Forty-Four Years of September 11

Hal Stern
9 min readSep 11, 2021


September 11, 1977: Windows on the World has been open for about five months, and it is the trendy place to have lunch and see the city. I’m terrified of heights, and New York City is just exiting the Summer of Sam, so it’s a choose your own adventure. My family took me for my 9/11 birthday, and it was wonderful, and the beginning of conquering that fear.

1991–1993: Lower Manhattan becomes my second office as I’m commuting from Boston to Wall Street about once every other week, helping Sun Microsystems build a mid- and back-office. Sun moves from the tip of lower Manhattan to the World Trade Center, a marquee address to go with the dot com boom that’s fueling our recognition.

September 1, 2001: I decide to fly to Boston for an event we’re hosting on mobility applications. Four years earlier, my family threw me a surprise party, and every year since I’ve made it a point to travel on my birthday to avoid more parties. I passed on the invitation to hear Merrill Lynch’s Michael Packer speak at the Waters Conference (hosted at Windows on the World on the 107th floor of 1 World Trade Center).

September 11, 2001: I’m at Newark airport by 6:00 am, bleary eyed and fortunately upgraded to first class for a short hop to Boston. I had the car service drop me off thirty minutes before boarding, because security is a breeze and it’s a short walk through EWR. I slept the whole way. Landed about 8:15 and found my Boston Coach car service — for some reason I remember it was a grey Volvo sedan, remarkably only in its ordinary nature — and my flip phone (it was 2001) rang. Toby called, to see if I was OK — she was watching the morning news on our tiny black and white kitchen TV when the picture went out, and after cursing our cable provider, found a channel still broadcasting (a few NYC TV stations broadcast from the top of 1 WTC and lost their signals when the first plane hit). She said reports were that a plane hit 1 WTC. I had the driver put on Boston’s WBZ-AM, and we heard the broadcast of the 2nd plane hitting 2 WTC — where my NYC office was, where my friends worked, where so many from our town ended their commutes.

It wasn’t an accident, it was an attack. That spot on I-93, a dozen miles north of Boston, is non-descript in every way except for the burning into my long term memory as the context for a shift in the world.

At the Burlington Sun campus, a few people had CNN’s website streaming; it crashed under the load and pinned the video broadcast mid-page. We watched the towers crumble. People packed up and left for the day (and the week, and in some cases, for good). I began frantically calling people I thought might be in lower Manhattan, first of all my friend Sok. Couldn’t get through. Kept trying, and used the Sun internal phone system to route calls through California in hopes of finding an alternate path back to the NJ/NY phone networks. Parent check in; my sister was in Zurich so I knew she was safe.

I called my manager’s assistant to tell her I was safe and incredulously, she asked why I was bothering her at 7am Pacific Time. I told her we had about half a dozen employees from our team in 2 WTC, that I was trying to reach them and it would be appropriate for my boss to check in on people. I never forgave either of them for that callousness and later lack of understanding of a national tragedy; it seemed like California was a literal world away.

One of my NJ co-workers had flown to Boston and got a rental car (she was much less lazy than me), so we hopped in the car around noon and began speeding home, listening to the radio, trying to reach family and friends via cell phone. I was crying, and driving like a maniac through Connecticut, and even more panicked that something had happened to Sok, but finally was able to hear from him (why we didn’t use text messages, which would have been much more tolerant of the circuit failures, is an open question). My work friend Laura, who had actually made it to the lobby of 2 WTC, was also safe, but had been pulled into a coffee shop on West Broadway as she fled the collapsing tower. She said it was so black that she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face, and thought she had been blinded by a nuclear strike.

Driving over the Tappan Zee Bridge, we looked south to Manhattan and saw a plume of black smoke, visible from 20 miles away. The hair on my neck stood up. I thought of Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017” — the lights went out on Broadway.

My co-worker dropped me on a corner near my house, still wearing my suit and carrying my work bag, on the longest work day of my life. I looked like I got off the NYC commuter busses that stopped running for a week.

Wednesday 9/12/01: We have employees stranded all through the US, some of whom begin marathon car rides and car pools back to the east coast. Stories of our Livingston neighbors trickle in —people who we know were on the top floors of the towers, still others who stopped for coffee or decided to drive car pool on a beautiful day or just had a muffin outside of the WTC, and avoided being trapped by taking the time for themselves.

The commuter parking lots in Princeton have far too many cars that will not be driven home.

People start sharing anecdotes via email, and I will forever remember one of a violin player who went to the first responder stations and make shift hospitals just to offer comfort. Having been classically trained, she was always worried about her intonation, but after hours of playing and soothing the dual headed beast of fear and pain she commented “My intonation is shot but I don’t care.”

Showing up matters to those who need it.

There are F16s overhead.

Thursday 9/13/01: My sister is trying to get home from Zurich and can’t get a flight until Saturday, when air travel re-opens more broadly. I am fearful that one of my smaller business partners didn’t make it, as their office was on the 78th floor of 2 WTC where the plane entered the building. I get an email from him, saying they are safe and sound and operating out of NJ for a while — they had a staff meeting scheduled to start at 9am, someone forgot to bring muffins, so they went to the coffee stop on the first elevator lobby 30 floors below. When the plane hit, their office was empty, and they walked down the stairs to exit the building.

Saturday 9/15/01: I’m coaching youth soccer for one and only one year. We’re terrible, but the kids have fun. We question if we should have games, just four days after parents in our league lost their lives. We decide to press on, let the kids run through the field, and use sports as a way to return to normal. There are commercial jets overhead for the first time in several days. It is no longer an annoying sound; it is the chorus of life in the suburbs.

My sister gets on a plane late night Zurich time, and using my crusty flip phone I’m expecting her into Newark around 9pm. She claims to have set up car service, but there are rampant stories of car services simply bailing to avoid being anywhere near the airports. I drive to Terminal B and wait in the International Arrivals area, armed with two magazines (first two hours of waiting), my flip phone (next hour of playing snake) and a notepad. Amy comes through customs around 11pm, and I take her home to the Upper East Side. New York City is deserted — not just the early morning quiet, but tumbleweed worthy. On a fall Saturday night, Times Square should be rollicking and full of slightly confused tourists, but instead you just see their debris blowing in the breeze that carries the faint smell of smoke.

Monday 9/17/01: Wall Street re-opens for trading. The events of the past week showed me what it was like to work for a team that never says “no.” We had customers lose trading floors, entire offices, and networks, and we pulled everything that wasn’t being actively used to help them rebuild. Loaners, spare machines, quiet desktops — they all ended up in vans and were driven to Manhattan from all points on the east coast. The new building Morgan Stanley was completing across the street from their 7th Avenue HQ was sold to a rival bank, deciding that redundancy should involve more than a NYC avenue of separation. Lehman Brothers moved into the Sheraton hotel and set up operations in ball rooms.

Week of 9/17/01: The magnitude of loss hits home. My Princeton classmate Karen Klitzman was killed in her first weeks at Cantor Fitzgerald, having just left the Chicago Merc. Michael Packer, who was speaking at that conference, was killed in Windows on the World. Phil Rosenzweig, one of the best engineers and team leaders with whom I’d worked at Sun, was killed on AA93 on his way from Boston to Los Angeles to meet a new team of engineers we had acqui-hired. We lost neighbors, their friends, friends of friends. Grief rippled, and will continue to spread for two decades.

2002: I continue to commute into NYC to meet customers and co-workers. I buy tee shirts, post cards, WTC print memorabilia, anything I can find. It sits in a box; I’m not sure I’l ever make a scrap book out of it but once a year, I open it and find something to remind me of that week — my old WTC badge, a Sun business card with the 2 WTC address on it, an original print WTC postcard that sat forlornly on a rotating rack in a tourist shop for years before it became a limited print run.

September 2004: I’ve started playing hockey with a new team, and our goalie Andrew tells us about losing his mom on 9/11; he was barely twelve years old and suddenly without family. Caught between the 9/11 babies who never knew their missing parents, and the adults who survived, he suffered surgical adulthood. He’d be profiled in the Newark Star-Ledger in 2016, and I’m proud to have been his teammate.

September 2014: My Merck technology group has a meeting on the Facebook campus, which used to be the Silicon Valley home of Sun Microsystems. I split off from the group exiting breakfast and walk through the main courtyard until I find the bench dedicated to Phil Rosenzweig, the only invariant through Sun, Oracle and Facebook residencies of that campus. I leave a stone on the bench.

September 2016: I’m on the Princeton campus for a meeting, and walk past the 9/11 memorial outside of East Pyne Hall (the location of the Puke Socks Origin Story, if you must know), and stop to say kaddish at the memorial for Karen Klitzman. I can’t find a rock to leave on her star, so I wander over to Nassau Hall and disturb the landscaping to free a meaningful piece of the earth. She would have appreciated that with a mischievous grin. Some high school students have left empty coffee cups nearby, and in complete Karen mode (how appropriate) I scolded them for disrespect. It echoed feelings I had at Babi Yar, Ukraine, seeing families push their strollers over the unmarked graves of my ancestors.

April 2019: My assistant’s husband Tim O’Neill was a firefighter first responder on 9/11, and began battling cancer a few years later. I went to his funeral in Staten Island, saw his casket arrive in a ladder truck and I wept during the last call. Our memories of 9/11/01 were technically adults, but we had become more divided and less capable of looking out for each other. I thought about the dozens of first responder funerals in the weeks after 9/11, and hoped we never forget their bravery, that day or any other day.

October 2020: Avel Villanueva passed away, 19 years after a gigantic leap of faith and bravery. He was our office manager at Sun Microsystems’ 2 World Trade Center office. On the morning of 9/11, he was sitting at the reception desk, saw what was happening in 1 WTC, and used the intercom and then a room-by-room sweep to get everyone out of our 25th floor offices. At 8:55am that day, the Port Authority declared 2 WTC secure, but Avel ignored the broadcast and hurried everyone out of the building. Eight minutes later 2 WTC was hit by the second plane. His courage, instinct and concern that day saved several of my friends’ lives.

September 11, 2021: The twenty year anniversary of 9/11 falls on the sabbath between the Jewish High Holidays, Shabbat Shuvah, the “sabbath of return”.

I’d like to return to 9/12/01, when hope, courage, pride in our unity, and compassion were our top priorities.

Hug your family. Call a friend. Support your first responders. Stamp out conspiracy theories. Never underestimate the power of taking the time to get a muffin for breakfast. As my friend Pep says, figure out what needs to be done, and do that.



Hal Stern

By day: CIO for R&D at a drug company. Scalable computing, data privacy, performance. Non-day: husband, parent, phan, bass player, career coach and ally.