On September 11, 2001, two planes came “out of the clear blue sky” and crashed into the World Trade Center. Less than two hours later, the “twin towers” were gone; 2,606 precious lives were lost, and the skyline of Lower Manhattan was forever changed.
Although people from many countries died that day, most of the dead were American citizens, and no single entity was more affected than Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial services firm based in One World Trade Center (aka the North Tower). Cantor Fitzgerald—located on floors 101, 102, 103, 104, and 105 of the North Tower—lost 658 employees that day, an appalling number that constituted over two-thirds of its total workforce.
One of those killed was Douglas Gardner, and now his sister, filmmaker Danielle Gardner, has created a documentary that honors her brother, his colleagues, and the spirit of the Cantor Fitzgerald Family. And make no mistake: to a remarkable degree, Cantor Fitzgerald was a “family.” One of the revelations of Out of the Clear Blue Sky is how many of the 9/11 victims were related to one other and the special burden this placed on the survivors (some of whom were also Cantor Fitzgerald employees).
On one day, fathers lost two daughters, mothers lost two sons, sisters-in-law were both suddenly widows, and one man lost his twin. Family bonds went from the bottom of Cantor Fitzgerald right to the very top: Gary Lutnick, the younger brother of CEO Howard Lutnick, was among those killed.
While most of the rest of us have moved on, Danielle Gardner and her Cantor Fitzgerald Family will never really move on. 9/11 will be a part of their lives forever. But even under these tragic circumstances, the Cantor Fitzgerald Family has become a force for good in the world as well as a model for behavior under great duress, and this is the largely unknown story that Gardner gives us as we somberly commemorate the 12th anniversary of 9/11.
This is an enormously complicated story which could have been told many different ways, but it has only one beginning and it starts where it must: with memories of what actually happened on the morning of September 11, 2001, when two planes came “out of the clear blue sky” and crashed into the World Trade Center. Howard Lutnick was not in the office that morning because he was the father of a child about to start kindergarten. Cut to Howard Lutnick, a “Master of the Universe,” walking his young son up to the schoolhouse door…
From that point forward, Gardner triangulates, dividing her narrative into three parts:
- What happened to Howard Lutnick…?
- What happened to the other Cantor Fitzgerald employees who survived the attack (including people in the London office)…?
- What happened to the families of the missing Cantor Fitzgerald employees (who were ultimately declared dead even though few bodies or even body parts were ever found)…?
These are human stories, yes, but told collectively this is also a story about America and how we do business.
“The chief business of the America people is business,” said Calvin Coolidge, who was President of the United States from August 2, 1923 until March 4, 1929 (in other words through most of the period now known as the “Roaring Twenties” and right up to the start of the Great Depression). And despite all the odds, business at the highest levels actually intensified for the Cantor Fitzgerald employees who survived the collapse of the North Tower.
Looking in from the outside, there seemed to be something heroic about how quickly the Bond Market began trading again (on Thursday 9/13) and how quickly the New York Stock Exchange re-opened (on Monday 9/17). But behind the scenes, competitors were salivating and bankers were maneuvering to take over the company. So even as they supported their loved ones and grieved over their own losses, the employees of Cantor Fitzgerald worked round the clock to keep from going under. Forget computers. Forget desks. The New Yorkers built a command center in a hotel ballroom and created spreadsheets on poster boards, while their colleagues in London updated databases and scribbled on whiteboards.
Then there is the business we call “the media.” Left in the doldrums after the high ratings of the hotly contested Presidential race (which only ended when Al Gore finally conceded on 12/13/00), media masterminds quickly saw that 9/11 presented them with myriad opportunities for even greater numbers. Howard Lutnick was inundated with interview requests and elevated to hero status, then, barely one month later, he was vilified. A particularly scathing attack on Fox News in early October (October!) led to death threats against the entire Lutnick family.
But the Cantor Fitzgerald Family kept going: grieving, working, burying their dead, grieving, working, celebrating new births. They cared for one another and their company day by day from one anniversary date to the next. Under the leadership of Edie Lutnick (supporting her brother Howard while mourning her brother Gary), the newly created Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund moved from philanthropy into politics, eventually taking on major players like the Victim Compensation Fund and the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Gardner is in a position to ask us all essential questions: What is heroism? What is villainy? Did we, as Americans, really learn anything from 9/11?
Forget everything you think you know, set aside all the platitudes, and see this highly engaging and deeply moral film for yourself. We owe it to the past, but more important, we owe it to the future.
Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick mourns his missing employees.
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