I remember thinking, ‘I may die now’

I remember thinking, ‘I may die now’

For the first time, a survivor recalls his ordeal at Ground Zero

David Levenberg, here with his wife, Linda, recalls ducking to avoid concrete chunks the size of trucks as he escaped from the crumbling World Trade Center.
David Levenberg, here with his wife, Linda, recalls ducking to avoid concrete chunks the size of trucks as he escaped from the crumbling World Trade Center.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was employed by Deutsche Bank, and my office was on the ninth floor of World Trade Center Four, the building on the corner of Church Street and Liberty Street and attached to the South Tower.

When the first plane hit the North Tower, I was sitting at my desk. I felt the building shake and heard an explosion. Jumping up, I saw debris falling outside the window. Along with everyone else on my floor, I evacuated the building. I got to street level on the Church Street side of the building, which put me on the far side of the building from the North Tower. Large chunks of wreckage were flying through the air and falling into the street in front of me, but I was in the shadow of the building and had some protection from the debris.

I waited about 10 minutes for the volume of falling debris to let up, and then decided to go to the main Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty Street. When I came around the corner of Four World Trade onto the Liberty Street side, I looked up to see what had happened, and at that moment I saw the second plane flying in. I was almost directly underneath it. I threw myself up against the building, and was pressed against the glass wall when the plane struck the South Tower. Concrete, glass, and steel were crashing all around me. Some chunks were the size of trucks, and I could smell airplane fuel. I remember thinking, “I may die now.”

A security guard inside the building banged on the glass and yelled, “Get in here!” Those of us against the glass sidled along to the door and made it inside. There was a policeman in the hall directing people to the other end of the building, toward the subway. The police were rushing people through the open gates and onto a waiting E train. As I stepped onto that train, the doors shut and the train pulled out. It was probably the last train to leave the World Trade Center. I took the train to midtown and walked to the PATH station. There was a train in the station, and as soon as I got on it, the doors shut and it pulled out. It was probably the last PATH train to leave before service was shut down.

I was lucky beyond belief; within two hours of being in the heart of Ground Zero, I was in the safety of my home. But I wasn’t there for too long. At that time, I was in charge of a Mission Critical Money Transfer payment system, so almost immediately I had to get to our disaster recovery site, which happened to be in Harborside, Jersey City, directly across the river from Ground Zero. I worked virtually around the clock for the remainder of that week, the whole time watching the smoldering remains across the river.

But as soon as that week was over, on the first Shabbos after 9/11, I made sure to bentsch Gomel (the blessing recited by one who has just undergone a dangerous experience).

I’m not quite sure why, but after 9/11 I felt that I needed to go to Israel as soon as possible; it just seemed like the right thing to do. I got on a mission to Israel with the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, my first trip there since I was 13 years old, and I brought along my 15-year-old son — his first trip. This was during the Intifada. Israelis everywhere were so happy to see us, because so few Americans were coming.

Personally, 9/11 significantly changed my career. After the attacks, the United States and international regulatory bodies began to focus even more intently on risks within the banking industry. In October 2001, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act. In addition to the well-known provisions of the act that made it easier for law enforcement to do telephone, e-mail, and other surveillance, the act also expanded the secretary of the Treasury’s authority to regulate financial transactions in order to detect, prevent, and prosecute money laundering. As a result, anti-money laundering groups within banks evolved and grew rapidly. Opportunities arose that I was able to take advantage of, and today I hold a senior anti-money laundering position in one of the largest U.S. banks.

But all in all, now, 10 years after 9/11, I am amazed at how little is different. In the immediate aftermath, I thought that the world as we knew it would change dramatically. Airport security is tighter, we see more police and security in train and bus stations, and we need to provide more information to get a driver’s license or a bank account. But beyond that, our day-to-day lives haven’t changed all that much.

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