Photo: A rendering of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Courtesy of 9/11 Memorial.
The view from Jan Larsen’s office on the fifth floor of the Millenium Hilton in Lower Manhattan is shocking, even to the visitor from New Jersey who over the last 10 years has been past the site of one of our nation’s most tragic events in its history several times. When the visitor enters Larsen’s office, the large glass windows overlooking the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site reveal an immediate mix of emotions. The scene is at once a devastating reminder of senseless loss of life and a prideful gaze at the strength and resiliency of the people of the United States.
Larsen, the general manager of the Millenium Hilton, the towering hotel that sits directly east of the World Trade Center, wasn’t around on Sept. 11, 2001, the day when the towers fell, the Pentagon exploded in Virginia, and a group of brave passengers brought down an airplane in western Pennsylvania rather than let the hijackers reach their intended target—reportedly either the White House or the U.S. Capitol. But since 2002, the longtime Hilton veteran has overseen the rebirth of his hotel—heavily damaged as a result of the collapsed towers—and watched from his window as the new WTC building, and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, began to spring to life.
From Larsen’s office, one gets a sense, while looking over the memorial footprint of the twin towers and it’s close proximity to the hotel, how scary it must have been for workers and guests in the hotel that day. It’s an immediate reminder of how scared those in other buildings surrounding the site must have been. And, of course, watching the first of the new towers rise, it's a sad reminder of how frightening it must have been to be trapped in the upper floors of a burning skyscraper.
For its part, the Millenium Hilton became a triage unit for rescued people from the towers that day. It eventually suffered so much damage from the collapse of the towers that it remained shut from that day until 18 months later.
“Initially there were structural integrity concerns since it’s such a tall building, but it turned out to be a non-issue,” Larsen says. “The secondary concern was the air-quality safety. We lost somewhere between 360 to 400 windows. As a result, asbestos dust from the World Trade Center got into the building, so that was really the main damage.”
To ensure that there were absolutely no safety issues, the refurbishment of the hotel meant replacing everything from carpeting to wallpaper to furniture. “The only thing that was left was the bare concrete,” Larsen says.
It was an approximately $34 million refurbishment that included weekly air samples to ensure the air quality remained safe, Larsen says.
More importantly, Larsen points out that on 9/11 the hotel didn’t lose any guests or employees. “Everybody was safely evacuated from the hotel,” he says.
Today, 97 percent of the hotel’s employees on that day have come back to work at the Millenium Hilton. “During the 18 months they were out of work during the refurbishment, the ownership and the union continued to provide them with benefits,” Larsen says. “When we reopened they came back and were very happy to, as much as it was a very emotional event for them.”
Many of the employees who had been with the hotel since it opened in 1992, they had been through the first bombing of the WTC as well. “It was pretty traumatic for many of them,” Larsen says.
‘We just gave each other a hug for a long time.’
Two of those workers who returned to the hotel were Bobby and Rey (who asked that their last names be withheld). Both work the front doors of the Millenium Hilton and have done so since its initial opening.
“That day was infamous,” Rey says. “When the first plane hit, the head of security evacuated the hotel right away. We took the guests out first, and then the employees, and security were the only ones left. A lot of the employees, when the second plane hit, just ran out.”
Sept. 11, 2001, was a scheduled day off for Bobby, but he found himself in the middle of the action anyway because he is also a service man who works for a branch of the government, though he’s not at liberty to say which one. “I was shopping with my wife, and my beeper rang,” he recalls. “I called back and my superior said, ‘We have trouble. We’re being attacked.’ So that’s when I came directly here and it was a big mess with all of the fires and everything.
“I went over to the hotel and the first person I saw was our director of security,” Bobby continues. “We just gave each other a hug for a long time.”
Sitting in the lobby of the hotel on a sunny August afternoon 10 years later, Rey points out of the window and just across the street—between the horde of tourists snapping photos of the construction site—and tells his visitor, “You have to remember that Tower One was right there. The debris directly hit us. I was surprised the hotel didn’t go down.”
Both Bobby and Rey credit the evacuation action of hotel security for keeping everyone safe that day. “When the first plane hit they got everyone out and, even though everyone thought it was an accident, they didn’t want anyone back in the hotel,” Rey says.
The pair says that while most of the employees returned they know some didn’t want any part of even being downtown again.
‘We knew it was serious.’
Of course, the Millenium Hilton was far from the only hotel or business affected by the collapse of the WTC. Others in the area, such as the Best Western Plus Seaport Inn, found themselves in the middle of a national nightmare.
Ten years ago Maggie Ptac was executive housekeeper at the hotel. A New Jersey resident, she, like other workers in Lower Manhattan, went to work that day like any other day. When she finally made her way—on foot—across a bridge back home to New Jersey, she had experienced something she never imagined and certainly hoped she never would again.
“When the first plane hit we were looking at the fire and thought it was an accident—just a fire,” she recalls. “Then as we watched we saw the other plane hitting the second tower. We knew it was serious.”
She recalls a lobby full of screaming people. Guests, many of whom were staying at the hotel in preparation for appointments at the WTC, were worried about their friends and family.
“We saw the first tower fall. We saw it shaking, and it started going down, down, down. Then we didn’t see anything. It was so dusty,” she says. “The worst thing was when we started seeing all those people crossing the bridge. It seemed like the end of the world.”
Maggie and her fellow workers didn’t immediately join the throngs of people trying to get out of Manhattan. She says they stayed in the hotel all day while the dust cleared. But eventually, they began to make the journey to the bridge. “The worst thing was when we saw shoes, clothes, everything lying on the ground,” she says. “At the time I couldn’t get to New Jersey. I didn’t know where any of my family was. We had no communication.”
She says that when she returned to work, she found herself panicked whenever she went through the tunnel to get to Lower Manhattan. “Anytime we were stopped in the tunnel, I started getting heart palpations,” she says. “We also had to walk to the hotel for a few weeks because the train was not running.”
She simply says working in the area following that day, “was never the same.”
As the nation remembers the victims of 9/11 in New York, Washington, D.C., and western Pennsylvania, this weekend, these are just a few of the stories from people in the hotel industry who will remember that day from an up-close perspective. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives. It’s a tragedy that people all around the globe will never forget.