Day of Chaos and Terror, Part 1: A Veteran Trader Remembers 9/11

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- It was a crystal clear morning, the kind you see perhaps once or twice a year.

I had developed a ritual that summer of meeting my best friend and fellow NYMEX trader Ron before work at the outdoor plaza in the shadow of the Twin Towers. We'd order iced coffees from a kiosk and discuss our lives, the news and the coming trading day.

This particular morning seemed to be one in which to luxuriate. It was so cloudless and clear, and the temperature begged for playing hooky and heading for the golf course. But Ron and I finished our coffees and walked toward the NYMEX, entering the covered overpass that spanned the West Side Highway and connected the World Trade Center to the World Financial Center.

Having walked about 150 feet into the overpass, we heard a blood-curdling noise. It sounded like someone had dropped 100 tons of metal poles on top of another 100 tons of metal. We flinched but didn't change our pace.

"What the f**k was that?" I asked.

"I don't know," Ron replied. "But it's not good."

We heard a commotion from behind us in the walkway. Hot air was blasting into the overpass, causing the people behind us to run instinctively. (Of course, we'd later learn that hot air had been blasted 80-plus floors down Tower 1's center after American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the tower.)

For a split second we watched the people running. It was a wave of heat and humanity, everyone and everything speeding toward us. Then we reacted like everybody else had -- we turned toward West Street and ran for our lives.

Ronny and I emerged from the walkway unscathed. Many of us who had run so fiercely now looked at each other and giggled with embarrassment. There were windows at the end of the walkway, and when we looked back through them, we stopped giggling.

We walked down the steps of the huge solarium in the mall area of the World Financial Center, passing the grove of 50-foot palm trees that were planted indoors. A testament to the power and money centered in Lower Manhattan, those trees received better care than most people in the world do. Dedicated sun lamps remained on all night to keep these tropical plants alive in a most nontropical environment.

We exited the doors on the west end of the solarium onto the outdoor harbor plaza, where we could see small yachts and recreational sailboats bobbing in the World Financial Center marina. We turned back toward the solarium mall, behind which the World Trade Center towers were clearly in view -- we weren't more than 500 yards from them. A large crowd was beginning to form. Very little of what I saw made sense.

There was a hole in Tower 1, but we were looking at it from an oblique angle, and from our perspective, it looked insignificant. The building's immensity dwarfed the gaping hole, and I misjudged how deep a wound it had sustained. But clouds of thick black smoke were pouring from it, and from a second, smaller hole that faced us.

There was one more thing I remember distinctly: Pieces of paper filled the air, as if a parade had been scheduled on Broadway just a few blocks away and the parade-goers had been confused about where to drop all the confetti. It looked far too much like a celebration for me to grasp what was happening.

Everyone around me was talking on a cell phone, learning from loved ones about the various explanations that were being offered on television and radio broadcasts.

The most talked about explanation was that a general aviation plane had mistakenly flown off course, or that its pilot had suffered a heart attack. I was discussing the possibilities with Ron, who knew a good bit about construction and buildings because his family was involved in general contracting.

"Could a Cessna do that?" I asked him.

"No f**king way," he said.

"Then it must be a bomb?" I asked.

That was not an unlikely possibility. I had been trading in NYMEX's previous home at Four World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993, when a truck bomb exploded in the parking garage below Tower 1, shaking the trading floor.

On that day, I had managed to leave the floor, walk through smoke-engulfed hallways in the mall leading to the subway lines and catch a number 1 subway train back home to the Upper West Side before the Metropolitan Transit Authority recognized the problem and shut down the subway lines.

"A bomb?" I asked again.

"No chance, there's too much damage," Ron replied. "Someone would have to bring truckloads of explosive up tens of stories without being seen or noticing their stockpiling."

"Then what?" I wondered. Now I was scared.

Ronny didn't know, although he noted it was a lot of damage. Still, he didn't seem panicked to me. At the very least, he expected the disaster systems to bring it all under control.

"They have tremendous fire systems, enormous sprinklers and safety equipment -- that fire will be out in a few minutes and everything should be OK".

My phone rang. It was my wife.

I recall very little of our conversations that day. Most of what I recount about what I said to her that morning and afternoon are what she later told me I had said.

I told her that I didn't know what was going on, but that most people were assuming it was an errantly flown general aviation plane and that no one had any idea whether anyone inside the building had been hurt. We heard sirens starting to wail from uptown now, and the smoke coming from the tower darkened and thickened.

I took several more steps away from the World Financial Center mall and toward the exchange building, assured my wife that I was perfectly fine and hung up my phone. There was a bunch of traders and staff members gathered outside the building, guessing about the cause of the destruction. Some traders asked me whether I thought the markets' opening would be delayed. I first looked at them in disbelief, because I was thinking about other things, namely about the safety of the people high up in that tower. But then I thought, "That's the mindset of a trader for you."

Just then I heard a roar from behind me and turned. A commercial plane was flying leisurely toward the south at a low altitude, directly above the Hudson River. I watched it as it headed toward the Statue of Liberty, executed a lazy and slow left turn round the torch and headed toward us...

Click here to read part 2.