Survivor with a Story

On the anniversary of 9/11, Kevin Laub’s students will follow him on a poignant journey.

On the anniversary of 9/11, Kevin Laub’s students will follow him on a poignant journey.

By Helen Mondloch

Photo: Seth Freeman
Photo: Seth Freeman

With a new school year just underway, the students in Kevin Laub’s 10th-grade English classes at Westfield High School are about to experience a lesson like no other, one that will provide them with just one degree of separation from a day that changed history.

If the response to Laub’s personal narrative about the events of 9/11 is anything like that of past years, he will confront a captive audience in every class period. As he recounts in riveting detail how he descended 62 flights of stairs in the World Trade Center’s south tower, then ran for his life as a monstrous dust cloud consumed the streets of Manhattan, his students will grow solemn and transfixed. Those reared in war-torn nations will find a powerful connection to their own survival stories. Others will ask pointed questions that reflect youthful grapplings with life’s mysteries—destiny and perseverance. Last year a boy asked, “Is it strange to think that your children exist because of Osama bin Laden?”

Just as strange is the fact that Laub, a blue-eyed 37-year-old with gray-spackled hair and a dimpled smile, stands before them as a result of that fateful morning. If not for the turn of events that placed him in the midst of the worst terrorist attack ever perpetrated on American soil, he might still be drifting through his former life, still soldiering through a Wall Street career, its financial rewards distracting him from the emptiness it inspired. After enduring the unimaginable, Laub was moved to steer his life in new directions, including down a path to what he calls “the hardest job in the world,” teaching—one that got even harder when he was promoted to the role of Westfield’s English department chairperson. In the wake of 9/11, he also resurrected a relationship with his college sweetheart, abandoned his bachelor days, and left his native New York to start a family—and a new life—in Virginia.

 

Under attack

As sophomores, Laub’s students possess only a shadowy memory of the day that stunned the world a decade ago. Many of them had just stepped into their kindergarten classrooms when news broke that terrorists had hijacked jetliners to launch a massive attack that would ultimately claim the lives of nearly 3,000 people. Students recall the chaos that suddenly disrupted their school day—the bewildered teachers, and the parents who rushed in to pick them up. None can really remember life before 9/11. Its lingering pains—terror alerts, endless debates about homeland security, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—became the background noise of their formative years. On this 10th anniversary of the attacks, their teacher’s story brings new meaning to a jaded saga, illuminating the fact that history breaks out not in textbooks, but in the lives of real people—altering not just the world at large but individual destinies.

Laub’s recollection begins at around 8 a.m. on that clear, sun-drenched morning. That was when he arrived at the 62nd-floor office of Morgan Stanley, the large investment firm where he worked as a manager of billing and new accounts, a position fraught with high-pressure demands. He had been there for six years, since just after graduating from SUNY-Binghamton with a bachelor’s degree in English. He had earned promotions and generous bonuses, furthering what he calls in retrospect the “one, sad little goal” of his young adulthood: to make enough money to afford what one would consider a comfortable life in downtown Manhattan.

At 8:46 a.m. Laub was sitting at his desk, clearing out his inbox, when he heard a sudden “huge explosion” coming from the direction of the north tower. But he was not alarmed, even after he turned and saw flaming debris fly past his window, and even after one of his bosses yelled out a command to evacuate. Laub’s first thought was of a memo he had received a couple days earlier about repairs being done to the air-conditioning system. Another thought was that a helicopter had maybe flown too close to the tower, a fairly common occurrence. Terrorism, he says, was the last thing on his mind.

Nonetheless, he heeded the command, grabbed his backpack, and moments later joined a sea of workers who were calmly descending the narrow emergency stairwells. Some were discussing rumors that a jet had hit the building, but all seemed assured that whatever had occurred was minor and accidental. The memory of the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 was notably absent. Even the lack of cell phone service (knocked out because the receptor was located on Tower One) created little distress. “I know it’s bizarre, but no one panicked. We’re New Yorkers,” he says with a modest shrug.

When Laub reached the 40th floor or so, an announcement came over the building-wide intercom system: Tower Two is secure, so please return to your offices. “Everyone stopped,” he recalls. “A woman looked around and asked, ‘Should we go back?’” The crowd answered with a resounding “No!” and proceeded with their orderly descent.

But order and unflappability suddenly eroded as the group passed the sign for floor 25. At 9:02 a.m.—as millions of Americans following the news on television watched in horror—a second jetliner hit the south tower. Laub describes the sudden chaos in the stairwells, where the violent cataclysm threw people onto the steps. The building rocked back and forth as the lights flickered and screams erupted. Laub stayed on his feet only because he grabbed the handrail tenaciously with both hands. In front of him, a woman fell down hard into a sitting position, opened her mouth and let out a piercing, seemingly endless scream. A man turned and lifted her by the shoulders and yelled, “You gotta keep moving!”

“My first thought (when the building was hit) was, ‘We are under attack,’” says Laub. “It suddenly dawned on me that one plane flying into one of the tallest buildings in the world could be a mistake; two planes flying into two of the tallest buildings in the world—that is clearly a terrorist attack.”  But even in the face of that grave discovery, the thought did not inspire fear, he recalls. “I wasn’t scared. I was in shock. The only thing I was thinking was, ‘Get out of the building.’”

The saddest image from his exodus emerged around the time he reached the 10th floor: that of hundreds of firefighters racing up the stairs on the left-hand side. It was a rescue mission from which most would never return.

 

A dazed journey

When Laub finally reached the ground floor, police and firefighters were escorting evacuees to exits that were clear of debris. Once outside, he recalls moving about as though in a dream, driven not by terror but instinct. He recalls looking up and seeing the towers shrouded by fire and billowing smoke, blaring sirens and throngs of people queued up at pay phones.

His first thought was to go and find his mother, who worked as a secretary in a building about 10 blocks away. When he got there, the site had already been evacuated, but he managed to find a phone to call his parents’ home in Staten Island. When his father answered, one of the first things he said was, “Hold on! Your sister’s on the other line!”  He had been fielding calls from friends and family anxious to know if his son were alive. Moments later, his father said something Laub never remembers hearing him say before: “I love you.”

Last September, when Laub was retelling the story for the seventh consecutive year, he startled himself by choking up when he spoke about his father. “I just started crying. I couldn’t go on; I couldn’t even catch my breath. I thought, ‘Why is this happening now?’ Then I realized, ‘It’s because I have a son now.’ It was so simple.”

Back on the street, Laub set his sights on getting home, more than 100 blocks away. He would have to walk since all public transit had come to a halt. He stopped to change into the sneakers he carried in his backpack, when he suddenly noticed that the front of one of his shoes was coated in blood. The sight triggered a memory that he believes he might otherwise have suppressed: While walking in the midst of a crowd right after his exodus from the tower, someone had yelled, “Stop, stop!” Another person in front of him had abruptly jumped to the side, revealing a large pool of blood in the street. “It looked like someone had thrown down a can of red paint,” he recalls. Unable to react quickly enough, he had plunged right into the pool with one foot, realizing only later that it was likely the splattered blood of a person who had leapt from the burning towers—one of more than a hundred desperate victims estimated to have done so.

Dazed as to what to do with the blood-soaked shoe, Laub wrapped it in a newspaper and shoved it into the bag. He put on his headsets, as he had always done when traversing the city streets, tuning in to the constant stream of news bulletins.

He estimates he had gone four blocks when, suddenly, he heard a massive explosion coming from the direction of the World Trade Center. Someone on the radio yelled, “The building is falling!” He started to run as fast as he could. Instinctively, he ran in the direction away from where he imagined the tower would land. Out of the blue, a man who had been running some distance ahead of him stopped short; he looked up, then back at Laub; he pointed straight ahead in terror, yelling at Laub to change course. Stunned, Laub looked up and saw a burgeoning smoke cloud, dark gray and 13-stories high—“a runaway freight train”—rushing toward him. He was running so fast he could barely stop himself. He jettisoned himself into an about-face and began sprinting into the opposite direction. The image of the hellish cloud would haunt him for weeks to come: “When I would try to sleep, I would close my eyes, and that’s the sight I would see.”

Like others who were desperately fleeing for their lives, he ducked into a nearby parking garage. Asked how long he was holed up there, he shakes his head. To a person in shock time is a complete blur.

When he finally reemerged, he had no idea where he was: “The city was unrecognizable. I was standing in the middle of a blizzard. The people were all nomads; everyone looked totally displaced.”

At around the half-way point of his endless journey home, he realized he was too exhausted to continue. Laub found his way to the apartment of two old friends, who sobbed and embraced him the instant they flung open the door. That was when the floodgates of his emotions finally broke open. “I just cried and cried,” he says. “It all sunk in at that moment.”

 

Healing and epiphanies 

Photo: Seth Freeman
Photo: Seth Freeman

In the days that followed, Laub sent out scores of emails with a news flash in the subject heading: “I’m alive!”  The following week he served as best man at his sister’s wedding, where—“kind of like Tom Sawyer,” he says—he got to experience something resembling his own funeral. Friends and family poked and gazed at him as if he were a heavenly specter. “I was eulogized,” he wistfully recalls.

Less gratifying was his return to work. Just two days after the attacks, Morgan Stanley set up shop in a New Jersey warehouse, just across the river. For weeks, clients called only to express concern and condolences. (Five of the company’s employees had died in the attacks.) But when the sympathy ran out, so did Laub’s motivation to perform tasks that now felt more pointless than ever. He recalls, “My attitude was, ‘You want your report? And why would I care?’”

As months passed, Laub yearned for change. He needed to break free from the shadow of 9/11. More than anything, he needed a renewed sense of purpose, a chance to live deliberately.

He soon got back together with his old love Stacy (whom he later married, and with whom he now has two children—Becca, 4, and Cameron, 2). She encouraged him to visit Ground Zero as a first step in the healing process. Another step involved the blood-caked shoe. David, his roommate at the time, found the shoe under Laub’s bed. In a symbolic gesture, David looked Laub in the eye, carried the shoe to the trashcan, then flipped the lid and tossed it in.

In the meantime, Stacy spurred him into resurrecting a youthful aspiration—teaching high school English. When she first suggested the idea, he recalls having a dramatic epiphany: “’Oh, my God,’ I said. ‘I’m supposed to be a teacher.’”

In 2002 Laub relocated to Virginia, where Stacy was living, and enrolled in the career switcher program at George Mason. In the fall of 2003, he landed a teaching position at Westfield, and last year was named head of his department. But unlike his banking career, his latest vocation serves up not just headaches but happiness.

“Every day brings some small victory,” he notes.

Last year, Sanjar Haris, a Westfield student who grew up in war-torn Afghanistan and was nearly cut down by sniper fire at age 6, was particularly moved by Laub’s survival story. Haris recalls, “It compared a lot to my story, like the parts where he was shocked and didn’t care about the things around him. In that situation, your emotions are cut; you put them in a box, and you close it.”

Besides his adoring students, Laub’s colleagues call him an inspiration. Mike Greiner, a fellow English teacher, says, “Kevin is a walking definition of  ‘epiphany.’  Actually, he’s better than that because lots of people have epiphanies, but few act on them the way he did.”

 

(September 2011)

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