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Terror of September 11 lives in memory

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One felt the proud white tower shudder. Another witnessed the sight that made it clear the horror was no accident. Two were on airplanes when they heard the shocking news. The fifth was stuck in crawling traffic outside the Capitol, listening to a radio shock jock doubting a caller's eyewitness account. Then she became a witness.

For five insurance industry executives, those were the first moments of the surreal Sept. 11, 2001, events that would change each of them.

Two executives headed brokerages and another led a major broker unit that lost scores of employees in the terrorist attack that sunny Tuesday morning. A construction broker for one of the firms was at the World Trade Center hours before an afternoon meeting to finish his presentation. The fifth had recently left the other firm and later would become involved in rebuilding ground zero.

Construction broker Joseph Russo, then an assistant vp at Aon Hamond & Regine, a unit of Chicago-based Aon Corp., was in the north tower finishing his presentation for an afternoon meeting with officials for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the twin towers.

Working in the authority's 64th-floor risk management office, Mr. Russo heard and felt an explosion above him.

As he and others began evacuating, Barry Glick, risk manager for the authority, and one of Mr. Glick's staff, Joe Grillo, said they would search the floor for anyone who needed assistance.

Both died when the tower collapsed less than two hours later.

“(Mr. Glick) had a dry sense of humor and was extremely funny when he wanted to be, but he also was very professional and knew his stuff in and out,” said Mr. Russo, now an executive vp with Willis of New York Inc.

But the “true measure of the guy” is that he stayed behind to search the floor, Mr. Russo said. “That tells you everything you need to know right there.”

Warren Mula was in his 105th floor office in the south tower that morning. Working as a managing principal at Aon Risk Services Inc., he arrived at work around 5:30 a.m. but left for an appointment two hours later. At an elevator bank, he met co-workers that he would never see again, as 176 employees of Aon were killed that day.

Mr. Mula learned in a call from his wife after his appointment that the WTC's north tower had been struck. “An accident,” he thought.

Because of police blockades, he could not return to his office. Frustratingly, he had little information. “There were no smartphones then,” said Mr. Mula, who now is the New York-based CEO of Aon Risk Solutions' broking business.

Then he saw the passenger jet hit the south tower. “It immediately kicked in that this was a full-fledged attack,” he said. “You're numb” at that point, but still “your mind is working 100 mph,” said the executive who oversaw hundreds of employees.

Unaware of the extent of the damage to the south tower, he was confident his team would escape, and he felt certain they had when the 1,362-foot-tall structure succumbed less than an hour after it was hit.

Having exited the north tower as its twin was failing, Mr. Russo—caked in ash and glass shards—was running toward Mr. Mula's location; neither knew it.

Dusted with ash himself later on, rattled by thundering fighter jets overhead and chagrined that public transportation had shut down, Mr. Mula thought, “My God, this is a war zone.”

“Everything was so out of whack,” he said.

That was exemplified by his train ride home after hitching a ride across the Hudson River to New Jersey aboard a 12-seat powerboat.

He got off the boat and then scrambled over a commuter railway retaining wall running parallel to the New Jersey shoreline. Police stopped and questioned him, but they eventually allowed him to board a train—after hosing him down to decontaminate him.

“I was walking on the train in my suit, dripping wet, and no one looked at me twice,” Mr. Mula said. That day, nothing seemed extraordinary because everything was, he said.

Patrick G. Ryan, then chairman and CEO of Aon, was asleep aboard a private jet flying him home from an overseas conference when a flight attendant woke him with news of the first crash and their own diversion to Newfoundland. They'd be landing shortly.

After another passenger jet hit the second tower, Mr. Ryan—by then checked in at a small motel—and Aon went into crisis mode. Aon immediately established a communications center in the Chicago area to look for missing employees, keep their families informed and update Aon employees worldwide.

During those first hours and days, when Aon couldn't locate 500 employees, “I think you're in shock,” Mr. Ryan said about himself.

But with 50,000 employees looking to follow his lead, he could think only of acting efficiently but sensitively. “It was not a time to weep. You weep later. It was not a time to emote. You emote later,” said Mr. Ryan, who is now chairman and CEO of Ryan Specialty Group L.L.C. in Chicago.

Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc. lost even more employees than Aon—294, all in its north tower satellite office. Plus, at least 40 independent contractors who worked for Marsh perished, said Jack T. Sinnott, then chairman and CEO of Marsh Inc.

Mr. Sinnott was sitting in a plane on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York when a flight attendant announced the north tower had been hit and his flight would be delayed. About 15 minutes later, news of the second crash spread through the cabin, and smoke from ground zero was visible to the passengers.

Mr. Sinnott told his wife that even if their flight could leave, he wouldn't.

The plane returned to the gate within the hour, but the frustrated Mr. Sinnott couldn't get out of the airport until late afternoon. Then he couldn't enter the city. And he never could reach Marsh's main office by phone.

He did get to his office the next day and worked with other staff and officials to create a crisis center.

After a day or two, Marsh—which still couldn't account for 600 employees—moved its family center to a hotel, where Mr. Sinnott met twice daily with families to update them and answer any questions he could.

He also gently but firmly dispelled their unrealistic or irrational conjectures. One was the notion that authorities had placed burn victims on a train bound for Montreal, where they'd be treated.

Mr. Sinnott has since retired and now is a senior adviser to private equity fund manager Stone Point Capital L.L.C.

Radio shock jock Howard Stern was doubting a caller's account of the pandemonium in New York, recalled risk manager Shari Natovitz, who was listening to the show in her car because her favorite sports talk show was having a “slow day.”

Ms. Natovitz, now vp-risk management for the World Trade Center at Silverstein Properties Inc. in New York, then was building the construction practice at USI Insurance Services L.L.C.

She was creeping along in heavy traffic on a Virginia freeway en route to her office in Alexandria. Then traffic stopped. She was directly east of the Pentagon.

Several minutes later, there was a concussion. She turned and saw smoke rising from the Pentagon, the last target terrorists reached that morning.

Some vehicles pulled off the road, and traffic began moving. Immediately after reaching her office, Ms. Natovitz—who didn't own a cell phone then—began calling Marsh, which she had left 10 months earlier. She was extremely concerned about the whereabouts of her former construction group, which usually met in the WTC every September around that date.

She eventually reached someone who could confirm only the group was scheduled to meet there on a high floor in the north tower. She learned later that they didn't survive.

Ms. Natovitz and her USI colleagues then concluded that Alexandria, so close to the Capitol, might be unsafe and decided to go home. Her drive to Maryland on highways that by then had been deserted—except for police and military units blocking exits into Washington—was “eerie,” she said.

All five executives said they learned something about themselves after their experiences. Some even changed something in their lives.

For Mr. Sinnott, the hundreds of colleagues at Marsh who died that day are remembered as family. But now that's how he also thinks of the “institution of Marsh.”

Mr. Russo said he's “a lot calmer” now.

“You learn what's important and what's not,” he said. “When you go through something like that, it gives you more empathy or perspective on the way things are.”

Mr. Mula said an “incredibly sad” lesson for him was learning how well a toddler can grasp the concept of death. His daughter, then 3, taught him that when she greeted him as he walked in his door in his damp suit 10 years ago. “Daddy, I'm glad you're alive,” she told him.

“You don't want to hear your 3-year-old say that,” he said.

Mr. Ryan revealed that before the terrorist attacks, he had never cared much for hugging anyone other than his wife and children. It wasn't in his nature, he said.

But when meeting families of Aon employees who died in the attacks, so many wanted hugs, he said. He said he quickly came to understand and appreciate that they needed that human touch, because it is a vital part of the grieving and healing process.

Ms. Natovitz made a couple of changes.

While Silverstein did not select USI as its broker for the WTC rebuilding project, the company asked her to be the risk manager for it. As a tribute to her former Marsh colleagues, she quickly accepted.

She also purchased her first cell phone. Now, whenever she travels by air, she calls her husband and tells him she loves him before turning off the phone. “I think that's probably the most important change.”

Ms. Natovitz paused a moment to collect herself.

Then, in a lighter tone, she said: “And when I see Pat Ryan, I'm going to ask for a hug.”