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  • Writer's pictureEmily Duke Hargan

20 Years Later

Updated: Sep 12, 2021

There is an enduring power of the September 11th attacks. If you were old enough, you remember where you were and what you were doing at the exact moment you heard the news. Many of us still have our stories to share and remember on the anniversary.

2,977 lives were lost that day—mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, firefighters, police officers, secretaries and CEOs. All of them left home that morning to never return. This shocked us as we watched the images of the attacks play on repeat. It seemed impossible to wade through our confusion and pain—to look for meaning and make sense of things—we were grieving. This tragedy had cracked us wide open.

For me, personally, that day still remains a lived experience. My father, Tom Duke, was a partner at the investment bank, Sandler O’Neill. Sandler O’Neill had offices on the 104th Floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. On September 10, he left me a voicemail message, letting me know that he was headed up to New York for meetings and would return to DC the next evening. I didn’t call him back. I figured I would see him later that week to catch up.

On September 11th, I arrived at my office in DC a little after 8:30 AM. One of my co-workers came in yelling that something was going on in New York and that it appeared that a plane or a bomb had gone off in the World Trade Center. We turned on the TV to see what was going on and shortly after we started watching the coverage, the second plane flew into the South Tower—my Dad’s building. At that moment, I remembered that my Dad was in New York, and I just walked right out of my office, managed to get my car out of the parking garage and headed home.

83 employees of Sandler O’Neill were at work that morning at the World Trade Center. 66 of them did not make it home that night. Among them were some of my Dad’s closest friends—golf buddies, fellow road warriors in business, close friends. The loss of them broke our hearts into a million pieces.

102 minutes elapsed from the moment the first plane flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center to the North Tower collapsing. It took 102 minutes to collapse the Towers, burn the Pentagon, kill 40 people on a plane in Pennsylvania, and send panic into every home in America. But stories began to emerge of the people who played a part in the drama of the day—the survivors, the dead, the firemen, the heroes on the plane and the families left behind. Americans were stronger than we realized—more heroic and brave.

At the time, I think we became better, more appreciative as a people. Peggy Noonan wrote in one of her columns during that time, “we have seen our national character in eloquent acts of sacrifice. In these acts, and in many others, Americans showed a deep commitment to one another, and an abiding love for our country.” I like to think this was true, and that it is still true today.

The managing partner of Sandler O’Neill, Jimmy Dunne, quickly rebuilt the firm after the September 11th attacks, and my Dad continued to work with him for a decade more. The employees of Sandler went back to work immediately with a resolve to flourish and survive. I remember something Jimmy said at the time that is important for me to repeat here. He told me that this (right after 9/11) was the moment to stand up and define who we really are, and be an example of people who live and work with honor. It was our responsibility to those we lost to not fall apart but to survive. And Sandler O'Neill and many firms like it, did survive. We didn't let the terrorist attacks destroy us—we persisted and out of that tragedy came so much good, the better angels of our nature prevailed.

As I reflect back on the two decades that have passed, I am realizing that we are now the ones writing the history of what happened that day. We are telling our children the stories of the courage, the selflessness, the acts of love and the sacrifice. We are the ones reminding them of the commitment to a common purpose. These are the values that we hope will endure and that we will never forget.


Watch the 60 Minutes Special on Sandler O'Neill from 2002. Tom Duke, my dad, makes a cameo appearance at minute 2:35.

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