On the long commute to a client’s office in northern New Jersey, the traffic was humming, leaving me the freedom to organize my thoughts. As I often did before a meeting, I anticipated objections and visualized successful outcomes. A decade into my career, I had a system that worked and business was booming.
Life was booming, too. My thoughts kept drifting from work to Jennifer, my wife. We’d been married 18 days, and were beginning this new and exciting life together. As corny as it may sound, I was living the American dream. I had worked like crazy to get to this point, and when a news alert broke on that sunny September morning in 2001, I couldn’t quite comprehend what I was hearing.
In 1945, the American dream became a reality for millions. In the wake of victory in World War II, American GIs returned home to marry, start careers, buy homes, and kick off the baby boom generation. For American companies, business boomed as well. Cantor Fitzgerald was one of those companies that capitalized on a surging economy and America’s place as the world’s dominant superpower. An investment bank and brokerage business, Cantor Fitzgerald would become known for its innovation in computer-based bond brokerage and as the market’s premier dealer of government securities.
With its ability to adapt to changing technologies and market trends, Cantor Fitzgerald grew over the decades, becoming one of the largest brokerage firms on Wall Street. The company held its corporate headquarters on the 101st through 105th floors of One World Trade Center (the north tower), and on September 11, 2001, the company suffered the most casualties of any World Trade Center tenant with 658 of its 960 New York employees perishing in the terrorist attacks.
At 8:46 a.m. that morning, 51 of my individual clients, employees of Cantor Fitzgerald, were on the 104th and 105th floors of the north tower. On that day I lost 51 friends, 51 people who I’d sat down face-to-face with and listened to their hopes and goals and dreams. I learned about their American dream — what they had done to get there and how they had planned to keep that intact for their families. All 51 had individual disability coverage with me and 30 of them had individual life insurance policies with me as well.
When the radio alert broke in and ruined my American dream, like many, I thought a commuter plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. With little details at that point, I remember screaming at the radio, “Please, please, please not the north tower!”
But it was the north tower. And then, at 9:03 am, a second plane, United Airlines flight 175 from Boston, would crash into the south tower. And, just like that, one bright and sunny morning in September, a morning I would remember initially for its beauty and calmness, had been ripped apart. The world I would know going forward would never be the same. The world Jennifer and I would raise our family in would never be the same. The families of the 51 clients I lost in the attacks would never be the same. I know that now, but on 9/11 I wondered if any of them had survived. Like many, I tried to make sense of the devastation and the chaos.
The corporate offices of Cantor Fitzgerald were located between the 101st and 105th floors of One World Trade Center. That company suffered more casualities on Sept. 11, 2001 than any other. (Photo: iStock)
I spent the rest of that day reaching out to the people closest to me, calling family and friends and worrying about the ones who didn’t answer their phones. I reached Jennifer fairly quickly and our attention turned to other loved ones. Where was my brand-new brother in law, Bob? He took a train to Manhattan every day and got off at the World Trade Center stop. All morning, Jennifer and I tried to reach him on his cell phone. Thankfully, he finally got through to us at around 2:30 p.m.
I remember watching the news that afternoon, almost afraid to look away from the screen before the world changed again, wondering was there any way we could help? Late that day, Jennifer and I went to the local blood bank and found the place filled with people, everyone pulling together, looking for a way to help, looking for something to do, something that could make a difference.
Through it all, I was wondering about and praying for my friends and clients at Cantor Fitzgerald. Where were they? How were they? Late that night I laid my appointment book on the kitchen table at home to see what I already knew was there. I was exhausted, but had to look. I had six appointments scheduled for the next day, Wednesday morning, September 12, 2001. All six appointments were on the 105th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center.
Later that night, we talked a lot about how, after only 18 days of marriage, we had come within 24 hours of my new wife becoming my widow. Today, when I look at our two beautiful children, Jack and Morgan, I shudder thinking about the possibilities. Just 24 hours.
We plan our lives so carefully, especially in this business, but sometimes it’s just luck — good and bad — and we are left to wonder. Sometimes, all we can do is say, “thank you.”
Rebirth was slow but steady at “Ground Zero.” (Photo: iStock)
The next day, away from what people were already calling Ground Zero, the world looked the same. But it wasn’t the same. Nothing was the same. And whatever concrete thoughts I tried to make of what had happened were filled with confusion. I wanted answers, but not the answer I got.
On September 12, I took a call from a friend who worked in Cantor Fitzgerald’s London office. He’d been on a conference call with the New York office when the first plane hit. He’d listened on the line until it went dead and told me what he heard and what some of the horrific things my friends and clients experienced in those final minutes.
Whatever had remained a mystery until that point was now real — a horrific nightmare. I was in my firm’s office when my manager stopped by and closed the door behind him. For a few minutes, he listened while I cried and tried to tell him what had happened. Finally, he interrupted me.
“Listen to me, Dave. I’ve been to a lot of funerals and everyone is sad when it happens too soon. Everyone wants to help. Everyone wants to do something,” he said. “But this is what we do: We are the people who walk in with the check and say to the grieving widow, ‘You’re going to be OK. Nothing can ever replace your spouse, but this will help pay for your future and for your children’s future. This check represents something. And so does the policy that brings it to you. It’s a symbol of the love your partner had for you and your children.’ Dave, when our clients sign on the dotted line, we promise we will take care of their family. Now it’s time for you to take care of those families.”
I spent most of the next three months hand-delivering checks to young widows and attending memorial services. Most of those death claims were for men who would never turn 40, and none would see 45. Prior to 9/11, maybe I didn’t really understand the meaning of the work we do, but on September 12, I began to learn and understand more than I ever wanted to know.
I saw how the life insurance provided money when it was needed (and needed quickly) by the families so they didn’t have to go to the Red Cross for money to cover a mortgage payment or to a father-in-law to cover a grandchild’s tuition payment. In those last months of 2001, I stood face-to-face with 30 young widows, most of them with at least one young child, and handed out more than $30 million in life insurance benefits.
There were 52 children who would never see their parent ever again, 52 children who could know that parent only through memories or through stories told by their mothers about how proud dad would have been. I saw $30 million paid in death benefits and I found out it was still not enough. Too much had been lost. But there were stories that kept me going, that kept me certain that the work we do is for the survivors, for those loved ones left behind.
Today the Freedom Tower stands as an homage to hope, strength, ingenuity and perseverance. (Photo: iStock)
The American dream
That sunny day in September changed my life. It changed the way I do business as well. Prior to 9/11, I would often meet with clients at their place of business. I thought I was doing them a favor by meeting them at work, but in doing so I never met their spouses.
Now when I talk with a married client, I insist that I meet with their spouse as well. Of the 30 widows I met with after 9/11, very few retained my business. I was hurt by that initially, but I can’t blame them. They had never met me until they lost their loved one.
I made a promise to myself that I would never let that happen again, and I would never let a family meeting go by without speaking with conviction about the benefits of life insurance. I believe life insurance is the best investment we can make in the future and in the well-being of our families and our children. And in today’s chaotic world, we are experiencing a great opportunity for the product.
Our clients are nervous, scared and confused about their economic futures. Some are even paralyzed by fear. They have lost so much money and are now realizing that their retirement dates are affected. Time with their grandchildren, travel plans and their lifestyles are possibly changing. And they are angry, frustrated, nervous and demoralized.
Our clients need us now more than ever. We have a tremendous responsibility to help them, to guide them, to ease their fears.
We talk a lot about the American dream — a spouse, a house, a family. But there’s another American dream. That’s the American dream we can provide for our families and for the families of our clients. That’s the American dream that leaves a legacy for our loved ones — because the service we provide today will pay huge dividends in their future.