Along With Grief, 9/11 Survivors Find Resolve

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By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, September 10, 2007

John Duffy lost 67 of his colleagues at the firm of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods six years ago during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Among the dead was Duffy's son Christopher. The investment banking firm, located in the South Tower of the World Trade Center, was among the companies hit hardest by the terrorist attacks.

Duffy himself was delayed getting into work -- a late engagement the previous evening had thrown him off his usual schedule. He watched the disaster unfold from midtown Manhattan as he desperately tried to raise colleagues and family on the phone. Christopher Duffy's last conversation with a family member was with his brother Kevin in Vermont. Christopher said the impact of the second plane had cut off his descent from the tower, and that he was going back up to try to escape.

Duffy, who now heads the investment banking firm, has recalled the events of that September day many times. Still, only minutes after he starts to talk about it, tears begin trickling down his cheek. Soon, he is swabbing his face with both hands.

But if grief is a constant, Duffy and two fellow survivors at the firm also report that they are changed in another profound way.

"It has made me more decisive in terms of doing things," said Duffy. "You have a different appreciation of time and how much time you have. . . . If there is stuff I want to do or a decision I have to make, I just make it now. Why wait? You may not be around tomorrow."

Another survivor at the firm, Andrew Cullen, echoed Duffy. After the disaster, Cullen took over a project that had been managed by a friend who died and determinedly rebuilt it.

"I think I have accelerated things in life that I have wanted," he said. "Whether it is going out to the Grand Tetons and hiking through Cascade Canyon, or going to Albuquerque to watch the mass ascension of the balloons, or climbing Mount Washington, instead of saying, 'I will get to those things in the future,' I say, 'These are things I want to do, and I will do them now.' "

Pursuing the things he loves, Cullen found, has helped him find a better balance between work and personal life. After drinking "a lot of beers" in the months after the disaster, Cullen returned to his old love of cycling and worked himself into shape. He now takes one- or two-hour bike rides five nights a week. He likes the feeling of being challenged physically, of reminding himself that he is a creature made of flesh and blood.

Exhaustion reminds you that you are alive.

Will DeRiso, one of the few survivors in a sales team at the firm, said the tragedy prompted him to reach out to friends he had lost touch with. Instead of idly wondering what became of long-ago friends and acquaintances, the way most people do, DeRiso started tracking down old friends through the Internet and systematically getting in touch.

"I reengaged with a lot of people with whom you naturally lose contact," he said. The tragedy, he added, turned him into a person who simply decides to "pick up the phone and call that guy you have not talked to in three years."

Duffy said the decisiveness he and his fellow survivors have discovered in themselves has manifested itself in both large and small decisions in his life.

In the spring of 2004, a group of professionals from a competing firm got in touch to ask if Duffy would be interested in having them join his firm and launch a European wing of the business. It was a big decision, given that the firm had only recently completed the reconstruction of its U.S. operations. The John Duffy from pre-2001 would have thought about the plan carefully and tried to get every possible point of view mapped out. But post-Sept. 11, Duffy found himself able to ignore the minutiae and focus on the big picture. The move made strategic sense. The details would work themselves out. He decided to plunge ahead. It turned out to be an excellent decision.

A couple of years ago, Duffy was approached by the older brother of one of his daughter's college roommates, someone he had known only socially. The young man wanted help in getting a fast-food restaurant chain off the ground.

"I know virtually nothing about the restaurant business but liked the young guy and thought it would be an interesting experience," Duffy said. He plunked down some money and shared some general business advice. Although he did not do any "due diligence" before making the decision and has not seen any financial returns yet, Duffy said it has made him happy to give someone talented a chance to succeed.

Duffy also bumped into a young musician from Canada who impressed him -- the encounter occurred purely by chance. Duffy knew even less about the music business than he did about the restaurant business. But he decided to help the stranger produce her work. Friends asked whether he had lost his mind.

He told them that since the Sept. 11 attacks, he has come to trust his instincts a lot more than he used to: "I really liked the people involved. After 9/11, one realizes we don't know how much time we have left on this earth, and I would prefer to spend it with people I really like."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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