Solemn Recollections: Attorneys, Staffers and Court Officials Remember Sept. 11, 2001

Jacquelyne Bretado

Those of us who remember the events of Sept. 11, 2001 know immediate reactions to the terrorist attacks of that day included a realization that America and the world would never be the same. And while those words may sound like a cliché, they were prophetic. The most violent foreign […]

Those of us who remember the events of Sept. 11, 2001 know immediate reactions to the terrorist attacks of that day included a realization that America and the world would never be the same. And while those words may sound like a cliché, they were prophetic. The most violent foreign attack to have ever occurred on American soil has defined and shaped us, for better or worse, for the past two decades.

As we mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the memories are vividly horrific, yet in many ways hopeful. Attorneys to whom we reached out this week have shared a range of stories, each of which are unforgettable in their own way. No matter how close or far away we were from Ground Zero, the Pentagon or Shanksville, Pennsylvania, we felt a spirit of unity that day that held strong in the ensuing days and weeks. Those of us who were too young to remember Pearl Harbor now had a stark connection with our elders, intertwining millennials with the Greatest Generation, and perhaps we learned a bit more about what it means to be an American.

To the attorneys, staffers and court officials who responded to our call for recollections, we say thank you. And to those who are still mourning the losses we experienced on Sept. 11, 2001, we say please continue to share your stories with your fellow Americans, and keep the memories of your loved ones alive.

The below submissions were edited lightly for style and clarity.

Darren Cunningham Assistant Attorney General, State of Connecticut 

On the morning of September 11, 2001 Darren Cunningham, now a Connecticut assistant attorney general, was clerking for federal appellate judge Roger Miner at the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan, right near the World Trade Center. “The judge and his staff were preparing for oral arguments in his chambers on the 22nd floor,” Cunningham recalled. “Shortly after the first tower was hit, Judge Miner called us into his chambers. Terrorists had previously tried to attack the WTC “from below” and were now likely attacking it “from the air,” the judge said. “As we were discussing the situation and what had possibly occurred, we saw, to our horror, the second tower struck by a second plane.” After being evacuated from the courthouse, “we noticed, incredibly, a cab pulling up to the entrance of the courthouse.” The judge and staff traveled north on Sixth Avenue with fire trucks and ambulances coming in the opposite direction. “As we reached our first stop, it was then that the first tower came down. Even though we had seen the devastation of the towers first hand, we were all quite surprised (and horrified) that the attack had caused one of the towers to fall. I know I will never forget what I saw that day and how much it changed the world.”

Harriet F. Klein Retired Superior Court Judge, Essex County, New Jersey

“I had just arrived at the Essex County Courthouse, on that magnificent blue-sky morning, to start what I thought would be an ordinary day’s work as a judge in the Criminal Division,” Judge Harriet Klein wrote. “When my sheriff’s officer informed me that a “small plane” had hit the World Trade Center, I went across to Judge Michael Petrolle’s chambers which faced directly east. I saw the now iconic picture of the Twin Towers and the plume of dark smoke. As I was watching, there was a sudden explosion of bright orange flame as the second plane hit. It was slowly registering in my mind that I had just seen people die by terrorism. Remarkably, Judge Petrolle exclaimed “It’s Bin Laden!” Here I was, trying to process what I had seen, and he was already naming the culprit. I went back to my chambers and mercifully did not witness the towers’ collapse. The next time I looked, all I saw was the awful cloud of white smoke and dust where they had stood earlier that day. I can’t erase these images from my mind, and therefore I can’t ever forget. To this day, I call Judge Petrolle annually on 9/11 to reinforce the bond that it created.”

Paula Zirinsky Global Chief Marketing Officer, K2 Integrity, New York City

Paula Zirinsky was the director of public relations at Cadwalader 2001. She recalled that the firm’s offices were located on Maiden Lane, just a couple blocks from the World Trade Center.  “Exiting the subway in the Chase building, people were looking up at a fire in one tower,” she said. “Meanwhile the air was filled with paper. It was one of the only times I ever saw people from Cadwalader standing outside the building in the early morning versus rushing in. We all have stories about that day – and what we tackled is, well, documents.” Zirinsky was one of about a dozen people who immediately transferred to Cadwalader’s midtown conference center to account for all employees. With the firm’s director of marketing, she worked to track down every attorney and staffer at the firm, holding conference calls with as many as a thousand attendees. During a break at one point, Zirinsky’s cell phone rang. It was a reporter from the New York Law Journal asking how everyone at the firm was doing. “I have always remembered that call,” she said. 

Gregg D. Adler Livingston, Adler, Pulda, Meiklejohn & Kelly, Hartford, Connecticut

Attorney Gregg Adler recalled he was in the process of jury selection for an employment case at the federal courthouse in Hartford with Judge Robert Chatigny presiding. “At some point in the morning, Judge Chatigny called all counsel to the bench. He whispered to us that he had received a report from the marshal’s service that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.” About a half hour later, the judge again asked counsel to approach. “This time he was more somber.” Adler said attorneys were stunned by news of the terrorist attacks. “We went back to our seats and Judge Chatigny informed the room full of potential jurors what had occurred. He did so with his typical grace. All of a sudden the judge was now a minister, sharing a tragedy with his people and urging them to stay calm and hope for the best. For all of us that day, Judge Chatigny’s serenity and directness in the midst of this unfolding tragedy was somehow comforting and reassuring. Adler noted his mother had been about a mile away from the towers when the first plane hit, and she heard both explosions. “She seemed to be fine except for the emotional scars, but a couple of years later she was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, almost certainly related to the debris that entered her lungs on 9/11.”

Mary Che Vice President of Marketing, Connell Foley, Roseland, New Jersey

Mary Che lived only a few blocks north of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. “I have many vivid memories of that morning,” she wrote, “from the deafening sound of the first plane hitting to the sickening realization that all these lives were lost when the towers came down. Beyond these horrors, though, I witnessed total strangers helping each other and offering whatever assistance they could. The sad irony is that tragedies often bring out the best in people. I believe the legal profession became a little more compassionate after that day, and a greater understanding of the importance of work-life balance has ensued.”

Judge Marina Corodemus (retired), Managing Partner, Corodemus & Corodemus, Iselin New Jersey

Judge Marina Corodemus was serving on the bench in Middlesex, New Jersey during the September 11 attacks. “One of my law clerks came in to tell me about a plane hitting the Twin Towers. Not too much later the other law clerk came into chambers announcing a second plane. I had a large screen TV in my courtroom hooked up to an independent phone line. We streamed the news on the TV. My courtroom filled quickly. We all watched in horror as the tragic events of the day unfolded. World Trade Center, Pentagon, Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Curiously no one spoke. Just sounds of gasps, crying and people coming in and out giving updates from friends and family members. Someone actually came in to take ‘attendance’ to see if I was still working. I dispatched them and their inquiry quickly. I came back into chambers at the end of the day and said a prayer of thanks for our safety and eternal peace for all those who lost their lives.”

Ivan Dolowich Co-Managing Partner, Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck, New York, NY

On Sept. 11, 2001, Ivan Dolowich was working at 40 Wall Street on “a quintessential crisp NYC morning when suddenly sirens blared and then came the unbearable sounds of falling rubble. “Evacuating my building and walking uptown amid thousands of New Yorkers, businesses handed out wet towels to cover our faces. I later learned many of my insurance industry colleagues had perished. Yet fear did not deter us from returning to downtown.” The most significant change in the legal profession since 2001, Dolowich said, “is the measurable progress towards diversity and inclusion in law firms. May the memories of those who perished be a blessing to all of us.”

Chris Placitella Cohen, Placitella & Roth, Red Bank, New Jersey

“In the days immediately following 911, Congress came together to establish the Federal Victims Compensation Fund in an effort to help those families divested in injury and mortality put the pieces back together,” said Chris Placitella. “As the acting President of the New Jersey Association for Justice, I was privileged to witness first hand the selfless dedication of hundreds of New Jersey lawyers who participated in the largest pro bono effort in US history.” Through the group Trial Lawyers Care, attorneys worked to secure sufficient compensation “so that children in the affected families would be able to have the lives their deceased fathers and mothers dreamt they should have,” Placitella said, adding that, “because so many victims were from New Jersey, our bar shouldered a large share of the load working tirelessly for months and in some cases years with no expectation of compensation.” Placitella also represented the group of women the New York Times nicknamed the Jersey Girls, who lobbied for victims. “They spent most of their waking hours helping others so paralyzed by loss they could not independently navigate the troubled waters of grief.”

Barry S. Rothman Strongin Rothman & Abrams, New York, NY and Livingston, New Jersey

“My law partners and I had our law office in an executive suite on the 79th floor of 1 World Trade Center, from the time we started our firm less than two years before 9/11. We were proud to have such a prestigious address, and a wondrous view of midtown Manhattan from the reception area of our suite, especially after dark. We were exceedingly fortunate that none of us, or our staff, were present that morning at 8:46 a.m., but our suitemates who were there at that time all perished. My most enduring memory? The courtesies extended by other lawyers and our clients during our months-long effort to rebuild our practice and, above all else, the kindness of a now-defunct Philadelphia law firm who housed us in their NYC satellite office for five months, all expenses covered, until we recommitted to lower Manhattan in a new office location. The most significant change in the legal world? Technological advances that enable lawyers in large and small firms to maintain all business and case-related data electronically and remotely. In 2001, law firms like ours were not paperless, and our daily electronic back-up was a tape that was locked in a safe on-site to protect against fire, flood and theft, but not a building collapse.”  

Daniel A. Schwartz Partner, Shipman & Goodwin, Hartford, Connecticut

“On Sept. 11, my then-colleague Glenn Dowd & I had a 6 a.m. flight to Miami for a mediation the next day. My wife was nine months pregnant and I joked beforehand with her that I would just be a plane ride away if she went into labor early. Our flight landed safely at 9:15 a.m. and I remember everyone’s old cellphones started ringing wildly with family members desperately trying to reach us. I already had two increasingly panicked voicemails from my wife. Glenn and I quickly got our rental car and realized pretty quickly that there would be no mediation, and no easy way home with planes grounded. By later that morning, we commandeered our rental car and starting the long drive back to Connecticut, stopping in South Carolina for the night, finally discovering a hotel with a free room. Glenn and I had a lot to talk about (and listen to) on the car ride home, and we arrived home safely late the next day. My first child was born just a few weeks later, and truly life would never be the same again.”

Drew Britcher Co-founder, Britcher Leone, Glen Rock, New Jersey

As the Sept. 11 attacks unfolded, Drew Britcher was in court working on a medical malpractice case. “As we heard about the first plane, my mind jumped to the reports I had read while representing two men that had been in the underground lunchroom of the Towers when the wall blew out back in ’93,” he recalled. “My adversaries and I huddled in the judge’s chambers listening to the reports, and when the report of the Pentagon was made, I realized that my sister-in-law at the time, a Navy captain, was serving as the head of Joint Chiefs Support Group within the Pentagon. The judge released us to take stock of whether any of those involved had lost a family member. By 2 p.m. that day we had learned that she and her husband, who worked for the Defense Department, were alive and uninjured. With great fortune none of us involved in the trial were directly harmed and the judge had us return for the next day. That morning, he took the bench and spoke these words that still make me choke up: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, yesterday the greatest atrocity committed on our soil since Pearl Harbor was committed. We have taken stock of everyone involved and we have all been fortunate, but the people who committed this attack were seeking to strike at the institutions of this great country. This court is one of those institutions and we are not going to let them succeed, so this trial will proceed. Mr. Britcher, call your next witness.’” 

James “Jamie” Sullivan Partner, Logan, Vance, Sullivan & Kores, Torrington and West Hartford, Connecticut

Jamie Sullivan was a partner at Howard, Kohn, Sprague & FitzGerald when the September 11 attacks took place. “I was in my law office in Hartford when my wife called me to tell me that a plane had hit the twin towers. One of my best friends who worked in the Attorney General’s office at the time called me to ask me if we had a TV. I said yes, in our basement. He came over and we went down into the basement to watch the events unfold. A legal secretary was with us, and when the towers collapsed, she started crying.” Sullivan recalled that, as state government employees were sent home for the day, he stayed in the office, eventually going to St. Anthony-St. Patrick Church for a noon mass, during which he remembered the priest broke down in tears. “I do not remember the rest of the day, other than hugging my wife when I got home,” he said. Sullivan’s wife, who was pregnant, gave birth to their son two days later. During a mass held for victims that Friday, Sullivan learned one of his friends had died in the World Trade Center. “The legal community did shine bright in the wake of 9/11 when it established a generous victims’ fund,” he added. “That was the legal profession at its best.” 

Patricia R. Beauregard Law Offices of Patricia Beauregard, Weatogue, Connecticut

“On 9/11, I was in lower Manhattan at a conference, and I remember what a beautiful fall day it was before the towers collapsed and people were running for their lives. Now we understand how vulnerable we are to outside influences and bad actors. Air travel requires multiple security restrictions. As lawyers, we cannot trust anyone without confirming the identities of clients and advisors. We password protect and encrypt. We must send confidential documents securely, and protect our computers and phones from hackers. We are always on guard, adding to the extreme anxiety of being a lawyer.”

Craig Bonnist Partner, McCarter & English, Stamford, Connecticut and New York City

“On 9/11 I called my buddy, Rick Thorpe, in the South Tower after the plane hit, but he was never going to answer. The personal loss remains, and life without those we lost sadly became the new normal. In the months that followed 9/11, attorneys appeared to have returned to the profession with a renewed sense of priorities, and the profession briefly experienced a period of reason, cooperation and respect. Sadly, the period did not sustain. Ironically, as we endure a pandemic 20 years later, the profession again has re-prioritized and become more collegial, which perhaps can sustain this time. The losses we suffered on 9/11 are permanent and personal. The shift in priorities and renewed sense of collegiality and cooperation to restore the dignity to the legal profession will require a collective effort with a continued connection to the losses and lessons of 9/11.”

Peter C. Bowman Partner, BBB Attorneys, West Hartford, Connecticut

I remember being in Washington, DC and seeing the American people unite in sorrow, mourning and anger. I remember seeing 5,000 people attend mass at the Basilica. I remember plaintiff’s lawyers and insurance companies coming together to address victims’ compensation. I do not think the legal world, or the American people are capable of uniting again in this way anymore. Truth and justice no longer seem to be the goal of our legal system. It is our responsibility as lawyers to show Americans that justice exists, truth can be found in our trial system and unity is possible.

John W. Cannavino Chairman, Litigation Group Cummings & Lockwood, Stamford, Connecticut

“I stopped at the office in Stamford on my way to court and saw the billowing smoke from the first tower from our offices. I went to the Stamford Superior Court, where I was picking a jury, and asked Judge Karazin to excuse us, so that we could make sure that our families were all safe. Thankfully, he excused us, and all of my children, including one attending Fordham Law School, were safe. I gathered two infant children from day care and took them to our home in North Stamford, which I hoped would be safer. I was far more fortunate than a close friend, who was across the Street from the World Trade Center trying a FINRA arbitration, and saw the plane hit the first tower. He was able to make his way out of New York City in a taxi, with desperate people riding on the hood of the car.”

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