Wednesday, February 17, 2010

TOO BIG TO UNDERSTAND (Mine: Gut wrenching story about Cantor-Fitzgerald)

Fort Worth Star Telegram | 09/23/2001 | Jim Reeves

Posted on 09/22/2001 10:17:37 PM PDT by sinkspur

It's "The Wall" that Stuart Fraser can't face right now.

Located in the company's crisis center in a conference room in New York's Pierre Hotel on Central Park, the wall is covered with photos. Each one represents a father, a mother, a friend, a brother, a sister, a son, a daughter.

They are people Fraser knew, people he loved, partners, people he hired, people he worked alongside of, some for almost 20 years.

More than 700 of them.

And they are gone.

Fraser, 40, is the majority owner of the Fort Worth Brahmas minor-league hockey team. More importantly, he is the co-chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-market brokerage firm that was, for all intents and purposes, wiped out in last Tuesday's stunning terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

"I can't look at that wall," Fraser said by phone late Saturday night. "It's too much to take in, with all those photos. But every now and then I'll accidentally glance up and see someone's picture I hadn't thought of, and realize that they perished, too."

Fraser had phoned in the middle of the night - it was almost 1 in the morning in New York - and he talked for the next hour-and-a-half. Time stopped having any meaning to him shortly before 9 Tuesday morning. Days and nights run together now.

He sleeps no more than two hours a night, exhausted emotionally and physically, but to stay in bed longer might be to dream, and he cannot face that possibility yet.

"My 10-year-old daughter, Samantha, came up to me the other day," he said. "She had tears in her eyes, and she said, `Daddy, this is too big for me to understand.' "

"I told her, `Honey, it's too big for me to understand, too.' "

So Fraser simply deals with life moment by moment, tick by tick, because everything changed forever last Tuesday morning when the television program he, his wife Elise and their three children were watching over breakfast suddenly switched to a special report. Horrified, Fraser heard for the first time that a plane had smashed into the 110-story north tower of the World Trade Center.

Cantor Fitzgerald, the company founded in 1945 by Fraser's uncle, Bernie Cantor, occupied five floors, 101-105, in that building.

"I don't even know what was on TV, maybe traffic reports or something, but whatever was on switched to the report, and suddenly I see the Trade Center and they're saying a plane flew into it," Fraser said. "I start looking ... and I'm in shock.

"Little planes fly up and down the river all the time. Helicopters come pretty close. I've been up there for seven hurricanes. I wasn't there for the '93 bombing, but I was there the next day. But this ... I knew almost instantly this was no accident."

Fraser should have been there that day. Normally he spent Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in the Trade Center offices. But because of a business meeting scheduled in Westchester County, near his home, Tuesday morning, he'd gone into the office on Monday instead.

His partner and Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick, seen breaking down in multiple television interviews over the weekend, also survived. Lutnick was late arriving at the office because he took his 5-year-old son to his first day of school that morning.

"On Monday, for some reason, I walked around the whole office, all five floors," Fraser said. "I just wanted to talk to people, to see everyone."

It was a routine he'd once urged his Uncle Bernie, who died in 1996, to take up.

"I always encouraged him to walk around, because it gave people a charge," Fraser said. "He was a big guy and stood out and people enjoyed seeing him."

Cantor was a visionary who revolutionized the bond-market business and became a legend in the financial district. In 1945, when he wanted to open his own brokerage, the business was dominated by the Irish. There was serious doubt that a young Jewish businessman would be accepted.

Cantor persuaded an insurance company president named John Fitzgerald - he just happened to be Irish - to take 10 percent of the business and put his name alongside Cantor's on the company letterhead.

"On Monday I just enjoyed touching base with everybody," Fraser said. "It was a good day. Everyone was working hard."

Working hard meant making money at Cantor Fitzgerald, which did $40 trillion in business last year.

As Fraser helplessly watched the drama play out on TV - by now the second plane had hit the south tower - he realized that the first jet had crashed into the north tower somewhere beneath Cantor Fitzgerald's offices.

"I'm watching this thing and my cell phone beeped," he said. "It didn't ring, but it beeped. I wondered why I had a message.

"It was my secretary Lourdes. The time of the message was 8:55 a.m. She was almost whispering, her voice was husky and I could hear things in the background.

"She said in this raspy voice, `Stuart, [it's] Lourdes...something hit the building. We can't get out. Please help us."

Goose bumps prickled Fraser's arms and the back of his neck.

"She'd worked for me for just over two years," he said. "Just a wonderful person. She didn't really have the qualifications when I hired her, but she had a personality I liked and she just got better, and better and better.

"I didn't know what to do. I was calling every number I knew at the offices and no one was answering. They'd shut down the tunnels and bridges into New York. I couldn't get there."

Lutnick did, racing to the entrance to the building and grabbing survivors as they emerged, asking them what floors they'd evacuated. The highest he got to was 91. Then the south tower came down and the force of the collapse blew him under a nearby truck.

"I knew when the first building fell, it was just a matter of time before ours would go, too," Fraser said. "I just hoped our people were getting out. It never occurred to me that the stairwells were compromised by the [first] plane.

"Then No. 1 came down and my life changed forever. I knew then that we'd lost considerable people. I had no idea it would be more than 700. We lost three of every four who worked for us in the World Trade Center."

None of those who were working that day and were in the company offices escaped. Among those lost was 37-year-old Eric Sand, brother to Fraser's wife Elise.

"He had phoned his house and his mother-in-law answered," Fraser said. "He told her, `You'll see it tonight on the news. I'm on the way down.'

"Another partner had talked to his dad and told him "I'm all right, we're evacuating.' People knew where the exits were. They knew how to get out. Some even had gas masks in their desks after the '93 bombing."

Twenty sets of brothers worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. They all died. More than 1,300 children lost a father or a mother.

"We've adopted more than 700 families and those children are ours now," Fraser said. "That's why this company has to survive. We have to take care of our family."

The Pierre Hotel offered the company free space for its crisis center. It has also provided food and others have rushed to help.

"Bellevue sent over counselors, rabbis, priests," Fraser said. "I've had employees who worked for us 10 years ago who have come back and said, `Stuart, what can I do? I want to help. I want to work for you. I'll wash your car. Anything.'

"We fired 20 people on Monday, just changing things. It saved 19 lives. One guy came back Tuesday morning for his check. He died. The other 19 have all come back saying they want to work for us again. We'll probably hire them back."

Fraser's main focus has been the families. The wives, the husbands, the children, the parents, all have come to him, asking what they should do next.

"I've sat with so many wives ... it's the same concerns. Do I have to move? Do I have enough money? Do my kids have to go to a different school?

"We lost 700 leaders, good people," he said. "I'm in a tough business and these people worked hard and long hours. You're right there with them. You know more about these people than you want to know. You know when their wife is mad at them and when their kids are in trouble.

"Your relationships are intense. It really is like another family. That's what it takes to be successful on Wall Street. These were the leaders of their families, the ones their brothers and sisters went to, the ones who helped the parents out, the leaders in their communities. That's the kind of people we hired.

"Sometimes they didn't know everything about the business, but they were teachable and they wanted to learn and they did."

And then, in the blink of an eye, they vanished.

"People have been wonderful, offering everything. But what I need now is my people back. That's what I need most of all. So many names. So many people. So many wives, so many mothers, so many kids.

"I'm driving home from the crisis center [Friday] night, and I'm thinking, `Stuart, can anything be worse than this?' And I think, yes, it's what my in-laws are going through. They lost a son. I don't think I could take it."

He's not even sure how he gets through each day. He does it because it's all he can do. The numbers ring constantly in his head: 700 families, 1,300 children.

"I know the enormity of it is going to hit me one day soon," he said. "I know it's going to be like hitting a wall. Right now it's just too big for me to comprehend.

"I've cried. I've cried plenty of times but never for a long time. I haven't let it all out. I can't. That's not my purpose now. It's not about me. It was never about me anyway."

There are times when Fraser stops for a moment and reaches for his cell phone. He listens, again, to Lourdes' message, the raspy voice, the plea for help, and his eyes fill with tears of frustration, tears of anger, tears of loss.

"I don't know," he said, "if I'll ever erase that message."

Then he puts it down and goes back to work. There is so much to do, so many to care for, so many to love.

For education and discussion purposes only.

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