You Only Live Twice: A 9/11 Story

True story.

15 years ago…

On September 10, 2001, I was working in the graphics department of an asset management firm located in midtown Manhattan. My graphics colleague from the Atlanta office, Jose, was in town for marketing and branding strategy meetings.

As he left the office that evening, he told me about his plans to visit the observation deck of the World Trade Center the next morning before coming to work. Jose was an architecture buff. He was thrilled at the opportunity to see Manhattan from such a rare perspective. The weather forecast was for bright, blue skies.

The next morning, at 8:46 a.m., the first plane flew into the North Tower.

At 9:03 a.m., the second plane hit the South Tower. The tower with the observation deck.

Our offices were on a high floor on 6th Avenue and 46th Street. The employees gathered in the main conference room, which had sweeping, unobstructed views of the southern tip of Manhattan. We watched in stunned silence as one tower fell. Then the other.

It would be up to our manager to contact Jose’s family in Atlanta to tell them of the tragic misfortune. He was a young guy. Really bright. And so happy to be visititing New York.

At 11:00, Jose walked into our office.

He had overslept.

The hotel maid had drawn the blackout blinds—something he never does himself, preferring to rise with the sun. When his alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. the room was dark. He was delirious from being woken from a sound sleep. He thought he’d set his alarm incorrectly and that it was still the middle of the night, so he went back to sleep.

While brushing his teeth and cursing himself for having missed the chance to visit the observation deck, a special bulletin came on the TV. He sat in his hotel room, transfixed to the TV, not realizing we all thought he’d perished.

I hadn’t spoken to Jose in many years. I reached out to him this past weekend just to confirm I didn’t imagine this happening. It’s all true. He left graphic design and now works designing medical devices at M.I.T.


I saw Springsteen perform earlier this year and sent a couple concert pics to my pal, Sharon Florin, an artist who specializes in New York City architecture and is a yuge Springsteen fan. She was inspired and made two fetching oil paintings based on the photos. That’s my photo on the left and her interpretation on the right.


I like the paintings better. The photos look too stark. Too ‘real’. I prefer the implied blur of the paint.


70 thoughts on “You Only Live Twice: A 9/11 Story

  1. I’m happy Jose overslept. How many misfortunes have I avoided by oversleeping? The mind boggles. What a difference in the narrative one set of black-out blinds makes…

    I prefer the oil paintings too, there’s something that almost elevates the mystical nature of this man in them. The photos don’t seem to do him justice, the paintings do. Your friend Sharon is super talented.

    • It’s an insane story. They made a big deal out of the 15th anniversary and it got to the point where this memory seemed so absurd that I thought I might’ve imagined it. That’s what prompted me to reach out to Jose. To confirm that it actually happened. It did.

      Sharon knows what she’s doing, that’s for sure. One of the few bonafide artists I know who make a living at it.

  2. Bloody hell. What a stroke of luck that was. Damn.

    I like the paintings, they’re very good but on the first two I prefer your photograph as it’s sharper, the colour is a vibrant hue and draws my eye better.

  3. We have a friend who flew in for a meeting that was supposed to be in one of the towers, but the location was changed that morning. His wife didn’t find out he was okay until Tuesday morning. That was the soonest he could get through on his phone.
    There are so many stories like that, it gives me an eerie feeling to hear them. In my head I know it’s coincidence, “just one of those things,” but it still feels eerie.

    • This is a dark thought but I wonder if there are any stories that are the opposite of this one? Instances where people weren’t supposed to be in the towers that morning but found themselves unexpectedly in them? There are no answers. Just, as you said, mere coincidences and happenstance.

      • I have that same dark thought every time I hear someone say there was a reason they were spared, due to missing a train, a meeting getting moved, etc. Was there a reason that other guy died, just because he did make his train?
        Logic never seems to work in these situations.

      • No. No reason. The randomness of life is all. People want to think it’s something more because that’s comforting. But I really do believe we are all at the mercy of a chaotic universe.

  4. In the last week, so many different people have been talking, usually in less serious light, about how taking one road, turn, etc. has led them to where they are and wondered. I’m glad Jose overslept. An acquaintance of mine missed his flight and ended up NOT crashing into the Pentagon. So many close calls, and so many less fortunate souls.

    I think that we can credit your photographs for inspiring two great paintings. Had the photos sucked, there would be no paintings.

    • I hadn’t been thinking about this or Jose at all but they made a big deal out of the 15th anniversary. Round numbers and all. Call me cynical but I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason and there’s some grand cosmic plan for each of us. Life is a series of random events that happen without reason or clear explanation. How you navigate those uncertainties make up who you are.

      I do like the photos but I took dozens to get those two good ones. Remember when we had rolls of film? You had 36 shots, so you’d better make them count. Now? Feh. Just keep clicking.

  5. I purposely avoided reading most of the 9/11 stories in the newspapers, in blogs, and on TV last week. I suddenly understood why my mother hated all the JFK stories back in the seventies. But this was a nice and different angle on this topic for once. I’m glad for Jose… I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him.

  6. I think we all have to cheat death a few times if we’re gonna make it to the rocking chair on the porch, i hope Jose left a helluva tip in that room for his maid… one fine yuletide season while walking home from an x-mas party on a sunday night, open bar no less, me 23 and stumbling drunk, it was snowing and so quiet in the middle of Oakland near where Pitt is located, i was about to cross the street and kept telling myself i was forgetting something, that something was a bus lane running opposite of the one way traffic-less street i was facing, as i went to step off the curb and jaywalk across the street i heard the horn, i could have licked the side of the bus it was that close, i would have been ground to a pulp under that thing on slick streets, as Hank once said, dumb luck counts too!!! and happy anniversary sir, us stoners have amazing retention skills don’t we (it was sunday was it not?)

    • All those years ago and you still remember it that vividly. That stuff stays with you pretty much forever. I was swimming in Mayport, Florida by myself and got caught in a riptide. It’s the closest I’ve come to buying it. I’ll bet every 9/11, Jose gets out of bed and thanks the fates.

  7. That was an incredible story and you wrote it perfectly. I will be retelling it at dinner tonight. I agree that it was purely random, I’ve never really thought things happen for a “reason.”
    And the photos and paintings are awesome… even though the only song I like by The Boss is “I’m on Fire.” If “Born in the USA” comes on the radio, I just about throw up… even though I love my country!

    • Why, thank you. I spend a lot of time on these posts. I’ll write it and then edit, edit, edit. They end up half of the original length and much better for it.

      “Born in the USA” is a funny song. It’s Bruce’s fault for mumbling the lyrics and burying them under layers of music. It’s about as far from a patriotic song as you can get. It’s about a guy who gets in trouble with the law and is sent to Vietnam to fight. He comes back a mess. Can’t find work. “Ends up like a dog that’s been beat too much.” You should look them up. You might change your mind.

  8. Your friend is very, very talented. To me that would be very hard.
    She is an artist. Does she have opinions about that other Art that sells for millions? You know, the Art without paint or brushes.

  9. I agree with the herd over here: that was a good 9/11 story you shared. I saw an early morning matinee of Sully when the anniversary ceremony commemorating it was happening over here. I’ll never for get that day, but, this past Sunday, I did not follow much of the coverage … Your friend’s paintings remind me of the album art painter Guy Peelaert crossed with Norman Rockwell. She might want to fly a plane through me for saying that.

    • There’s no way I’m watching Sully. Who wants the image of what a plane crash looks like in their head? Not me. It’s all I’ll think about from the time I board a flight until the time I disembark. I wonder if that’ll ever be a in-flight movie selection?

      Tomorrow I’m seeing The Cherry Orchard. My first foray into Chekhov. I’ve managed to avoid him all these years but Diane Lane is a tomato and I’ll see anything she’s in. Saw Marie and Rosetta at The Atlantic. The two actors were just pretending to play their instruments while two actual musicians were playing behind a scrim. I found it too much of a leap. As bad as watching someone lip synch a song. What a great space that theater is.

    • No kidding. I believe he left corporate graphic design, which is dull and doesn’t help anybody, and got into a quasi-medical field because of what happened. He wanted his life to have more meaning. A second chance will do that to a person.

  10. I like that you weren’t sure if you imagined it. That may also be from the trauma of that whole experience, how intense that must have been for you living there. In Seattle, we had a 6.8 earthquake that same year, at the end of February. I was in the part of the Starbucks HQ built in 1919 (the other end was added in ’63), on the 8th floor, and man we felt it. We swung like a noodle, our building did, as it’s in a part of town built on landfill, by the water. When 911 came I was in the corporate communications group and got to sit in with the CEO at the time and all the direct reports with the (new) plasma TVs going with the news, when he decided to close all the stores, which was a good call. When the anthrax stuff started and my grand-dad had a stroke (we think, from watching the news) and incapacitated by it, I started coming unglued. Funny how that affected us in different ways. A really neat story with Jose, though. That’s a good one. And how you served it up, just perfect. In and out. — Bill

    • I put 9/11 behind me. No disrespect, but you have to move on with your life. I didn’t think about it much. On the15th anniversary I spent some time ruminating on the events and the day it happened. I went on YouTube and looked at some of the films. I still can’t believe it happened. But I had this story about Jose in my head and I honestly couldn’t recall if it were real or it was something I imagined. It seemed to fantastic. But I sent Jose an email and sure enough. It’s just as I remembered it.

      You really think your granddad had a news-induced stroke?! That’s unreal. I guess it can happen but it sounds like a plot device in a play.

      As I said earlier in the comment stream, I’ll write out a post and then start hacking away at it until it’s about half its original size. IN and OUT is the way to play this stuff.

      • Awesome man. Thanks for this. And to answer your question yes, we think his stroke was from too much news, no devices, just unreal as you say. Good to put it behind you, a very weird nightmare.

  11. What a story! Last Monday evening I attended a reception for a new exhibit, Rendering the Unthinkable, at the 9/11 Memorial Museum as two of the 13 artists in the show are good friends. I noticed that there is an area near the exhibit where visitors are invited to share their memories and experiences, perhaps like Spielberg’s SHOAH project. If you do visit the museum you might want to share Jose’s story as it is so compelling. Thanks for sharing your photos that inspired the paintings. I enjoyed working on them and listening to the man’s music while I was painting. As with all art, some folks will like what you do, some won’t, everyone is a critic. I happen to like the work of Norman Rockwell – call him an illustrator, artist, painter, whatever…he was able to tap into everyday experiences and portray them with humor and humanity which is why his work still endures.

    • It’s all true. I didn’t trust my memory so I reached out to Jose. He confirmed it. Can you imagine living with that? What a great thing it would be? Spared!

      Those paintings are beauties. Do you remember when Norman Rockwell was thought of as a bit of a joke? Too pedestrian and mainstream for serious consideration? Not anymore. You should see what his painting fetch at Christie’s. Someone up above asked if you had an opinion about hyper-modern art selling for millions. Dishrags on a shelf and that sort of thing. I’ll say you’ve got an opinion!

  12. ‘Twas a weird day in the deep Midwest. Everywhere I went, there were televisions airing the disaster live. Student union at the college. Stores downtown. Friends home. We had sworn off TV but we bullied a couple of rabbit ears in an attempt to bring in the channels. It was eerie watching it live through electronic snow. Photos and videos keep the nightmare coming back, I guess as well it should. The nightmare continues. Thanks for posting Jose’s story. It’s a bright spot. Some folks who were there still can’t bring themselves to talk about it.
    Springsteen forever, BTW!

    • We were glued to the TV for over a week. I’m not much of a TV guy but we couldn’t tear ourselves away. Plus, we lived about a mile from the big pile of rubble that used to be the Trade Center and the air stunk from the fires. They burned for a few days. I’ve pretty much put the whole episode behind me but I get these yearly reminders.

  13. A really nice story about Jose. I imagine he thinks about his extremely close call at various times.
    Rockwell is just about my favorite artist. He knew how to read human expressions and was able to put humor or even sadness into his paintings. Most art lovers probably think of him as too simplistic but in my opinion he was a genius.

    • I’m sure he thinks about it at least once a year. Not many people can say they escaped death, but he can. And because of missing an alarm, of all things! That’s got to be a one and only instance.

      Don’t kid yourself. Original Norman Rockwell’s sell for millions of dollars. Steven Spielberg is a major collector, which figures, if you think about it. When they come up for sale, it’s usually Christie’s or Sotheby’s. It’s handled by the premium auction houses.

      • I meant many years ago when folks sort of turned up their nose at Rockwell’s type of art. I wish I had my hands on just some of the Sat. posts covers. I remember those from days of yore when I was young. I loved those covers way back when.

        Spielberg surely can afford the paintings. I’m glad that an American is buying them.

  14. On this past 9/11 anniversary, I, like everyone, remembered exactly what we were doing when the towers were struck. But, thanks to you I also say a silent cheers to my friend and his missus on their anniversary and smile. And now, I’ll add Jose and the black-out curtains! 😉 xoxo

    • They made a bigger-than-usual deal out of it because it’s the 15th. People love round numbers, don’t they? Every anniversary, there’s a ceremony at ground zero and they read the names of every person who died. It takes hours. I suppose it’s cathartic but it pays to live in the present, if you ask me.

  15. That’s one more check in the oversleeping ‘pros’ column. I always feel that superstition when unexpected obstacles are thrown into my path to make me miss or almost miss a plane. I rush and rush but I start to wonder whether the universe is conspiring to make me miss that connection.

    • When things like this happen it’s tempting to think a metaphysical force is at work. But I am mostly pedestrian when it comes to these matters and am inclined to think it’s pure happenstance. Those blinds were drawn out of chance. Or, luck, as it were.

  16. Did Jose tell the hotel maid that she inadvertently saved his life? I would have given her a generous tip and a box of chocolates.

    Would you say that Springsteen is a singer without intellectual pretensions?

  17. Wow, your friend is a really talented artist!

    My cousin is an airport planner who lived in Chicago. Almost every Tuesday he’d take the red-eye from Chi to NY for a morning meeting with the Port Authority whose offices were in the World Trade Center. For some reason they didn’t have a meeting that day. Many people he worked with died, but my cousin was safe in Chicago.

    All these stories give me a shiver – life seems so random sometimes, doesn’t it?

    • She’s been painting a long time. Not that she’s old. Didn’t mean to make it sound like that.

      What do you mean random SOMETIMES? I believe life is a series of random occurrences that are void of logic or reason. People don’t like that idea because it’s upsetting but that’s how I see it.

  18. Hey Mark! I’m back! Well I hope I’m properly back, I need to keep up the motivation and start posting again, but I’m starting by visiting other blogs. I think that’s the more generous thing to do rather than just posting after so long and expecting everyone to come flooding!

    That’s a great 9/11 story, not sure “great” is the best choice of words though, but I can’t think of the right word. I’m sure there are many stories like that. I moved back to the UK from the states around that time, our flight was due to be 2 days after 9/11, but was then delayed by two weeks. Obviously our minor inconvenience was nothing in comparison, but it’s made me think of that other times when I have minor inconveniences, and put them into perspective.

    I have a couple of friends that went to see Springsteen this year, and all they rave about is his energy to keep going for so many hours without a break at his age (or at any age really)! Did that impress you too?

    • I’ll bet if you posted everyone would come flooding. I know I would. It’s nice to see you.

      It *is* a great story! That guy cheated death. Cheated the terrorists. Got away with one. And I’ll bet that changed the way he looks at life. It’d do a number on me, that’s for sure.

      I like Springsteen. I enjoy the shows. But, JAYSUS, four hours it too much. It’s WAY too much. I am impressed by his resolve to give the fans their money’s worth. That’s admirable. And, yes, I’m impressed by the shear physical demands he’s able to meet. How? An aging portrait in the attic is the only answer.

  19. Totally off topic, but just wanted to tell you that the non-profit where I currently volunteer had to get out a mailing…and I missed my (father’s) folding bone! But I’m still glad to found a good home. Glad to see you posting, too.
    And yes, there were undoubtedly many untold stories…of people who got to work a little early (for whatever reason), or made a ‘good’ transportation connection, or…

  20. At 7:30 I was sat in the restaurant of the UN Plaza no doubt amazed at the gall they had to charge me so much for breakfast. I discussed with one of the NYC virgins in our group that she had to go to the WTC and up to the observation deck. Given our meeting didn’t start until noon we could do it that morning. We toyed with that suggestion but in the end decided to be solid comrades to our colleagues who need to set up for the meeting at the offices on 42nd Street. So we headed there instead. Like Jose ignoring his alarm that momentary innocuous decision is one I’ve often looked at in hindsight.

  21. Stumbled upon an MTV presentation of the Madison Square Springsteen concert tonight as I farted around in my kitchen. He did Thunder Road and my heart broke – again – at the line that got me through adolescence, and my post divorce years… “You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re alright”. Next time you run into him? Would you tell him that he prevented a suicide? Thx.

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