Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"Out of the Clear Blue Sky": The Story of Cantor Fitzgerald and 9/11

In August I attended some of the DocuDays films at IFC, and one that has stayed with me is Out of the Clear Blue Sky: it's an insider's look at the story of Cantor Fitzgerald and 9/11. With the distance of 10 years it tells the sad, unique story of this company and how people have picked up and moved on as they can from such personal devastation.

Cantor Fitzgerald is a financial services company that specializes in bond trading: it's one of twenty primary dealers who trade U.S. government securities directly with the Fed. In 2001 its corporate headquarters were floors 101 to 105 of the North Tower at the World Trade Center. When terrorists flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the tower, the Cantor people were 2 to 6 floors above impact. Of the 960 employees who worked there, the 658 people who were at their desk all died. The only Cantor employees who lived weren't at the office, or had left the floors for one reason or another.

The deaths from this one company were 24% of all WTC victims.

Filmmaker Danielle Gardner gained the trust of the company and the families to weave the many sides of the complicated overall story together very well: the rise, fall, and rise again of the CEO then and now, Howard Lutnick, who was often seen on TV in the days immediately following the attacks; how the executives regrouped and tried to see who was alive, who was dead, and in the next breath had to decide whether they would fold the company or try to go on; what it meant that they had to borrow $70 billion dollars, which they were given a very short time to pay back.

The story of the cold business of literally making money for people alongside the obscene loss of life gets at the very heart of the attacks. The Towers were targeted because of their connection to the very center of the capitalist system: this wasn't a museum, this is where much of the business of making money in a global economy took palace.

As distasteful as it might seem to be thinking of money at that time, to close the company would be giving the terrorists what they wanted. And so, while in complete shock, Lutnick—who lived because he happened to be taking his son to the first day of school that morning—–set up a crisis center at the Pierre Hotel in midtown for the families as he huddled with whomever was still alive to see if the company could remain open. In those first days relatives still hoped that loved ones would be found, and the agony and despair of that crisis center makes the enormity of the day easier to grasp for the viewer because of its personal level.

One ugly fact on the business side is the phone call the major bond companies had in the afternoon of the the 11th. Lutnick says that a major competitor pushed for the bond floor to reopen on Thursday, the 13. The stock exchange didn't reopen until the following Monday, and there was no reason the bond trades had to go earlier, except that the competitor was hoping to pick up some of the business that Cantor couldn't handle, if they came back on line at all. Yup, capitalism as cold-blooded as it gets.

Cantor did get back online on Thursday, just barely, and that side of the story is fascinating to see unfold told by the people who were there, completely parallel to what was going on in the family crisis center at the Pierre.

I don't remember Howard Lutnick on TV, crying. Apparently he went on nearly every morning/talk program in the week after the attacks. Then there was a controversy that Cantor stopped paychecks for the 658 the week after the attacks. There are nuances to the situation, which I'll leave to the film. But the company fairly quickly set up support groups for the families. First they did it by geography--North Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut, etc---but they soon learned that people needed to be with those shared the same pain, and so it became Widows, Parents, Fiancees, Siblings, etc. All brought together because someone worked at a specific company.

The Cantor Culture

I experienced a small taste of the financial services culture myself. In the late 1980s I worked for a mutual fund company, Lord, Abbett & Co, as a shareholder reports writer/editor. Wall Street had a glamor back then, and I was curious.

Lord Abbett wasn't as high-powered as Cantor in my day. But the bond traders were connected to the world in a unique way at a time  before the internet. Topical jokes went like lightening across their network, and it was a band of brothers, where women were few and far between. It was often a frat party atmosphere, but it was only the smartest guys and they who knew the stakes were very big and very serious. Hence Oliver Stone's Wall Street.

Cantor Fitzgerald was started in 1945 by B. Gerald Cantor and John Fitzgerald. From the stories from the surviving family members, you see Cantor as a company that encouraged bringing in qualified friends and siblings. That's why the number of parents who lost 2 children in the collapse was 27. Widows also lost brothers, because friends brought friends in and marriage ensued. 955 children lost a parent. 38 pregnant wives were left behind. It just can't be said enough: the personal toll of this one company is enormous, and the interviews with some of the parents 10 years out are some of the most poignant moments of the film. So calm, so eloquent, still in shock.

I hope Out of the Clear Blue Sky is shown on TV. The interviews with employees about what it was like to work up in the clouds as well as the attacks and aftermath are a valuable and important oral history. And the last shots of the film, which I won't give away, are very moving as they softly portray the important message, 11 years out: never forget.

Cantor Fitzgerald now has 1,700 employees. The terrorists just didn't get it: you can't kill an idea. Thank God.

A clip from the film.