Date posted: 8/09/2017 9 min read

The road to recovery - life after September 11

Perth-based Jane Muirsmith FCA says she was lucky to survive the deadly 9/11 Twin Towers attacks and that her key role in rebuilding Merrill Lynch changed her outlook forever.

In Brief

  • Around 11,000 Merrill Lynch staff who were evacuated went to work in an abandoned building
  • Staff worked tirelessly to rebuild, knowing friends and colleagues had perished
  • Remote satellite trading floors were set up and 3,000 new laptops installed

Jane Muirsmith FCA named her Perth-based digital solutions company Lenox Hill, after a small upper east side Manhattan neighbourhood where she lived during her time spent working for Merrill Lynch.  

It’s also the name of the New York City hospital where Jane and husband Kynan Smith gave birth to their first son.  

“We chose the name for sentimental reasons and our strong ties to New York. We continue to do work for clients in the US, in addition to our clients in Australia,” Muirsmith says.

In September 2001, Muirsmith was working as director of online, communications and public affairs for Merrill Lynch’s global head office in New York City.

Muirsmith’s offices were located inside the Twin Towers.  Merrill Lynch, being one of the largest wealth management companies in the world, occupied space in both the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center.  

She had been working for Merrill Lynch in the new role for only four short months and could not have foreseen prior to her appointment in May that year the profound impact this role would have on her life and future.

Attacked twice

Going to work that morning must have seemed just like any other day.

At 8.46am (GMT) Muirsmith was coming up into the North Tower when an American Airlines passenger plane, hijacked by terrorists, flew into the North Tower and exploded on impact. “I was coming up into world trade one [North Tower] after it got hit. I came up through the subway into it,” she says.

The top floors of the North Tower exploded into flames and then within minutes at 9.03am, a United Airlines plane crashed into the South Tower. Muirsmith was impacted immediately. “I was directly under two [South Tower] when it got hit,” she says.

“I didn’t really understand what terror meant until that day.” Muirsmith was unlucky enough to be underneath both towers during the separate attacks that took place within minutes of each other. 

Almost an hour later, at 9.59am, the South Tower collapsed. Then soon after, at 10:28am, the North Tower collapsed.This sparked a catastrophic fire. Later in the afternoon at 5.20pm, Tower 7 of the World Trade Center also collapsed.

Then soon after, at 10:28am, the North Tower collapsed.This sparked a catastrophic fire. Later in the afternoon at 5.20pm, Tower 7 of the World Trade Center also collapsed.

Road to recovery

It is here that Muirsmith’s incredible story of recovery begins.

She and thousands of others were evacuated shortly after impact and set about rebuilding themselves and their companies in one of the largest and most significant recovery efforts in history.

“My office was in the South Tower and destroyed in the attacks,” she explains. “I was very fortunate to not only have survived on the day after being evacuated, but also to be able to play a role in helping Merrill Lynch get back on its feet.  

“Merrill Lynch was the most impacted company from the standpoint of the number of employees evacuated. We evacuated 11,000 employees on the day.  “Our global headquarters were inaccessible, so everything went down – email, voicemail, mobile phones weren’t working,” she says.  

Her position at the company meant she would play a key role as part of the team that helped Merrill Lynch recover, using her professional experience and expertise in providing the business with strategic digital solutions. 

“We called it the recovery programme. It was a six-month programme, and my role was to help communicate how technology was helping Merrill Lynch get back on its feet because we had to build interim trading floors over New Jersey within five business days.  

“I mean it was unbelievable, the recovery efforts. I have never seen in my life people come together under such circumstances, to effectively put in place 3,000 new working laptops that enabled Merrill Lynch to participate in the markets on the following Monday.”  

Trading floors across the Hudson

Muirsmith thinks it is a great business recovery story, how the company, without being able to get back into their previous building, built satellite trading floors across the Hudson River.  

“We had cloning stations for laptops, when you know today if you have your laptop and something’s broken, you take it down to IT and they say come back in four hours.  “We were replatforming our laptops within six minutes. Because we had to get 3,000 of them done and we were in locations that we had previously never worked in,” she says.  

The Merrill Lynch global headquarters had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Employees united and did not hesitate to come back to work in an old abandoned building in New Jersey. They worked tirelessly under tough conditions, knowing that friends and colleagues had perished in what was soon to be known as “Ground Zero”.

They would work with the tools available to them and in locations they had never previously worked in. “I was in an old warehouse down in the west village. It was a sort of old, abandoned building that we set up. We shared the building with the New York Police Department,” Muirsmith says.

There were many individual stories of survival that day and in the weeks and months afterwards.  Muirsmith says the stories of people being able to get on and rebuild strongly drove home the fact that they were the lucky ones. “We owed it to our colleagues that we lost, that we would get on and rebuild Merrill and get New York back on its feet.

“I didn’t really understand what terror meant until that day.”

“It was a very special time and something that has impacted me long term, no doubt.”  She says she learned a lot about resilience and the collective kindness of human nature from the experience, adding that her colleagues’ ability to come together and maintain resolve was remarkable.

Markets were originally going to reopen on the Friday and if they had, Merrill Lynch couldn’t have traded. “That would have had astronomical consequences for the markets, for the company, for our customers, for employees, so the decision was made to reopen on the following Monday.

“We weren’t able to even get into our building to get any of the technology or the hardware out.  We had to rebuild and pull on other resources and suppliers and vendors and partners to help enable us to do our core business.  

What was achieved under the leadership of then Chief Technology Officer John McKinley was “quite heroic”. “It saved the livelihoods of so many people and ensured the financial markets were going to be okay, we were going to get through. I think that the human story behind the recovery effort of 9/11 is quite incredible, something I’m very proud to be involved in,” Jane says.

Muirsmith’s survival and recovery efforts before, during and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks have shaped her outlook on life. Close to 3,000 people lost their lives during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. 

A third plane crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth was diverted to a field in Pennsylvania where it too crashed. All passengers and crew were killed. “My perspective is that I was lucky to have escaped unharmed, unlike many others,” she says.

“I think that events like that change your perspective. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t appreciate the life that I have and the people around me. “I’m very conscious of that and I guess I have a heightened awareness of such loss.”   

 

 

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