Finding the Courage to Move Forward After 9/11

Century 21
Harald Fra / Alamy Stock Photo

September 11, 2001, without a doubt, changed America as we once knew it. When those planes crashed, the world paused, leaving everyone unsure of what to do, or how to feel safe again.

To help us remember, LP Magazine held a series of interviews with 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 head on.

John Feehan, formerly executive director of asset protection at Century 21 Department Stores, was working as the director of fraud in the flagship store in New York City, directly across the street from the World Trade Center, at the time of the 9/11 attacks. He is currently the director of mobile surveillance at Prosegur. As a word of caution, some of what he has to say can be difficult to hear.

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Where were you on the morning of September 11th?

Feehan: The Century 21 department store was directly across the street from the World Trade Center. An off-price retailer that specialized in selling designer clothing at affordable prices, it was very well-known to anyone who worked in the city. The 200,000 square-foot store had eight different buildings connected together, with seven levels of selling floors. Because we were downtown in the financial district, the store opened at 7:45 am.

I was at work in the office when the first plane hit at 8:46 a.m. The explosion was deafening and shook the entire building. I had a big bay window on Broadway and when I looked out, everyone was looking straight up, obviously at the Trade Center. We knew something terrible was happening. We were very well aware of the potential for terrorism at the Trade Center and the first thing that came to mind was that it was a terrorist attack.

John Freehan
John Freehan

My boss, Jimmy Betesh, came into my office and we immediately ran to Church Street to see what was going on. We looked up and saw where a plane hit the building. The Trade Center was staggered, the North Tower was farther away from our location than the South Tower, and the plane hit the North Tower very high. It was a surreal scene — there were people on the street, there were fire trucks responding. It was a chaotic atmosphere with different reactions from people. Some were just completely emotional.

We immediately began preparing for an evacuation. We also thought they might cut off the power and were strategizing the best way to evacuate. We had a great emergency crisis plan and command center, and began planning to evacuate prior to being asked. We began preparing key areas of the store, how the employees would leave, what managers would say to the employees, and what our announcement would be over the PA system. We had a designated meeting place and reminded people exactly where we’d meet.

During the 17 minutes between plane strikes, I went back outside and saw people jumping to their deaths. It was terrifying and gruesome. Then at 9:03 a.m. the second plane hit the South Tower around the 60th floor, much closer to our proximity. The explosion was louder, shaking the building even more. We had a lot of windows facing the Trade Center, and many of them shattered along with some of the customer doors. That changed everything. It became very chaotic, very fast. It was clear we were under attack and in danger.

Although I was just as afraid as everyone else, I knew that I had a responsibility to remain calm and help everyone evacuate safely. We directed employees to the designated meeting place and began securing the building. Our emergency plan included breaking up the building into zones and searching the building to make sure that we accounted for every employee before locking the building. As we were finishing, I got a call from someone downstairs that said, “Hurry, the building is falling.” I was the last person out of the building and I met my boss on the street.

We walked to the seaport thinking that we were clear of danger. All the phone lines were jammed, and we couldn’t call anyone. As we passed the seaport, we saw news reports of the Pentagon being hit, a fourth plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. We also heard multiple reports that other planes had been hijacked, which thankfully turned out to be false.

Around 9:59-10 a.m., one of the towers started to collapse and we realized we might not be far enough away. It sounded like another explosion with the smoke rolling right towards us as the tower went down. We simply ran as fast as we could to clear the area. Then the second tower came down. Later, we stopped and listened to radio announcements to determine how we were going to get home.

What was your response plan coming out of that? When did you and your team get back down there to see what had actually happened?

Feehan: The Gindi family, who owned Century 21, was amazing. They decided not to lay off any of the executives and got the New York employees jobs in our other locations still open in Brooklyn, Long Island, or in our distribution centers. They asked Jimmy and I to run the catastrophe cleanup and the security of the building, but only if we were comfortable doing so. Even though it was dangerous, I absolutely wanted to be there. We were told we could spend as much money as we wanted to make sure we were safe and protected, including protective gear and respirators. The original attack occurred on a Tuesday, and we went back in the following Monday morning.

When I got there, the scene was absolutely surreal. What was going on across the street was just unbelievable. Cleanup was underway; they were finding bodies periodically, stopping work and honoring them with a moment of silence whenever they identified a body. There was debris and body bags everywhere.

Before we actually walked in, the foundation and the structure of the company building had already been inspected and reinspected multiple times. We had FEMA checking the air and they warned us that we needed to keep our respirators on. The air was very unique. It was a terrible mixture of cremated cement, glass, iron, and fire.

Obviously, the store was a maze to enter, and it looked like the moon. The building was sound, but it was a mess. There was gray ash everywhere. There had been fires on our main floor and in our basement. The water damage had flooded out the escalator pits. The lower level had about three feet of water on the floor, with mold spores already forming on the walls. Every fixture was bashed. Literally the façade, which is very unique, had gray metal from the Trade Center that had fallen through our windows and was on the main floor. And of course, we had no power. It was just a complete, utter mess.

One of our concerns was that the roof might collapse due to all the debris. When we went on the roof, we actually found an aviation booklet that obviously came from one of the planes that crashed into the Trade Center. We found a shoe, business cards, and a lot of paperwork. We found other things as well. It was pretty unbelievable.

One of our first tasks was to secure the store funds. Our flagship store did big business, and 30 percent of our sales were cash. The deposit from the night before was still in our safe in the money room. We also had $200 banks in every register, along with refund registers that had $2,000 banks. In total, we had in excess of $550,000 in the building that wasn’t insured. Every fire door was broken open and windows were bashed. We needed to get in there and get that money out.

With the support of Chief Scagnelli and the NYPD, we dusted off 10 to 12 suitcases from our luggage department, went from register to register, and loaded money. We then walked to Chinatown with 12 suitcases filled with $550,000. Police officers helped us get to our car, and escorted us out of the area. When we were able to get the cash to one of our stores and count it, we almost balanced to the penny.

How long before the store was once again operational?

Feehan: With cooperation from the mayor’s office, the Gindi family wanted Century 21 to be rebuilt and the first building on the perimeter to show signs of life. We were a very popular store downtown, and everyone cooperated with us in every way possible to cut through the red tape and help us reopen.

Jimmy and I were in charge of the process. We brought in more of our security staff to help us as we needed people to gain access. It was a chore to get contractors down to the site and they would not let you in unless you had credentials.

The general contractors gutted the store. They literally tossed everything out, sterilizing the floors, the walls, and the ceilings. They destroyed drop ceilings, even though some on the upper floors were still in good condition, because they had been contaminated. We completely renovated the store from the ground up, and even added new selling space.

The process took about five and a half months, which I don’t think ever would have happened that quickly without unbelievable help. Everyone in that project was completely focused and motivated and worked together. The Department of Buildings was fantastic and okayed anything we wanted to do as long as it was safe. We had great cooperation from the city to get things down there, get products back in the store, get our vendors in, by working with the police department. We were working diligently and amazingly got that store opened on February 28, 2002.

I think the opening day was probably the crowning piece. We had such a strong, loyal customer base. Not only did they come, they came in record numbers — we had lines around the block. It was such a great feeling, it felt like a hundred-pound boulder came off our back. We were open again — our company did not close, it did not relocate. We didn’t lose our jobs and we were going to make it. We were going to survive as a company. It was a great feeling — we didn’t let the terrorists win.

It sounds like your team took the right steps on 9/11 — you had a plan in place that in many ways helped you prepare, and you began planning for evacuation immediately after the first plane hit. It sounds like it saved lives, John.

Feehan: Thankfully, everyone did get out safely, but we also realized that as good as the plan was, it wasn’t good enough. After 9/11, we constantly worked on that crisis manual to make sure that it was always current, updated, and something that everyone was trained on. Being across the street from the World Trade Center, we were in the cross hairs, and we had to learn to better anticipate how to respond to an emergency.

From a leadership perspective, it was clear that we needed to better train our security people and our employees on how to respond during an emergency situation. We needed to have a manual and teach the LP executives and the key holders, but we also needed to make sure that our employees were well-trained and knew how to react in a critical emergency situation.

We covered different topics; we instituted a safety program. Who knew we could have an earthquake in New York? We wanted to learn how to prepare for a pandemic. We revised the hurricane crisis manual. We covered active shooters. We realized we needed multiple predetermined evacuation meeting points. We did more extensive prescreening for everyone that worked in the store, and working with Homeland Security, we started prescreening vendors. There was a lot more role playing, training, and making sure our people were more prepared. Everyone in the store wanted that information.

We invested more in CCTV both inside and outside the building; we put a lot of investment in card access. We also spent a lot more time working with the government agencies, networking with the NYPD, networking with The Downtown Alliance that knew a lot about what was going on in the area, working with the city, working with the Department of Buildings, and so forth.

How did the experience change who you are personally and as a leader?

Feehan: From a leadership standpoint, it impacts the way you approach your job, your team, and the way you manage. It’s a matter of making sure people are prepared. We worked super hard on our training, not only on the typical LP stuff like picking up shoplifters, identifying dishonest employees, and actions that would cause inventory shrink or profit loss — we knew that we had to focus more on the safety of people within our building because we were counted upon. I always wanted to have the best team.

The 9/11 rebuilding was, from a career standpoint, an opportunity to clearly show I could do a lot more. The leadership at Century 21 was very good to me, and as I progressed in my career there, I was running multiple divisions and doing more. I grew professionally faster than I would grow anywhere else. I’ve lived a great professional life because of them; they trusted me.

On the personal side, when that second plane hit, I didn’t know if I was going to make it out alive. And the first thing that comes to your mind is your children; what came to my mind was I’m never going to see them grow up. There were a good 15-20 minutes that I didn’t know if I was going to get out. I was evacuating the building and was able to grab a phone. I couldn’t reach my wife, so I called my parents.

The call was quick. I said, “I’m fine. You’re going to see some crazy stuff on TV. I survived it. I’m getting out now. I’ve called Laureen,” who is my wife, “and she’s not picking up the phone. Please track her down and tell her I’m fine and we’re getting out.” I asked them to tell everyone that I loved them. It was very short, concise information. And then I couldn’t call my parents or my wife until I got home. I literally showed up at my house and my wife couldn’t believe I was alive — she thought I was dead. You definitely value life more.

What do you want everyone to know about what you experienced?

Feehan: I will never forget the people that died — the people like me that were just going to work that day. I lost neighbors and friends.

It’s easy to focus on the horrific side of September 11, but I try to focus on how we responded. I remember the experience working at the site — we all had a common purpose, we all suffered somehow and in some way, but we were going to do something about it.

I think back on when they built the 9/11 Museum. Prior to the official opening, we were invited in for a private tour. We reflected at a catastrophic site that burned for months; we watched it get cleaned up, and then watched the Freedom Tower, the 9/11 Museum, and the perimeter get rebuilt. They brought us out to the ground and showed us the Flourish Tree, which was a pear tree salvaged from the wreckage. They nursed it back to health for years, and replanted it at the World Trade Center. They then said, “This tree was very close to your proximity and we also feel like it’s the Century 21 tree.” It was something that survived 9/11, and it was very symbolic for all of us.

Because of where I was during the attack, I also saw many different ways that people can come together. Thinking about everyone that was down there, how they were able to respond and interact with one another and deal with the worst tragedy in history of this country, and how they were able to respond to that and come together.

I think about the spirit of the group that responded in the face of catastrophe — people who came from all different walks of life, from all over America. Americans coming together for a common purpose, sharing in the grief, helping to clean up and rebuild, and having the courage to move forward so the terrorists wouldn’t win. That’s what I’ll remember.

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