My Experiences at Windows on the World

24 07 2008

I will preface this story with the following.  This is merely my way of dealing with some of the pain of the events on September 11, 2001.  I know that my thoughts are really very inconsequential when compared to the suffering of those more deeply affected by this tragedy.  Take this account as a mere personal recollection of what my time at WTC 1 was like.  These are just the ramblings of my mind right now, some things I needed to put down on paper so I do not forget.  We are all dealing with these events differently, and day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute the way I feel, what I think, changes.  We all need to respect each other’s ways of coping at this stressful time, as well as the different stages of grief that each of us may be in at a given time.  Please be considerate of how each individual deals with these events.  We may not be on the same page all the time, we just need to deal with this as individuals and it will take a lot of time.  I hope you understand.

When I attended Cornell University I vividly remember sitting in awe with my roomates watching the events of the first (who knew it would happen again) World Trade Center attack unfold before my eyes.  I was horrified.  I knew Kevin Zraly from when he would come to Cornell to teach wine classes.  That spring the Wine Challenge team from Cornell was to compete in the first ever Wine Challenge, an event Kevin had planned to hold at Windows.  The event went on, Kevin is not one to give up on things, but was held elsewhere.  That year we won the collegiate division.  Maybe it was this, or perhaps sheer luck, but Kevin bestowed upon me my greatest opportunity.

My first job after college was as Wine School Coordinator at Windows on the World.  Andrea Immer was to give birth to Lucas at the beginning of 1994, so I was hired to take her spot.  I never feared entering the building despite the bombing attempt.  Perhaps it was the blissful fearlessness of a 21 year old or merely the thought that something so terrible could not possibly happen again.  I listened to Andrea’s stories of their escape from the tower in darkness, the long walk down hundreds of flights of stairs.  Windows on the World was closed awaiting reconstruction, renovation and asbestos removal.  Once Andrea left to give birth to Lucas, I was left at the top of the world alone.  Again rather than fear it, I relished the experience.  I had few visitors in that office space, sometimes Johannes Tromp or Kevin Zraly on wine class days.  Perhaps Jules Roinnel from the Port Authority would stop by to help with logistics.

Completely unsupervised I went about my daily business and my routine.  I came in on the A,C, or E from my apartment on West 4th Street and 6th.  I tried to walk once, but it took too long, I can only imagine the many that ran those streets for miles for their lives without looking back.  I would come up out of the subway and head to Au Bon Pain in the Concourse to get the largest coffee possible.  After the 2 elevators to the top, I’d greet our ever present security guard.  I feel so guilty that I have forgotten his name, he was such a nice man. Did he still work there on September 11?  Where is he now?  I’d listen to messages, go about my day, maybe make the long trip down to get lunch, often at my favorite deli, Stage Deli across the street.  Where are those men who would shout and toss sandwiches and black and white cookies across the line to get you your food as fast as possible?  I was just saying how much I missed that deli living here in San Francisco, little did I realize that it might be forever gone also.

At that time logistics for running the wine class were tough, maybe that’s why any wine event now seems like a cakewalk.  I’d have to pick up the wine at the front of WTC 1, at the circle where the cabs would come, near the bridge to the World Financial Center.  I’d get a call from the driver of the van when he was close, I would make the journey down (2 elevators) with my rickety cart.  We’d load it at the circle (they weren’t allowed in the garage without commercial plates) and I would have to schlepp it up to the 106th floor myself since they couldn’t get upstairs without identification.  I enjoyed my routine, my freedom, even the minutiae of working there in this somewhat chaotic time.  I felt like those two floors of the World Trade Center were mine for a time.

When Johannes finally cleared out his office, it was really only me.  I would sometimes stroll through the empty banquet rooms, eventually they were cleared out, but I remember when I first got there they were filled with equipment.  It looked like an auction of restaurant equipment, trays, pitchers, glasses.  There were raincoasts and jackets, umbrellas and miscellaneous belongings left there when everyone ran for their lives the FIRST time.  Even a salesman’s leather bag full of china.  He must have been presenting to someone when they were evacuated.  Occasionally I’d venture into the restaurant.  I would peer at the seats, the banquettes, walk through the kitchens and wonder what it looked like when it was full, a Saturday at 8pm.  I never got to see that.  Once they cleared all the desks out of the accounting office, I decided to make that my rollerblading arena.  I’d strap on the roller blades and circle around, all the while gazing with wonder upon the Empire State building.  Very distracting to have such an incredible view.  When the Rangers won the Stanley cup I sat in one of those tall windows facing the Statue of Liberty and looked down upon the ticker tape parade.  I would check out the cafeteria maybe wondering what it had been like when it was full.  I wish that it hadn’t been full that day.  Why couldn’t this have happened when no one was there.  Why so many people?  Why not just me up at the top of the world enjoying the view.

I feel tremendous guilt that I wasn’t there.  All of my skills, all that I learned, all my values, the way I teach about wine was all given to me there in that building.  Kevin Zraly, thank God he is ok, gave me a firm foundation for which to base my career and my life upon.  He taught me everything he knew and offered all he could to me, and when I was ready to leave he sent me off with open arms and good wishes as he has to so many others before me.  He has never failed to be supportive, helpful and to give me all I would need to succeed in the world.  When I left he entrusted the wine cellar to me, all 30,000 bottles were sent to the soon to open Vista Hotel. I was Cellar Master, and although I cared for the wines as if they were my own, I knew that one day when Windows was finished that they would return to the Cellar in the Sky.  I opened the Vista in October 1994, with almost the entire staff that had been there during the bombing in 1993.  Again I heard numerous stories of how it felt, what it looked like, where they were.  Although I was shocked and deeply affected by these stories, again it never occurred to me that something like this could happen again.  I went about playing with the fancy bottles I knew not much about.  I touched them, pondered them, organized them, sold them, but most of all cared for them.  I knew that one day Kevin would return to get them.  As trite as it may sound, I hope that there is a heaven for wine, perhaps the Cellar in the Sky is offering up enjoyment to those who are now in a better place.  I must be delirious, I have no idea if what I say is appropriate or not, it just needs to come out and be written down.  I hope you won’t be offended by any of this.  What is of utmost importance is the human lives affected by this great tragedy, but I can’t even begin to express my mourning for those lives, I don’t think I could handle it.

But, where are all the wine school students?  Many worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and other firms in the area.  I know Jeremy Glick from New Jersey perished in one of the planes.  Was he the son of Dr. Glick who took the wine class?  Where are all the customers from the Vista?  Where are all the servers?  Hard workers like Bam Bam and Andy?  Were they still there?  Did they get out?  I wish I had the wine school rosters, old staff lists, to review all those names I used to know by heart.  I want to search for every one of them, but feel so guilty for not being able to recollect them all.  Just mere fragments.  What about the Oval Room staff, the 34th floor I think it was, where we held the classes while Windows was closed.  Is Jules ok?  I am saddened about all the Windows employees that were there that I never had the opportunity to work with.  I was selfish, enjoying my solitude and my freedom, but I yearn for the opportunity to have known such amazing people, and now I will never have that opportunity.

I know that so many innocent people are suffering from this, they have much worse things to worry about than I do.  Still I feel as if a small part of me has died in that tower yet I feel like a poser for never having worked a dinner shift there.  The most formative years of my life were spent there, and as a result all that I do is tied to that place and that time.  How can it just not exist anymore.  I hate to mourn the loss of a building, but rather I mourn the loss of an icon.  I mourn this building that housed so many people.  It was so incredible how it worked.  I remember thinking of the Path train riders as lemmings, so many of them streaming down the super long escalators in the concourse, every single day.  So excited they must have been to be going home to their families after a long day of work.  Seeing people streaming through the building it was the epitomy of organization.  To have so many thousands come in and out of that building daily, no trouble, no strife, just people trying to go about their jobs and then get back home.  So many worked in unison to create such an incredible microcosm of America.  It represented all that America is, a melting pot of races, the dedication that it represented of those who supported those families, and the pursuit of the American dream.  So it really is not just the building.  It stood for all of us in some way or another, and all of us are touched by this incredible waste of life.  It and all its neighboring buildings represent the human spirit.  The desire to be successful, and most of all happy.  The commitment towards a goal and an ideal.  These hard workers went there day after day.  Ironic that it was some of those that were on time or early for work were that were there when it happened.  Perhaps there is something there in that part of New York that fuels this intense desire to succeed.  We see it even today with the firefighters, police, rescuers and volunteers.  It pulls all of us from as far as San Francisco, and I imagine around the world.  I hope you will support those families that are suffering the loss of their loved ones in these senseless acts.

Rebecca Chapa, September 19, 2001