This story was originally published in September of 2016, for the 15th anniversary of 9/11.
On September 10, 2001, Cantor Fitzgerald had 960 employees in New York City. The following day, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into One World Trade Center, where the financial services firm had offices on the 101st to 105th floors.
On Cantor CEO Howard Lutnick was dropping his son off at kindergarten when the first plane hit; his brother Gary was one of the staggering 658 Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died in the attack. His sister Edie, who worked as a labor lawyer on the 101st floor, had a client cancel an early morning meeting, so she delayed coming into the office. It's a decision that saved her life.
"I got a phone call from Gary saying that he was in the building and saying that he loved Howard and I and saying goodbye," she said. She can tell this story calmly now, without crying; it's a story she's told many times before.
"My parents passed away when we were younger, and I raised my brother Gary, so on a million different levels, this was absolutely and completely devastating. Not only had I lost my brother, but I really also lost my child."
Howard Lutnick headed directly for ground zero, where he spent the next few hours helping to pull the few survivors out of the
Edie describes those first few hours after the attack as chaotic. "We didn't know how many people we had lost," she said.
I started thinking about all the people that I felt were more qualified to do this than I was and I realized that they were all gone. So I said 'okay.'
Eventually, the survivors met at Howard's apartment. They set up crisis centers at the Pierre and Plaza hotels, where family members could come while they painstakingly worked to figure out who was alive and who wasn't. It was during that process that Howard asked his sister to head what would become the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund.
"All Howard knew was that we had to take care of these families any way we possibly could, and so he said to me 'Edie, I want to start a charity to take care of the 9/11 families, and I need you to run it,'" she remembers.
"I started thinking about all the people that I felt were more qualified to do this than I was and I realized that they were all gone. So I said 'okay.'"
Just three days after 9/11, the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund was born—filing for
David Kravette is one of the few Cantor Fitzgerald employees who survived the attack. He had gone down to the lobby to sign in a visitor just moments before the crash. He stayed with Cantor Fitzgerald following
When asked what it was like in the aftermath, he says simply, "depressing."
"It was a different place. I mean, everyone I worked with for a long time, most of them were dead. It was a sad place to be, and we were in survival mode as a firm. I actually didn't think we'd make it as a company the first week or so," he said.
"But the company gave me something to do, and focus on. We had to juggle between rebuilding and also going to funerals. There was actually an internal website just for funeral schedules. At the time, I thought keeping busy was healthy for me."
In the weeks that followed, Howard Lutnick made a difficult decision that tied the fate of the firm to the fate of the Relief Fund: Instead of continuing to pay the salaries of the employees who had died, Lutnick promised to give the families of the Cantor Fitzgerald victims ten years of health insurance and 25 percent of the firm's profits for five years. And if profits over those five years were lower than expected, he guaranteed each family at least $100,000. It was an incentive for the company to not only
The decision was met with some criticism. In her book, An Unbroken Bond, Edie recalls the period as an especially dark one: "I am overwhelmed, frustrated, angry, sleep-deprived and hurt... I tell Howard that I don't want to do this. I have not helped him. I want to stop. I want to quit," wrote Edie.
Her brother, she says, was rational in the face of the backlash. "He understands that people need someone to be angry at, and he's become that person," she wrote.
"We got some bad media right off the bat," says Kravette. "But it felt like we were doing something good, something right. I lost a lot of friends, but we had to go on. The company had to survive for the sake of our families, and the families of those who perished."
Over time, families of the victims would recognize that the decision to cut salaries and replace that compensation with a percentage of profits was essential to saving the company, and to providing continued assistance.
"It's crazy. People would say Howard was ruthless. He had to be, he's a ruthless businessman," said Susan Esposito, who lost her father, Cantor Fitzgerald vice-president and partner Billy Esposito, on 9/11. "But [Howard] is a teddy bear. He is personable; he is amazing."
Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
Just three weeks after 9/11, on October 4, 2001, the fund sent out the first round of checks to families of victims.
In addition to the profits and the health benefits, the fund also helped the families decipher the paperwork and bureaucracy required to receive life insurance and compensation-fund payouts.
"Legitimately, if it wasn't for Cantor Fitzgerald, and Edie Lutnick and Howard, I have to be honest, I don't know how we would have navigated the whole process," said Esposito. "As far as what was involved in the legal—in everything—I really don't. We did whatever they told us to do because we trusted them."
In those first months, the Relief Fund was more crisis center than corporate philanthropy. Edie and her team assisted with everything from sorting out wills and estates to obtaining death certificates to locating and returning personal effects.
"It was reactive," said Edie. "People would call, family members would call, they would have a problem, and we would stay on the phone with them to figure out what that problem was. You would realize that if this person had a problem, then someone else also had a problem. And so that was a problem that we as the relief fund needed to tackle. It was our constituency that showed us what we needed to focus on."
The relief fund gave Cantor Fitzgerald families funds to memorialize loved ones in any way they saw fit, which in turn gave rise to a number of other non-profits. One of those charities was A Caring Hand, The Billy Esposito Foundation, which continues to provide bereavement services for children and their families in New York City. Susan Esposito started the mission in honor of her father, with help from the Relief Fund. Edie is an honorary board member.
The fund also provided assistance to World Trade Center victims from 14 other companies, including the food service employees who worked on the same floor as the financial services firm.
Edie Lutnick with her brother Howard at Cantor Fitzgerald's annual charity day.
In the weeks following the attack on the World Trade Center, the IRS approved applications for tax-exempt status for over 300 charities that hoped to help the victims. Only a fraction of them still exists today. Some never really started, others shut down for lack of funds. Still more closed many years later because their mission no longer seemed as urgent. America's Camp, for example, a summer program for the children of men and women who died on 9/11, closed in 2011. The children are all grown up now.
The Relief Fund, however, continues to thrive 15 years after its inception. Edie Lutnick credits the backing of Cantor Fitzgerald, which continues to underwrite 100 percent of the fund's administrative costs, as well as a persistent mission. "We knew we had to listen to the people we were trying to serve, and we had to do things that actually helped them in a way that was most positive," she said. "More than anything else, our goal was to create a lasting legacy for those that we've lost."
Edie uses the word legacy often when talking about her work. As the families became more stable (she would never use the word "Okay," "because when you lose someone you love, you're never entirely okay with it") the Relief Fund began to expand its scope. The Fund's leaders hoped to take what they had learned from coping with the 9/11 tragedy to help others in honor of those who died.
In 2005, the Fund's mission officially expanded to include victims of terrorism, natural disasters, and emergencies.
"You never forget where you come from, and it's about the roots. That's how the organization survives, by the love and the roots that it grows from, " says Esposito of the fund. "Yes it sucks where this all had to come from, it really does, but we were able to make a difference, and cause a change in people's lives."
One of Cantor Fitzgerald's biggest challenges was how to mark the anniversary of 9/11 itself. It could never be just another work day for the company's employees, so in 2002, the Fund hosted its first Charity Day, as a way of commemorating those they had lost by helping others.
Every year on the anniversary of 9/11 (or the first business day thereafter) Cantor Fitzgerald (along with its partners like BGC) celebrates Charity Day. The Relief Fund brings in celebrities—this year's festivities are slated to feature Steve Buscemi, 50 Cent, Julianna Margulies, Peyton and Eli Manning, and Lily Aldridge, among others—to make trades and conduct business with clients in order to raise money for the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund and other charities around the world. And every single employee of the firm gives up their salary or commission in order to ensure that 100 percent of the revenues from the day are donated to the causes.
"It takes a really crumby day and makes it fun," explained Kravette. "You get to see tons of celebrities, a lot of money is raised for charities, and it just makes an uncomfortable day fun."
Model Christy Turlington Burns participating in Charity Day in 2005.
Esposito found the whole experience hard to even describe. "I've been [to Charity Day] several times—and yes, meeting the celebrities is great—but the energy on the floor is unbelievable. These kids that did not work for us [on 9/11] are banging the phones, hammering the phones to make the trades to raise the money, and not getting anything from it."
Last year, Charity Day raised approximately $12 million for over 100 organizations; since its inception, it has raised a total $125 million.
In 2012, the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund made good on
"That money allowed people to make the decisions that were important to their family," says Edie. "Which is something that we believe in very strongly: If you put money in the hands of the families, they will do the right thing."
Over the past 15 years, the fund has given away more than $292 million, but for Edie, the nonprofit's greatest achievement is that dozens of 9/11 family members have chosen to work at Cantor Fitzgerald.
"For me, the biggest success of all is there are over 40 children of the 9/11 victims that work for the firm. That we as an organization have helped our community to heal and in doing so have created a legacy for those that they love," she said.
So what's next for the Relief Fund? Edie hopes the non-profit continues to focus on disaster relief programs and grow in both the ambition and scope of its efforts. "
But first, the families will meet for a private memorial service, as they do every September 11, to mourn those they have lost.
"Fifteen years seems like a lot of time, but when you're living it, sometimes it's just a blink," says Edie.
"When horrible things happen to you, that if you can find something larger than yourself to focus on, you can do great things in the world, and it will help you heal."
To learn more about the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund, including how you can get involved, visit cantorrelief.org.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.