No matter where you were on September 11th, 2001, you will never forget the fear, uncertainty, and sorrow felt on that day. There is no doubt, though, that some were forced to feel all of these things much more deeply, as they were there, in New York City, trying desperately to make sense of it all and protect the people that relied on them.
In remembrance of one of the most tragic days in American history, LP Magazine spoke with the people in the middle of it all—leaders from some of New York City’s most prominent retailers. Here, we learn what they saw, what they experienced, what they learned, and how they responded in this worst-case scenario.
For this part in the series, John Matas, CFE, CFCI, formerly vice president of investigations, fraud, and organized retail crime for Macy’s, shares his account of the day. Matas was based in Macy’s Herald Square in downtown New York City at the time. He is currently head of global fraud and risk operations at Etsy.
Where were you on the morning of September 11th?
MATAS: I was in my office at Herald Square on 34th Street. On that particular day, we had an operations meeting. We had assembled all of our regional leadership, regional directors, and vice presidents from across the country for a two-day meeting, which had just started when one of my investigators interrupted to inform us that an aircraft had hit one of the World Trade Center buildings.
Initially we thought that it was a small passenger plane, and that it was an accident. But as things began to unfold, we started to realize that what had happened was a lot bigger. When the second plane hit, we knew that there was something definitely, obviously wrong.
Information was probably the number one thing we lacked. It’s important to realize how young the internet was at that time, and we didn’t have the resources that we have today to have that instant information available to us. There was no real social media, and a lot of rumors. I recall going on my computer and trying to find a video or get some type of news where we could see exactly what was happening downtown. But the internet traffic was so great that it was just impossible to get any type of actual news broadcast to help understand what was happening.
What was the response when you realized that there was a real issue that needed to be dealt with?
MATAS: Our first decisions involved how we were going to handle the store. Should we remain open? Should we close? Should we do a soft closure? How do we handle our other stores in the area? We had received reports of the Pentagon attack, and we had a Macy’s store that is very, very close. How do we handle that situation?
In the moment, we had to determine how to manage brick-and-mortar, asset protection, and overall retail operations. How do you handle the largest department store in the world, Macy’s Herald Square, 34th Street? How do we secure it? And how do we handle our go-forward retail operation? All of that was happening very quickly while we were trying to grasp the enormity of everything happening at the time.
The store went into crisis response on behalf of NYPD and FDNY. They had asked for a lot of resources, including any food we could bring down to help rescue operations. Shoes, especially boots, clothes—things we could provide and bring to ground zero to support the operation. This is all literally within four hours of the initial tower being hit. There was a lot going on, a lot to digest.
In the middle of all that, many of us knew people who worked in the World Trade Centers. For me, I had a couple friends who worked there. One of my counterparts’ son worked there. In the middle of managing the crisis, there was the desperation that comes with knowing something terrible had happened with no ability to confirm or communicate what had happened to your loved ones. You could see it on people’s faces. It was the most emotional part of that day. The sheer desperation was overwhelming. We didn’t know it at the time, but we later learned they were able to get out with no injuries. They were lucky. Others weren’t so fortunate.
I remember shutting down vestibules, and we had a canine operation where we put dogs in each vestibule. We just didn’t know what to expect. We wanted to be able to protect the infrastructure. Herald Square is also the company headquarters, which is above the actual store. The operations team, some of the leadership team, and the asset protection team stayed behind to work on operational plans and how we were going to handle some of the nearby stores as well as Herald Square. But cell phones were down, and there was no way to communicate. When the cell phones did get up and you’d get a signal, you could literally talk for 10 seconds and then you were cut off. With all the angst and anxiety of everything that was culminating, dealing with your counterparts and coworkers that were obviously in distress created a really difficult situation for the entire team.
From a personal perspective, we lived on Long Island. My wife worked on Long Island, and she was safe. She was worried about me, but we were able to talk—for literally 10 seconds. Her dad was a union electrician who did a lot of work around the city, including a lot of work downtown, and no one could reach him. I thought that he was working at Madison Square Garden but couldn’t confirm it.
A team of us went up to the roof in Herald Square. That was really our only way to see what was happening. It’s probably 40 blocks away, but we could still vividly see from the roof what was going on. You could see, you could smell, you could hear a lot of activity downtown. We saw the smoke coming from the two towers and then saw one of the towers go down. I vividly remember seeing the antenna from the north tower, watching as the antenna went down with the smoke underneath it. It was just coming down on itself.
I recall being so emotionally taken by what was transpiring, and I just happened to look across the street at Madison Square Garden, which was getting prepped to be an emergency hospital where they planned to use it to deal with all of the casualties and injured, but it never happened due to how things transpired. There was a group of people on the roof at Madison Square Garden. Although it was far, amazingly I saw my father-in-law. He was on the roof. I saw him plain as day. So, I was able to confirm that he was okay.
Obviously, you couldn’t be fully prepared for what happened. But looking back on your emergency plan, how well was it executed?
MATAS: At the time, it was Tom Roan, who was the group vice president of security, Larry Sechuk, who ran security for Herald Square, and myself. Larry was the direct link to NYPD. My role was linked to federal law enforcement and investigative action plans. And Tom was the liaison to senior leadership and the chairman of the board as to how we would handle individual situations and how we were managing them.
The three of us managed how we would handle communications, how we would flow communications out to branch stores, and through the headquarters. We worked closely to make sure there was one voice coming from the leadership team on how we would proactively tighten up our stores, any mitigation plans, how information would be funneled. We wanted to ensure there was a consistently clean and accurate message for the total asset protection and operations group on how we would respond. But it’s not like we were able to pull a guide out and say, “Let’s follow the book.”
You have to realize it’s the largest department store in the world. It’s a landmark that everybody recognizes. If they hit a landmark like the World Trade Center, they could hit landmarks anywhere in the city, right? Around that time there was a lot of analysis on potential high-profile targets in New York City, and Macy’s Herald Square was one of them. In that area, it was the Empire State Building, followed by Herald Square, Penn Station, and Times Square. So, we knew that we could have been a target. We had specialized procedures at the time, but not those that could tell us how to deal with or react to this type of situation.
It was very raw. It was very instinctual. We received a lot of the guidance from our police networking, the patrols by the store that we worked with, and the federal agencies we were able to actually talk to later in the afternoon. Despite all the chaos, they picked up the phone for us, and we were able to talk to them and understand a little bit more. Primarily, a lot of it was just determining how to protect the building and the people. That was our most important objective.
How was your emergency planning impacted following these events? What were some of the biggest lessons learned?
MATAS: The biggest lessons were learned on the scene and on the job—the ability to manage information, to vet information, to ensure that we react in an appropriate way. Overreaction and over-emotional responses were not helpful.
We took a closer look at our overall emergency response plans to include this type of an attack. There were things that you didn’t know to look at before, such as perimeter protection, roof protection, parking decks, vehicles entering the parking decks, vehicles and trucks at the truck docks, especially if truck docks are underneath the building. Looking at open containers, trash containers. We developed a list of protocols and procedures that were in line with the color-coded threat levels that the new Homeland Security had formulated.
We brought in a consulting group out of Israel to think differently. The thing that got my attention right off the bat was the overall mindset difference between people that live and grew up in Israel as compared to American citizens. When we think, “What if something happens?” their thought process is, “When will it happen? Because it’s going to happen.” Their entire emergency response and counterterrorism and antiterrorism strategies are built around the idea that they know it’s going to happen—not that it could—and that’s the difference.
That approach—a different take and a different thought process on how to prepare and strategically think about how you plan, how you respond, how you protect, or how you communicate with your team—was much different than we’ve thought or trained in the past. It was a very important lesson.
Just over two months later, there’s a huge event taking place that runs right past Herald Square—the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. How did you prepare for that?
MATAS: When it came right down to it, I think it was something we needed to do. We needed some level of normalcy. It was something we could give back. I know that was a great driver. This is an American tradition, and this was something that we wanted to be a really great thing above and beyond what had happened.
Macy’s has a team that prepares for special events all year long, whether it’s the fireworks or the parade. The day after Thanksgiving they start planning for the next parade. A big piece of that is police, federal law enforcement, and fire department relations, as well as the emergency management team for the city. Following 9/11, NYPD had taken it on, along with the FBI, which set the stage for how the parade was handled. They were key to us being able to execute.
In the past, we would have 300 to 400 asset protection people from the tri-state area who would work the Thanksgiving Day parade. Every aspect of the event, whether it’s the inflation the night before, all the way up to parade day, and both uptown and at Herald Square where the parade finalizes. But along every single aspect of the parade route, every single vantage point, there was contingencies between the FBI and NYPD on how to protect the route. There was a buffer zone at least three or four blocks out to protect and create a frozen zone. There were officers on the rooftops with extensive plans to keep everyone safe and protected.
We developed the grandstand surveillance team, which is largely our security and AP team. While others are watching the parade route, the grandstand surveillance team is facing the grandstands, wearing suits and ties. That way, if we see something suspicious, we are able to call it out. But it also provides an important level of comfort to folks that attend the parade.
How did you feel the day of that first parade following 9/11?
MATAS: The tension that day was. . .I mean, you could cut it with a knife. We just didn’t know what to expect. We’ve always known that the parade has a high visibility level; it’s broadcast live nationwide. We want to portray a level of security and protection, but the pressure and the fear was very real.
If I’m being honest, I was scared. I was on the street—my job was leading the grandstand surveillance team. I was right on 34th Street, and it was frightening, it really was—at least for me. We received word from the commissioner’s office and a lot of high-level NYPD leadership that this area of New York City was probably the safest place to be in all the United States, just based on the level of protection, focus, and scrutiny post-9/11. All the efforts put into it—every law enforcement agency, every federal law enforcement agency, every emergency agency was there. If there was ever a place that was protected, this particular area was probably the most secure in the country at that time.
Quite honestly, not doing it was never a thought, but you just get caught up in the emotion of it. The entire asset protection team at Macy’s took part. There were no call-offs. There were no no-shows. Everybody showed up. Everybody wanted to do this. Everybody wanted to be there and wanted to participate. So even though we were scared—and it would be foolish to say that you weren’t—we did it anyway. It shows the level of professionalism among the team at that time. The way they came together and were able to bond through all of that was remarkable, and something I’ll never forget.
What do you think you’ll take away most from that day? What stands out?
MATAS: Obviously, life changed as we know it. It reminds us just how precious life is and how sometimes we take it for granted. Three thousand people that died that day didn’t know that when they got on the train, went into the city, walked into work, got coffee. All those things happen the way they normally did every other day. But within 30 minutes, they were gone.
Weeks, months, even years later, when you leave home, you’ll always have that thought—there’s a chance that you may not come back. You don’t want to ever leave on a bad note. You don’t ever want to say, “The last time I saw you, we were having an argument,” or “We weren’t as nice as we could be.” I personally have way more patience with family, friends, my spouse—things that maybe in the past you just didn’t think twice about. That was the thing that I took home and personalized the most.
Professionally, I clearly remember that prior to 9/11, I was an asset protection guy—my job was catching bad guys and handling investigations. After 9/11, it was obvious that the stores and the Macy’s executive and store teams looked to asset protection for leadership. When I looked at people in the eyes, I could see they were looking at me and the team differently. They were looking for someone that was going to protect them. It’s always been about the merchandise in the building but following 9/11 they clearly knew based on our actions that their safety was our number one concern, and you could see it in the way they talked to you. They were depending on you. You felt a tremendous amount of responsibility that evolved from the situation we were put in, and we responded.
One thing I’ve always appreciated about this industry is the fact that it’s small. Everybody pretty much knows everybody, and we all work together. Everyone we worked with during that time, when we see each other, we’ll always go back to what we did those days and how we were just part of a special group. We had a defining moment, something that will forever bond us together. It was such a terrible time, but looking back, there are literally hundreds of people that I’ve worked with, whether at Macy’s, or our counterparts Bloomingdale’s, Saks, Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf, Barneys, or any one of our incredible colleagues. The bond created with those folks will never die. The loss prevention community was amazing. It’s one thing in my career that I will always remember fondly. It made us so much smaller and tighter, and forever changed the way we operate.