Occidental Alumni Recall 9/11 Survival
Kevin Danni ’01 was on the 61stfloor of the south tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, when he looked out the window and saw what he thought was confetti falling through the air. He glanced up and saw the north tower spewing flames.
It took Danni, then on his second day of sales training for Morgan Stanley, about 45 minutes to get out of the tower. It collapsed 15 minutes after he exited.
Reflecting back, “It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years,” Danni, a married father of two who now works as a vice president, financial advisor and investment management consultant for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney in Glendale, says. “I feel like just yesterday I was graduating from Oxy. I was so excited about starting my career, very excited about starting my training in New York.”
Danni was one of several Occidental alumni who were working in or near the World Trade Center when the 9/11 attacks occurred—and all managed to survive. It was a pivotal moment in the lives of each one.
Danni and the rest of his Morgan Stanley training class began exiting through the stairwell after they realized the north tower had been hit by a plane. He had made it to the 55th floor when the plane hit his building around floor 77. “The walls cracked, the building shook,” he recalls. “It was around the 30th floor that I started seeing firefighters who were on their way up. They were so positive--they kept telling us ‘Keep going, you’re gonna make it, you’re gonna be fine.’ That carried us through those last floors.”
Rather than focus on the tragedy of that day, “I use these anniversaries to remind myself of how lucky and blessed I am to have survived,” says Danni, who will be speaking about his 9/11 experiences at five events around the Southland on Sunday. “It is because of the rescue workers, the firefighters and police officers who unselfishly went to help people, that I’m here. And a lot of them lost their lives in the process.”
“I strictly do the speaking engagements to try to tell a more positive story about all the amazing things I witnessed in the stairwell,” he says. “People helping each other. Elderly people being helped down the stairs. People getting pulled from wheelchairs and carried. Those are the images that I’ll never forget and that stay with me on the anniversary. That’s what I remember on 9/11--all the help I received from strangers as I tried to navigate the city on that crazy day. Let’s use this time to thank our local men and women who serve us in our communities every single day for their sacrifice.”
Danni’s classmate Samuel Kang ’01 was also in New York City that day, a few blocks from the towers when they were hit. Recently arrived to do a Coro Fellowship, following the attacks Kang was reassigned from a political rotation to a disaster relief rotation and began working for the Red Cross.
“Nine-eleven in 2001 for me was the starting point for me figuring out my destiny,” Kang says. “Doing my part with the Red Cross immediately after those events kind of opened my eyes to all of the problems in the city,” he says. During the subsequent year he lived in New York, Kang saw the “terrible way” Muslims were treated and was inspired to work on behalf of underserved communities. He went to law school and in 2005 began working for the Greenlining Institute in Berkeley, a think tank and advocacy organization where he is now general counsel. “That entire year left an indelible impression in terms of helping me figure out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it,” he says. In November, he and a special group of friends are heading back to NYC to commemorate 9/11.
Derek Leonard ’96 was on his second day on the job at American Express across the street from the World Trade Center on 9/11 when he felt an explosion that “went right through my chest.” Across the street he saw smoke, fire and a gaping hole in the north tower of the World Trade Center. After the plane hit the south tower, he and all of his co-workers decided to leave, even though security was telling them to stay put. With debris flying and bodies falling, he raced to escape the carnage. “All I could hear was my heart pounding….At that point I was focused on getting out,” he said.
Leonard was troubled by the sound of jetliners for a long time. Today he and his wife Alexis Kays ’96 live in Seattle with their two children. “The smell of burning concrete and feelings of being under attack have dissipated” finally, but he can’t shake the sense “that low-probability catastrophes are still a real possibility. At a local level, my preparation can reduce the impact of such an event. Globally, I hope we remember that consistent and positive engagement in the forgotten places of the world would have, and will, reduce the chance of similar tragedies.”
Danni plans to speak at the following events:
6:50 a.m. — Glendale Fire Station #21, 421 Oak St., Glendale
8:30 a.m. -- South Pasadena City Hall, 1414 Mission St., South Pasadena
9:30 a.m. -- Holy Family Church, 1527 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena
11 a.m. City of Pasadena 9/11 Memorial, corner of New York Drive and Bradley Street, Pasadena
12 p.m. City of Rosemead 9/11 Memorial Ceremony, Rosemead City Hall, 8838 E. Valley Blvd.
2:30 p.m. La Canada Presbyterian Church, 626 Foothill Boulevard, La Canada