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Howard Lutnick's Second Life

We walk through another bedroom that has been turned into an enormous closet, a Barneys-like display of black leather women's coats, shelves of purses, sweaters, and shoes, and Lutnick's Zegna shirts. He's embarrassed, but wants to show me to the next room, in which he has created a shrine to his brother. There are huge color photos of Howard and happy-go-lucky Gary, arms around each other's shoulders, horsing around. There's a plaque on the wall of a 1998 Westchester golf tournament, with a photo of Howard and Gary and Stuart Fraser and Doug Gardner. "Two out of four," he says. "Two out of four of us are dead."

The mundane details that make up life -- what time the alarm went off, when the train got in, whether to stop for coffee on the way to the office -- usually don't merit much thought. But for every employee in Cantor Fitzgerald's New York headquarters, these mindless choices made the difference between life and death on September 11. It's hard, even now, for the living to accept that their fates hinged on accidental matters.

Howard Lutnick began that morning playing with his two sons, turning his shaving ritual into a giggling, messy spectator sport with shaving cream all over the bathroom. Instead of going straight to work, he and Allison were taking Kyle to his first day of kindergarten.

Meanwhile, out in Queens, his secretary, Maryann Burns, the world's most punctual woman, drove to the Bayside train station and couldn't find a space to park. She ran for her train and missed it by a minute.

Stuart Fraser had cut back on his work week earlier in the year, coming in to the World Trade Center only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Those mornings, he always joined his brother-in-law Eric Sand at 7:30 a.m. at his desk on the 105th floor for a bagel and coffee. But an Australian investor, flying in to discuss a personal project involving canoe camps, had asked to switch their September 10 meeting to September 11, and to do it out of the office. So Fraser was at home in Armonk that morning, waiting to go to his appointment.

Dave Kravette was at his desk on the 105th floor at 7:30 a.m., preparing for the arrival of clients scheduled to come up at 8 a.m. When they called to say they were running late, he reminded them they needed photo I.D. to get into the building -- the rule since the 1993 terrorist attack -- so he was not amused when security rang shortly before 8:40 a.m. to say that one of the guys hadn't brought a license and needed an escort. "I'm pissed," Kravette recalls. "I look over at my assistant, and she's eight months pregnant, and I think, How lazy am I?, and I get up to leave and the phone rings and it's my wife, Janice. She starts chatting, and I tell her, 'I've got to go, we'll have this conversation later.'

"I take the elevator down, take 30 steps towards the guys waiting at the desk, and say, 'Which one of you knuckleheads forgot his I.D.?' and then I hear this high, screaming sound -- the elevators are crashing. I see this huge fireball. It's the jet fuel on fire, coming right at me. People are being absorbed and incinerated by it. I think I'm dying, I can't move. And then it suddenly sucked back in itself. All I felt was a heat wave. Then we started running."

Howard and Allison were perched on child-size chairs in their son's classroom when both their cell phones rang and then died. Howard was summoned by a school staff member to the lobby, where he learned from his driver, Maio, that a plane had hit the Trade Center. "I ran upstairs to Allison -- 'I got to go, I got to go.' " She ran with him to the car, saying, "Should I go with you?" "No," he insisted. "You stay."

As he and Maio sped down Fifth Avenue, Lutnick could see the smoke; he knew the company's offices were above where the first plane had hit. "It was horrible. I thought, I just have to get there." He ran toward 1 World Trade Center as people came pouring out, and he stood out front yelling, "What floor, what floor?" The numbers climbed as high as 91 when he heard the terrible sound.

"Like a combination of a jet engine in my ear, and metallic, like the Titanic hitting, an eerie sound," Lutnick says. "I ran, and there was this tornado following me, this giant plume of black smoke chasing me. I dived under an SUV. My glasses got ripped off. It was dead silent and pitch black. Every time I took a breath, I thought I'd choke, rubble coating my mouth and throat. I thought, I'm going to die. I can't believe I'm alive, and I'm going to die."

When finally the cascade of rubble subsided, Lutnick began slowly walking his way north, finding a pay phone to call Allison, who filled him in on the calls she'd received, including telling him that Cantor lawyer Stephen Merkel had survived. Lutnick made his way to Merkel's Greenwich Village home, where other Cantor employees showed up, and they frantically called around to try to find out who was still alive. By the afternoon's end, Lutnick was fairly certain that Gary, who had called Edie in the final moments to say good-bye, hadn't made it, nor had Doug Gardner. Instead of heading directly home to be with his own family, Lutnick went to see Jennifer Gardner and her two young children at their Upper West Side home. "He was covered with concrete and dust," she says. "We were speechless. He kept saying, 'You are fine, you will be fine, I love you.' Doug and Howard loved each other like brothers. I'm sure Howard is the loneliest man in the world because of what happened. He had lost nearly 700 people. He said, 'I have to help these families.' It was always his plan."

The criticism of Howard Lutnick has died down. But the conversations that the widows have now, in their support groups or with friends, will not be turned into tabloid headlines or TV sound bites, and so his image as a man who promised then reneged may never change. "Initially, we were all nervous, all panicked," says Liz McLaughlin, a young Cantor widow from Pelham whose husband, Robert, was an eight-year veteran. "But he is doing much more than we could have imagined."

In comparing notes with widows whose husbands worked for other firms, she concluded that Lutnick's financial package is relatively good: ten years of health insurance rather than five; a share of 25 percent of the partners' profits over a five-year period -- a total package worth at least $100,000 per family. Before Lutnick explained his plan to the widows, "he had a bad reputation," recalls Marilyn Rocha, whose husband, Antonio, a bond trader, had worked at Cantor only three months. "They said he's just out for himself. " Now raising a 3-year-old and an 8-month-old on her own, Rocha says, "Ten years of health insurance would be enough for me. Ever since this happened, I've been in the pediatrician's office so often, I might as well rent a room there."

Anne Wodenshek, a New Jersey mother of five children whose husband, Christopher, ran Cantor's power-and-energy-brokerage department, admits, "I was irritated when they cut the paychecks off, because I didn't think Christopher was dead. But Howard doesn't owe us anything." Wodenshek had a long chat with Lutnick the other day; he phoned to see how she was doing, as he is trying to do with all surviving family members. She was pleased that he called. "He's trying to do the right thing," she says.

Lutnick has yet another new ritual in his life involving family, a weekly date that he refers to as "Men's Night Out." Every Thursday at 5:30, he and his sons, Kyle and Brandon, pick up his best friend's son, 5-year-old Michael Gardner ("Michael waits at the door," says his mother), and for a few hours they go for ice cream or buy toys and do the father-son thing. "You're either in or you're out," Lutnick says. "For Michael, I'm in."