15 years after September 11 attacks, downtown New York keeps rising

A man walks past the exterior of the Oculus Transit Hub and One World Trade Center

Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, a horrific event we will all stop and reflect on once again.

For those of us — like myself — who were here that day, or those of us who lost loved ones or dear friends, it is especially difficult.

Most of us who were here rarely talk about what happened. I’m like most people I know: I’ve taken what happened and tucked it into a very small, compartmentalized part of my memory, and very rarely open the box and let it out.

But on the rare occasions when I unlock that box, the same memories jump out.

The first is of Bill Meehan, one of a half-dozen or so friends who died that day. Bill was chief market analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald, famous for his outrageous Hawaiian shirts, quick wit, and sharp market analysis. Bill, myself, and Tony Dwyer had been out the week before at the back bar at the Four Seasons on 57th Street, then a favorite watering hole for the hedge fund set. The markets were already more than 20 percent off the April 2000 highs, and I remember getting into a heated discussion with several traders furious over the direction of the markets (they were losing money on a bad bet on several stocks and blamed CNBC, naturally). Meehan, never one to shrink from an argument, got into a spirited debate with them.

That was the last time I saw him.

And then there are the memories. The fragments:

  • 8:46 AM: On the West Side Highway, a minute after the first plane hit the North Tower. All the cars had come to a screeching halt. A man was on the street, leaning back with his mouth wide open. I ran up to him and said, “What happened?” He said, “A plane went right into the building.” He seemed confused.
  • 9:03 AM: The sound of 10,000 people gasping at once as the second plane hit.
  • 9:04 AM: Standing near Century 21 about 20 seconds after the first plane hit. Metal debris showering down around all of us. The entire downtown turned and ran. No one stopped. People ran over each other. A man a few feet ahead of me fell down, several people went right over him, smacking him down on the street. A woman grabbed him by the collar to try to pull him up, but they were going over her too. There was gravel embedded in the side of his face.
  • 10:00 AM: Seeing my colleague Maria Bartiromo coming into the NYSE moments after the tower fell. She was covered in white soot. I hugged her and almost cried.
  • 11:30 AM: Maria, my producer Bianna Golodryga, and I emerging from the NYSE onto a deserted Broad Street, covered in white ash, burning papers still flying in the air.
  • 2PM: Walking onto the Trade Center site, deserted, standing on a steel girder, the buildings still burning. Phoning in a report to my colleague Bill Griffeth.
  • 7 PM: Maria and I sitting in NYSE chief Dick Grasso’s office on the sixth floor. Grasso grim but calm. When would the exchange reopen? He wasn’t sure, but was in touch with everyone in Washington and the goal was to open as quickly as was safely possible.
  • 8 PM: Walking with Maria to the subway stop at Canal Street, the streets almost empty.
  • Monday, Sept. 17: The NYSE reopened. Interviewing Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill as he arrived. Senators Hillary Clinton andCharles Schumer, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Governor George Pataki, SEC head Harvey Pitt, OEM Director Richard Sheirer and Fire Department Commissioner Thomas Von Essen all ringing the opening bell, with the firemen and police officers.
  • All of next year (2002): The smell of burning material still in the air. Everyone came to work. Everyone was nervous, everyone was worried, many were depressed. But everyone came to work.

The beautiful thing about life is that it goes on. Downtown New York is completely different now. 60,000 people live below Chambers Street, many of them millennials who have filled up the buildings that formerly housed Wall Street firms. Nearly 5,000 new apartment units are under construction. The World Financial Center across the street is a success. More than a quarter-million people a day commute through Santiago Calatrava’s magnificent transit hub. The Westfield World Trade Center has just opened with nearly 125 shops, and Eataly, that homage to all things Italian, is going strong.

And yesterday, the design for the new Perelman Performing Arts Center was unveiled, with a flexible design that will hold several theaters.

And the tourists. They come by the tens of thousands each day — about 14.2 million last year alone. So many that on most days they dominate the downtown.

Mostly, they come to see the Memorial. When it was first completed, I was baffled. It’s a hole in the ground with water around it. How is that a memorial? But when I asked myself what I would put up, nothing seemed right. I finally came around to exactly what they had done. It draws the mind inward. It’s peaceful. The visitors are respectful but not unduly somber. The names of those who died are engraved around the two Memorials. There is commercial development around the site but it is not intrusive. The tone feels right.

And Bill Meehan? I’ve been by the Memorial several times, and always stop by his engraving. I never did eliminate his AOL Instant Messenger handle. It still sits there, my own little memorial to my friend.

If you’re by the Memorial, stop by to pay your respects to Bill. William J. Meehan, Jr. Panel N-27, North Memorial Pool.