No one organization experienced as great a loss of life as Cantor Fitzgerald did on September 11, 2001. The financial services firm headquartered on floors 101 through 105 of the North Tower of the World Trade Center lost 658 employees from the attack. Every single person in the office at the time that American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into floors 93 through 99 perished, and nearly one out of every four people killed in New York City that morning was a Cantor Fitzgerald employee.Whole divisions were decimated.
Howard W. Lutnick, the firm’s CEO, was dropping his son off to the first day of kindergarten on the Upper East Side on the morning of September 11. With the world watching, Lutnick and those who were still alive made a decision - the company would survive. They wouldn't let what they had worked so hard to create crumble. And they would honor those they had lost.
Ten years later, Cantor has regained its size and then some. The company and a spinoff, BGC Partners, employ 1,500 people in New York City and have other offices in countries around the world.
Cantor, who lost his younger brother Gary in the attack, has kept its word to the families of those employees lost on 9/11 - distributing millions of dollars of the firm's profits to them, and covering health care costs for the past 10 years.
"The best way to show someone you love them is to care for the people they love," Lutnick said.
On the day of the attacks, Lutnick was delayed getting to the office because he had taken his son to his first day of kindergarten. Others escaped the attacks because they happened to schedule an out-of-office trip for that day, or were in the building but hadn't yet made it up to the offices.
When the first plane hit the north tower at 8:46 a.m., it destroyed the stairwells, making it impossible for anyone above the point of impact around the 94th to 98th floors to descend. The north tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m.
Lutnick made it to the scene after the first plane hit and was there when the tower fell. He can still feel and see the horror of that day.
"It was black outside, there was no air outside, so I knew that people inside the trade center couldn't possibly be alive," Lutnick said recently from the company's offices in midtown Manhattan. Along with his brother Gary, his best friend Doug Gardner, Cantor's CFO, also died in the attack.
When the smoke cleared, the towers lay in rubble. So did parts of Cantor.
"What we had was secretaries that had lost their bosses, divisions of 86 who had only four remaining," Lutnick said. "There were many divisions we couldn't rebuild."
But they returned to work, even as families and friends grieved for those who were suddenly gone, to get their systems running again.
"We were faced with that horror in every moment of our day but we had this tremendous task in front of us," said Joseph Noviello, Cantor's executive vice president and chief product architect, who at the time was the chief technology officer and had been scheduled to go on a daytrip on Sept 11.
"You were looking for friends, you were hoping and praying that people were just going to find their way and get in contact with you, and while that was going on we were working around the clock to bring back the systems," he said.
They were back online in days. As Cantor's surviving employees returned to work, it was with a new purpose.
"My goal after 9/11 was to take care of the families of the people we lost, and that was the most important thing," Lutnick said.
That translated into a big financial commitment: 25 percent of Cantor's profits for five years were set aside to be distributed to the families, which in the end amounted to $180 million. Their health care costs were to be covered for 10 years. And the company marked every Sept. 11 as a day for charity, a day when every dollar made would be given to good causes.
"We all had to commit to doing something different," Lutnick said. "It changed our outlook about what was important about business."
The attacks "just created sort of that bang of what type of human being are you right here, right now," Lutnick said. "I didn't think there was a choice. Either we take care of our friends' families or I'm not a human being."
Of those who survived that day, only about 150 are still at the company.
But the impact of the attacks runs through Cantor, Lutnick said.
The company's yearly commemoration goes a long way toward helping new employees understand that, he said. Every year, family members of those lost are invited to speak about their loved ones.
"Together, we celebrate their lives," Lutnick said.
"At the end of the night, the brand-new employee? They get it," he said. "It's not trying to leave the past behind but it's not allowing the past to define you. It's bringing the families with us and going forward together, not seeking closure but seeking friendship."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.