On 9/11, Luck Meant Everything

When the terrorist attacks happened, trivial decisions spared people’s lives—or sealed their fate.

People running from smoke
Jose Jimenez / Primera Hora / Getty

Joseph Lott, a sales representative for Compaq computers, survived one of the deadliest days in modern American history because he had a penchant for “art ties,” neckties featuring famous masterpieces. “It began many years earlier, in the ’90s,” he said in an oral history with StoryCorps. “I love Impressionist paintings, and I use them as a way to make points with my kids. I’d put on an art tie, and then I would ask my kids—I have three daughters—I would say, ‘Artist identification?’ And they would have to tell me whether it was a van Gogh or a Monet, and we would have a little conversation about the artist.”

On the morning of September 11, 2001, he had put on a green shirt before meeting colleagues at the Marriott hotel sandwiched between the Twin Towers, in advance of speaking at a conference that day at the restaurant Windows on the World. Over breakfast, his co-worker Elaine Greenberg, who had been on vacation the week before in Massachusetts, presented him with a tie she’d spotted on her trip that featured a Monet.

“It was red and blue, primarily. I was very touched that she had done this,” Lott explained. “I said, ‘This is such a nice gesture. I think I am going to put this on and wear it as I speak.’ She said, ‘Well, not with that shirt. You’re not going to put on a red-and-blue tie with a green shirt.’” So when breakfast was done, his colleagues headed up to Windows on the World, located on the 104th floor of the North Tower, and Lott went back to his hotel room to change shirts. He ironed a white one, put it on, and then headed back down toward the hotel lobby. “As I was waiting to go from the seventh floor back down to the lobby and over to the bank of elevators that would take me to the top, I felt a sudden movement in the building,” he recalled.

Lott would escape the World Trade Center complex that day. Elaine Myra Greenberg, 56, a New York financial consultant, a season-ticket holder to the Metropolitan Opera, the “cool aunt” to her nephews and nieces, would not.

In researching my new book, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, I’ve spent the past three years reading and listening to thousands of personal stories from that Tuesday—stories from Americans all across the country and people far beyond our shores. In all those published accounts and audio clips, and in the interviews I conducted, one theme never ceases to amaze me: the sheer randomness of how the day unfolded, who lived, who died, who was touched, and who escaped. One thousand times a day, we all make arbitrary decisions—which flight to book, which elevator to board, whether to run an errand or stop for coffee before work—never realizing the possibilities that an alternate choice might have meant. In the 18 years since 9/11, each of us must have made literally 1 million such decisions, creating a multitude of alternate outcomes we’ll never know.

Over millennia, we’ve called “luck” and “fate” by many names, often intertwining the concepts with the unseen hand of Providence. In mythology, the three Fates were goddesses who handed out destiny at birth, weaving a future that each mortal would be forced to live out inexorably—the concept of fate serving for many as a necessary explanation for the random cruelties, vicissitudes, and lucky breaks that determine so much of how life plays out. That individuals might just blunder into these events for no reason at all was, for the ancient Greeks, just too bleak a thought.

Yet it’s hard to come away from the stories of 9/11 with a sense of anything other than an appreciation for the role randomness plays in our daily existence—There but for the grace of God go I, as the 16th-century clergyman John Bradford is said to have phrased it—and how it can change the course of history.

The night before, the New York Giants game in Denver had gone late into the night, which meant that a whole host of New Yorkers showed up slightly late to work that morning, missing the final elevator up to the top of the North or South Tower; others survived because Roger Clemens was supposed to have been pitching for his 20th win at home with the Yankees on September 10. The game was rained out, but not before people such as Roy Bell, who worked on the 102nd floor of the North Tower, had rescheduled their 8 a.m. client meetings for 8:45 instead. Michael Lomonaco, the chef at Windows on the World, would have normally been at work by 8:30, but he stopped to get new eyeglasses in the shopping concourse under the World Trade Center; he survived, while 72 of his co-workers were killed.

Jared Kotz, another attendee at that conference at Windows on the World, survived because a single publication was missing from his employee’s booth, so he offered to return to the office to fetch it. “I bid farewell to everyone and thought I would see them in an hour or less. I headed down the elevator,” he said later. “I walked into the office and called my London colleagues to let them know that everything but one box had arrived. I could see the time was 8:46. I remember thinking, Gee, I have plenty of time to get back downtown before the event starts. I was talking to one of my colleagues in London when I heard the plane go over.”

David Kravette, a broker at Cantor Fitzgerald, survived because one of the clients he was meeting with that morning had forgotten his driver’s license and needed to be checked in at the security desk; normally, he would have sent his assistant down, but she was eight and a half months pregnant, and he figured he was doing her a favor by not dispatching her to the lobby. Perhaps most amazingly, Monica O’Leary, who also worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, survived because the firm had laid her off not even a full 24 hours prior to the attacks. (She would later rejoin the firm after the attacks. Because all of the human-resources personnel who would have processed her layoff were killed on 9/11, she was never even taken off the payroll.)

Nicholas Reihner was supposed to have been aboard American Airlines Flight 11, his ride home from Boston to Los Angeles after vacationing in Maine, but he’d twisted his ankle while hiking in Bar Harbor and ended up missing the flight. The comedian Seth MacFarlane also had a ticket returning home after performing a gig in Rhode Island, but the travel agent had mistyped the time on his itinerary, and he showed up just a few minutes too late to catch the plane.

Later, at the Pentagon, the third hijacked plane hit a wedge of the building that had been upgraded to the highest security standards—meaning it was both well protected and largely vacant. “It was truly a miracle that the plane hit the strongest part of the Pentagon,” recalled one Army official, Philip Smith. “In any other wedge of the Pentagon, there would have been 5,000 people, and the plane would have flown right through the middle of the building.”

In both the Pentagon and New York, fate played a key role in the escapes. Army Lieutenant Colonel Rob Grunewald was sitting in a conference room with his colleagues when American Airlines Flight 77 hit. “The plane came into the building and went underneath our feet, literally, by a floor,” he said later. “Where everybody went and how they get out of the room is very unique, because those are where decisions are made that are fatal, or cause injury, or cause mental fatigue, or great consternation. A bunch of my officemates that were in that meeting went in one direction and unfortunately didn’t make it. The person that sat to my right, the person that sat to my left apparently went out the door and took a right, and they went into the E-Ring, where they apparently perished. A decision to go in one direction or another was very important.” For his part, Grunewald paused for a minute to rescue a colleague, Martha Cardin, and thus was just a few steps behind the others leaving the damaged conference room. In the smoke, he and Cardin turned left instead of right—a decision that saved their lives.

Then there’s the incredible story of Ladder 6. Led by Captain Jay Jonas, this crew of firefighters survived the collapse of the Trade Center together because they made the split-second decision while evacuating to stop and save a woman, Josephine Harris, which put them in the precise location to be sheltered in Stairwell B as the towers collapsed.

“There are so many points of luck that make you realize how random life is,” said Linda Krouner, an executive at Fiduciary Trust, in the South Tower. “People say, ‘Oh, you were so smart to leave.’ Who knows? The way it turned out, I was smart to leave, but I would have been smarter taking the elevator. There’s so much luck involved in this, and who lived and who died.”

After reading and hearing thousands of these stories, I am overwhelmed by the unfair randomness of the day—epochal circumstances and fatal or life-saving decisions so ordinarily meaningless that it’s simultaneously easy to see either the supernatural guiding hand of a higher power or the sheer banality of chance. As Rebekkah Portlock, then a third grader in Alabama, told me years later, “I think that was the first time I realized that truly awful things could happen to people who didn’t deserve them.” It was a feeling I shared that day, too. I remember standing there watching TV on 9/11, at college in Boston, wondering at the sheer magnitude of the tragedy, and how any god could exist who could allow the deaths of so many firefighters and rescuers.

It’s a feeling prevalent among survivors, as well. Mark DeMarco, an emergency-service officer with the New York Police Department, recounted to a journalist after 9/11, “Why did we get out? In the beginning I had this guilty feeling. If I had made a right instead of a left, if I had been five minutes or two minutes slower, if I had gone to a different team. There were so many variables. Everybody who was there says the same thing: It was luck, nothing more than luck.” On one rescue team of nine Port Authority police officers, only two happened to survive. Eugene Fasano was sent back to grab a first-aid kit, and Sharon Miller was accidentally separated from her colleagues in the Trade Center’s crowded stairwells. They lived, while their seven colleagues did not.

Fate cursed as well as saved on 9/11. Jeremy Glick’s flight on September 10 from the Newark airport was delayed, so he switched onto United Airlines Flight 93 the following day; the flight attendant Betty Ong ended up working American Airlines Flight 11 because she wanted to go meet her sister to plan a vacation to Hawaii. Melissa Harrington Hughes, an international-trade consultant, was in New York, at the North Tower, for a one-day business trip; had the attacks come on any other day, at any other moment, she would have lived. Mike Warchola, a lieutenant with the fire department who ultimately made it all the way up to the 40th floor of the North Tower, was working some of his literal final hours in the FDNY on 9/11, having turned in his retirement papers after 24 years of service.

These mundane choices, travel schedules, and breaks in routine that dictated whether someone lived or died on 9/11 belie the structure and order we try so hard to give to our lives. In the years since the attacks, we have ushered ourselves into a hyper-efficient, hyper-connected world—our regimented daily calendars organized in quarter-hour increments, our precise arrival times foretold by Google Maps or the Uber app, our travel routes optimized by Waze, our to-do lists organized by Trello, our perfectly curated lifestyles on Instagram display.

In fact, so much of our wired society today seems bent on proving a level of control over our daily circumstances that none of us actually possesses. We try so hard to downplay and outright ignore the role chance clearly plays in life, moving through it oblivious to the randomness of fate, controlling everything we can in the hopes that it will help with those things we can’t control. At the same time, these regimens seem meant to rob us of the spontaneity that allows pleasure to seep in at unexpected moments—unnecessarily limiting what for all of us turns out to be a finite time in the world. As Sandy Dahl, the widow of the Flight 93 pilot, Jason Dahl, once said, “If we learn nothing else from this tragedy, we learn that life is short, and there is no time for hate.”

A similar lesson emerges from a remarkable piece of environmental art made the night of September 10, when the artist Monika Bravo filmed a giant thunderstorm that rolled through New York City from the 91st floor of the North Tower. As part of a creative-residency program, she had studio space in the building, and her video shows the storm sweeping south from New Jersey into the city as day turns to night. It is the last visual record of nighttime from within the World Trade Center. Bravo happened to take the raw video home that night, and later turned it into a work of art called “September 10, 2001, Uno Nunca Muere la Víspera.” As she explains, “It is a saying in Spanish: ‘It’s impossible for you to die on the eve of your death.’ You only die when you have to die. You’re never close to death. You die or you’re alive.”