The first people who noticed something was amiss were the bond traders who regularly did business with Cantor Fitzgerald, an investment bank occupying the 101st, 103rd, 104th, and 105th floors of the North Tower of the Trade Center. Around 8:46 a.m., their screens went blank. “I think a plane just hit us,” someone said, interrupting a conference call with the firm’s Los Angeles office. Over speakerphone on the West Coast, their colleagues listened in horror as rustlings of confusion turned to panicked screaming. “Somebody’s got to help us,” someone shouted, shortly before the line went dead. “We can’t get out … The place is filling with smoke.” An agonizing hour and 42 minutes later, the tower collapsed, taking everyone in the office with it. Before that day, Cantor Fitzgerald hadn’t been all that well known beyond Wall Street. Afterward, the whole world knew “the good firm of Cantor Fitzgerald,” as a teary Charles Schumer put it. With 658 of its people dead, it received the terrible distinction of being the business to have lost the most employees. “We have death fame,” CEO Howard Lutnick says in An Unbroken Bond, a new memoir by his sister Edie. The famously brusque Lutnick, who lost his brother Gary and narrowly missed death himself—he had been taking his son to his first day of kindergarten when the planes hit—handled this notoriety awkwardly at first. He rallied the remaining employees back to work a mere two days after the attacks, telling them the firm needed to survive so that it could provide for the families of the dead, but his tearful televised pledge to help the victims’ families was undermined when he stopped his deceased employees’ paychecks on September 15. Ultimately, though, he did keep his promise, by establishing the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund, led by Edie, which has distributed more than $180 million to the families of Cantor victims and provided them with health insurance for the past ten years. The willful determination of Lutnick and the other survivors (there are roughly 75 still working there, in addition to about twenty family members of the victims) has helped fuel their success, and it’s been suggested their crisis-preparedness helped them avoid some of the worst of the crash of 2008: While Cantor trafficked heavily in the mortgage bonds that would prove to be the downfall of many, it wisely did not hang on to any for itself. Its financial success has allowed the firm to extend its philanthropy: According to Edie Lutnick, funds earmarked for memorializing family members lost on 9/11 have given life to 500 new charities, including a Manhattan-based bereavement center for children, and the company recently donated money from its annual charity day to the victims of the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. Which distinguishes it in the disaster of this decade, too: It may be the only company that bought and sold lousy mortgage bonds that can plausibly lay claim to a greater social purpose.
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