This Life with Gracie: Pizza and the 9/11 terrorist attack

Every year around this time Robert Eisenhardt gets an uncontrollable urge to go outside and be alone.

He knows instinctively the moment when a plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center and that he will fall part because, well, that’s what he’s always done.

With the 16th anniversary of the terror attack falling on Monday, he will likely spend the day working at Fiserv financial services company in Alpharetta, but memory of that September morning won’t be far away.

Eisenhardt was working that day on the 101st floor of the south tower for Aon Consulting, the global professional services firm he joined in the spring of 1998.

“It was my first real job as a computer network administrator,” he said.

As he sat up his desk that morning, Eisenhardt had an overwhelming feeling of his father’s presence. Raymond H. Eisenhardt, Jr. died in 1994.

“I mentally asked him what he thought of my office. His response was ‘very nice my boy, very nice indeed, ” (a pause) then ‘Don’t stay too long’ and then he was gone.”

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Eisenhardt arrived at work around 7:45 a.m., an hour earlier than normal. He got off on the 103rd floor to deliver a gift – a mounted eight ball on a base with a plaque bearing the words “To Ease The Road Ahead” — to co-worker Pamela Gaff. It felt appropriate since Gaff seemed to always be behind the eight ball. She gave him a smile. Eisenhardt turned and walked down two floors to his work station. It was 8:46 a.m.

That’s when all hell broke loose. Eisenhardt heard a loud noise.

“It struck me as a ton of pallets falling” he said.

He walked across to a bank of windows facing the North Tower.

Bits of paper mingled with smoke wafted through the air. Maybe a gas tank blew, Eisenhardt thought.

Then another co-worker came running. Everybody out now, she screamed.

“We started down the stairs,” he said. “Margaret Haley grabbed the elevator and was on the ground in about 5 minutes.”

Eisenhardt and a few others: Robin Seaberry, Louis Sausa and Stewart Hacker, continued down the staircase, joking.

Thank God we got direct deposit for the paycheck, one of them quipped.

At floor 78 Robin got off and took an elevator the rest of the way down.

Eisenhardt considered the elevator, too, but there must have been 200 others in the sky lobby with the same idea.

He and Sausa kept going down. They got to 74th floor and again Eisenhardt walked to a window for another glimpse of the north tower.

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“I saw pieces of steel falling to the ground,” he said. “I saw someone falling, kicking and then hitting the ground.”

He returned to his group. It was 9:02 a.m., the moment the south tower was hit, and the building moved what seemed like 10 feet.

Eisenhardt turned quickly to rejoin the group. They were gone.

“That’s when I saw a big fireball come around the corner and I knew I was going to die if I stayed there,” he said. “I hit the stairs, running.”

He made it to the 60th floor, where he ran into people again. He slowed to a walk. 59. 58. 57.

It was about 9:40 a.m., when Eisenhardt made it to the ground floor where port authority policemen were directing people out of the lobby, through the underground mall, out by Borders Books to safety.

“I looked behind me and saw both towers burning, still unaware of what had happened,” he said.

Eisenhardt did know he needed to get out of there. He found his way to the subway train and took a seat. His entire body shook.

“I got off at 34th street, went and got a cup of coffee, watched television and saw finally what had happened,” he said. “I called my wife from a bank and told her I made it out.”

At 9:59, the south tower collapsed.

Eisenhardt, still shaken, took the subway to the George Washington Bridge, then a bus to New Jersey, where he called his wife again, this time to come and get him.

A few days later, he returned to work in another Aon office. There were lists of people, 176 total, who had not reported in. Eisenhardt scanned each of them and cried.

He knew 19 of them personally, including Pamela Gaff; Heinz Ackerman, last seen helping wounded in the tower lobby, and Laura Marie Snik, last seen in the sky lobby.

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“They are the ones I carry with me to this day,” he said. “They died where I could have died. Same place. Same stairwell. Either you got out and lived or you didn’t. If you took too long, you didn’t make it. That simple.”

And so this time every year, Eisenhardt, who moved to Cumming in 2014 to be closer to his grandchildren and escape the New York winters, gets that urge to be alone, and his heart aches.

“I go outside wherever I am for 102 minutes, the time from the first impact at 8:46 to when the North Tower fell at 10:29,” he said.

In his mind, Eisenhardt is visiting a graveyard, remembering Laura Marie Snik, Donald Havlish, Heinz Ackerman and so many others.

“It’s very hard but when you survive that kind of horror, it gives you perspective,” Eisenhardt said. “I’m here and they’re not and so I speak for those 19. I’m the voice that they don’t have.

“It’s a dangerous world, we all know that I left home one day and damn near didn’t make it back.”

Tomorrow on the anniversary Eisenhardt intends to order 10 pizzas to enjoy with his co-workers.

It’ll be his way of saying, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”

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