The Restaurant That Died on 9/11

Windows on the World was a paragon of New York splendor. And then it was gone.

Credit: Owen Franken — Corbis/Getty Images

“I“I don’t mean to break in on the fun, but this is a serious news story,” Howard Stern said on the radio. “A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.” Glenn Vogt, Windows on the World’s general manager, was listening as he drove down the West Side Highway. He couldn’t believe it.

Unaware of the gravity of the situation, he parked near the World Trade Center and walked toward the North Tower lobby, glass crunching under his feet. He thought, It’s going to be months before we can clean up this mess. He, like most people, assumed a small plane had hit the building.

Firefighters were standing around, seemingly awaiting orders. Vogt was under an overhang when a body fell onto it. Vogt went numb. He was overwhelmed by sensory overload. There was so much noise, so much happening, that there seemed to be a quiet descending on him. A firefighter said, “You have to get away from the building.” He did.

Greg Hein, the director of catering for Windows on the World, had stayed up late the night before drinking one dollar Michelob Lights at a local bar watching the New York Giants play the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football, so he slept in. He took the 7:43 train from Massapequa, Long Island, instead of the 7:11, to Penn Station. He was on the E train when the first plane hit. Aboveground, at Vesey and Church, he heard the tremendous grinding sound of the second plane overhead. When it exploded, he saw a fireball and debris as big as cars flying in all directions. A young woman landed in front of him outside the Stage Door Deli, her legs terribly mangled, and died right there.

Windows had been constructed with a purpose: to help sell the enormous skyscrapers to prospective office tenants and to a skeptical city.

Glenn Vogt was still on the street when the second plane hit. He wanted to get a better view of what was happening at the top of the North Tower, where Windows on the World was open for breakfast, so he walked toward West Street. He passed a firefighter, suited up in full uniform, sobbing. He eventually got a clearer view and could see people waving large sheets — what must have been Windows tablecloths, he thought. And then more people were falling. They were falling in succession, some holding hands. Vogt felt helpless. He walked back to his car and drove home to Westchester, where his wife and neighbors ran out of their houses to greet him when he pulled up.

Windows on the World had occupied the 106th and 107th floors of the World Trade Center’s North Tower for the past 25 years, with a three-year gap when it went dark after the 1993 bombing that killed six people, including the restaurant’s purchasing agent, Wilfredo Mercado. Windows had been constructed with a purpose: to help sell the enormous skyscrapers to prospective office tenants and to a skeptical city. And it had succeeded with flying colors. The restaurant helped the Twin Towers transcend the initial animosity, lawsuits, and architectural disparagement they endured. Success can do that. By 2001, Windows was the highest grossing restaurant in the world.

It was the restaurant where New Yorkers brought their out-of-town guests, and it was where they celebrated anniversaries, graduations, and birthdays. Its catering business was booming, a favorite for corporate events. And, with a staff of more than 400, it became a haven for the city’s restaurant workers: immigrants and locals alike. The staff comprised people from more than two dozen countries.

When the first plane hit the north face of the tower at 8:46 a.m., there were an estimated 58,000 people in the World Trade Center area, at their desks, heading to work, or grabbing breakfast, exiting the PATH train, or walking in the plaza. That number included approximately 16,000 people in the two towers, of whom there were 73 Windows on the World employees, six men working on a renovation job for the restaurant on the 107th floor, and 91 restaurant guests, most of whom were on the 106th floor for a conference hosted by Risk Waters, a London-based financial information company.

About 95% of the people who died in the World Trade Center were at the impact zones or above them. Most of those who were below the impact sites were able to get out. It appears that greeter Beatriz Genoves was the only Windows on the World employee to clock in for work who survived, because the express elevator was out of service, so she was greeting guests on the 78th floor, where they would transfer elevators to get to the top.

The conditions at the top of the North Tower will forever remain shrouded. But they were so unendurable that scores of people jumped to their deaths rather than remain inside the inferno that was engulfing them. It’s been estimated that 200 people jumped, but it’s unclear how many intentionally chose that path and how many were propelled by fire, explosions, broken windows, or falling debris.

There are rumors about who from Windows jumped, information partly deduced by how early or intact their bodies were found. Public conjecture focused on the Falling Man, the victim who became one of the most iconic images of the day. One convincing theory holds that, because he wore a white tunic much like what many of the Windows staff wore and because of other physical similarities, the restaurant’s sound engineer, Jonathan Briley, who died that day, is the Falling Man.

The fires were reportedly burning at more than 1,000 degrees, and the air was so saturated with suffocating, toxic smoke that it was unbreathable. Within two or three minutes of impact, people were seen falling from the building. The little that is known is mostly gleaned from the calls and emails that came from the people trapped inside.

Many of the attendees at the Risk Waters conference made calls — pleas for help and desperate requests for information — as did Windows on the World employees. Club manager Doris Eng called the fire command center in the lobby, asking, “What do we do?”

It is believed that assistant general manager Christine Olender had the Risk Waters conference attendees and others gathered in a hallway on the 106th floor near an impassable stairwell and a phone for calling the fire command center. Olender made repeated calls over the course of 12 minutes, starting at around 9 a.m. She spoke with Port Authority police officers Steve Maggett and Ray Murray.

The conversations were fraught, and it appears Olender knew that the stairwells were impassable. She asked for directions about where on the floor she could direct her guests to get away from the smoke. The officers’ guidance and assurances were futile.

Her last call to the police was answered by Officer Murray. “Hi, this is Christine again, from Windows on the World on the 106th floor. The situation on 106 is rapidly getting worse,” she said.

Murray spoke to the people he was with. “I got a fourth call from Windows on the World; it’s getting rapidly worse up there,” he said.

“What are we going to do for air? Can we break a window?”

“We,” Olender said, “we have … the fresh air is going down fast! I’m not exaggerating.”

“Uh, ma’am, I know you’re not exaggerating,” Murray said. “We’re getting a lot of these calls. We are sending the fire department up as soon as possible. I have you, Christine, four calls, 75 to 100 people, Windows on the World, 106th floor.”

Olender asked, “What are we going to do for air?” And, “Can we break a window?”

“You can do whatever you have to … to get to, uh, the air,” Murray said. “All right,” Olender replied.

She made calls to Glenn Vogt’s home, where she spoke with Vogt’s wife. “The ceilings are falling,” she said. “The floors are buckling.”

Ivhan Luis Carpio Bautista, a Windows cook from Peru who was turning 24 that day, left a message on his cousin’s answering machine, saying, “I can’t go anywhere, because they told us not to move. I have to wait for the firefighters.” Moises Rivas, a cook, managed to get a call out as well. He called home to speak with his wife, Elizabeth, but she was in the laundry. He left a message that he loved her — “no matter what,” he said.

Of course, not everyone who worked in Windows on the World was at work that Tuesday morning.

Chef de cuisine Michael Ammirati’s trainer turned to him in his gym in Garden City, Long Island, and said, “Isn’t that your building?” as the images flickered on the big screens. In Queens, captain (the highest rank of servers) Luis Feglia had driven his son to school and then come back home, where he had nodded off. He was woken up by a phone call from another captain. “Papi, Papi, turn on the TV,” he said. Feglia did, and he watched the second plane hit.

The calls between staff members spread throughout the city. Waiter Awal Ahmed, who was scheduled to work that night, was asleep when his wife woke him up. Ahmed knew that his friend Shabbir Ahmed, with whom he’d experienced the 1993 bombing, was working that morning. He called captain Shamim Hassan, and they were talking while watching their televisions. When the South Tower collapsed, Ahmed put the phone down without saying anything. He didn’t know how to react.

Word of the disaster spread through different networks, even reaching children at school. “There’s no way your dad is alive” is what the kids were saying to one of Greg Hein’s grade-school daughters, who didn’t find out until her mother came to school to tell her that her father had been late to work and was therefore not in the building during the attack.

Michael Lomonaco, Windows’ executive chef, was among the thousands of people moving uptown when the second plane exploded. He remained in the street with hundreds of people, everyone in different degrees of shock, some weeping, some hysterical. People were pouring out of office buildings. Emergency crews were rushing in all directions.

Lomonaco’s impulse was to get out of the way of the first responders. He also wanted to see what was happening to his restaurant. He walked uptown to Chambers and Church, where he was able to see the gaping hole in the North Tower, the windows his friends and colleagues had broken, and the people waving tablecloths.

His tablecloths. His people.

From The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World by Tom Roston, published by Abrams Press c 2019.


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