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From 77th floor to new digs on 11th Street

From 77th floor to new digs on 11th Street

By Porter Anderson
CNN Career

(CNN) -- "Our lobby had a wall of glass. And it blew out that wall. That's what said to me, 'Move!'"

John Kneeley, CEO of Martin Progressive was on the 77th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower. It was 8:45 a.m. on September 11. American Airlines Flight 11 had just slammed into the floors above Kneeley.

"But to tell you the truth, ignorance is bliss -- in this occasion it was, anyway. We'd felt the plane hit the building. And the glass was gone. But we didn't know what had happened. So no one panicked. Basically, we assembled everyone and got them over to one of the sets of stairs and started moving down."

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The flagship offices of this tech consulting firm were about to join the demise of more than 400 other corporate settings at the WTC. In fact, Heidi Gabin at Martin Progressive's Chicago offices says that it was 3 p.m. that afternoon before she could reach anyone with the New York group by phone. And it wouldn't be until the next day that she'd know everyone had come out safely.

Not only did the Martin Progressive team get out but by day's end they also were on the phone to people about new office space. Their story is one of remarkable calm in dire circumstances and forthright stamina in response.

"I'd thought about staying and finishing a letter I was working on," Kneeley says. "And then I realized that was a ridiculous idea."

Instead, he started the 25 or 30 employees who were in the offices with him down the stairs.

"My fiancee," Donna Swanson, also a company member, "grabbed all our backup tapes." He lets out a low chuckle. "Yeah, I'd say she's a keeper."

John Kneeley, left, with some of his transplanted staff members in Martin Progressive's new offices on East 11th Street in New York:
John Kneeley, left, with some of his transplanted staff members in Martin Progressive's new offices on East 11th Street in New York: "We were out for about five minutes before Tower 2 collapsed."  

There was another factor working in Martin Progressive's favor, too -- the timing. "Luckily we have a real punctuality issue around here," Kneeley says, "and most of our senior staff comes in at 9:30. As all this was happening, they were still downstairs -- looking up. And Tuesday is when we have a lot of management meetings, so everybody was headed in -- but a lot of them weren't there yet."

While Kneeley and his associates encountered very little smoke, he says it was strangely slow going in the stairwell.

"We'd go one flight down and wait for five minutes before things were moving again. Then we'd go half a flight and wait for five more minutes." Kneeley was never able to sort out why the stairwell descent was so stop-and-start -- nor why they were walking in about two inches of water from around the seventh floor down.

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"Somewhere around the mid-20s," he says, "we asked a fireman what had happened and he told us a plane had hit the building. My fiancee asked if it was a passenger plane. And the fireman never responded, but the guy in front of us said that if it had been a passenger plane" -- meaning a full-size jet like the one that had, in fact, crashed into the building -- "we'd all be down. He meant that the building would have collapsed."

Still assuming a much smaller, light aircraft had hit the structure, the group emerged from the tower and were directed by policemen to keep moving.

"One of the things that struck me," Kneeley says, "is that there were already two guys there from the armed forces, in full fatigues. They were screaming to us not to look up. I was holding my fiancee's arm and she looked up and said, 'John, look up.' It was only then that we realized the gravity of what had happened.

"We were out for about five minutes before Tower 2 (the south tower) collapsed."

Kneeley and his employees then walked north -- a distance of more than three miles -- to 42nd Street. "We stopped at one point to buy a duffel bag to put the backup tapes and my briefcase into, and then walked up the rest of the way. It was hell getting phone service."

One of the company's vice presidents' wives works at a law firm on 42nd, and that company took in the Martin Progressive staff. "We tried to convene senior staff there," Kneeley says.

In Chicago, Ed Malinowski, Martin Progressive's 26-year-old director of "Internetworking," was watching as the "telcos," as he calls telephone companies, worked with unusual speed to reroute the company's online operations. "Our people put in the extra hours, and everyone just got behind the ball and helped pull the whole thing together."

At first, he thought it was a radio-show stunt. But when Ed Malinowski, Martin Progressive's director of Internet operations,   realized the World Trade Center really had been hit, he rushed to the company's Chicago offices -- to assist his colleagues in New York.

As Malinowski puts it, the loss of the New York office meant that all things Internet for Martin Progressive were suddenly "pointing at nothing." As he counted server capacity he might call on at their offices in London, Kneeley and his people were in New York at those borrowed law offices on 42nd street, counting heads.

"We made three lists: people we knew came out, people who were question marks and people who shouldn't have been there in the first place."

As some of them went to work calling the families of people they couldn't account for, Kneeley was getting in touch with the people handling some office space he knew about on East 11th Street.

"We knew about this space. We'd looked at it a couple of years ago before we moved into the World Trade. We knew one of the investors in the space, a friend-of-a-friend thing. We also knew the space wasn't very well advertised so we knew companies wouldn't jump on this space quickly since they didn't know about it."

By Thursday, Martin Progressive's New York team was moving into its new offices -- the 11th, not 77th, floor -- "They let us move in with no documents, no money down, they just said, 'Ship your stuff here,'" Kneeley says. "We had everybody coming in by Friday." Starter equipment has been moved in from the company's offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago.

And Kneeley says he's seen both the best and worst of reactions since the experience.

Kneeley describes his company's new New York location as
Kneeley describes his company's new New York location as "definitely B-space" as compared to the World Trade Center's 77th-floor "A-space," but he's not complaining: "We've adopted a firehouse near our new offices."  

He and Swanson had moved out of their Upper West Side apartment before the attack and were living in a hotel room, waiting to move into a new place downtown. "We were supposed to move in on Wednesday, and the landlord doubled the rate."

But as if to answer that obvious effort in price-gouging, another apartment opened up, one owned by a woman who said she was holding the property for someone impacted by the Trade Center attacks -- a perfect match of need and generosity.

Kneeley and his colleagues know very keenly how lucky they are. As many as 200 people are associated with Martin Progressive's New York offices. If lots of the company's consultants and staff had been on-site, the attacks could have been much costlier, in human and corporate terms.

As it is, Kneeley says he's haunted by stories of how many World Trade Center companies never overcame the effects of the 1993 bombing there. And his cohorts haven't wasted any time in reaching out to their new neighbors, either.

Some careerists will never see the workplace in the same way. In a special edition of Corporate Class,   ETICON'S Ann Humphries discusses going back to work.

"We've adopted a firehouse near our new offices," he says. "That's because one of our employees says that she recognizes one of the firemen. She remembers him being in the building as we were getting out. She asked him if he'd like some juice. And his response was, 'That would just be a tease, sweetie.' That's just the kind of guy he is."

Kneeley turns back to his work in offices still partially furnished, incompletely equipped, but standing and stable. "And on the 11th floor this time," he says.

"We're amazingly fortunate."


• American Red Cross
• Federal Emergency Management Agency
• Martin Progressive

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