Brush With a Nightmare

With the sad exception of Robert Speisman of Lazare Kaplan, who was aboard the American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon, no member of the jewelry industry is known to have been injured or killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Several, however, were a little too close for comfort to the horrific tragedy. Here are their stories:

Ordinarily in mid-October, William Barthman Jewelers would be getting ready for the upcoming holiday season.

Instead, they are sweeping up the damage caused first by terrorists and then looters, haggling with their insurance company, and—saddest of all—seeing one after another of their former customers listed as “dead” in each day’s paper.

William Barthman Jewelers is located one block away from the World Trade Center, the area now known as “Ground Zero.” The store has been closed since Sept. 11—the longest it has been closed in its 117-year history—although, at press time, there were plans to reopen in early December. In the meantime, the store’s front window has become an impromptu shrine honoring victims of the attack, while cleaners restore its ornate wood interior. And while none of the store’s 18 employees working that day were injured in the attack, they are still adjusting to working in the shadow of such an unimaginable tragedy.”We have to look down the street and see that nightmare every day,” says gallery manager Renee Kopel. “We have to smell it every day. Every time I go out and look at it, it’s sickening all over again.” She is particularly upset at the omnipresent tourists, taking pictures at the site. “This is not Disney World,” she says. “It’s a mass grave site.”

On the morning of Sept. 11, Kopel remembers hearing a loud noise. “It was a huge boom, reminiscent of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center,” she says. “Having lived through that, I thought, ‘Oh my God, they bombed the Trade Center again.’ The entire building shook. Paper and debris were flying all over the place. Everyone was scared and upset. We saw the big hole and the fire.”

The staff leaped into action, immediately storing all of the high-value pieces in the store’s safe. By then, the second plane had hit the South Tower, and the building shook again. Kopel ran to fetch her daughter at a nearby school. Not long after, the towers fell, shattering the store’s front and side windows. (The only other time the store’s windows were shattered was when a horse crashed into them back in the horse-and-buggy days.)

That afternoon, Kopel visited the store. The floor was covered in several inches of ash and soot. “The smoke and ash were so thick that you couldn’t see a block away,” she says. A few days later, the store was looted by thieves who kicked the door in. Fortunately, all they were able to get were a few trinkets including watches, a digital camera, and a diamond tester. Kopel is still amazed that the store was looted with so many police and National Guardsmen stationed nearby.

The staff moved into a pre-existing gallery upstairs, but there was no electricity or phone service. “It was really horrible the first week,” she says. “We had no elevator or phone service. You couldn’t breathe. We kept coughing and choking.” Worse, there were reports that the 54-story One Liberty Plaza, not far from the store, was on the verge of collapse. Kopel spent a nerve-wracking few days worrying that if the building fell, it would take their store with it. The reports turned out to be inaccurate, although One Liberty Plaza remains closed.

So far, the store hasn’t received a dime from its insurance companies, although Joel Kopel says vendors have been a little more accommodating.

In the end, the Kopels are adamant that their store, which has weathered two world wars and the Great Depression, will remain in its location.

“We’ve been jewelers to the financial district since 1884,” says Joel Kopel. “People in the area whose grandfathers and fathers bought engagement rings from us would feel bad if we just picked up and left.”

The first plane hit the North Tower at quarter to nine, when employees of the two Tourneau stores in the World Trade Center were just setting up.

The stores are located under 5 World Trade Center—a shell of which still stands—and the staff didn’t hear the plane strike. But they did hear the fire alarms, which sent them immediately to the exits.

Although the store suffered considerable damage, it is—surprisingly—still standing. Several days after the attack, however, the stores were looted by people impersonating police officers. The looters were later arrested.

All the employees have since been reassigned—one manager, by his request, to Florida.

“Psychologically, it took a while for the staff to get back to normal—if there is a normal,” says Andrew Block, the company’s vice president of marketing.

Although Brian Mann was working in the Pentagon shopping complex when a hijacked airplane hit the building on Sept. 11, he first heard about the attack via a phone call. “I didn’t hear one thing,” says the co-owner of David Mann Jewelers. “But then my wife and in-laws called and asked if something was wrong.”

The store is located in the sprawling underground mall that serves the Pentagon, and the section of the building that the plane hit is on the opposite side, away from the store. Brian Mann and his brother Conrad began packing up the store but eventually decided to just vacate, after the Pentagon police urged them to leave.

Mann describes the evacuation as orderly, although in those early hours, no one was sure exactly what had happened. There was speculation that a bomb had gone off, and Mann even thought it might have been faulty construction, since the area that was hit was being renovated.

“Somebody yelled, and we saw a lot of people running,” he says. “Maybe a thousand yards from here, you could see heavy smoke all over the place.” He and his brother tried calling on their cell phones, but service was available only sporadically. He made it home by 11 a.m.

“The things I remember are all the wonderful people who called to make sure I was okay,” he says. “Matt Runci from JA called, said he was stuck in England but wanted to make sure we were okay. I really appreciated that.”

Even today, Mann reports, things are far from what they were. Mail deliveries to the Pentagon have been halted, staff must constantly show ID, and officers with submachine guns patrol his underground mall. Still, the store was open for business again two days after the bombing. It’s now doing a robust business in American flag pins, and the staff intends to remain there for a long time.

“My father started the store in 1945,” Mann says. “The Pentagon is our lifeblood. It’s been good to us for 56 years, and by all indications it will be good for us again. Nothing will be the same after Sept. 11, but you try and put it behind you. Every day we get away from it is a better day. It’s something that I thought I would never see, and hopefully my kids will never see anything like it again.”

Anthony DeMarco contributed to this story.