9/11 survivor shares story with students

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“I was looking at the North Tower when the South Tower was hit,” David Kotok, Chairman and Chief Investment Officer of Cumberland Advisors, explained to an audience of about 40 people in the Gender and Diversity Center (GDC) on Sunday, Sept. 11. Students, faculty members and a New College Foundation official all quietly listened as Kotok described his experience as a survivor of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. As a quiet tribute to the events that occurred on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2011, Dean of Students Wendy Bashant, the New College Student Alliance and thesis student Kathleen McQueeney helped orchestrate the gathering in the GDC.

For the first half of his hour on campus, Kotok retold his side of the events on Sept. 11 to an eerily quiet audience. Scarcely a sound was made by any of the GDC’s other inhabitants as Kotok’s steady, but soft voice communicated his thoughts on the past, present and future of the United States. His hands shook on occasion during his speech, but never did they betray the strength behind his message.

“I was in a breakfast meeting in the ballroom on the ground floor when the first explosion happened,” Kotok said. “It was quite an experience — the building shook, the lights flickered. Then in a very quick and orderly way, we filed right out. But when [we] got out, all [we] saw was pandemonium.

“I was in the military in the 60s, and part of what they taught you to do was to calculate what’s called the ‘flash-to-bang’ time,” he continued. “You learned to do that by habit, in a hurry and out of instinct, [when the second plane hit] I counted. I can tell you I was 5,500 feet away from the blast […and] the explosion. The fireball was 20 stories high.”

During his retelling, Kotok often explained and gave credit to a more internal outlook on the whole incident. He would ask and challenge his audience to consider the points of view of different people’s experiences of that Tuesday in September.

“The most vivid impression was of that second explosion, and the second [most vivid] was of the jumpers,” Kotok remarked. “I saw five. Now, think about what it takes to reach a decision, when someone is young […] in a condition like that, to jump from a hundred-story building.

“The one that I remember most vividly is a couple,” he added. “I don’t know much about them, but I question: what did they say, what did they think? They jumped holding hands, grasped to each other. A remarkable thing to see.”

Beyond illustrating the thoughts and emotions of the day, Kotok also elucidated on both the immediate and long term effects of the attack on the World Trade Center. He apparently couldn’t sleep for six weeks after the Towers fell, but was able to arrange a pass to get to the site, and with the assistance of a New York City cop, retraced all of his steps from evacuation until he left the scene.

“[It] brought some inflection for me and that was the first time I slept,” Kotok admitted.

Perhaps the most poignant of his words happened near the end of his speech as Kotok described the state of the world today.

“It seems to me that we confront a fierce monster that has some belief system that thinks it’s right to do this,” he stated. “How do we struggle with this? How do we deal with the world in which we find ourselves? And how do we conduct ourselves and not give up the wonderful freedoms that we have?”

The rest of the dialogue was a roundtable of discussion, questions and impressions on the social changes that have occurred the world over as well as how citizens continue to see the effect of the Sept. 11 tragedy in the world market. Kotok also presented on his opinion of the coverage of the attack.

“I [struggle] with this issue because T.V. looks like video games in some respects,” he said. “It doesn’t capture the intensity. On the other hand, it’s all we have. However, the historic coverage [for today] is capturing a very accurate depiction of what happened.”

Although Kotok has reservations about media coverage of the Towers, in a short interview following his discussion, he vehemently advocated for the educating people about the events that transpired.

“There are millions of young people, student-aged, who are being told that nobody died on 9/11 and that is a fiction,” he pressed. “How to counter that is the challenge for our times. My struggle is with the intensity of the overwhelming silence of the experience.”

As Kotok ended his time at the GDC, it was announced that he and his company, Cumberland Advisors, are planning to hold a series of programs at New College in the next few months, and Kotok will also be participating himself in a “New Topics New College” discussion.

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