‘I saw a tower had been hit. I opened the curtain and saw the smoke over lower Manhattan.’: Man credits random encounter with ‘lifelong best friend’ for saving his life on September 11

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“Seventeen years ago this past week, I traveled to the East Coast on business with Wild Oats Markets. It was a fast-paced trip that was to cover a lot of ground. I started in Florida for two days, then flew to Boston for a day before driving to visit a couple of stores in Connecticut.

On September 10, 2001, my co-worker/friend Simon and I finished our work several hours early at the Wild Oats in Westport, Connecticut. It was noon and we realized we suddenly had a free afternoon and evening. We weren’t scheduled to fly back home until more than 24 hours later, on September 11th from LaGuardia Airport in New York City.

We decided to check out of our hotel and head down to New York City. We heard the Yankees were home and that Roger Clemens was going for his 20th win vs. the Red Sox that evening. We headed straight for Yankee Stadium. After we bought our tickets, it started raining like crazy. The game was delayed, so Simon and I headed to a bar adjacent to the stadium to have a couple of beers and wait for the rain to let up. After an hour or so we headed into the stadium and got situated into our prime seats near the field between home plate and first base.

We hadn’t been in our seats for five minutes and right in front of me, I see my lifelong best friend Mike and his wife Elena walking by. We were all in disbelief, such a wild coincidence.  Baseball was everything to Mike and I as kids growing up together 3,000 miles away in Bakersfield, California. We started going to Los Angeles Dodgers games together at 9 years old in 1976. Over the next 18 years we went to at least 100 games together at Dodger Stadium. Amazingly, here we were, running into each other at Yankee Stadium. What are the odds of running into each other the first time either of us had been to this historic stadium?

Courtesy of Bob Millsap

I traveled weekly for Wild Oats at that time and would often stop to see Mike when I was in the area. But on this particular hectic trip I had not let him know I was nearby.

The rain started again and the game was eventually cancelled.  We headed to the exits with Mike and Elena. They didn’t have a vehicle at the game, and we didn’t have a hotel booked for the night. So they jumped into our rental car and we headed to their apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey. This was directly across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan. We could see all of Manhattan and the World Trade Center perfectly from their neighborhood. Energized by the sight, we came up with the idea to go to Mike’s office the next morning to see the amazing view on our way to the airport. Throughout the night I called my parents, my wife and a few people I worked with. I told each of them how unbelievable it was that we ran into Mike and Elena and that we were going to spend the evening at their apartment. I also shared my idea of going into work with Mike on our way to the airport in the morning.

Quickly after arriving in Hoboken, Mike, Simon and I headed to this cool little Irish Pub in Mike’s neighborhood. The Harp’s and Guinness’s started flowing. We listened to music on a great jukebox and had a lively, beer-fueled conversation as Mike and Simon had hit it off really well. Mike kept saying he needed to get to bed, but we kept insisting ‘one more beer.’

We closed down the bar and headed to Mike’s apartment.

Courtesy of Bob Millsap

At the bar the three of us had been having a passionate discussion about music. The Pixies place in modern music’s evolution came up and created great debate. So at the apartment we proceeded to loudly put on their classic Doolittle album and have more beer and impassioned debate. Extremely irritated, Elena got up and told us to turn the music and our voices down now. It took her a few more visits to the living room for us to retire for the night. After 3 a.m. we finally went to bed with the obvious agreement we would not be getting up early to go to work with Mike. We said our goodbyes as Mike said he’d be up early for work.

When I woke up not many hours later, I heard the shower going. Then I heard someone leave the apartment. A bit later I finally salvaged enough energy to get up. I told Simon to get off the couch and jump in the shower. I turned the TV on. I immediately saw a tower had been hit. I opened the curtain and could see the smoke as I looked at lower Manhattan out the window.

I assumed I had heard Mike in the shower earlier, but I rushed to Mike and Elena’s bedroom and hollered for him. No response at first, so I kept hollering, ‘Mike, Mike are you in there?’ Finally, Mike responded with an attitude that he was still in bed because he was so hungover.

I told him his tower had been hit. He looked out the window and said that was not his tower. Then moments later, as we watched the TV, his tower was hit. We looked out the window and could see the smoke and flames coming from the monumental structure.

Mike worked for the small investment banking firm Sandler O’Neill. His office was on the 104th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Mike was not at his desk that morning because for the first time ever, a hangover kept him from going work on time.

There were 82 of Mike’s co-workers in the office that morning. Despite the reassurance over the loud-speakers to stay put, 16 of Mike’s co-workers took the elevator down to vacate the building after the first plane hit. The remaining 66 stayed and continued working. They did not survive.

It was Elena I had heard in the shower earlier. Her daily destination was the train station in the basement of the World Trade Center. She worked adjacent to the World Trade Center at One Liberty Plaza and had been alerted to the first tower being hit just prior to departing the train station in Hoboken. She turned around and headed back to the apartment. I will never forget how extreme the emotion was as she rushed in and thanked us for keeping Mike up so late.

With Manhattan being in chaos, many of the injured were being sent on ferries across the Hudson River to Hoboken. They were then put into ambulances and rushed to nearby New Jersey hospitals. This scene played out into the evening.

The reality of the day started to take over as the shock made way to Mike coming to the overwhelming realization and confirmation that so many friends and colleagues did not make it.

With the airports closed, Simon and I stayed with Mike and Elena for three more days. On the 12th Simon and I took the train into Manhattan to show our support for the staff at the Wild Oats owned store at 89th and Broadway. We visited the store and then walked the relatively empty streets of New York. I was blown away by how kind, unified and helpful everyone was in the aftermath of this tragedy. People were solely focused on helping people. It was the best I have ever seen in humanity. The image and feeling of this has stayed with me ever since.

Seventeen years later, Mike is still living in New Jersey and taking the train into Manhattan each day. We talk often throughout the year and have never missed having a conversation each September 11th.

We will never forget 9/11/01.”

Courtesy of Bob Millsap

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Bob Millsap, a 50-something who has been on a long journey with grief and adversity. He is blessed with an amazing family, wife Shelly and sons Dylan (24) and Taylor (18).  He lives in the far western suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. You can follow his journey on his blog, Ten Thousand Days. Read more of his work below:

Read more powerful stories remembering Sept. 11:

‘I mustered up courage to ask where he was on 9/11. ‘The 47th floor of the North Tower’, the museum worker said.’: Young woman’s chance encounter with September 11 survivor makes her ‘proud to be an American’

‘We’re going to do something; I’m putting a plan together. It’s up to us.’ 9/11 hero’s last words to his wife, and how his heroic actions played out minute-by-minute

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