Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering an industry hero on 9/11

Eight years ago today, after an indelible exposure to the terrorism attacks, I vowed that I’d do my small part to keep the horrible memory of that day alive. If more people could understand what it was like to be in New York City that day—in my case, maybe 30 blocks from the Towers—we’d have a better chance of ensuring it never happens again.

So please indulge me this departure from restaurant industry coverage to recount the last hours of a hero who was atop the South Tower that day. But there is a connection to the business since she was one of ours, the assistant general manager of Windows on the World. The restaurant was hosting a breakfast conference in one of its function rooms.

But I’m going to step back and let Christine Olender, our heroine, describe the situation in her own words, as recorded in 911 calls to the police after the first plane hit:

CHRISTINE: Hi, this is Christine, assistant GM of Windows. We're getting no direction up here. We're having a smoke condition. We need directions as to where we need to direct our guests and our employees, as soon as possible.

Port Authority Police Officer STEVE MAGGETT: Okay. We're doing our best, we've got the fire department, everybody, we're trying to get up to you, dear. Call back in about two or three minutes, and I'll find out what direction you should try to get down.

CHRISTINE, minutes later: Hi, this is Christine up at Windows on 107. We're still waiting for direction. We have guests up here.

OFFICER RAY MURRAY: Ah, how many people have you got there, up there, approximately?

CHRISTINE: We have approximately, probably about 75-100 people.

RM: Seventy-five to 100, and you're up on 106 or 107?

CHRISTINE: One-oh-six; 107's impossible. The smoke condition on 107 is [sound lost].

RM: We're...we are sending officers and fire personnel up there at this time. We are evacuating as soon as possible.

CHRISTINE: But we...right now we need to find a safe haven on 106, where the smoke condition isn't bad. Can you direct us to a certain quadrant?

RM: All right, we are sending somebody up there as soon as possible. If anybody can get to the staircase, that's fine.

CHRISTINE: You can't. The staircase is [sound lost].

RM: All right, we're sending... we're sending people up there as soon as possible.

CHRISTINE: What's your ETA?

RM: I...ma'am, I have to get on the radio. As soon as possible. As soon as it's humanly possible.

The transcrips show that Christine called back in exactly five minutes to press for help to save her guests. When she got no where, she waited four minutes and called for the fourth and final time.

CHRISTINE: Hi, this is Christine again, from Windows on the World on the 106th floor. The situation on 106 is rapidly getting worse.

RM, to people around him: I got a fourth call from Windows on the World, it's getting rapidly worse up there.

CHRISTINE: We...we have...the fresh air is going down fast! I am not exaggerating.

RM: Uh, ma'am, I know you're not exaggerating. We're getting a lot of these calls. We are sending the Fire Dept. up as soon as possible. I have you, Christine: four calls, 75-100 people, Windows on the World, 106th floor.

CHRISTINE: What are we going to do for air?

RM: Ma'am, the Fire Dept....

CHRISTINE: Can we break a window?

RM: You can do whatever you have to to get to, uh, the air.

CHRISTINE: All right.

Minutes later, the building collapsed. Despite Christine’s valiant and self-less efforts, her guests didn’t escape. Nor, of course, did she.

There’s not a doubt in my mind that her extraordinary courage and concern eased her customers’ panic and comforted them greatly as the situation worsened. She was a hero who’ll be remembered for as long as I’m writing.

A side note: The account was taken verbatim from emergency-call transcripts that the authorities didn’t release for two years. Restaurant Business magazine, of which I was editor at the time, teamed up with several of its sister trade books to buy a copy for what I remember was a large fee, probably around $500. The New York/New Jersey Transit Authority had set the price high to keep the voyeurs and ghouls from getting their jollies.

Like RB, the other magazines wanted to pay tribute to the members of their industries who acted heroically that day. I volunteered to visit the Authority’s offices to pick up our copy, all 2,000 pages of it. Authority officials asked me to wait until noon, without explaining why.

When I got to their offices, several of the employees had obviously been crying. I didn’t press for a reason. But when I was writing out the check, I casually asked one of the non-criers for the date. He glared at me. “It’s Sept. 11, 2003,” he coolly responded. “I know that because we just came from a memorial service.”

They probably can’t forget what happened on this day in 2001. For that and a lot of other reasons, including Christine Olender, I can’t, either.

1 comment:

Joni said...

Peter thank you. It is too easy to forget that our worst day was also the day so many heroes stepped up and gave their best. This morning I read an article about the fact that for most young people 9/11 is quickly becoming something that old people talk about -a hazy memory - so the stories like this that preserve the history and the emotions and the heroism are so important. God bless Christine, her family and friends, and everyone who suffered and continue to suffer from the horror of that day.