The Day The World Stood Still
Warren Sutnick shares his 9/11 story
Published in 2019 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine
on April 4, 2019
Updated on August 2, 2019
“Sometimes a tragic event can be so impactful that it causes you to consider making a right turn,” says Warren Sutnick, a criminal defense lawyer with Sutnick & Sutnick who escaped the South Tower on 9/11.
Sutnick spent most days in 2001 fighting the rat race. He’d rise before the sun, hop on New Jersey Transit, make his connection, catch the subway to the World Trade Center and ride the South Tower elevator 65 floors into the sky.
Then an attorney with Morgan Stanley, Sutnick got in that morning before the market opened.
“I’m sitting at my desk and hear a massive explosion,” says Sutnick. “Then I see all sorts of paper and debris go flying by my window. I was on the phone with my wife. I said, ‘Laura, there’s some commotion in the building. I’ll have to call you back.’”
Sutnick never called back.
As the staff gathered in the 65th-floor common area, it became clear the explosion hadn’t happened in the South Tower. So Sutnick and others decided to return to their desks.
“[But] there was a woman from the support staff who insisted we get out immediately,” says Sutnick. “She kept yelling about how she was there [for the garage bombing] in 1993, so to appease her, everyone packed up.”
She insisted they take the stairs, and after some pushback in opposition to a 65-story walk, the group acquiesced. They formed a single-file line into the stairwell, which Sutnick says was maybe the width of two average-sized people, and began their descent. When they reached the 45th floor, shockwaves went through the building. The second plane struck about 30 floors above where Sutnick stood.
“You can’t appreciate the sheer violence that plane inflicted,” says Sutnick. “In the tape, it looks like the plane just disappears, but the building shook. It felt like an earthquake. Everyone screamed, the lights went out, and we all tumbled into the person in front of us.”
As the building swayed, the emergency lights flickered on. The stairwell filled with smoke, dust, then people.
“Have you ever been to a sold-out football game that lets out at once, and you’re moving with the crowd in one motion?” asks Sutnick. “It was like that. You had to wait. There was no option.”
After working his way to the lobby, Sutnick exited in between the two towers. “There was metal and paper and bricks falling from the sky,” he says. “I immediately went back into the lobby, and out a different exit, in front of Trinity Church.” He looked up and saw a gaping hole.
“Collapse wasn’t on my mind, and without cellphones, we still didn’t know what happened,” says Sutnick. “We thought it was a little Cessna that’d hit.”
Then Sutnick saw people jumping to their deaths. Afraid, he began walking uptown to his brother’s office. Then he felt the ground quake.
“I turn around to see my old building start to collapse,” says Sutnick. “I started running north as fast as I could.”
He stopped in to a shop and used a landline to call his mom, who contacted his wife. When he arrived at his brother’s office, “They’re all just in shock and start hugging me,” he remembers.
Eventually, Sutnick took a ferry to Weehawken, then hopped a bus to Fort Lee and waited for his wife to pick him up.
“[Laura and I] held each other for a while, and then headed to daycare,” says Sutnick. “That’s when the emotions really kicked in.”
In the weeks after, Sutnick took stock of his life. “I wasn’t happy,” he says. “The commute was killing me, and I felt like I could never be there for my family. Had I died that day, would I have wanted to leave this world in such an unhappy state?”
He returned to work but felt so out of place that, in February, he left to join his wife’s firm.
Some 17 years later, Sutnick looks back on the things he’s been able to do since 9/11; chiefly, spend more time with his children.
“September 11th was most likely the most devastating [event] I’ll ever see,” says Sutnick. “But it gave the opportunity to reflect. I now appreciate that a tragedy can change a life for good.”
Heart of a Soldier
“He was a true hero,” Sutnick says of Rick Rescorla, Morgan Stanley’s head of corporate security. The English-born Rescorla, who died in the attack, was a veteran of Vietnam and the British colonial wars in Rhodesia. He’s credited with saving nearly all 2,700 Morgan Stanley workers on 9/11. Heart of a Soldier, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author James D. Stewart, chronicles Rescorla’s life and the astonishing evacuation he led down the South Tower.