An Oral History of Structure Tone: Rebuilding After 9/11
Episode 6 of Structure Tone’s 50th Anniversary Oral History series features a number of our long-time New York employees remembering their experiences that day, the people we lost, and our company’s role in recovery and rebuilding.
Welcome to Building Conversations, a construction podcast powered by the STO Building Group. August 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of Structure Tone, STO Building Group’s flagship company, and since then, we have been sharing stories of the company’s history through this special oral history series of the podcast.
In this episode, we reflect back on the day that changed New York City—and the world—forever: September 11, 2001. Hear from some of those who were there that day, who rushed to the scene, and who have ever since honored and remembered the three employees and many friends, clients, family members, and partners we lost. Their story is part of our story. We will never, ever forget. Again, welcome to Building Conversations and Episode Six of the Structure Tone 50th Anniversary Oral History Series.
By the year 2000, Structure Tone was a leading builder in markets across the US, UK, and Ireland. But in the headquarters hub of New York, the company was building some of the city’s most transformational projects, like the revitalized MetLife tower on Madison Avenue. Also, around that time, Jim Donaghy had been named executive chairman of the growing organization and held a weekly Tuesday morning staff meeting. But on Tuesday, September 11, the morning took an alarming, life-changing turn. Jim explains.
Jim Donaghy (01:37):
Well, it’s a tough story for me because I was in our Tuesday morning corporate meeting at that time. I was the chairman of the company and I had a weekly Tuesday morning, eight o’clock staff meeting, if you will. I was sitting in the room on the, I believe it was the 11th floor and Eugene White had come running up and wanted to know, did you know what was going on? I kind of looked at him a little puzzled, like, well, that’s not good. Why is he barging into this meeting wanting to know, did I know what was going on? I said, I don’t think so. And he said, you got to look at the TV. And I looked up, there was a TV on across the room and I saw what was going on. And first instinct was not that there was a terrorist attack.
Jim Donaghy (02:23):
I, ultimately, was on a phone call with our team at the job site that was in the south building. Our folks were working for the Aon account. Our client, Sandra, who was my client at USA networks, Sandra Wright, we were working for at Aon. Brendan Lang was our project manager. We had Kieran Gorman and Anthony Peluso on that site, our super and laborer. They were all lost in the building along with the, you know, several dozen tradesmen, some of who I knew when I was a kid.
Everyone in the office was doing the same thing—trying to figure out what was going on. Eugene White recalls how chaotic those initial minutes were.
Eugene White (03:08):
I was walking through our plan room and there was a subcontractor that does raise flooring. I know him very, very well from our collective years in the Goldman Sachs account. He had his head halfway through the path through window to get my attention because I believe that the young men that were working in the plan room thought he was joking about what he was telling them was going on downtown. He said, “Eugene, you have to get your guys out of the trade center. There’s something going on. I’m on my next tell with, with my team.” From where I was standing to our operations department to Tommy Gallagher’s office, who keeps in touch with our teams in the field was, you know, a less than one minute walk. By the time I made it over to Tommy’s office, I could tell he had a phone call from one of our team members in the trade center and that day, you know, that’s a day, obviously, I, nor anybody, will ever forget, especially if you lived through it in Manhattan.
Eugene White (04:04):
We went downstairs and walked just to the corner. Again, maybe it only took us five minutes to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 26th street where you had a straight shot looking downtown. At that point in time, only one of the towers had been hit. It was surreal. It was surreal because we knew our teams were in that building. In particular, you know, we knew the team members very, very well. You know, we hadn’t put it all together quite yet, just how significant of a day it would become.
As the details started coming in, the Structure Tone team was focused on getting down to the site and determining how to help. That’s when the other tower went down. Mike Neary, Structure Tone’s now president, explains.
Mike Neary (04:53):
I looked down Fifth Avenue. You walked up because you heard a big rumble as if something had, you know, just driven by our window. We were very close to Fifth Avenue there. I walked down and when I looked down, we could see a direct line at the Trade Center where the second plane had hit. Then, obviously, we all knew, because weren’t sure at first. Was this an accident? Was this, you know, something other than an accident? When the second plane hit, obviously, we knew. And then, you know, you started to hear that on the radio, etcetera. We were all very concerned, trying to reach out to our workers that were in the building. You know, that was the number one priority. What can we do? How can we help?
Jim Donaghy was on his way to the towers as the second crash unfolded.
Jim Donaghy (05:40):
I had gone down after talking to Brendan and team on the phone as the phone was cutting out. I had jumped in the car and headed down Broadway that day. I got to about four blocks, three blocks away from the second tower just before it fell. I was beelining, running up the street from whatever that was, a cloud. We didn’t know what it was as we were running, but you know, that was a game changer in terms of, you know, viewing the world differently.
Karl Anoushian, long-time leader in Structure Tone’s New York office, remembers feeling that same way as he drove home that night—that the world had changed forever.
Karl Anoushian (06:24):
At the end of the day, there were about five of us left probably at five or six o’clock, and Dewey’s was actually still open. One of the Dewey’s, Flatiron, in the bar on the corner. We went in and we had one for everybody and got home. You know, we were fortunate enough to be able to drive home. One thing that always stuck with me was driving home. They waved us through the tunnel and right out of Queens in Nassau county. I’m driving and I’m doing, you know, 60, 70 miles an hour just trying to get home, get out. And I look on the other side, heading towards the city, and when I came out of the tunnel, I saw state troopers right there.
Karl Anoushian (07:08):
Then as I got out further into Queens, I look and it’s Nassau County cops that are there blocking off traffic and controlling. I’m going a little farther and it’s Suffolk County cops. I didn’t realize, you know, without the TV and everything, you didn’t realize the magnitude of what was going on. You realize that everybody had gotten called in, you know, every fireman, every policeman, New York city cop, you know, was in Manhattan so everything just backed up. Everybody came in to back them up and that was what I kind of remembered most was saying, holy cow, this is something different, you know.
As the dust literally settled, Structure Tone quickly got involved in the recovery. The team began helping clients in the towers move their operations and pitched in to help the city with debris removal. Mike Neary recalls the effort.
Mike Neary (08:00):
Since the World Trade Center opened, we have had projects in there and workers in there from day one. There’s probably never been a day that we haven’t been down at the World Trade Center buildings following 9/11. Obviously, we were trying to help our clients. You know, there were clients that, you know, were looking for temporary spaces, wanted to have us help them in whatever form or shape or way we could. They needed some quick space built. They needed, you know, to use some space in our office. All of a sudden, we had a little bit of a surge. We had to service these clients and whatever they needed, some kind of temporary space build outs. There was a lot of emergency work that we had to do at the time so that was going on. We had been contacted and hired to be part of KPMG’s team who were providing forensic accounting and oversight for the aftermath of 9/11.
As the recovery continued, the impact of 9/11 on buildings themselves began to ripple through the building community. From materials to security, it was a seminal moment in design and construction. Karl Anoushian explains.
Karl Anoushian (09:18):
You know, I think we say lessons learned and what came out of it, not, you know, when it came time to when you’re teaching younger kids, you know, some of the mistakes you made and how you learned from those. Well, I think from here, the things that came out of it, the interesting part was the redesign of buildings, concrete cores, wider stairs, the buttressing of buildings, you know, the life safety, and areas of refuge. We did almost all of the fit out in seven World Trade after it was rebuilt. And that’s where you first saw it. You know, you saw that new design implemented, you know, where in the Trade Center, there were four-foot-wide stairs into our drywall shaft wall versus two-foot thick, concrete core with eight-foot-wide or seven-foot-wide stairs to allow movement up and down in a safer, you know, environment. I think those things, they became the new standard, you know, and we’ve incorporated that. I think, you know, we recognize that’s done so I think from that end of it, the positives that have come out of it have been a smarter design and a safer design for the people, but just such a tragedy that it had to come about in that way.
Structure Tone vice president, Stacey Dackson, agrees that safety and security were never the same—and not only for building access, but also knowing who is in the building in case of emergency.
Dan Finnegan (10:52):
How has the city changed since 9/11? You know, some of the change that I’ve seen is certainly in security. Before 9/11, it was very easy to get in and out of buildings in Manhattan. The security and the restrictions to get into somebody’s buildings certainly was impacted right away. And it still has changed to this day.
Stacey Dackson (11:18):
9/11 impacted real estate and construction, insofar as augmenting security, augmenting safety protocols, being able to know where your muster points are to make sure that you can account for everybody on your jobsite, and increase the security that you had to show viable ID and not just your high school ID or a piece of paper that you received the day before from a security guard with your name handwritten. There were much greater official controls for you to gain access into jobsites. Again, there were safety protocols that were in place to make sure that you had appropriate headcount so that you could always account for people.
The events of the day also inspired fundamental changes to the way companies do business, including Structure Tone. Jim Donaghy explains.
Jim Donaghy (12:07):
Once we got past all of that, we realized we’ve got to build back our business differently. The markets had, you know, been damaged terribly by the .com Bust followed by 9/11. Our data centered business was forever changed because data center location was now being driven by a different algorithm related to the distance from the home office. We used to build data centers in the same building quite often as the home office and that all changed forever. We also realized we only had two main client types, financial and data center, as well as other sectors, but we weren’t overly focused on them. We never stopped working on that diversity to this day. You know, the importance of diversity continues to be a key ingredient to our strategy,
STO Building Group CEO, Bob Mullen, joined the organization only a few years later, as the company was still in this recovery mode. He remembers not only how he felt that day, but how impressed and proud he was of how the company, the city, and the nation responded.
Bob Mullen (13:13):
You know, the memory for me that night at dinner with my family, which we typically did every night, Debbie and I with our four kids, my daughter, which was one of our two kids in high school, as we’re talking about the events of the day, she was 14 at the time, she turned and looked at me and said, “daddy, do you think we’re safe here in our own home?” As you know, that’s a question that you really were not expecting to have to answer at dinner that night, but you know, the other thing that just stuck with me is just the resiliency of the American people to, you know, deal with that situation. It took a long time, you know, but the comeback and building New York back was as strong as ever and stronger in many ways, you know. It just shows the attitude, the mentality, the resiliency of the American people, in my opinion,
Undoubtedly, the entire world understood the impact of 9/11, but, says Mike Neary, it can’t compare to what it felt like to be in New York—to be from New York—on that day and the days after.
Mike Neary (14:16):
We were very connected to it, obviously people around the country still, you know, will mention it and talk about it. It’s something different when you were here and you were in New York, or you’re from New York. Being on the island of Manhattan and to have an attack happen here is, you know, very different and unique. It’s something, you know, that I think our country will never forget and can’t forget. If you think about, you know, the impact that it’s had on us in New York, it’s, you know, it’s second to none on what it means to anybody that was here and actually was part of our team, you know, when you lose a teammate like that, you know, and we lost three people. You can never forget that. It, you know, it never goes away.
After the tragedy on September 11, Structure Tone established a scholarship program in memory of employees Brendan Lang, Anthony Peluso, and Kieran Gorman. To this day, Structure Tone employees participate in an annual golf tournament in Brendan’s name. They run the Tunnels to Towers 5k to honor those who lost their lives. And everyone remembers and reflects in their own special ways. Again, Eugene White explains.
Eugene White (15:28):
It’s hard to put, ever, into words the emotion, sorry, but we lost, you know, three incredible people and many friends. It’s definitely, I think, a milestone that resides forever in our company’s heart. There’s not a day that goes by where, you know, we go downtown and it’s not real still. Certainly on 9/11, you know, we think about these three individuals that we lost here. Again, we knew them all well. We think about their kids now that are, you know, off to college. Then beyond, we have our memorial scholarship fund for them. I’m always touched every time I see our 9/11 Memorial, I put flowers.
As Karl Anoushian puts it, the world, the nation, New Yorkers, and certainly Structure Tone, will never, ever forget.
Karl Anoushian (16:39):
I’ll always, when they say, you know, you’ll always see it, never forget. I don’t forget. I made a point to say, I vow, I’ll never forget it. I’m angry. I’m angry all the time about it. You know, I see that those that have suffered, those that are still suffering from their loss and I remind myself regularly how lucky we are.
We’d like to thank Jim Donaghy, Eugene White, Karl Anoushian, Mike Neary, Stacey Dackson, Dan Finnegan, Bob Mullen, and many others for sharing their memories of such a tragic event. This episode is dedicated to Brendan Lang, Anthony Peluso, Kieran Gorman, and the many more peers, friends, family, and New Yorkers lost on 9/11. We continue to honor you, and we will never forget.