Sept. 11: Then and Now

A Bittersweet Anniversary

CU executive recollects close call on Sept. 11, the date of her wedding anniversary.

September 11, 2011

On her 35th wedding anniversary, Sharon Brimmer will watch television and cry. Then she and her husband will meet their two sons and daughter in law for dinner.

It’s a vast improvement over her 25th anniversary: Sept. 11, 2001.

Brimmer, controller for Pinnacle Federal Credit Union in Edison, N.J. served in the same capacity for Xcel Federal Credit Union, Secaucus, N.J., which had a branch office on the 39th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

The day started like any other, marked by gorgeous weather. Brimmer recently dropped her children off at college, and she looked forward to meeting her husband for an anniversary dinner that night.

Sharon Brimmer
Sharon Brimmer

Brimmer was the first person at work that day. The credit union’s CEO at the time, Jim Wisnieski, was attending a meeting in Albany. Some employees were on vacation, others were traveling, so there were eight people in the office.

Shortly before 9 a.m., the building shook, knocking pictures off the wall and sending debris past her window. Initially, Brimmer thought there might have been an earthquake, or an explosion in the cafeteria five floors above her—never suspecting a plane had just crashed into her building.

“I don’t know why to this day, but I told the secretary, ‘Get out,’ ” she says. “We were in the back of the office, and by the time we got to the front, someone had told the tellers to leave.”

Brimmer locked the door and began her descent, forgetting her pocketbook and cell phone in the process. Halfway down the stairway, she heard an announcement telling people to leave the building and stay to the right so firefighters could make their way up.

“I didn’t see anyone who was severely injured,” she recalls. “Some people had burns, but nothing terrible. We walked all the way down the stairs and a female police officer told us, ‘Don’t look up and walk north.’ So, of course, we all looked up and I did see the fire—still not realizing it was a plane.”

While walking north with thousands of others, Brimmer and her co-worker began to hear more information, but it didn’t seem plausible. They were 10 blocks away when the first tower came down.

“Someone said the trade center came down. To me it was unbelievable: How could the trade center come down? That’s when I realized how lucky I was. Someone was watching over me.”

Brimmer wasn’t hit by debris, although one Xcel Federal staff member was, suffering minor injuries. The employee, a New Jersey resident, wasn’t familiar with the area and walked the wrong way.

With public transportation shut down and bridges closed, Brimmer and her co-worker tried to get a hotel room. All were booked. That’s when they saw television coverage of the terrorist events, including the attack on the Pentagon.

“That’s when everything clicked that this was an attack on the U.S.,” she says. “I never thought there was such evil in the world. We heard there were boats going to New Jersey [where her co-worker lived], so we decided to go. We wanted to get out of Manhattan.”

Brimmer says she was numb leaving Manhattan, remembering a blur of sirens, helicopters, and police officers bearing machine guns. On the boat, a stranger lent her a cell phone so she could call her husband.

“I never got home that night, but I managed to speak to my kids and my mother. My mother had to hear my voice—she didn’t believe I was ok.”

Next: Living a fuller life

Living a fuller life

Although Brimmer returned to work the following day—“I basically went into the office and cried”—it took several months for her to get back into a routine.

But the experience has changed her in many ways. She’s attends religious services more often, does more volunteer work for her synagogue, looks forward more to holidays and other family events, and lives a fuller life.

“I don’t want this taken the wrong way, but my husband and I used to do everything for our kids. Being the financial person I am, I’d say to my husband, ‘we can’t afford to do that; we have to do this for the kids.’ I’ve always loved baseball, so we started getting ticket plans for the Mets. And we stated going to concerts—sort of treating ourselves because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

She’s also more assertive.

“I’m the type of person who listens to authority,” Brimmer says. “When I heard that people in the other tower were told to stay there, I probably would have stayed there. If it happened now, I’d say ‘no, I have to get out.’ I’d stand up to authority even though that’s not how I am.”

Brimmer left Xcel Federal in 2003 and took a couple months off before joining United Nations Federal Credit Union and then Pinnacle Federal, where she’s been since April 2009.

Eventually, she hopes to retire, travel to the Far East, and have grandchildren to spoil.

She plans to visit the National September 11 Memorial & Museum within next couple months. “Now is the time for the families who lost someone. Unfortunately, it’s the politicians’ time, too.”

Brimmer believes people became nicer to each other after Sept. 11 (for a while), and that they’re more of their surroundings and what can happen. Some people became more religious—others less so.

As for herself: “I’m doing fine 10 years later. I have a happy life. The kids are older and have graduated from college. I know some people who moved out of the city because they couldn’t deal with it. I had a good support network of friends and family. That’s the most important thing.”