Rebirth of a Building
Routine may not be exciting, but it’s the kind of thing you crave when chaos breaks. Joe Passenant, director of Engineering at the American Express Tower (also known as the AMEX Tower or 3 World Financial Center) can attest to this. The typical day he anticipated on September 11 was anything but typical after the attack on America began at the World Trade Center, just across the West Side Highway from the AMEX Tower.
After the first plane hit the World Trade Center on September 11, Passenant’s team sprung to action, gathering in the lobby, which was designated in the disaster plan as the crisis center. From here, orders were dictated via radio to begin checking building systems, and the team began readying themselves to support emergency and medical crews as they had in 1993. The three-times-a-year drills took the edge off the panic and left no question as to what was necessary.
“When we had the report that the second plane hit … we gave the mandatory evacuation,” he explains. Fortunately, many of the building occupants had already taken it upon themselves to leave and it wasn’t long before the only individuals in the tower were the facilities and security personnel. According to plan, building engineers alongside security personnel began making their way up one floor at a time via the buildings’ four elevator banks, stopping to make sure each of the 53 floors was unoccupied. During this time, fan systems were turned off and the rooftop emergency generator plant was started up.
When Tower 1 fell, Passenant and his staff realized it was time to abandon the building. “In the 16 years since the AMEX tower was opened, we have never left the building unattended. Never,” Passenant says. They ran to the north side of the building, away from the Trade Center, just as lobby windows started to break and the dust cloud began to loom. Luckily, the west-to-east wind pushed the cloud quickly past the building, and radio confirmation was established to ensure the safe evacuation of all staff. Passenant and others were one block away when the second tower fell.
On September 12, everyone connected via conference calls, arranged by Trammell Crow Co., the facilities management provider for the AMEX tower. “Our chief of security for American Express was on the phone to Brookfield, who runs the whole [World Financial Center] complex. They were able to get a group of us together and some emergency vehicles and get us back into the area. We were back in by noon the next day,” says Passenant.
What they found when they returned to the site was that the 2.3 million-square-foot building had suffered serious damage – steel beams from the Trade Center were stuck in the 17th and 20th floors, over a thousand windows had been blown out, and the southeast corner of the building from the 25th floor down to the street level had collapsed.
American Express immediately dispersed employees to remote offices in New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as buildings already being leased in New York and Jersey City, NJ, to resume business. Meanwhile, Passenant’s team was charged with bringing the AMEX tower back to life, while American Express deliberated on the company’s future location.
When the CEO visited in November and mid-month announced the company’s intent to return to the Tower they’d owned since 1985, Passenant and his crew were thrilled. “Most of us in this group have been here in the building since Day One. For them to chase us away from our building, we all took it personal and we wanted to really see to it that we were given the chance to get back in there, start it back up, and get American Express back in,” he explains. Major demolition and renovation was necessary to bring the building, especially the severely damaged southeast corner, back to working order.
As of mid-May, American Express had moved approximately 800 of the 10,000 occupants back into the AMEX Tower. When asked about what procedures have changed at the AMEX Tower, Passenant is quick to point out the effectiveness of the crisis plan. “We did a great job. In the end there was not one person on the missing list from the Financial Centers. Everybody evacuated safely,” he says proudly.
Life may never be back to the normal we were so accustomed to pre-9/11, but there is hope in the restoration of New York City, its spirit, its business community, and its buildings. The AMEX tower is a real testament to this. Joe Passenant, his crew, and the occupants of the tower are living proof.