situation, it was an act of kindness that I will never forget.
Soon after, the second tower fell, we were all in shock, probably literally. The next thing we noticed was the snow. But it wasn't snow. They were singed scraps of paper, blown across the river from the now non-existent towers, settling gently in the streets of Brooklyn. I don't know why, but I grabbed several of the papers and kept them. I still have them today.
Before long, everyone wandered away. I have no idea where Mark went. I didn't know Brooklyn. And I knew I sure as hell couldn't go back to my hotel, right at (what eventually became known as) Ground Zero. So I wandered. And the next thing I knew, I was at the Brooklyn Marriott.
The hotel was a madhouse. There were hundreds of people, many of whom were desperately trying to get a phone line to let their loved ones know they were safe. Most of the circuits were down, no one could get through. This was still in the times of payphones. The lines were twenty deep. There weren't a lot of cell phones yet. But I had one. And somehow, I got through to Jan in Atlanta. I don't remember a thing about that conversation other than I told her that I was fine, I was safe, I wasn't at the hotel when the towers came down.
Then I noticed this gentleman standing nearby with a horrible look of desperation, so I asked if there was anything I could do to help. He said that he was from London and that he was trying to get in touch with his son over there to let him know that he was safe.
In that moment, one of us thought - I have no idea if it was the gentleman, my wife, or me - I'm talking to my wife in Atlanta, where there is no crush on the phone lines. She could get through to London. So I put the gentleman on the phone - his name was Noel - and Noel proceeded to give Jan directions for how to reach his son in London. Which, of course, she did.
Noel and I talked for a while and we exchanged contact information. Then we went our separate ways. Noel had a midtown hotel to get back to, somehow, and I had to figure out a place to sleep.
The rest of the day was just a blur of stories of luck for those who got out, worry about colleagues who had not, and astonishment and disbelief at the act itself.
By the time I was able to get back to my apartment hotel it was close to 6pm and many shops were closing so staff could be with families and loved ones. I rushed to my local deli to buy some food.
The shop owner prompted me to be quick as he was closing shortly. I grabbed what I needed and went to pay. For the 2nd time that day, the generosity of the American heart revealed itself in this pretty direct New Yorker. Hearing my accent, he said, you're not from here are you? He then asked if I had all I needed as he wasn't expecting to open for a few days. That prompted me to go and get a few more things. When I returned and tried to pay he just looked at me as if I'd insulted him, eventually saying that you're a long way from home and I think we've caused you enough trouble for today. Make sure you have all you need and take care. He wouldn't take a penny from me.
Even after so many years, 9/11 seems to embody many of the worst things in people - but also some of the best things - the acts of kindness and consideration; the flood of calls from people who only knew me as a voice on conference calls and who must have gone to some length to find my number, to just let me know that if I needed anything to let them know; companies like Schlumberger who found me a desk in one of their NY buildings with a fairly large group of Brits so as to make me feel a bit more at home, and the many other companies from places as far from NY as Omaha, Nebraska, and Atlanta.
With no flights and my passport in my jacket pocket on the back of my chair at the office, it was many weeks before I was able to return to the UK. And whilst I came back to NY to work on the project, the events of 9/11 had altered the project and certainly my appetite to be far away from my family for extended periods.
The response to that day has changed our world and, 20 years on, the world is still trying to find the right path to balance the sometimes conflicting needs of people with different traditions, beliefs, and asymmetries in power.
I walked uptown and wandered into a hotel. New York was a ghost town. 'Is there a room available?' 'Sure. None of the people who were supposed to arrive today made it.' Two days later, I was able to score a rental car and drove back to Atlanta. But I never forgot Noel.
Gregg was a calm, helpful soul who reached out to help other souls when they needed his help. We remain friends and still talk every year on the anniversary of 9/11.
In 2019 Gregg visited London and we spent a fantastic afternoon doing the most British of activities, spending a wonderful time having afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason.
Last year Gregg (along with co-founder, Margaret Brake) was looking to launch Quantuvos and asked if I would be a partner with him in the company. Of course, I said yes. Quantuvos has given me an opportunity to be a sounding board and an additional set of eyes for his business. That it was a business that reflects the values of helping others that he so generously demonstrated when we first met seemed especially appropriate.
Out of it all, Gregg's small gift of help to me, a stranger, touches me every time my mind turns to that day.
I made a lifelong friend and got an insight into the generosity and hate that is the contradiction of being human. I love what Gregg is doing with Quantuvos and it is an appropriate reflection of him and his core value of helping others.
The word 'Quantuvos' means 'Choose to be your best.' I see that in Noel every time we have the opportunity to speak. Quantuvos would not be where it is today without him. In fact, without Noel, Quantuvos wouldn't be.