9/11 survivor Michael Franks gained perspective from tragedy

Rachel Minske Mequon Now

To see a video interview with Michael Franks, please click here.

The United States formally ended combat in Afghanistan Dec. 28, 2014 with a ceremony in Kabul — 13 years after declaring war.

Michael Franks remembers every detail from the day that launched the international military campaign dubbed The War on Terror.

The Mequon resident was working on the 33rd floor of the World Trade Center’s former north tower on September 11, 2001 when it was hit by a Boeing 767 jet.

A career in the making

Franks was born and raised in a blue collar town on the south shore of Long Island in New York. Upon graduating high school, many of his classmates went on to enter careers as firefighters or police officers — including his younger brother, Tom who’s now a New York policeman. Franks attended Cornell University in upstate New York where he met his wife Julie, a Grafton native. After graduating college Franks began working on Wall Street with dreams of becoming a financial adviser.

“I did that for about a year,” he said, noting at 22-years-old he was too green to have any real chance at success in the field. “I failed.”

Franks took a job on an institutional sales desk and said he climbed the corporate ladder fairly quickly. His income doubled, tripled, quadrupled and then doubled again.

“In my early 20s I was making several hundred thousand dollars a year,” he said. “It goes to your head. It went to my head. I was having a hard time balancing work. I think I was beginning to become defined by my paycheck. I had these great opportunities. At the same time, I started to become overly confident.”

Franks later accepted a job with a San Francisco-based company which had offices in the World Trade Center. He was more than one year into the new job when his workplace was attacked by al-Qaeda-affiliated hijackers, killing thousands.

Terror strikes

The morning of September 11, 2001 started off as anything but extraordinary, Franks said. He left his home in the Upper West Side, a neighborhood in the borough of Manhattan — five miles from the site of the World Trade Centers. Taking the subway to work, he stopped by Starbucks for his routine caffeine fix. He crossed the large plaza that formerly stood between the two [towers] and headed to his morning research meeting where his company discussed stock ideas and business news from the night before. Only 4 or 5 people were working that morning as the company had completed significant layoffs two weeks prior, Franks said.

Franks headed to his desk which sat just feet from the window to call clients. It was not uncommon to see airplanes or helicopters fly by outside, he said.

“On my first call there was an explosion,” he said. “There was a sensation the floor could give way.”

Franks looked out the window and saw yellow legal pad paper fill the sky. The first plane had hit the other side of the building, but already debris had begun to fall, he said. With no idea what had happened, Franks and his colleagues decided against taking the elevator and headed for the stairway. That’s where he first heard mutterings that a plane had hit the building.

“(We were) still naive,” Franks said. “Never could have predicted what had happened really. Just assumed it was an accident.”

Franks continued down the stairwell which became increasingly crowded as more floors emptied inside. Around the 16th floor, Franks was asked to step out of the narrow stairway and wait until the commotion slowed down, until it was determined exactly what had happened. Franks complied and after mere seconds of waiting on the 16th floor, he turned to a co-worker and the two decided to continue their retreat to the ground floor.

“(We) still had no fear at that point but that changed pretty quickly as we opened the silver doors and came out onto the lobby,” he said. “It was a much more chaotic scene.”

Franks said the exit that lead to the subways had gone dark, filled with smoke and emergency personnel.

The scene of the lobby: A light tinkling noise, perhaps the sound of glass falling from high above. A hysterical woman running in tight circles in the lobby yelling, “We’re all going to die!” until she slipped on the floor and her head hit the ground. The main entrance consumed with emergency personnel. And then a second explosion.

“The police pushed us back into the building,” Franks said. “A second plane had hit. I remember being afraid at that point, thinking ‘Should we throw a chair through the window just so we can get outside?’ I just wanted to get out at that point.”

Seconds, maybe minutes passed. Franks wasn’t sure.

Those trapped on the ground floor were then released. Franks noticed burning debris on the ground outside and was instructed to run toward Battery Park, a 25-acre public park located on the southern tip of Manhattan and one mile from the World Trade Center.

“I ran track in college so I left my co-workers in the dust,” Franks said. “Carrying a briefcase, wearing khakis and a golf shirt.”

At one point Franks stopped to wait for others to catch up. A policeman approached him and said: “I’d keep running if I was you. We have no idea what is happening.” Franks continued on to Battery Park where he eventually met up with his co-workers.

“We looked back at the towers and we couldn’t understand why both towers were on fire,” he said. They guessed maybe the wings from the first plane fell off and hit the second tower.

Franks and fellow co-workers made their way around the tip of Manhattan and ran into former colleagues.

“That’s the first time I heard it was two planes … and you realized it wasn’t an accident.”

The beginning of the end

Franks convinced an apartment doorman to allow him to use a phone to call his wife.

“(We) were just doing an inventory at that point, you know, who do you know and where are they?” Franks said.

Franks spent the rest of the day making contact with loved ones; he walked to his wife’s office in Midtown, met up with father and made contact with his brother — who was not on duty as a policeman that morning, instead sleeping off a late shift from the night before. And then he headed home.

“I struggle even now, not to get too political with everything that’s going on with the police, but to include police and firemen, they’re telling us to run from a building and they’re running to it,” he said. “Can’t give those people enough credit.”

The Smoke Clears

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Franks said a lot of things began to change.

“It was a catalyst reminder that life is short. If you want to do something you can’t keep putting it off. Put a plan in place to make a transition,” he said.

One large take-away from the events on that September morning more than 13 years ago was that family was the most important piece of life. After struggling with the idea on whether or not to bring new life into a tumultuous world, Franks and his wife started a family of their own.

Franks, now father to a 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old twin boys, moved his family to Wisconsin not only to be closer to his wife’s extended family but to escape the hustle and bustle of New York’s busy streets.

The Mequon man returns to New York several times a year to visit family or for work duties.

“I thought the memorial was very nicely done,” he said of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum that stand where the original twin towers once existed. “I do know several people that died that day and you’re able to go and see their names in the stone [sic – bronze].”

As al-Qaida has garnered negative media attention over the years for more terrorist attacks, Franks said he struggles to understand “how their brains work.”

“You’re saddened by every occurrence,” said Franks who now works as a financial planner in Mequon. “You’re saddened why things like that have to happen to anyone. I did have a little relief, satisfaction when Osama bin Laden was killed. Didn’t think it would take that long.”

On the recent attacks of journalists at French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo: “I think it would be a lot better place if none of this stuff was happening. I find it really hard to believe that someone would be killed over cartoons that they draw. I can’t get into their heads.”

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