Life re-examinedLife re-examined

On Sept. 11, 2001, Bob Hogan '82 was in One World Trade Center when a hijacked plane crashed into the floors above him. Alive in the wake of a world-changing tragedy, he asked soul-searching questions — and changed his life.

An edited version of Hogan's "Life re-examined" essay was printed in the Scene. Here is the complete piece. Or, view a PDF in magazine format.

 

 

By Bob Hogan '82

Bob-hogan

It was 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001 when I left my hotel room and headed for my management team meeting at Bank of America in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I was struck by how the beautiful a day it was. As the chief operations officer for Bank of America Securities, I was responsible for nearly 1,000 associates throughout Europe and the United States.

Six weeks earlier, I had moved my group of 150 associates to new office space on the 81st floor. My meeting began at 8 a.m., and just before 8:45, I was called out of the conference room to answer a phone call.

I was sitting at my desk, talking on the phone and staring out the window when I heard an unusual hum. Within seconds, the blue sky disappeared behind a bright orange curtain of fire and black debris.

I stood up and threw the phone down. That's when The building slowly and deliberately started to tilt. I screamed, "You've got to be kidding me!" This was my worst nightmare - that this 110-story building was going to fall over with me in it. But after it swayed for what felt like 10 feet, it finally began to right itself and return to center.
People ask me, "Were you scared?" I was more stunned. I just stood there for an unknown number of minutes not moving, trying to comprehend what was happening - fire 81 stories above the street, blown-out window, tilting building, streams of paper floating outside.

By the time my brain rebooted and told my feet to move, most of our 150 associates had already fled to the stairwells.

The few remaining people approached me looking for a way out. I found an exit and told the others to head down as I waited at the door yelling for stragglers. I saw only one person come down the stairwell - a young man with an expressionless face. He was severely burned: Smoke emanated from his entire body.
It was then that I had what I believe to be the first of two life-saving divine interventions. I got an overwhelming feeling that I needed to leave right now.

I started down the stairs. It was hot and sweltering.

After a few flights, I came to a sudden stop. The stairwell was backed up with two columns of people slowly working their way down. I was amazed that one of the tallest buildings in world had a staircase so small that it barely fit two people across.

Most of the people were scared — some even crying — but surprisingly calm. People were talking about a small plane that may have hit the building above us. This actually made me feel better, as I believed it was an accident. I had caught up with one of my managers, David, who had courageously waited for me. We continued down together.

About this time my wife, Laura, back at home in North Carolina, had heard the initial reports that a plane had hit the 80th floor of 1 World Trade Center. She called my assistant to ask which building I was in and what floor I was on. "81. Tower One."

My wife immediately thought I was dead.

As I reached the 55th floor, I received news on my pager that two planes had hit both Trade Center towers and that President Bush was calling it a terrorist attack. After a few more flight of stairs, we started to see firefighters. At first I felt relief, but as they went by, I could see how drained they were from climbing so many stairs, wearing their heavy gear and carrying axes and fire hoses.

I was also struck by the expressions — of hopelessness. It was a look of someone who was scared, and who may not be coming back. It was similar to the pictures of the men of World War II storming the beaches of Normandy. But these brave individuals moved on with fierce determination doing their job as firefighters.

We finally reached the lobby, and the place looked like a disaster area. It was surprisingly deserted. Only a handful of police and rescue workers remained, all calmly repeating, "Walk .... don't run. ... Keep moving."

They directed David and I to exit through the basement mall concourse. There, I finally felt safe. Little did I know that I was just beginning the next phase of this nightmare.

And then came the second divine intervention that saved my life.

Entering the mall, a female transit authority officer looked directly at me and screamed, "RUN! DON'T LOOK BACK!"

David and I sprinted across the concourse and up an escalator to the street along the edge of the World Trade Center plaza.

The entire effort to escape took more than an hour and 10 minutes.

From the plaza, I finally saw the magnitude of disaster. Both towers were ablaze. This crystal clear, blue-sky day was dark and grey from smoke and falling debris.
It was a war zone.

Standing at the top of the escalator, I got a cell phone signal and called my wife. As I was telling her I was okay, I heard a terrible wrenching of twisting metal overhead, unlike anything I had ever heard before.

It was time to run again.

Over my shoulder, I saw the top of Tower 2 started to collapse and topple towards us.

In the timeline of events, it had only been 60 seconds between when we stepped out from the concourse mall and when the building started to collapse - 60 seconds we would not have had if not for the warning to run from our guardian angel.

Still looking back at this unbelievable sight, I yelled out and the cell phone line cut out. My wife was watching on TV as the building fell, thinking for the second time that day I was dead. To escape, I sprinted up Fulton Street. I felt like I was in a movie because the few people left on the street were screaming and running in all different directions.

The earth shook violently and the sound of destruction grew stronger as I turned onto Broadway. I didn't slow down but looked back. A tidal wave of rubble raced my way.

I saw a large, old building and ran towards it. I jumped behind the side of the building, praying that it was big enough and strong enough to withstand whatever was crashing behind me. David narrowly jumped beside me, seconds before the tidal wave of debris forcefully blew by.

As the avalanche subsided, I realized we were finally out of harm's way. I thought I was among the last of the Bank of America associates to leave the building, but later learned that three colleagues died trying to escape.

Over the course of the next few hours, we navigated through the dust clouds, walked across the Manhattan bridge — where I witness Tower 1 fall — and hitchhiked to JFK airport, where I rented a car.  After an hour or so, I was finally able to reach my wife to tell her I was alive.

Her reaction was one of an emotional release, encompassing tears, relief and happiness. She felt a tremendous gratitude for answered prayers from the army of friends and family she enlisted throughout the morning. Hearing the news that I was safe allowed her to finally take a deep breath and relax.

In the following weeks, I spent a lot of time thinking about the wives and husbands who never received a phone call. I spent a great deal of time thanking God for watching out for me and praying for the many others. I thought about the importance of my wife, family, friends and how blessed I was to still be a part of their lives.
I spent a great deal of time soul searching and looking at the type of person I was, and, more importantly, looking at the type of person I needed to be.

The real things that are important in life surround who you are as a person. It's about your character. It is how people see you as an individual and the choices you make every day of your life.

Even though I thought my life returned to normal, I had some quirks to work through. I found myself extra sensitive to unusual sounds and vibrations. I looked over everyone assessing them for anything suspicious. I even created survival backpacks for my family, complete with detailed evacuation plans.

But the major change surrounded my renewed focus on God, my wife, my children, as well as my expanded empathy for others. I dived deeper into understanding my faith. I reinforced my wife and kids as the priority in my life, ensuring that they came ahead of my job and other things that I had let consume my day.

I stopped thinking that the world revolved around me.

Only after the buildings fell did I fully realize that many of the firefighters who I passed in the stairwell gave their lives in an attempt to save mine and others. Besides praying for them and their families, I felt a need to do more. I visited the firehouses closest to Ground Zero a week after Sept. 11. In addition to thanking the men for their service, I joyously discovered that the rescuers I had passed in the stairwell that day had survived.

Speaking with the firefighters was extremely emotional and fulfilling. I felt a common bond with them: We survived this traumatic event together. There was much laughter, and many tears for the lives lost.

I will never forget the fate of two separate fire companies that made it to the 30th floor but were told to evacuate. As they raced down the stairs, they both arrived at the street together, seconds before the building collapsed. One fire company went left, while the other company turned right. All of the men who turned left survived. All who turned right died.

So what can I pass on today from my 9/11 experience? Don't let it take a life-altering event to realize the things that are truly important. I hope my story ultimately inspires you to take a closer look at your life and how you have chosen to live it.


Editor's note
Bob Hogan lives in Charlotte, NC., with his wife Laura, and three children — Bobby (20), Shannon (18), and Danny (15). He serves as executive vice president for CertusBank, a newly formed chartered bank focused on acquiring and rebuilding troubled banks across the southeastern United States.