A Second Chance At...Life
Glenn Vogt was delayed getting to a meeting on 9/11, and that twist of fate saved his life.
"Where were you on 9/11?” It’s safe to say that most Americans born before 2001, especially those in New York, have asked and/or answered that question at some point. For some of us, it’s the “Where were you when JFK was killed?” of the millennium. For many of us, it’s almost a bonding experience, a way to share our memories and our collective grief.
For Westchester restaurateur Glenn Vogt, who was the general manager of Windows on the World, the famed restaurant atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center (it occupied the 106th and 107th floors), these exchanges are particularly close to home—and, even after 14 years, still painful.
“When people ask about my experience, usually, at the beginning, they are interested,” says Vogt. “But at some point, it just gets to be too much, and I can sense it.”
On September 11, 2001, Vogt was planning to leave his home in Croton-on-Hudson for the trek into Manhattan earlier than usual to meet with his assistant, Christine Olender, at 9 am. “It was a New Year’s Eve planning meeting,” he recalls. Vogt regularly drove his two children to school in the morning and, even though he had to leave early that day, his older son, who was 11 at the time, asked his father to wait until he got dressed so Vogt could drive him. Those few minutes likely saved his life. “My son was very happy that he made me a few minutes late,” he says, noting that, “I think that for almost everyone who survived, there was a little twist of fate to their story.”
After Vogt dropped his kids off, he headed down the West Side Highway into Manhattan. En route, at about 56th Street, he noticed several fire trucks, and heard on the radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. “Nobody really knew the severity,” he remembers. “I was listening to the radio, and they were giving this blow-by-blow, but it was more commentary than information.” Vogt notes that, at Windows on the World, “we’d see a lot of commuter helicopters coming very close, and someone in the restaurant would go, ‘I can’t believe how close he came to the building!’” Was it a plane this time? One that came too close? “At that point, it was so innocent.”
Soon after he heard the initial news on the radio, Vogt’s wife, Merry Anne, called him on his cell and told him that a plane had hit Windows on the World. “She wasn’t crying,” he recalls. “She was, like everybody, in shock. Her tone was very calm. Our dining-room manager and our bar manager were calling as I was on the phone with my wife. I told her I was going to talk to them and I would call her back.”
As Vogt approached the 30s, just north of the Javits Center, “there was a police officer stopping southbound traffic into the city,” he says. “I showed her my business card and card to the building, and I told her I had permission to be in the building under emergency conditions. She told me to drive down the northbound lane and be careful of emergency vehicles.”
Vogt sped down the highway, and arrived before the second plane hit, still assuming, that there had been an accident. “I was on my way to my parking garage on Liberty and Washington, and a police officer told me I couldn’t park there because there were too many fire hoses," he recalls. "I said, ‘But I have a parking space.’ And he said, ‘You can’t get through. Park right here.’ I parked my car in front of Verizon at Vesey and West. Then I put the roof up and put my tie on. That’s how innocent it was. I put my tie on because I thought I was going into the building to see what I could do to assess the damage. I can still see myself looking in the car mirror to make sure my tie was straight.”
Vogt's ID card granting access to the building—One World Trade Center.
Vogt‘s business card.
Once he walked up to the building, he says, “I realized that it was pretty serious. One World had a little circular driveway. There was a little overhang over that driveway, and the lobby was two stories high. I was crunching on glass, and then I saw that all the plate-glass windows were blown out. When I got almost to the front door, I’m thinking, ‘I can just step through this window,’ and as I did that, something fell next to me. And a fireman looked at me and said, ‘You shouldn’t be there.’”
Vogt was still in front of the building when the second plane hit. He remembers “the noise…that noise. It was so loud, that it was almost silent. I could hear everything, but nothing was clear.” Vogt walked down to Liberty and West and, as he looked down Liberty, “I could see that the building was exploding. I felt as if I was moving around; it was almost an out-of-body experience,” he says.
Christine, Vogt’s assistant, who was trapped in the building along with many other Windows on the World employees, was calling his house asking for him. “She wanted to know what they should do,” Vogt recalls, his voice breaking slightly. “Merry Anne was very calm and said, ‘Don’t worry; Glenn will be there soon.’” Christine called back and, with acrid smoke filling the restaurant, asked Merry Anne if it would be okay to break a window.
Glenn Vogt with President Bill Clinton at an event at Windows on the World in January, 1999.
Vogt recalls seeing people falling from the building. “I didn’t know what to do, but I got the sense I should get out of there.” He walked back to his car, which was backed in, inched his way out, and started to drive north and west. “I was the only car on the road. I got to Chambers Street, and there were all these people walking up the West Side Highway. A police officer waved me through, and at some point, Tower Two fell.” Even now, Vogt asks himself, “Why did I get the sense to leave? How come I was able to move around unrestricted, doing everything I wanted to do, right before the worst part of it happened?”
Since cell service had ceased, Vogt’s family could not get in touch with him. When he arrived home, he found out that his children had been taken out of school. “When my wife saw me walk up the stairs...” Vogt’s voice trails as he recalls that moment. “They didn’t know where I was. Who knows, a couple minutes here or there, what would have happened to me?”
All told, 79 Windows on the World workers were killed on September 11, including Vogt’s assistant. “I think the word shock hardly does it justice. It was a special-occasion place, and the staff really appreciated that people came for that. It was just a thrill to look out the windows. Everyone who ever worked there truly appreciated it," Vogt explains. "We had so many people working there of so many different religions and cultures. Everybody there was the best at what they did. It was a special, special place. And then the next day, it was gone.”
Vogt did not wallow in grief, though the grief was profound. “You say to yourself, ‘Maybe I’m supposed to do something else. There’s a greater calling that is going to reveal itself.’ You start to think that way. I don’t know if I feel that so strongly as I did immediately after. Immediately after, we spent the next couple of weeks trying to figure out who was still alive and who had passed away. I was able to fill my days with trying to help people.”
Vogt helped form a charity, Windows of Hope, for Windows employees and other food-service workers to seek immediate and long-term financial help. “We wanted to be there for people who were really hurting,” he says. Michael Bloomberg underwrote the charity and provided office space.
Windows of Hope ultimately raised $30 million—with $20 million dispersed for everyday expenses such as rent, food, and clothing, and another $10 million earmarked for the education of victims’ children, from pre-school to grad school. People sent donations from all around the world. “For undocumented workers, we were the only people to turn to. I remember getting a call from a woman whose husband was a street vendor who was killed. We were so happy to be able to help her.” The experience, says Vogt, “was cathartic.”
Losing so many employees has given Vogt a new appreciation of the people who work for him. One of the first funerals Vogt attended was in Flushing, Queens, for a Korean American porter whose responsibility was sweeping the halls at Windows on the World. “I’d say hello, but didn’t really know him well. At the funeral, I learned he had had this really rich life and put his kids through college,” Vogt says. “It just made me realize that all of these people who worked for me had incredible lives I knew nothing about.”
Vogt tries to remember that now as owner and partner of Crabtree’s Kittle House in Chappaqua and RiverMarket Bar and Kitchen in Tarrytown. These days, Vogt spends most of his time at RiverMarket and is planning to open a new restaurant in Tarrytown in the spring. He also makes as much time for his family as he can.
Why was he spared on that tragic day? “It just wasn’t my time,” Vogt says. “Life just goes on and you have to keep going. How do you explain it? It’s just life.”