Taking America's pulse inside Sears Tower

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It was a long way down.

Seventy flights, 1,400 steps.

Erin Frey took them one at a time in 2 1/2-inch heels, moving like a woman running from something.

After what happened Sept. 11, Frey had to prove to herself she could escape Sears Tower in an emergency, no time to lace up the Nikes. Her peace of mind depended on it.

So, for a fire drill in which she and five co-workers from the 70th floor descended non-stop to the lobby, Frey wore the highest heels she could find in the vast lineup under her desk.

The black leather shoes made her almost 6 feet tall. They were classy but plain, with narrow toes tapering to a square tip, and they click-click-clicked like a metronome down the length of Stairwell 1--one of only two that go from top to bottom of the colossal tower.

Frey, 28, was running from her demons. It wasn't easy working in America's tallest skyscraper, not even for roughly $70,000 a year. She cried for no reason. She had headaches, felt nauseated, trembled. Looking out her office window was like staring into the maw. Frey angled her chair so she couldn't see.

Finally, one day in October, she and some colleagues from the executive recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles asked Mark Swiecionis, the life-safety coordinator at Sears Tower, to arrange an evacuation drill for them.

Frey's nickname for Swiecionis was Safety Man. He had become very popular. Within two months after Sept. 11, Swiecionis would supervise about 80 percent of the evacuation drills he normally conducts in a year, virtually all on demand.

Now it was Frey's turn.

Click-click-click she went on a 1,400-step personal journey, finishing it in style even after the only other woman in heels stopped to remove her shoes.

Standing in the lobby amid suits sipping lattes, Frey wobbled. Her breath came fast. Her legs shook uncontrollably.

She smiled.

"Eighteen minutes," Safety Man said.

On Sept. 12, 2001, Americans awoke to a new reality shaped by the horror of terrorism on U.S. soil and the realization that it could happen again. In the months that followed, our fears and anxieties, dreams and compromises played out in an acutely personal way in Chicago's Sears Tower.

With its many setbacks shouldering the sky, the mighty 29-year-old building at 233 S. Wacker Drive has become a symbol of American muscle and commerce, audacity and know-how. It is at once imposing and elegant, rising majestically over the city like carefully stacked building blocks.

To take the skyscraper's pulse--to pace alongside the solitary, anxious occupant of the 98th floor on the morning of Sept. 11; to make the rounds with a night watchman as he checks the color of the liquid hand soap in public restrooms; to ride out a rumor of the tower's imminent demise with a trembling chain-smoker--is to take the measure of America.

Do we have what it takes?

Is the cell phone charged and the gas tank full?

Where are the fire exits?

What's the appropriate footwear for running for your life?

Life in the tower will never be the same. X-ray machines in the lobby and the Nikes on some women's feet, left on throughout the workday for a quick escape, are there to stay. But eventually a new workaday reality settled over the skyscraper as the vast majority of people there, like those all across America, began defining normalcy differently--and carried on.

Adjusting was difficult. Consider the burly salesman, too ashamed to tell anyone except his psychologist that he was scared, who sat alone in his car each morning, taking deep breaths and using muscle-relaxation techniques as he summoned the courage to enter the tower. Or the temp at Goldman Sachs who left every day for a long lunch break, went to church and prayed.

Or the 48-year-old secretary who felt more scared than at any other time since she was a child, worrying about the monster under the bed. To ease her mind, the woman, Kenned MacIver, accompanied Frey on the evacuation drill, testing her cell phone on the way down to see if it worked in the stairwell. (It didn't.)

What happened was more complicated than fear. It was an awakening, then a reckoning, then a change--in priorities, in plans, in the calculation of everyday decisions. This was taking place throughout America, but in Sears Tower, which had gone from glamorous to vulnerable, the feelings were especially intense and the emotions had to be confronted with every workday and every elevator ride.

Having a job in the tower made people snap out of the trance of days and see life whole again. They drew up wills, beefed up life-insurance policies, went back to church, prayed for strangers on the train, called their mothers, rescued stagnant relationships, walked down the aisle, bought baby-name books, and discovered anew what it meant to be an American.

Though terrorists didn't attack Sears Tower and the 10,200 people who work there, there is chilling evidence they considered it. This summer Spanish police arrested three men suspected of being Al Qaeda operatives, and officials said one of them had five-year-old videotapes containing hours of images of the tower shot from different angles.

Many in the skyscraper were defiant, going about business as usual with grim purpose, graveyard humor or forced optimism.

"You like this house don't you?" Paul Wisniewski asked his worried 6-year-old daughter, the one he calls Katie Potatie, as he gently peeled her off his waist to go to work on the 98th floor in the days that followed Sept. 11.

"And the minivan?

"Then I have to go.

"Besides," Wisniewski added, "it won't happen again."

Looking back he's not so sure he believed that, but saying it helped.

Christopher Kentra, an attorney on the 82nd floor, did his best to put Sept. 11 out of mind but found it hard to do.

Time after time Pam Kentra pleaded with her husband to work from home. And each time Chris bristled. Already he was spending too much time staring out his office window, wondering what was out there.

"It's hard enough already," he snapped.

"You're making it worse."

The Kentras, who didn't watch television for a week after Sept. 11, craved normalcy so they could enjoy their new son, born on the afternoon of Sept. 10 in West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park. The world now was vastly different from the one into which a doctor had lifted 8-pound, 8-ounce Matthew Kentra.

Standing in a sixth-floor recovery room Sept. 10, Kentra looked out the big, east-facing window a happy man.

He saw Sears Tower as he never would again.

Alone in the world's highest law office, on the top office floor of Sears Tower, Wisniewski made a pot of coffee and paced.

It was morning, Sept. 11. As usual he was the first to arrive for work.

Wisniewski, a senior associate at Gronek & Armstrong, practices advertising law, representing companies that make food, drugs and health supplements. He scrutinizes labels to make sure they don't make claims that might get a manufacturer in trouble.

Sometimes, to ingratiate himself with Food and Drug Administration officials in Chicago, he invites them up to his office for the view if they're "ever in the neighborhood."

"Save the eight bucks," he tells them, alluding to the admission price of the 103rd-floor Skydeck observatory.

On a clear day Wisniewski can see the sand dunes of Michigan from his window, which looks out over the railroad yards and, at an angle, affords a vista of Chicago's lakefront.

Such views attract countless tenants to the tower, a proud and prestigious skyscraper top-heavy with the movers and shakers of Chicago's legal and financial communities as well as the satellite offices of many exclusive New York-based firms.

But this morning the visual dazzle would become anathema to many.

On the train coming in, near where the tracks cross Canal Street, Wisniewski had heard on his Walkman that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

An image flickered in his mind: a little two-engine plane flying into a skyscraper.

There was King Kong.

Wisniewski got off at Union Station and walked to work.

On the way he heard about the second plane.

By the time he arrived at Sears Tower, the rituals of its inhabitants were coming unhinged.

At the urging of a co-worker who had just left the tower, Erin Frey turned and started back to the train station, forgoing her usual blueberry muffin from the lobby Starbucks.

A group-insurance policy writer on the 38th floor powered up his computer only to leave when news of the Pentagon crash made his stomach feel like he was going over a hill too fast.

A tired night watchman whose shift was over let the oatmeal he had just ordered from a restaurant on the mezzanine go uneaten and pulled his uniform back on.

At 8:51 a.m., an anonymous caller phoned the city's 911 center. "Same thing's gonna happen to the Sears Tower at 12," he said. It was the first of more than 30 calls that day from people warning of mayhem at the tower. One caller was a drunk 29-year-old contract security officer from another Loop high-rise who, on a dare from someone in an Internet chat room, phoned 911 repeatedly on his day off, affecting a Middle Eastern accent that police recognized as fake.

As those in Sears Tower waited for an evacuation announcement that never came, many lingered uncertainly. Was it OK to leave without checking with the boss?

Security officer Leroy Brown, who had started his day by getting up at 3 a.m., as usual, then reading the daily lesson from his church--"You may be facing trouble today caused by people who have willfully plotted to do you harm"--surveyed the lobby and found people milling about in confusion.

On the 70th floor, Judie Mikuzis, 33, a research associate at Heidrick & Struggles, phoned her mother with hands that shook so she hardly could hold the receiver.

"Should I stay or go?" she asked.

"What are they telling you to do?" came her mother's voice.

Mikuzis looked around for guidance, but nobody else was there.

The other line lit up. It was her husband. She recalls him saying: "I want you out of there now."

Then her sister: "You have to get yourself out of there."

"I'm trying," Mikuzis told her sister, "but people keep calling me to tell me to leave."

Without turning off her computer, Mikuzis joined a crowd of people waiting for the elevator, many wondering aloud if there was another way down. Was the door at the bottom of the stairwell unlocked?

Nobody knew.

At an eighth-floor brokerage, Stifel, Nicolaus & Co., Inc., an executive sent employees an e-mail saying it was each individual's decision whether to leave or stay, "understanding that clients may very well be concerned about the status of their investments and . . . confused about what's going on in the financial markets."

On the 98th floor, Wisniewski decided to leave after talking on the phone to his wife and to his neighbor, who had called twice, the second time to say, "Dude, you better bail!"

Wisniewski descended to the lobby and remembered:

He hadn't turned off the coffee maker.

Boarding a Metra Burlington Northern Santa Fe train leaving Union Station, Mikuzis spotted two co-workers: Frey and Erin Beavers, 31.

Just a few hours earlier, before coming downtown for work, Beavers had driven to her Tuesday morning spinning class with the windows down, admiring the stars in the pre-dawn sky.

Now she was scared.

Things must really be wrong if they're having trains going back out of the city, she recalls thinking.

Mikuzis, a thoughtful woman with piercing blue eyes, took the seat next to her and across from Frey. The train filled up and slowly started to move. Passengers pulled out cell phones, found they couldn't get a line out and anxiously struck up conversations with strangers.

A woman seated behind Mikuzis said her husband was on a business trip and was supposed to leave New York this morning at 8. But she couldn't get ahold of him.

The woman's eyes brimmed with tears.

"Please, God, don't let her lose her husband," Mikuzis said, praying aloud.

The woman's cell phone finally chirped.

"Hello?" she said hurriedly.

Then Mikuzis heard her say: "Oh my God! Thank God you're OK!"

Mikuzis began to weep.

At home that afternoon she saw a commercial on television that showed a woman rubbing her pregnant belly.

That, she thought, is what life is all about.

Mikuzis slept gritting her teeth and woke with a sore jaw, wondering: Am I going to die today?

She lay in bed clinging to her husband. Her stomach and shoulders were in knots.

Mikuzis dreaded going to work Sept. 12. She had slept fitfully, haunted by nightmares in which planes crashed into Sears Tower, trapping her in her office on the 70th floor.

She rose slowly and got ready for work.

"Don't go," her husband, Tony, said.

"I have to," Mikuzis said tearfully.

As instructed she had phoned an 800 number the night before and listened fearfully to the recorded message: Her bosses thought everyone should come back to work the next day and help each other through the aftermath.

Besides, going into the office seemed like the patriotic thing to do.

Mikuzis parted with her husband like they never would see each other again and drove to work instead of taking the train so she could leave the city quickly if there was an emergency.

This was supposed to be the job she didn't fear. Her previous post, doing administrative work for the International Monetary Fund, had required her to travel with economists offering aid and advice to the former Soviet Union.

Mikuzis held the IMF job for seven years, giving her a front-row seat for the fall of communism in 1989. It was fascinating work, but risky. She worried about flying in and out of global hot spots.

In April 1986, Mikuzis was preparing to travel to Belarus when something went wrong during a test at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. A series of explosions ripped through Reactor No. 4, sending up a radioactive cloud.

Mikuzis was told to stand by. When she finally went to Belarus a week and a half later, Mikuzis smelled something she couldn't name. She worried about the food she ate.

A few months later, at home in Washington, Mikuzis' neck swelled until she could hardly breathe. She took a cab to Georgetown Hospital, where 13 specialists worked in concert to figure out what was wrong.

Finally, peering at the results of a CAT scan, doctors discovered two things: Mikuzis had a tumor on a lymph node, and she had incredibly good luck. If she hadn't caught a cold and the cold hadn't caused severe swelling in her lymph nodes and she hadn't taken that cab to the hospital, doctors probably wouldn't have discovered the tumor until it was too late.

Mikuzis decided it was time to go home to Chicago. She wanted a life free of fear and danger.

She got a job in Sears Tower.

Trudging toward the building Sept. 12, she hesitated, turning her gaze skyward.

Up, up, up the jagged dark contour of the skyscraper.

There's absolutely nothing to stop a plane from crashing straight into my office, Mikuzis thought.

Instead of entering the tower and ordering her usual latte, she walked down the street to another Starbucks. The extra 10 or 15 minutes it would take her to get to work were 10 or 15 minutes fewer that she would have to spend in the building. Anyway, hadn't being late saved some people with jobs in the World Trade Center?

For Mikuzis and many others, life now boiled down to a series of little bargains with fate.

When she finally went to work, her fear turned to anger, and she phoned her husband to vent.

"Can you believe they didn't check my ID when I walked in?" she fumed.

Others were similarly miffed. Trizec Properties Inc., the company that manages Sears Tower, got an earful.

The next day everyone had to show an identification badge.

America had been attacked. Would a skyscraper in Chicago be next? Not everyone feared so.

When her mother offered to pay her to stay home, Deborah Russ, an attorney on the 98th floor who was eight months' pregnant, declined, reporting dutifully for work so she wouldn't use up any of her maternity leave.

When the accounting firm Ernst & Young offered a former Andersen employee a job in March, it was pointed out to her that she would be working on the 13th floor and therefore could get out of the building quickly in an emergency.

The job candidate thought: Sears Tower has a 13th floor? That's interesting.

Then she took the job.

But silently and in conversations around the coffeepot or cubicle, workers weighed the value of their lives against their paychecks to determine if the risks were worth it. Though the vast majority stayed, some left, including a paralegal on the 80th floor who quit after 20 years on the job because she was scared.

In the days after Sept. 11, the tower's phone lines buzzed as workers called Loop employment agencies, and the employment agencies and commercial real estate agents began cold calling, offering their services.

The law firm Gronek & Armstrong fielded as many as 10 such calls daily, making Paul Wisniewski think of vultures "circling the remains of whatever."

A handful of firms put space up for sublease, opting to move rather than deal with the disruptions of a workday in Sears Tower, where every construction noise, illegally parked van and funny-smelling package caused alarm and distracted workers. At least one tenant temporarily rented space in another building to give employees the option of working there.

Many firms in search of office space steered clear of the tower. Some even refused to consider space at buildings in its considerable shadow. A few recruits decided not to accept job offers from prestigious firms in the skyscraper, while some employment agencies couldn't find workers willing to take a job there.

When the law firm Meckler Bulger & Tilson tried to hire a secretary through a temp agency, 21 of 25 pre-Sept. 11 applicants pulled their names out of consideration.

Even clients stayed away. Jim Zahn, an attorney on the 86th floor, rode two elevators and an escalator down to the lobby one day to meet with a woman who refused to come up to his office.

And many consultants at the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles interviewed the firm's typically far-flung job candidates by videoconference because almost nobody wanted to fly.

Jodi Shivers, a former human resources manager for Goldman Sachs & Co., says companies in the tower didn't face a huge problem with employees leaving. The real problem was a stickier one: figuring out who among the employees who stayed couldn't work well because they were scared or distracted, and what to do for them.

Leonor de la Torre, a 46-year-old paralegal, furiously scolded a manager after discovering he had withheld information about a bomb threat Sept. 13 so as not to scare anyone.

"You have no right," she recalls telling him. "This is my life."

Trizec Properties moved quickly to allay fears. Among other safeguards, the company temporarily closed the Skydeck, which attracts almost 1.5 million visitors annually; put concrete barriers around the building; doubled the size of the security force with contract officers and off-duty Chicago police; installed 25 percent more surveillance cameras; and invested in additional X-ray machines.

Adjusting wasn't easy for members of the tower's longstanding proprietary security force, who changed from suits to uniforms in January. Many worked double shifts. Todd Marshall, whose parents implored him to change jobs, had nightmares and drew up a will. But none quit or failed to show up for work.

Marshall, 39, threw himself into his job because he was separated and going through a divorce, though he also returned home for a few days immediately after Sept. 11 to re-connect with his children.

Yet Marshall wondered: How much good can a security officer do?

Sears Tower rises 1,450 feet over downtown Chicago, 1,730 feet if you count the two antenna towers on top. It has 4.5 million square feet, including 3.5 million square feet of rentable space.

Sometimes, Marshall said, his 8-year-old daughter, Christina, says, "Daddy, it's too big for you to check."

Marshall, who works from 3 to 11 p.m., keeps three pairs of management-issued black Florsheim oxfords in his locker so he can change shoes, sometimes in the middle of a shift. It keeps his feet from getting so tired and sore.

The lanky Marshall has a long stride and walks fast on patrol. For exercise he used to lace up a pair of sneakers after work some nights and run up the stairs from the lobby to the 99th floor. It took him 45 minutes. Near the end it felt like somebody was hanging on each leg, but how many people can say they've run clear to the top of Sears Tower?

Marshall loves the skyscraper. It's like a sexy girlfriend. His relationship with the building impresses friends.

Each night he patrols the roof at least once to check the fuses for the high-intensity white strobe lights that serve as warning beacons for airplanes, stepping carefully around puddles of water and moving soundlessly through drifting banks of steam illuminated by spotlights and the moon.

The roof isn't Marshall's favorite place. The wind is strong up there, adding to its ghostly aura. There are corners to walk around, and the harsh play of light and shadow creates illusions.

Now he had a new routine. Marshall started inspecting delivery trucks, about 200 of which enter the loading dock each day. He looked for small packages, strange lettering, wires in the tire wells, new wires under the hood, clean spots on the engine.

He made sure "EXIT" signs were lit.

And, without being instructed to, he started checking the liquid hand soap in the public restrooms. The company uses gold soap, sometimes cream-colored. He resolved to let someone know if he spotted pink or blue in one of the dispensers; in a previous job, someone had put something in the soap that made everybody break out in a rash.

Even before Sept. 11, the Sears Tower was a quirky place to work.

When the wind blows, the building sways and creaks like an old battleship. The water in the toilets sloshes. Mini-blind wands wag and computers wobble. Your chair wiggles beneath you, sending the nervous energy of the skyscraper up through your torso and into your shoulders.

The wind breathes life into the 110-story tower, making the windows heave on especially gusty days.

The building was designed to withstand a 100-year wind, moving up to 3 feet at the top. In a 60 m.p.h. wind, which occurs once or twice a year, it moves about 8 inches at the top. On especially windy days, management slows the elevators so the cables don't get tangled.

Every now and then the movement of the building makes people sick. At least one visiting client had thrown up in the middle of a power meeting. A queasy client of Gronek & Armstrong once exclaimed to the attorneys that they must be crazy to work there. Pat Radloff, an office assistant whose credenza drawer sometimes slides open by itself, can't argue with that.

Despite the occasional upset stomach, however, the tower has been a phenomenal success--a premier address for international companies, a popular tourist attraction and an influential piece of modern architecture.

When Sears, Roebuck and Co. retained Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design a headquarters in the Loop in the late 1960s, the retailing executives asked for big, open floor plans and extra space to allow Sears to grow over the next 25 years.

At first designers envisioned a squat, 50-story building. But, at least in the beginning, much of it would have to be leased to outside firms. And typical office tenants want smaller spaces and greater window exposure.

How to reconcile the two?

Designers toyed with the idea of two buildings separated by a narrow passageway. Bruce Graham, the architect, and Fazlur Khan, the structural engineer, figured there had to be a better way.

Graham envisioned a building with a series of setbacks that would be substantially bigger at the bottom than at the top. That would give Sears the expansiveness it wanted low in the tower while affording outside tenants small spaces and great views on the upper floors.

They decided on a series of framed tubes, each cut off at different heights. At lunch one day, Graham recalls, he pulled out a pack of cigarettes, tapped nine of them out into his hand and stood them upright in a bundle on the table so he could show his friend and colleague what he meant.

They would create a building composed of a bundle of nine framed steel tubes, each 75 feet by 75 feet. The first 50 stories, where Sears would be concentrated, would be 225 feet square. Above that different tubes would be lopped off as the tower rose.

For almost 20 years, Sears ran its retail empire out of the tower. Even after the company left for the suburbs, in 1992, the skyscraper remained an important and instantly recognizable downtown address, with views so spectacular that sometimes tenants would find themselves staring into the cockpit of a military jet during the annual Air and Water Show.

And then, in a matter of hours, the huge steel structure seemed like a giant target.

After two years working on the 81st floor, de la Torre suddenly was tormented by the wind in the gusty days that followed Sept. 11. It blew against the jagged edges of the skyscraper. It swept down the street where the smokers congregated, dispersing the acrid cloud of worry they produced.

The wind made de la Torre think: Now I understand.

This sick, sinking, trapped feeling, this being at the mercy of a building--this was how people in the World Trade Center must have felt.

Nancy Dombrowski, 32, and Dawn Farrell had no window in their office at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. on the eighth floor. Once that seemed a shame. Now it seemed merciful.

Farrell, 22, a high-strung chain-smoker, was having a hard time coping after Sept. 11. Working in Sears Tower scared her. She wore herself out watching the news late into the night, every night. She dreamed, when sleep finally overtook her, of running from the World Trade Center inferno.

Nobody would let her forget where she worked. Family. Friends. Strangers on the make.

One night at a bar, three men approached Farrell and a girlfriend, Farrell recalls, and immediately the conversation turned to what she didn't want to discuss:

"What do you do?" one asked.

"I work for a brokerage firm," Farrell said.

"Oh, so you work in the Board of Trade."

"No, I work in Sears Tower."

Pause.

"What floor?"

"Eight."

"Well--I guess you're pretty safe, then."

Yeah--unless a truck bomb comes, Farrell thought.

Farrell, an assistant to Dombrowski, considered looking for work elsewhere. She held out hope that her employer would leave the tower.

Dombrowski, vice president for investments, felt protective of the younger woman. When Farrell didn't want to ride the Blue Line to work for fear of a terrorist strike on the subway, Dombrowski started giving her a ride to Sears Tower and home every day--an arrangement that would last eight months, until Farrell moved away from Dombrowski's Wicker Park neighborhood.

Though it wasn't as easy to read on her face, Dombrowski was struggling too. In just a few months working at Stifel she had built a lucrative client base. In August she made $48,000, $24,000 for the company and $24,000 for her.

Sept. 11 destroyed her momentum.

Fearing an attack, Dombrowski stayed away from Sears Tower for several days, then returned, hesitantly, the next week, when the markets reopened. She was so scared she felt sick to her stomach. Maybe she could work from home, she thought, or move to another Stifel office, one in the suburbs. She talked to her manager about it and he said it would be OK. But something made her stay. Dombrowski was starting to resent the disruption in her life.

The terrorists shouldn't win.

And, yet, disturbances in the stock market caused by Sept. 11 were costing her tens of thousands of dollars. Dombrowski was headed toward a $20,000 September, a $10,000 October, a $6,000 November and a $2,200 December. It was hard just picking up the phone and dialing, just getting through the day. She couldn't concentrate.

Sometimes Dombrowski would place a call to a client, get put on hold and start to daydream, imagining all manner of mayhem.

Then the client would pick up.

"Oh--hi," Dombrowski would say haltingly.

"This is Nancy Dombrowski."

"You forgot who you were calling, didn't you?" the voice on the other end would say.

Inside the tough broker was a frightened little girl, the same one who peers out from an old family photograph on the mantel in her apartment--a photo that shows Dombrowski, age 5, frowning as she stands between parents on the verge of a divorce.

On the morning of Sept. 20, she finished calling clients and prepared to go downstairs for a cigarette break. She was smoking more than usual.

On days when rumors of the tower's imminent demise seemed especially real, Dombrowksi would smoke two Marlboro Lights in rapid succession.

This morning she would smoke five.

----------

To our readers

This story is part of a Tribune series looking back on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and looking ahead at the challenges facing our nation. As a part of the coverage, the Tribune will publish a special section on Sept. 11.

Coming Monday: On Sept. 20, 2001, rumors of a hijacked plane headed for Chicago raise new fears for workers.

Find stories and photos from the "2001 September 11 2002" series at chicagotribune.com/ anniversary

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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