Remembering 9/11: The Story of a Brave New Yorker Who Led His Company Staff to Safety

Remembering 9/11: The Story of a Brave New Yorker Who Led His Company Staff to Safety
(DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rhonda Sciortino
2,750 people perished in the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. The remains of 1,106 victims have yet to be identified, in what was the worst terrorist attack in United States history. 

We rightly focus on the lives who were lost that day and on the people who died later as a result of their injuries or exposure to toxins they breathed. But let’s take a look at the survivors.

On the beautiful morning of September 11, 2001, Joe Peloso was in charge of an insurance company department in the South Tower of New York’s World Trade Center. About the time he was arriving for work that day, American Airlines Flight 11 took off from Boston’s Logan International Airport en route to Los Angeles with 92 passengers onboard.

At 8:46 a.m., Flight 11 hit the North Tower, killing all 92 passengers instantly, along with hundreds of people who were on floors 93 to 99. 
Peloso and his staff heard and felt something, so they knew something had happened, but they didn’t know exactly what it was. The bombing at World Trade Center in 1993 (two staff members were working in the building at the time) had occurred in the basement, and hadn’t interfered with the integrity of the buildings’ structure, so no one could imagine the tragedy that was actually taking place. They continued with the work at hand. 

Peloso watched from his office window that faced the North Tower, as smoke emanated from that building. He watched what his mind didn’t want to register as people falling from the building. He called his wife to let her know he was okay. He spoke to his sister, and he tried to call his daughter Amy who was working in nearby midtown Manhattan.

Regardless of whether what just happened was an accident or something more insidious, Peloso shifted into action. He felt compelled to tell his people to get out of the building.

(Courtesy of Joe Peloso)
(Courtesy of Joe Peloso)

While building security staff was advising people over the public address system to stay in their offices, Peloso was walking from desk to desk calmly telling his staff to exit the building. His calm, yet serious demeanor led people to get off the phone, stop other conversations, put down their files, go against the advice of the building security staff, and leave. Peloso and a few others remained in the office observing the unfolding tragedy at the North Tower while making phone calls.

At 9:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 hit floors 75 to 85 of the South Tower, killing all 65 passengers and hundreds of others upon impact. The computers shut down and the lights went off. Peloso and his remaining staff made their way through the dark hallway and into the stairwell. First responders were racing past them.

At 9:59 a.m., less than an hour after being hit, the South Tower collapsed, killing many, but by that time Peloso and his staff were already out of the building and walking to what they hoped was safety. At that point, no one knew if there were other suicide bombers heading toward Manhattan. The only thing they knew for sure at that point was that what was happening was not an accident.

As first responders charged toward the buildings, and the air filled with smoke and debris that made it difficult to breathe, Peloso kept his composure and continued leading the way, heading toward midtown where his daughter Amy worked. Cell phones weren’t working and there were long lines at every phone booth, so when they were far enough away from the disaster and ensuing chaos, Peloso and his group entered a hotel lobby where people were standing in line to use the phone. While they each took turns calling loved ones, Peloso was watching the TV coverage and trying to figure out the best route out of the city. He watched as the South Tower collapsed, seemingly in slow motion. It was less than an hour from the time that he and his staff had made it down what seemed like countless stairs and went out the front doors. To Peloso, it felt like hours had gone by.

Peloso and his staff walked to his daughter’s office, where she and her co-workers met the group. They all watched the smoke and fire through the conference room windows and the news coverage about similar attacks in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

When they felt it was safe to do so, they ventured out, stopping at Amy’s apartment to gather her cat. They made their way, with the many others who hoped to eventually get home, through the dark and eerily quiet Times Square and over to the port where thousands of people who owned boats volunteered to transport people across the Hudson over to Hoboken, New Jersey. It has been reported that over 500,000 people were evacuated by boat that day in a spontaneous, completely non-organized volunteer effort. Peloso said: “I’ve heard it said that Dunkirk was the biggest water rescue in history,” referring to the World War II effort to evacuate Allied soldiers who were trapped at the Dunkirk beach in France. “But what I saw on 9/11 makes me think differently. Everyone who had a boat was there taking people out of New York City. There were lots of heroes that day.”

(Courtesy of Joe Peloso)
(Courtesy of Joe Peloso)
Thousands of people survived, including Peloso and every one of his staff. Peloso doesn’t consider himself a hero, and he’s not entirely comfortable talking about the details of that horrific day. But when pressed, he was willing to talk about the valuable preparation of his upbringing and his military training. Peloso’s dad was a cop who didn’t tolerate nonsense. Peloso started working from the age of 16. He enlisted in the Army ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) in college and served as a First Lieutenant in the 196th Infantry Brigade and Americal Division in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. He spent most of that time in a defensive combat position, experiencing frequently bombings and occasional sapper attacks at their base camp. 
Like others who have been through combat or other life-threatening situations, when faced with crisis, Peloso quickly shifted from focusing on the challenges of the day to how to overcome the danger he and his staff faced. He said, “I hadn’t thought about my military service in years, but what was ingrained in me during my time in Vietnam came back to me like muscle memory. When you’re being attacked, you respond as you’ve been trained.” 
Survivors of traumatic situations, including those who survived the 9/11 attacks, share some commonalities. They seem to have the ability to shift from fear, which is passive, to coping, which is actively responding to the challenges they face. They are able to assess their situations and improvise toward the overarching goal of survival. They are problem solvers. They are decisive. They are persistent. They refuse to give up. They have the confidence to lead others and tend to be protectors. 

The Successful Survivors Foundation, a nonprofit founded by this author, has observed that survivors of trauma are driven by a courageous will, which compels them toward positive action, which in turn, controls fear and allows for calmly moving toward survival even in the midst of danger. People like Peloso have an air of authority in crisis that is born out of an ability to quickly shift, adapt, improvise, and respond confidently to a constantly changing situation.

The souls that perished as a result of the 9/11 attacks, many of whom ran through the smoke toward the fire, had an immeasurable level of bravery that most of us will never fully comprehend. We will always salute them, and we will never forget. 
But there is no guilt or shame in recognizing the survivors. Like Peloso, most successful survivors don’t describe themselves as such. They seem to have an inherent mix of confidence and humility that leaves them with no need to boast. Peloso, like so many others that day, is a successful survivor. 
Rhonda Sciortino, author of 13 books, including Succeed Because of What You’ve Been Through, used the coping skills from her abusive childhood to create personal and professional success. She built two successful businesses, then turned her attention to helping others to find their purpose and real success.
Related Topics