9/11—The day the world stood still

Home Inside FCNews 9/11—The day the world stood still

July 18/25, 2016; Volume 31, Number 3

By Reginald Tucker

When David Meberg, president and CEO of Consolidated Carpet, first heard the massive rumble from his office building on Broadway in Lower Manhattan early one September morning, he attributed the racket to activity that was taking place at a nearby construction site. “I was on the phone at the time and I remember reacting to it, but I assumed it was a dumpster rolling off a truck or something falling to the ground from a crane,” he recalled. “I never imagined it was an airplane flying into the World Trade Center.”

The events that unfolded on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and in the immediate aftermath surpassed the wildest assumptions and darkest nightmares of many people who witnessed the attack, whether they viewed it firsthand or on their TV sets. But the event took a particularly harsh toll on the New York region, its residents and the workforce, including many of the city’s renowned commercial flooring contractors.

“It was obviously very concerning,” Meberg said, adding that Consolidated Carpet’s offices, at the time, were located about a mile north of the Trade Center. Within minutes of the first attack, he and many of his employees were outside standing on the corner of Prince Street and Broadway, with a full view of the Towers. “People stopped in the streets, looking up at the buildings. It wasn’t long after I went out there when the second plane flew in. At that point everyone knew something terrible was going on. I just couldn’t fathom what was happening.”

Mebergs’s immediate concern at that point was getting his employees out of the area as quickly as possible. “We immediately shut down the office and got everybody on their way. One gal who was working for us at the time was handicapped so we had to get her transported safely.”

With the majority of workers making their way home, the next objective for Meberg was to account for any installers or laborers who might have been working in the Towers at the time. On a typical week, for example, there were usually several Consolidated installers working at the Trade Center. But thankfully, on that day, he did not have any crews on site. “When we went back to check our work schedule for the three years prior to 9/11, we saw that we had people working in the Trade Center four out of five days; that means 80% of the work days we had people in the Towers.”

There were other close calls for Consolidated Carpet. Meberg’s uncle “Buddy” actually had a meeting scheduled at the Trade Center on the morning of 9/11 but he stopped by Consolidated’s offices en route to the Financial Center because he had some time to kill before heading downtown. But he missed the appointment. In addition, Consolidated did have a crew of installers who were just a block away from the Trade Center working at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, which was just being constructed at the time. “After the first plane hit they vacated the job site and were standing in the street when the second plane flew right overhead,” Meberg recalled. “They ran for their lives.”


All so surreal

Similar scenarios played out at other commercial contractors’ offices across New York City and the neighboring boroughs. Like Meberg, Randy Weis, CEO of New York-based RD Weis Companies, was on the phone when he had heard (erroneously) that a “small plane” had hit the World Trade Center. By the time he turned on the TV he saw that a second plane had flown into the Towers.

“At that moment I asked our office manager to look into our manpower schedule and find out who we had working in that area, and also to make sure we made phone contact with everyone to confirm we didn’t have any direct employees involved,” Weis recalled. “While we had crews from our carpet care business working at the Trade Center at night, those folks were not there at the time. We were also lucky that we didn’t have anybody working in the buildings during the time of the attacks.”

Other commercial flooring contractors servicing Manhattan were not so fortunate. Soundtone Floors, headquartered in Long Island City, N.Y., and New York-based Sherland & Farrington each lost an installer when the Towers collapsed. Brett Morrow, vice president of Soundtone Floors, looked back on that tragic day: “We had three guys in there working on a project for AON Insurance on the 92nd and 98th floors of the South Tower. I spoke to one of my guys, Eric Sanchez, shortly after the first plane hit the North Tower. I told him to get out of there.”

About 10 minutes after Morrow spoke to Sanchez, the second plane struck the South Tower, but at a much lower point in the structure than the plane that went into the North Tower. Morrow reckons that’s primarily why the South Tower collapsed first and the main reason why Sanchez didn’t make it out. “He couldn’t find one of the guys, so he went back up to look again. But he got trapped above the area where that second plane hit.”

As it turns out, the other Soundtone Floors installers had already exited the building before Sanchez was able to locate them. As Morrow recalls, “one guy came down the elevator; the other guy went down the stairwell. It still feels a little eerie as I think about it. That’s a memory we’ll never lose.”


Picking up the pieces

When the commercial flooring contractors returned to their respective offices once New York City “reopened” for business in the days following 9/11, many turned their attention to helping their clients relocate, re-establish themselves and generally cope with the events that had transpired.

“We had to sort through our records to see which clients could wait and who needed their work done right away,” Weis recalled. “After 9/11 there was a lot of uncertainty in our world and in the business world, and it was especially disruptive in the immediate aftermath. There was uncertainty with projects being scheduled to take place and many of them were delayed. Initially it was a period of great shock, followed by turmoil for months to come.”

For RD Weis, the normally routine logistics of navigating in and around Manhattan was a chore. “For those clients who wanted us to keep working in the days and weeks after 9/11, getting in and out of the city was very difficult,” Weis stated. “It became very costly just trying to service our customers; every truck had to go through an inspection point and the drivers had to answer a series of questions. It was like airport security before the airport security we have in place today.”

While some of Weis’ clients chose to relocate away from New York City, the attrition did not hurt business. “I never really kept a tally on who we kept or lost as a client, but net-net there was a lot of loyalty shown on all sides. We didn’t know how this was going to impact the company in the short term or long term, but we didn’t layoff anybody. We didn’t want to make matters worse for people who were going through so much already in dealing with something that was unprecedented.”

The sentiment was much the same over at Soundtone Floors. Morrow said there was a backlog of jobs that needed to be completed, particularly the new construction projects. The company also got involved in disaster recovery work following the events. In particular, he cited the firm Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost all of the workers housed in its Trade Center offices, with the exception of the company’s CEO. “They eventually moved up to 59th Street, so we got involved with that project,” he stated.

But it wasn’t until 2002 that Morrow felt the brunt of the falloff. “In that first quarter of 2002 onward, once we caught up with the backlog, there was not a lot of exuberance in the market as everybody was still reeling from the events. The year ended up being a little flat, but we did great for the rest of the early to mid-2000s.”

Consolidated Carpet’s Meberg also recalls 2002 and the period that followed as “not being great years.” Although there were immediate opportunities to renovate office space in the affected areas, he said few contractors felt comfortable jumping on it. “There was a lot of frantic activity as companies sought to relocate, but even after that—and predictably so—the economy took a bit of a beating here. The city was struggling to cope with what happened and everybody was focused on downtown, so there was a dip in the market. But things started to bounce back around 2004-05, then we hit the big market recession in 2008.”

Meberg recalls city officials working very closely with businesses and communities to reinvigorate the Financial Center. Potential tenants were given tax incentives to move downtown, and over time activity picked up again. “Mayor Rudy Giuliani was a tremendous leader from September through January; he led the city through the crisis over those few months and then Michael Bloomberg came in. He’s a very smart, accomplished businessman and he had a vision for the city that revolved around diversifying the marketplace, not just being a city of bankers and finance and lawyers but also a tech city. His leadership led us out of what could have been an even worse economic slump. Even though our market was hit substantially with construction spending down 40-50%, we did not have it as bad as other markets. I don’t know that someone who was not as business savvy as Mayor Bloomberg would have done as well.”

Look at the World Trade Center today, and you’ll find a revitalized marketplace. State-of-the-art transit systems and services are functioning, the Freedom Tower is online, No. 3 World Trade Center is up and running and tenants are moving in. And, according to Meberg, there are also two buildings in development down at the site that are still waiting for anchor tenants before they commit to full-blown construction. “Now, just 15 years after 9/11, it’s just starting to become normal again down there.”

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