Five Years Later
Survivors and witnesses reflect on the day that changed
By Catherine Astl, CLA
September/October 2006 Issue
It’s hard to believe that only five years ago the citizens of the United
States were blissfully unaware of the dangers of terrorist. The
Department of Homeland Security didn’t exist, you could keep your shoes
on while traversing an airport, and Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral legacy was
poised to be about cleaning up The Big Apple’s crime-ridden streets. On
Sept. 11, 2001, everything changed.
The story of that day is indelibly etched into our
collective memory: watching the towers burn and then fall, the Pentagon
ablaze, a blackened pit in a Pennsylvania field. There would follow
rumors of more attacks to come, criticism of the government and what it
could or should have done, color codes, two wars, and for a time, the
need to ensure even the most casual goodbye among friends and loved ones
was never taken for granted again. But in the early hours of that
beautiful Tuesday morning, before the nation sat stunned in front of
television sets, countless paralegals were on their way to work or had
already arrived at any number of the 14 law firms or 430 financial and
business institutions housed in the Twin Towers of New York’s World
Trade Center. On the fifth anniversary of the infamous attacks, Legal
Assistant Today contacted some of the survivors and witnesses to
reflect on the tragedy.
What They Remember
“As people started to arrive at the office, some of whom
got off the subway below the World Trade Center and walked across, we
began to realize it was more serious then we first thought,” he said.
Gierke, who had only recently relocated from Seattle, said while he and
his colleagues watched the news on a television in a conference room, a
colleague was on the phone with his wife who worked in the second tower.
“He was telling her to leave, but she kept explaining that there had
been an announcement telling everyone in the building to stay. And while
this was going on we watched on TV as the other plane hit the second
tower. It looked as if it might fly behind the building, but then you
saw the explosion,” Gierke said.
Judith Spriggens, RN, LNC, a medical legal consultant and
paralegal with Hill, Betts & Nash, was on the subway, underground, on
her way to the firm’s office in the World Trade Center when the first
plane hit. Because New York was having primary elections that day, she
had chosen to vote first in her Brooklyn neighborhood and go into the
As Spriggens told Legal Assistant Today in an
interview shortly after the attacks (see “A Day of Infamy”
November/December 2001 LAT), she stepped off the train into an
unimaginable scene. “Everyone was just staring, mesmerized by the
flames; stunned. Nobody was moving,” she said. At that point, the second
plane had struck and both towers were engulfed in fire.
It was Kristan Exner, then a paralegal with Hill, Betts &
Nash as well, who shared the most harrowing of stories with LAT
in the weeks following Sept. 11. Exner was in the firm’s 52nd floor
offices in the North Tower when the planes struck. During her seemingly
endless trek down the emergency stairs of the WTC, Exner and others
passed countless New York firefighters climbing toward the fire, while
the tower workers scrambled toward safety.
“I guess we were in the teens on the stairs when we met
the firemen who were on their way up. They had just climbed who knows
how many stairs and were stopping for just a moment when I looked at
this one guy. He must have been about my age , and he looked
terrified. Of all the memories I have, that one stands out the most,”
Exner explained. She said she made it a point to review the newspaper
photos of the firefighters who were lost, even those photos posted at
firehouses throughout the city, in an effort to locate the man she saw.
“I never found him. According to everyone I have spoken to, the
firefighters we saw climbing the steps never made it out. That stays
with you,” she said.
What They Did
Spriggens, who also had been in the towers during the 1993
bombing, said she realized there was little she could do on the streets
and took a return train to Brooklyn. She was walking into her apartment
as her husband watched the first tower collapse on television. The
couple immediately began calling relatives and friends to assure them of
her safety and to learn the whereabouts of her daughter, who had an
appointment on the 21st floor of the South Tower. Fortunately, Spriggens
said her daughter was delayed and never made it to the World Trade
Center that morning.
The police came into Gierke’s firm’s building and
announced they were evacuating. However, one of the partners made an
announcement that he would not force anyone out onto the chaotic
streets, but that he was not asking anyone to stay either. According to
Gierke, one of the partners thought those in the office were likely
safer inside than out in the black-grey dust with the crowds. Gierke
chose to stay until early afternoon and watched as the colleague who had
been speaking with his wife in the second tower lost contact with her.
Later, they found out she didn’t survive. Gierke said it would be
several hours before he made it home, having lost contact with his own
wife earlier that morning, though she was safe in Long Island.
Exner would spend hours escaping the towers and walking
the 40 blocks from the WTC site to her apartment, where she was able to
call her mother, tell her she was OK and provide her with names and
numbers of co-workers and friends to see if together they could locate
How They Moved On
“Initially, there was just a lot of gratitude that we
really didn’t lose anybody,” Spriggens said, noting however that several
attorneys lost close friends in the attacks and many colleagues had
neighbors and friends who were either lost or who lost someone that day
in New York. “It was a very somber mood around the [new] office. That
got to a lot of the attorneys, but our group really stayed together. We
were focused on re-creating our business and rebuilding our law firm,”
“I found it amazing. To go through the experience of
having nothing available to you in the way you are accustomed — paper,
computers, files, phones, objects on your desk, pens — the things that
allow you to do business. To have that all taken away and still have the
skills and ability to re-create it and rebuild. It was simply amazing,”
One of the ways Sriggens’ firm rebuilt after losing the
database stored in its WTC headquarters was having all employees — as
soon as possible — write down every name, phone number and e-mail
address of everyone they could remember. Having begun her medical legal
consultant career in 1986, Spriggens said she had countless names of
experts and physicians to recall.
There also were meetings with opposing counsel to obtain
copies of discovery items. Paralegals from the firm’s office spent
countless hours at courthouses getting copies of complaints, while also
determining what was due and when for cases the firm had been handling
at the time of the disaster. And, according to Spriggens, an inordinate
amount of time was spent combing through the phone book for
miscellaneous names and addresses. “It was reconstruction through
whatever means you could,” she said.
Gierke said his office was closed for about a week after
Sept. 11. When his office did reopen, Gierke said it was a very
different place. “We knew one of our co-workers lost his wife. Two other
people lost someone — a cousin and a close friend. Everything was just
very quiet, very subdued,” he said.
Getting to work was a challenge as subways were either
closed or rerouted, and vehicle access to Manhattan was impossible in
those first few weeks. Gierke noted there were air quality issues and
other concerns for businesses located near Ground Zero as New Yorkers
returned to work.
In addition, Gierke said dealing with the courts in
Manhattan was forever changed. “It was very different. There were these
concrete barricades around the buildings, highly armed guards, multiple
ID checks, bag checks, and so on,” he noted. And while some of those
security issues have now been modified, such as less visible security
presence and fewer redundant ID checks, according to Gierke, the
heightened sense of security is evident to anyone who remembers the
court in the days before the attacks.
As a response to the terrorist attacks, the international
law firm Heller Ehrman, which has a New York office, decided to make
certain that if the city was ever attacked again, the firm’s data would
be secure. Dwight Moody, director of paralegal services for the firm,
said that while he was not with Heller Ehrman at the time of the
attacks, the firm has since gone to great lengths to secure what was
already a strong and reliable backup system.
“We have always had a fairly sophisticated Information
Technology group, and our backup system was fine [during Sept. 11].
However, we have since added extra layers of protection,” Moody said.
For starters, the firm has a contract with a secure off-site facility
that maintains a real-time mirror of the entire network. Such a system
allows Heller Ehrman staffers to know that should something happen to
the firm’s computer system, an exact duplicate of data could be produced
up to the moment of trouble. “This means a catastrophe in any office
would have no impact on the integrity of our data,” Moody said.
Another change Heller Ehrman implemented is supplying go
bags to firm employees. Such employer-provided go bags typically include
fresh water, a flashlight, a whistle, a radio, an emergency blanket,
emergency rations, glow sticks and a first aid kit.
How It Affected Them
And for Exner, she walks the walk as much as she talks the
talk. Clearly affected by her momentary meeting with the men and women
who rushed into the WTC in an effort to save lives, Exner joined the
volunteer fire department in Mamaroneck, N.Y., close to where she lives.
She also still is a Naval Reservist, where she was promoted to the rank
of lieutenant. She said she plans to continue to fulfill her personal
20-year commitment, though she only is legally required to stay with the
reserves for eight years.
For Spriggens, the challenge of having to rebuild her
network of contacts as well as the work she had been doing, not to
mention supporting the rebuilding of the firm’s practice, was
empowering. “People in business don’t realize the amount of data they
have access to, and should take a moment to consider what they might do
if everything — down to the paperclips — was gone,” she said. “Only [at
that point did we] begin to realize the enormity of the task that was
before us. But we did it. Somehow, it all came together,” she said.
Gierke said the reality of everything set in for him
because of a nerve-racking experience not long after the attacks. The
U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York is located in the
area affected by the collapse of the WTC. The federal court has a drop
box for any after-hour drops or filings that would be accepted prior to
midnight. “One night, I am wandering around the courthouse in an eerie
quiet with barricades all around, and here I am trying to find an open
courthouse door to get to the drop box,” Gierke said. “The whole time I
am thinking someone is going to get suspicious of a guy in the middle of
the night testing doors at the courthouse.”
Where They Are Now
“When New York had its brownouts and blackouts a few years
ago, I was impressed by how quickly our building was able to be cleared
out. Everyone seemed much better prepared, and you get the sense there
is an increased awareness,” Gierke said.
Spriggens continues to work as a medical legal consultant
and paralegal for Hill, Betts & Nash, but now is based out of the firm’s
Miami office, though she returns to New York once or twice a year when
client matters require her presence. She said several factors
contributed to her 2003 move to Florida, including her husband’s desire
to move to a warmer climate (he is from Australia). However, she said
she could not rule out the events of Sept. 11 as a factor either.
“Would I really personally ever want to work in another
World Trade Center again? It would not be my choice. But look around
you. Where in the world can you say you are not going to have a problem?
Even in Iowa you have tornados,” Spriggens said.
Spriggens also noted that since moving, she has weathered
several hurricanes and has participated in three office evacuations
during her time there.
And Exner, who was attending night school five years ago,
now is an attorney, working as an associate in the Port Chester, N.Y.,
law offices of Cynthia R. Exner, her mother. She handles immigration law
issues now. Despite her experience on Sept. 11, she said she doesn’t
focus on disaster planning as much as she should, although she does
continue to keep a go bag in her home. It’s a holdover from the
post-Sept. 11 days when New Yorkers were advised to keep an emergency
bag ready to grab and go.
Exner did say, however, that she pays attention to things
more. “When I go into a building, I want to know immediately where the
stairs are and where the exits are. I don’t wait until I need to know,”
All three said when the
Sept. 11 memorial is constructed, they will visit and tour the site. In
fact, Exner has taken part in the Ground Zero ceremony each year that is
held for survivors and family and friends who lost loved ones.
“There were thousands of
people who died that day and I didn’t. I have to live the best I can,”
Exner said. “I really want to feel — and I don’t think I am there yet —
that I deserved to survive.”
Paralegal Employment After Sept. 11
York firms soon realized the need for more security and the importance
of implementing off-site data backups in the months following the
attacks, many area legal professionals and paralegals had more immediate
concerns about employment. Sereno Bocelli, vice president of Nadine
Bocelli & Co., a legal support staffing firm in New York, said there was
a huge number of paralegals looking for work after Sept. 11. “But the
problem was finding them jobs,” he said.
attacks in New York shut down, damaged or outright destroyed a number of
law firms, the subsequent downturn in the economy is what truly softened
the market for paralegals in the city.
Bocelli, president of Nadine Bocelli & Co. and Sereno’s spouse, said
during the slowdown, getting a job largely depended on what specialty
you were considering. In the corporate and mergers and acquisition
markets, not much was going on in that period, while intellectual
property remained fairly solid. “But I would be lying to you if I told
you the attacks didn’t have a huge impact on our business,” Nadine said.
couple, who have been in the New York legal staffing market since 1991,
saw firms either retaining legal support personnel or downsizing, while
hiring dropped off dramatically throughout 2002 and 2003.
turnaround really didn’t come until late in 2004 and 2005. And after
Jan. 1, 2006, the market really took off thanks to a booming economy,”
the ups and downs following the attacks, the Bocellis said employers
consistently looked for the same things: four-year degrees, some
experience and paralegal certificates.