Survivor story: Retired broker remembers escaping World Trade Center on 9/11

Reporter: Amanda Hall Writer: Derrick Shaw
Published: Updated:
Retired broker Rob Riley escaped the World Trade Center Sept. 1, 2001. Riley spoke to WINK News 20 years after 9/11 and reflected on his experience and what he feels in the present. Credit: WINK News.

People who escaped the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 all seem to have something in common besides Wall Street. They wonder, “Why me? Why am I still here when thousands of others died?”

One of those lucky ones lives in Naples now, and he sat down with us to reflect on that day 20 years later.

Looking out at the Manhattan skyline before 9/11, you would see the Statue of Liberty — the symbol of our freedom, and the twin towers — symbols of American economic power.

At the heart of it were thousands of traders like Rob Riley who got to work at 7 a.m. that day.

“Probably the most beautiful day we’ve had in a long time,” Riley said. White puffy clouds, bright blue skies.”

Riley’s offices were on the 25th and 26th floors of the north tower. He remembers feeling the building sway.

“And when you looked out the window, all you saw was it was coming down so slow, like confetti,” Riley said. “But it was huge pieces of the building, papers that were in offices, books.”

Bankers and brokers, they have gut instincts that they act on. Riley had a split-second decision to make, to leave or stay, and the answer might seem simple to a lot of us, but it wasn’t in the cut-throat world of Wall Street.

“We ate at our desk, and if our customer calls, we throw it out of our mouth,” Riley said. “When we had fire drills in the World Trade Center, we wouldn’t leave because our customers would say, ‘Where were you?’ If I told him we were having a fire drill, he would be like, ‘Great, you just cost me $7 million, $10 million.’”

Riley remembers seeing firefighters taking the stairs up as he and many others were taking the stairs down to safety, to survive.

“When we got across to the other side, and you looked up and you saw those holes and the flames and then … people waving towels like, ‘Help; please help.’ They’re stranded. They’re stuck. Then, you start looking up. You’re in amazement. You’re like, ‘What was that? And something. Then, you see it again. And then, you realize it’s people jumping. At one point four people held hands and jumped. How hard it had to be to know that you’re jumping to your death. ‘Let’s go. I love you. Let’s jump.’ Because you’re gonna get scorched or burned up there. And then, you could hear this sound. You’ll never forget the smells and the sounds of that day.”

Families will never forget the fear they felt. Riley’s wife picked up their son, who was in kindergarten.

“My son asked her, ‘Is daddy dead?’ and at that point, she didn’t know yet,” Riley explained.

Riley doesn’t hold onto too many mementos from that day — some rosary beads and all the major newspapers from Sept. 12, 2001.

By Sept. 13, 2001, Riley’s firm had already moved into temporary quarters, and Monday, Sept. 17, Wall Street reopened with many of the stock traders among the missing.

Riley guesses he went to 30 to 50 memorials.

“These memorials we’d go to, there would just be pictures of all our friends hanging around, little children running around; sometimes a wife who is still pregnant,” Riley said. “It was surreal. No one had a body to bury. No one found anyone.”

“Wall Street, the brokerage, they were a fraternity,” Riley said. “So imagine these are all your fraternity brothers.”

It took Riley up until just a few years ago to visit the national 9/11 memorial. He took his youngest son, who wasn’t born when the events of 9/11 took place. A lot has happened in those 20 years — kids’ graduations, retirement and moving to Florida.

But the memories of that day never fade.

“I think when you first called me to talk about would I be willing to talk honest about 9/11, and my first thought is 100%,” Riley said. “Because I never want to forget that day ever. I don’t want, if you allow yourself to forget it, then, it goes away. If you allow yourself to feel the pain of that day, it will instill inherent thoughts and feelings in you that you want the country to feel.”

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