In the 2011 issue of New York Super Lawyers — Metro Edition, out at the end of this month, we feature a story about Trial Lawyers Care (TLC), the organization created to help victims and families of victims of 9/11 wishing to apply to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. With more than 1,100 attorneys taking on cases across the world, TLC became the largest pro bono effort in history. In May, we interviewed Stephan H. Peskin, managing partner at Tolmage, Peskin, Harris, Falick, who was instrumental in helping set up the organization. Here, in an excerpt from the interview exclusive to the blog, the vice president of TLC recalls his experiences on the day of 9/11 and how he was able to get access to his office after the attacks, despite its location in the red zone.
I was downtown; I saw the second hit. I was on my way to pick a jury. When I go to pick a jury, I don’t have to go to the office-I’m going straight to the courthouse. I got off the subway stop before, which was fortunate because the subway stop I normally get off is called World Trade Center. I walk across the concourse level of the trade center out and into my street. And so I would’ve been in the concourse when it happened.
I’m talking to a judge that I happened to meet on the train. And the judge is saying, “Oh, my God, it’s terrorism.” “My law office faced the WTC and for 20 years I looked out of the window and saw small planes and helicopters. It was bound to happen,” and as I’m saying that to her–we’re standing north of the building, about five blocks north of Tower 1–between the two towers I see a helicopter coming north and as, I’m saying it, all of a sudden the northern wall of the south building just explodes in a orange and black fireball.
And it was something that you would see on Die Hard movies, but it’s real. And it sort of grows; it’s just coming forward towards you. And I said, “Oh, my God, that helicopter just hit the building,” and as I say it, I see the helicopter coming forward. What happened was the second hit was from the south, so I didn’t see the plane coming in, but it drove itself through the building and the fire came out the north side of the building. So the judge looked at me and I said, “Oh, my God, you’re right, judge.” she said, “Of course I’m right, I’m a supreme court judge, now let’s get our asses out of here.”
We both ran like hell. I was able to run home. I live in Greenwich Village, it’s less than a mile from the office. I stood on my roof with my wife and we watched building number one come down. It was like an elevator. Just slowly disappeared in a cloud of smoke and I kept saying, “Nah, it’s just some debris from the façade falling,” and then when the smoke cleared, there was nothing there and it was the creepiest feeling I’ve ever had.
I saw bodies coming out of the building, naively saying, “It’s debris.” ‘Cause, you know, your mind doesn’t wrap around that, it doesn’t accept that.
I would be watching the TVs and the cameras. They would catch the corner building, but they wouldn’t catch my building, so I didn’t know if I even had a building. I had no idea what was happening. I finally had to sneak through the lines to get here. And then I got here, I realized I had a building. A cop was kind enough to give me 10 minutes to get whatever I needed out of my office. And good luck. What do you do? What do you take? I had spoken to my IT people; they had said, “Get me your hard drive and get me the backup disks.” I was backing up religiously every night. But the disks were on top of the computer. This is not what you’re supposed to do; you’re supposed to be backing up offsite. So they told me to disconnect and I’d get it to them, and they’d get me up and running at the house. When I got down, I had to have a headlamp to see my way in the dark hallway, in the dark stairwell. And I hiked my way up the seven flights of stairs and then saw what happened to my office.
One secretary was in that morning. She opened the window when she heard the bang, she looked, she saw Tower 1 with smoke coming out of the top, decided, “I’m getting the hell out of here.” She ran; she got home safely. One thing she forgot was to close my window.
It was, I’d say, a sixteenth of an inch patina of dust on every flat surface including the walls–vertical and horizontal. It was a disaster area. And my door had slammed closed then, when the building came down. The rest of the suite was affected, but not as badly as my room.
I couldn’t get the hard disk out, ’cause my hand kept shaking and I couldn’t get the screwdriver in the slot, I was so terrified. You have no idea what it was like down here. There’s a smoking pile of rubble. The air was dense. There was a horrific smell. The only thing missing was the cordite that you smell in Vietnam, when you got off the plane, but other than that it was déjà vu all over again. I took the whole computer–I just couldn’t do anything else–I took the whole CPU with me and now I’m going down the seven flights of stairs, sitting on my butt sliding down, and I get halfway down and I realize, oh, my God, that there are guys down there with rifles and bayonets, all 20 years old. I’m filthy. I have burglar’s tools, I have screwdrivers and pliers, you know, and I’m carrying a computer. So I found my bar card and I found my business card and I sheepishly come to the door, and I’m waving frantically [to] a guy that has a little tent set up outside of my office building, where he was spending the night, and identified myself and I said, “Can you get me the hell out of here?” He escorted me back through the fence. After awhile things got a little bit more organized and they allowed us in on a rotating basis to get things.