To commemorate 9/11 today, I thought I’d share a compelling profile of remarkable resilience and humanity. It’s an excerpt from a book I co-authored a few years ago called Letters From Home, in which I wrote letters to my four sons about the qualities and virtues we feel are the foundation for a good, honorable life. I was fortunate to be able to interview and craft profiles about a number of people in our family’s life who embody each of these qualities, and for the chapter on Resilience, I was honored to sit spellbound and listen and learn from a gentleman named Mike Nardone. I will always appreciate his graciousness in sharing his 9/11 experience, as I know it is a difficult story to relive in the telling.
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Like almost everyone who awakened in the Northeast on September 11th, 2001, Mike Nardone vividly remembers the picture-perfect weather on that Tuesday morning. “Stunningly beautiful,” he describes. He had taken the train into Manhattan from his Connecticut home, and emerging from the Fulton Street subway station, he was dazzled by the bright sunshine and striking blue sky. He walked through the promenade at the World Trade Center to get to his office in the Human Resources department at American Express, across the street in the World Financial Center.
“I remember so well looking around and seeing everybody out having coffee,” recounts Mike, who had only recently joined Amex as vice president of HR for the small business and consumer travel segments, and the risk management portfolio. “I was really happy that day because I had only been with the company a couple of months, but I felt like things were coming along. I had come out of a meeting on Monday that had gone really well, and I actually remember specifically being really happy, just going to work.”
Mike, in his early 40s at the time, headed up to his desk on the 47th floor a few minutes after 8:00, greeted his boss and began typing an email to a friend in the U.K., telling him how much he liked his new job and company.
“I’m at the keyboard typing, and then I heard this most incredible thud I’ve ever heard in my life,” recalls Mike. “Not an explosion, but like a deadened thud. The whole office shook, and I thought, ‘What the hell was that?’ My credenza was against the wall, and the books came off.” Mike abandoned the email and stepped out of his office at the same moment his boss came flying out into the hallway, eyes wide and panic-stricken.
“Get out of the building!”
“My boss had been on the phone talking to a guy that he was going to offer a presidency to. They were literally coordinating an offer,” shares Mike. “And he comes flying out and he says, ‘Get out of the building!’” Mike’s boss’s office faced the World Trade Center, and Mike glimpsed toward his window to see what had spooked his boss. “I could see smoke and paper coming out of the World Trade Center,” remembers Mike. “And I thought, ‘What the hell just happened?’ and without my asking, my boss just said, ‘A plane.’”
Mike’s initial assumption was that a small plane had accidentally struck the tower. Following his boss’s instruction, he got on the elevator, which stopped a few floors below. Says Mike, “Another guy got on, and he said, ‘I saw it. It was a plane.’” Mike asked if it was a small plane, and the guy shook his head. “He said, ‘No, it was a big plane.’ I didn’t believe him,” Mike discloses. “I thought he was crazy.”
When he got out of the building, Mike ran into Al Kelly, the president of American Express, who said he thought a plane had accidentally hit the World Trade Center.
“I remember distinctly looking up and seeing all the smoke. I didn’t see any flames, just smoke piling all over the place,” recalls Mike. “I thought, ‘Where did the plane go?’ because I figured it had to have gone through the building.” Mike looked over toward Wall Street, horrified that the plane must have landed in that area. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think the plane would disintegrate in the building,” he admits.
A stunned crowd gathered and looked up toward the top of the damaged building, which was quickly becoming engulfed in billowing black smoke. Flames would leap out of the building from time to time. Everyone assumed it had been an isolated tragic accident.
“I’ll never forget what transpired next,” confides Mike. “I’m looking up, and then out of the right corner of my eye, I see another plane, and it’s banking at an unnatural angle. I saw it come down the Hudson River, and then it banked in front of this building, so I couldn’t see it. And then all I saw was the biggest explosion I’ve ever seen in my life in this building. It had come through and exploded out this way down where we were. I knew instantly that it was a terrorist attack. At that exact moment.” reveals Mike.
The crowd scattered like ants, and sheer pandemonium befell the area. People scrambled desperately for their own safety, trampling others in their way. Mike’s instinct was to escape the island, and he ran toward the ferry by the World Financial Center. “The ferry was swamped with people to the point where it was going to sink,” reports Mike. “The ferry pilot basically said, ‘We’re going, we’re going, we’re going,’ and when he gunned the engine, there were people hanging on the side of the boat because they were literally jumping onto the ferry.” One executive from Amex had to be pulled back to land by a colleague, as she had only one leg over the railing when the ferry took off, in a determined attempt to flee.
People were running and screaming. “I don’t think there was a person on the ground who didn’t think we were under attack,” says Mike. “And I didn’t know where to go, because I was brand new to the company. I wasn’t even sure which way north was, for a second. All I knew was subway, walkway, office.”
Tragedy and humanity
Mike ran around the corner and looked up. “What I remember distinctly was that one of the buildings the plane had hit square between the floors, and I thought the building was secure,” he shares. “But the other plane hit in the corner, and I thought that building was going to topple over; it wasn’t going to hold.”
He had no clue where to go. “Because I had left the building in a hurry, I had no wallet. No cell phone. No keys. No money. Nothing,” he describes. “And I just said, ‘Well, I guess I should walk.’”
He headed to a nearby park and remembers sitting on a bench, feeling intensely overwhelmed. “I was thinking, ‘I’m in human resources. Our building is still standing. I must have some responsibility to this company and people. I should probably stay here and see what I’m supposed to do,’” he confesses. “Because I thought that’s what my job was.”
What happened next will stay with Mike for the rest of his life. “I’m sitting on this bench watching, and I thought I saw debris coming out of the building. I was hoping that it was debris. But in my heart I knew it wasn’t,” discloses Mike. “It was people. People jumping out. It was ones and twos. And then I saw what has stayed with me and I’ll never forget. People holding hands. Twos. Fours. Threes. And they were all dying,” his voice breaks.
Mike remembers a woman standing near him in the park, collapsing to the ground, screaming, “Why are they doing it?” Mike went over, put his arms around her, and buried her head in his chest to shield her view of what he was witnessing. “I remember watching, and thinking, ‘These people are dying, and somebody has to watch them die.’ I watched every single one come out. I just felt like I owed it to them.” He continues, “I would want somebody to remember this if I had to do that kind of thing. Imagine the choice these people are making. It was just awful. I don’t know how many people jumped, but it was enough that you’d never forget it in your life. Thank God I didn’t have to see any hit the ground, because they would just disappear when they got to the 20th floor, disappear amongst the shorter buildings.”
“All I did was run”
The next thing Mike remembers was seeing something crack atop the South Tower, and he was sure the whole building was about to topple over. Except it didn’t. Almost instantaneously, the top floors began to collapse into one another. “I didn’t expect it to pancake in on each other,” explains Mike. “Once it started, it just went straight in on itself. And then I knew what was coming next. The biggest explosion in the world. And all I did was run.”
Mike ran northward as fast as his feet would take him, trying to outrun the cloud of smoke, dust and debris. Lucky to be at the front end of it, he ran and ran and ran. He found the running path on the West Side along the Hudson River, and joined hundred of others running in a furious fight for their lives. He remembers a generous street vendor handing out water bottles from his cart to people running by so they could wash their eyes or their faces. Mike grabbed a bottle and thanked the man as he cleaned the dust from his face. He was out of breath and his heart was pounding. He went a bit further and then stopped to collect himself, still having no idea where he was heading. As he turned his gaze back toward the destruction, he saw the top of the second tower crack, and watched as that building then collapsed on itself.
“Then I thought, ‘Well, this is the worst day ever. We have to regroup as a country,’” recalls Mike. “At that time I thought tens of thousands of people had been killed.” Mike just kept hustling north toward Grand Central Station. As he got further from the devastation, he saw opportunistic street vendors charging $10 a bottle for water. He tried to duck into a hotel to wash up and use the restroom, but security had blocked all the doors except for guests holding room keys. “You couldn’t go anywhere, and obviously you couldn’t take the subway, so I was just walking and walking,” he reports.
As he made his way toward Grand Central, he could see throngs of people running toward him down Park Avenue. “I thought I was going to be crushed,” he remembers. “I ran and hid in the alcove of a building, and I was screaming, ‘What’s wrong? Why are you running?’” Someone told him that there had been a bomb threat at Grand Central. Eventually, the area was cleared, and the station reopened. “There was only one train going north,” recounts Mike, who hopped aboard. “It packed with as many people as it could. And then a woman just yelled, ‘Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go! We’ve got no more space!’ and the thing took off.”
For the next hour and 50 minutes, as the train made its stops through New York and suburban Connecticut, there was not so much as a peep on board. “I’ve never experienced anything like that,” says Mike. “Every single person just sat, staring straight ahead. There was no ticket person that showed up. Nothing. Just silence.”
When he got off at his stop, Mike saw armed guards with machine guns at the train station. Without car keys, a cell phone or a wallet, he managed to use a pay phone to call his wife, who had been released from work when the news hit. She was aware he worked in the World Financial Center as opposed to the World Trade Center, but she didn’t know his fate until she got his call. Their reunion at the train station was emotional. “I think that’s the first time I let my guard down, but even then I still couldn’t believe what was happening,” shares Mike. “I was having a hard time processing the whole day. But you realize you’re okay, and you just appreciate everything.”
Mike’s dad confused the names of the buildings, and had instantly assumed the worst. “My father was in church praying,” Mike notes. “I called him as soon as I got home, and my dad nearly fainted on the phone. He could not believe that I was calling him. My brothers were the same. They all thought that that was it, I was dead.”
The phone kept ringing, with friends literally shocked and relieved when Mike would answer. Shortly, though, Mike didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He felt the need to go to the gym and run. But he found no peace at the gym, where he remembers everybody asking questions out of morbid curiosity. Sickened, he walked out and went home.
And that was the moment Mike Nardone took life by the reins and snapped into action. “When that sort of stuff happens, people either respond or they don’t,” reflects Mike. “So I immediately started working the phones. I started reconnecting with my colleagues.” Mike relied on skills he had developed in his previous job at an Internet company. “I knew what it was like not to have an office. I knew what it was like to make things happen by yourself, without needing a formal work space.”
He put together a call tree and started reaching out to colleagues. “I knew what my job was,” he asserts. “I knew that I had a set of responsibilities. I could’ve just not done anything. I could’ve just sat there and waited for somebody to call me, but I was literally working the phone that afternoon and the next day, trying to figure out where the team was.”
Being the new guy gave Mike a bit of motivation to get to work. “You know, new to the company, I figured if I didn’t do something, I’d probably get fired. So maybe there was a fear factor,” he admits. “But I mean, I’ve been that way my whole life. Just keep it simple, don’t try to be a hero, just focus on what’s in front of you and what you can control. And at that time, what I could control was calling people and trying to build call trees and trying to connect with the leaders.”
The group immediately set up two conference calls a day, at noon and at 5:00 pm. For the first two days, the objective was simply to locate team members and make sure everyone was okay.
“I don’t think I did anything special,” notes Mike. “I was just focused on what I knew had to get done, because I didn’t know what else to do. I just felt like that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to get organized, get on with what you’ve got to do.”
Mike is quick to point out that diving back into work wasn’t an avoidance technique to block out the tremendous emotional impact of the trauma. “In fact, I wrote a journal,” he shares. “I drew pictures. My father told me to do that. He said to write down what I remembered. And I did. I don’t look at it a lot, but every once in a while I do.”
Out of roughly 3,800 Amex employees who had worked at the World Financial Center, 11 lost their lives on 9/11. According to Mike, the shell of the building was left mostly undamaged, except for several hundred windows that had blown out. The major structural damage was internal, caused by a girder that had flown off the World Trade Center and pierced the building across the street like a torpedo, impaling a number of floors that had to be rebuilt.
Mike’s group was without formal workspace for a couple of weeks before the company secured makeshift offices in several locations. Mike wound up commuting to an office in Parsippany, New Jersey. “I look back at that time,” he reflects, “and I have to say that the company was incredibly organized and incredibly focused on people, and it didn’t really care that much whether it made money in those first two or three months.” He adds, “It was more about, ‘Can we get our employees reconnected? Can we help them? Can we understand what the commuting issues are?’ I felt blessed that I worked for that company. It has a culture. It believes in people. It has its priorities right.”
Mike shared that priority. “What I did after 9/11 was listen to my colleagues,” he recounts. “I have three very good colleagues who have told me many times the reason that they got through 9/11 was because I made their days enjoyable by listening, and encouraging them, and trying to make some humor sometimes.” He continues, “I think I’ve always done that. I listen, and I try to mentor or help where I can.”
“Just keep pushing forward”
After a month or so, Amex leased offices for Mike’s group at 40 Wall Street, and Mike went into Manhattan to check out the space. “A month after 9/11, it was still a war zone down there, still smoldering,” he confirms. A colleague convinced Mike to go up to the highest point in the building, and somehow the two managed to go all the way up to the tiny glass-enclosed spire, more than 70 stories above lower Manhattan. “We looked down. And that was the first time I saw the totality of what had happened,” recalls Mike. “I saw, from an aerial view, what had happened. It wasn’t just the Twin Towers that were gone; the amount of destruction in the surrounding areas was unbelievable. I hadn’t quite realized it until I looked at the space. We just stared.”
About a year after the attack, Mike received a promotion, largely based on his caring responsiveness during the company’s darkest days. “Sometimes it’s how people respond that creates opportunities. I know I earned the promotion, but I also know that it was opportunistic and I still feel a little bit weird about that.” He adds, “I ended up being seen as somebody who was resilient, who just focused on what had to get done. My boss told me that it was my ability to just focus and block out what I had to block out and just do what I needed to do. He was impressed by that, and I know for a fact that it leap-frogged me above other people.”
American Express ultimately welcomed its employees back to the repaired World Financial Center almost 15 months after the tragic events unfolded. The 11 employees who had lost their lives on that day were remembered in a beautiful service, and an 11-sided granite memorial entitled, “Eleven Tears” was unveiled in the lobby.
The way Mike handled 9/11 is the way he has always handled life. “Listen, I don’t have the biggest IQ in the world. But what I do have is the ability to just keep pushing forward, no matter what. I learned that from my dad. He taught me that whatever you do, just do the best that you can, and know that you have to put in the energy and the time to do it.”
His wife puts it best. She simply calls Mike “The Little Engine That Could.“