Scenes from the stock exchange on Sept. 11

September 10, 2011 - 11:30 AM
Wall Street

Former New York Stock Exchange Chairman Richard Grasso, left, is greeted by current NYSE CEO Duncan Niederauer as Grasso arrives at the exchange Friday, Sept. 9, 2011. Grasso is participating the exchange's Sept. 11 commemoration. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

NEW YORK (AP) — It was 8:46 a.m. and Wall Street was almost ready for business when the first plane hit the World Trade Center a decade ago. Dick Grasso, then chairman and CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, reflects on what it was like to be blocks from the Twin Towers on 9/11. Grasso left the NYSE in 2003.

Q: What were you doing that morning before the planes hit?

A: I was about to host a breakfast for two listed companies when I got a call from the person who ran the exchange's enforcement division. He said that the Port Authority had come on the public address system and said that a small plane had hit one of the buildings. We had about 145 people in the enforcement division with offices in the south tower.

As we were talking, the TV in my room shifted to a camera pointed at the financial district from West New York, N.J. You could see the north tower burning. It appeared all four corners of the tower were black and bellowing. I said, "That doesn't look like a small plane to me. We better get (NYSE employees) out now."

I wasn't anticipating a second plane. Our people were in the south tower during the 1993 bombing. They got trapped in their offices for the better part of six hours and were traumatized. I wanted them out notwithstanding what the Port Authority said.

Q: What happened after the second plane hit?

A: My first call was to the mayor, and I got through about 9:20. I had the discretion to hold off on the decision whether to open for trading until 10. Rudy (Giuliani) said hang tight. He'd get back to me in 20 minutes. Rudy was a surgeon when it came to meeting commitments. A couple minutes before 10, the head of security came barreling across the trading floor. You could see that he was shaken.

He told me that the city has just gone Code Black (an indication that New York's mayor and police chief were dead). I told him to ring the bell that we're closed. Then at twenty minutes before 11, a young man gave me a telephone. His hand was shaking. He said that it's the mayor. What came to my mind initially was, "If Rudy is dead, and the police chief and the fire chief are dead, then who is the mayor at this point?" I couldn't imagine who the successor to the mayor would be.

I took the phone and said, "Hello." I then heard, "How you doin'?" I knew immediately it was (Giuliani).

It almost got into an Abbott and Costello routine. I said "How you doing?" And he said "How are YOU doing? Are you OK?" I said, "Am I okay? They told me you were dead!"

Q: So what was your next move?

A: I went eye of the needle. People couldn't get in or out of the building. We had only one portal open and if somebody left or wanted in, I had to approve it.

We had 5,000 people in the building who were growing uncomfortable. Rudy told me to hold tight and that he'd be back with plan of evacuation. Soon police commissioner Bernie Kerik comes on the phone and they started to work out a plan. We had everybody out by 3 p.m. I left about 5:30, had a bite to eat and then came back downtown. I stayed in the New York Stock Exchange building that night. I fell asleep about midnight.

Q: How do you think the financial district has changed since then?

A: Lower Manhattan, south of Chambers St., has almost returned to where it was 200 years ago. Now, you have an enormous residential population as opposed to commercial population. I only go down there now to visit my kids.