For all of us, September 11, 2001, will go down as one of the most tragic days in American history. As we look back on the 20th anniversary of that horrific event, all of us can remember where we were and what we were doing as the planes struck, and we watched those towers fall. But as Americans, we are also resilient. We respect and honor those who sacrificed and find strength in their memories and all we experienced on that heart wrenching day.
LP Magazine held a series of interviews with some of those who were there—leaders from some of New York City’s most prominent retailers who faced September 11th and the aftermath of that dark day firsthand. Let’s take a look through their eyes to recall what we saw, what we experienced, what we learned, and how we responded.
In this discussion, Rosamaria Sostilio, formerly senior vice president of asset protection for Saks Fifth Avenue, shares her account of what she experienced at the time. Sostilio is currently vice president of loss prevention with Barnes and Noble.
Where were you on the morning of September 11th?
SOSTILIO: I was holding an LP summit in New Jersey, so I had about 100 people from Saks Fifth Avenue stores across the country at an off-site event. When it actually happened, we were involved in an outstanding session with WZ’s Doug Wicklander. I remember I had to take off my heels and held them in my hand as I ran up to the amphitheater. I interrupted the session and said, “Excuse me, we have to interrupt what we’re doing. There’s a national emergency happening, and we need to stop right now,” and briefly took the team through it. It was an incredible and heartbreaking moment I’ll never forget.
As events progressed, I also had to stay connected to my corporate office to make sure they had what they needed, while professionally dealing with my team. There was a lot of emotion and a lot of people to take care of, so it was an incredible challenge.
I had some people with family members who were flight attendants with United Airlines who they couldn’t find or track down. Some had family that worked it the city. There was a lot of stress as we tried to get answers. There were different groups of people that needed different things. We needed to figure out who needed what first and most. It was a very unique situation, being responsible for all of these people during the biggest event that we’ve ever had in this country.
Watching it unfold, we were searching everywhere we could to find a TV. It was so unreal. Then the Pentagon, followed by Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, and rumors about other strikes. At one point, we thought, “Oh my God, when is this going to end? Are they going to attack every major city? What is it that we’re watching?” We just didn’t know.
From a leadership standpoint, I had to really put myself aside. I had to put my own processing of the emotional part of what was going on away and compartmentalize it. You’ve got to be there for the team and for the company. We just had to work through that first and deal with the aftereffects later, just telling everyone, “Look, we’re going to figure this out. We’re okay. We’re here. Let’s stick together. We’re safe.” But meanwhile, inside, I was thinking, “Yikes, what’s happening?”
What were your first steps?
SOSTILIO: Our leadership team had to come together, trying to understand what the team and the company needed, who needed what at the time, and the roles each of us would take. We were fortunate to have such a strong team. Tony Caccioppole worked for me at the time, and I really depended on him. He assumed a lot of the physical security role and communicating with the police while I was taking care of the people. So, we were able to kind of divide and conquer.
Working with IT teams, we had to figure out what our next step was. Contingency planning was very different back then. It was just a whole different world. We thought we were pretty well-prepared but when that happened, we realized how much we didn’t know. Similar to the COVID virus now, we thought we had great contingencies. But this was something that threw the whole world off tilt. It was similar dealing with 9/11.
The city was locked down and the bridges were closed, so we weren’t able to get back in. We just had to stay put. We had to really manage it all remotely. At that time, it was a priority to make sure we could locate everyone and try to provide assistance anywhere and everywhere we could.
How did you manage all the team members that you brought in for your meeting?
SOSTILIO: In the aftermath of the event, the largest task that I had was to try to get all these people safely back home, making sure they had what they needed based on family issues they were having. It was a lot. I had people in from all over the country, many whom had never been in the Tri-State Area before. It was getting them home and people trying to figure out if their loved ones were impacted.
Some wound up driving home. Others stayed more than a week because we couldn’t get them home. There are still people today who were part of that team who call me every 9/11 and say, “I’m thinking of you today.” It was an impact on everyone’s lives. But because we were together, there was a bond formed from that tragedy. We still talk about it to this day.
A leader can’t do anything alone. It’s all about the team. Buildings can be rebuilt. Merchandise can be repurchased. But there’s nothing more important than the people around you. If you don’t like people, you shouldn’t be in this business.
What was that like being in Manhattan in the days and weeks following?
SOSTILIO: It was a couple weeks before we were able to fully get back in after determining it was safe. We shut our windows down. It was the first time we didn’t have fashion in our windows. We just put flags up. It wasn’t a time really for business.
The city was very quiet, and people were really trying to help each other. I’ve never had such a united feeling. People would say hello to each other. Normally, if someone says “hello” to you on 5th Avenue, you check your wallet to make sure no one took it. But it wasn’t that feeling at all. There was just a lot of kindness and a lot of love in the city. There were a lot of people collecting things and trying to help. Everyone’s focus was on the first responders and what could be done to help them, what could we do for the people on the pile.
There was a church that the first responders were going to for respite. We were bringing things down there. I remember that clearly that socks were something they really needed. So, we were collecting bags and bags of socks to take there. People were asking, “What can we donate? What can we give?” It was a way to try to help. The city was extremely united.
There was the patriotism we felt in the city—people wearing the American flag. There was a huge sense of patriotism that we were truly united as a country, which was an amazing feeling. I think that was how we healed in the days after. It was that feeling of coming together and trying to help each other out. People were talking to each other. “How are you feeling? How are you doing?” Stories. “Did you lose anyone? Who did you lose?” In the town where I live, we had 17 people that perished, because it’s a big commuting town. Even if you didn’t have a direct family member, everyone knew someone who knew someone.
What about returning to the office?
SOSTILIO: When we went back to the office, it was still very difficult to process. My office was located right by St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, really just a stone’s throw away. Every day there were funerals. I would find myself walking over to the church—something that just drew me over there. They had a big screen outside. My mourning process really continued until the end of December when those funerals were ending. I didn’t know any of these people, but I mourned deeply with everyone, and I would sit through the mass.
I didn’t really realize how depressed I was getting. I think a lot of it had to do with just not being able to process it as it took place, having to take care of our team. But having my office right by the church and seeing those funerals almost every day for a long time was really difficult.
New York is often viewed as the epicenter of retail. You’ve got people from all over the country that want to come there to be part of that. How do you respond to that after 9/11?
SOSTILIO: We were getting calls from parents of young buyers from the Midwest, “Is it safe for my kids to be there?” We were fielding phone calls from parents, “What can the company do to keep our family safe?” Or “Is it safe for my kid to come back to work?” That was different for us to help families get through those questions.
The wonderful thing that we have in New York is the NYPD. They’re the best police officers in the world, and we really depended on them heavily for intel, support, and communication. We depended on them during a time when they had a lot going on, but they were always there for us. We’ve always been able to reach out on all kinds of different issues, and they have been tremendous partners. We’re very blessed to have them, and I feel very safe in New York City.
All our first responders are outstanding. They’re always there to answer questions and work with us. We’ve had round tables, task forces, and gotten intel from them. From a strategic standpoint, they’re almost an extension of the team. They were great then and still are today.
Looking back on that day, what’s the first thing you think about?
SOSTILIO: That’s a great question. Through the years, it’s changed. Now, what I think about has changed from sorrow to being grateful. I think of how lucky I am to be an American, what a great country we have, how we came together, and how we overcame it. It just gives me a sense of patriotism.
Every year, I watch the services. It’s a somber day for me, and I try not to make plans. It’s just a day of reflection because I feel so blessed I didn’t have anyone in my direct family or direct friends that were affected. But I still feel a huge grieving for the country and the people affected as if I had known them.
I think the country came together in a way that I’ve never seen before, and the resilience gave us strength. It taught us we can get through anything, how strong we are, and how strong the human spirit is. During the difficult times, we just have to come together and support each other. That’s really what it meant for me. It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from. We were just all trying to get through this terrible time.
Even months later, there was lingering sadness in the city, but people were still trying to help each other wherever they could. People were talking to each other that probably wouldn’t have done so before—smiling, making eye contact. It’s something we really don’t do in New York, and it was a time where we were all united.
What do you think you needed to do to get past everything you had dealt with? You’re a leader in a position of responsibility. You’ve got all these other things on your mind above and beyond yourself. What do you think the biggest steps that you needed to take to get beyond that and move on?
SOSTILIO: I needed a little more self-care than I allowed myself in the past. I think I pushed myself a bit too much, and I realized later that I was suffering from a mental health standpoint. I had not dealt with the overwhelming sadness. Once I came to terms, I was able to move forward and get through it. My advice to leaders would be not to forget yourself in the process. We are all humans and have to process things. Sometimes, we just don’t give ourselves the self-care that we need. That was a mistake I made at the time. You have that responsibility as a leader. We protect our people, our products, and so forth, but we can’t do that if we don’t take care of ourselves.
I am much better about that now, and I’m much more honest with myself about what those things are. It’s okay to be vulnerable as a leader and have those outlets. It’s important to find those outlets within yourself and recognize those you hold dearest that you can talk to. Everyone needs time to recharge. Everyone needs time to decompress, especially when we’re always dealing with issues that are so time sensitive and urgent. It doesn’t matter who you are or how strong you think you are. We’re all humans and need that care. It’s really okay to say you’re not okay.
How did you apply what you learned? How has it changed who you are as a leader?
SOSTILIO: I learned to think about risk in a different way. We went from loss prevention to really thinking about the entire risk portfolio. It changed our strategy, what we were responsible for and in charge of. We started looking at preparedness differently. No one would have guessed that something like that could ever happen. But there can always be that next thing you didn’t think about. We thought about sheltering in place for long periods of time. We focused more on evacuation drills post-9/11. We did a lot more tabletop exercises. We became much more prepared as a company, and everyone was more willing to participate.
From a leadership standpoint, I grew and matured in a way that no other experience can prepare you for. We all grow from our experiences. This was something so deep and so heavy. You think you’re prepared for everything, and something like this happens. It humbles you. You realize there’s always something that we can do better. I think we grow the most during difficult times, and this was the ultimate opportunity for that to happen.
Personally, it made me realize how precious and how short life is. When you’re young, you feel invincible. That changed. I realized how you might be here one day and gone the next. Tell people you love them. Never go to bed angry or have an argument that’s unresolved. Don’t sweat the small stuff because none of that matters. What matters most is our families and the people that we touch every day.
If you were to address people from other areas of the country, what do you think we should take away from those events that you would only understand by being there?
SOSTILIO: I think every American was a New Yorker on that day. Everybody looked at it and said, “Oh my God, this is happening to our country.” Everyone in the country, and even internationally, had some understanding about what I felt. It could have been any city. Everyone watched with their mouth opened in disbelief as we experienced what was happening. What it would be like if you went to work one day and didn’t come home? They didn’t sign up for that. Most weren’t people in the military, or someone prepared to go to work and put their life on the line. They were people working in an office or a restaurant.
We’re forever changed. In a way, out of tragedy comes hope, growth, learning, and new beginnings. There was so much love and support. Law enforcement and first responders came from all over to help as only first responders know how to do. We got support from everywhere in the country. Everybody wanted to help. Everyone donated. For those souls that are lost, our hearts and thoughts are always with them. For the rest of us, it’s our responsibility to remember.