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Five Years Later

Survivors and witnesses reflect on the day that changed everything.

By Rod Hughes

 

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

Oliver Gierke was only three months into his new job as a paralegal at a plaintiff’s class action boutique law firm on Wall Street when, having arrived early, he noticed an unusual amount of paper flying about outside his 10th story office window. “I was talking with a secretary who sat near me and we noticed paper flying around outside with some of it burned. But we really didn’t know what was going on,” Gierke recalled. Later, someone informed the office that one of the World Trade Center towers had been hit by a plane.

“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 office afterward.

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 [22], 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

“I remember looking up and looking out the window [as the first tower fell] and it was just pitch black. We had a ledge outside our window, maybe it was a foot deep, you couldn’t see beyond it,” Gierke recalled.

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 everyone.

 

How They Moved On

At Hill, Betts & Nash, the first order of business was to get people to where they could work. Within about a week, some attorneys were working from home, while others worked from the firm’s now closed New Jersey office. Within days of the disaster, the firm secured temporary office space on Park Avenue.

“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,” Spriggens said.

“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,” Spriggens recalled.

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

“I have learned to appreciate things more. It has all been a learning process, really. In fact, it has pretty much been a whole personality overhaul for me,” Exner said. She explained that before the attack, she approached life from a more sheltered perspective, perhaps even naďve. Now, she notices more of the nuances in life and looks at things from a different perspective. “I realize it’s OK to be afraid of some things, but sometimes you have to do it anyway, even if you are afraid,” she said.

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

Five years changes many things. Gierke still is in New York, but now works as a senior legal assistant for White & Case. Although he is at a different firm, he has noticed some things have changed since Sept. 11, such as the increased number of people who now actually participate in fire and disaster drills in their workplace.

“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,” she said.

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

While New 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.

While the 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.

 

Nadine 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.

 

The 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.

 

“The 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,” Sereno said.

 

Throughout 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.

 

 


 

Rod Hughes is a public relations representative for two East Coast offices of a top 25 international law firm. Most recently he was the proprietor of Hughes Media, specializing in freelance editorial, writing and public relations services. He has served as editor and publisher of LAT and editor of three international litigation newsletters published by Mealey Publications, a subsidiary of LexisNexis.

 

 

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