First published in the Sept. 10 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
Two decades on, South Pasadena native Kevin Danni is still helping to make good on the collective promise to “never forget.”
Danni will be speaking this week, as he does every year, about having survived the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, when he was a fledgling financial adviser at Morgan Stanley. He recounts his memories of the tragic events to students who weren’t even born yet. He’ll visit his alma mater, St. Francis High School, and a group in Glendale, translating the fateful day into a lived history, not just a historical event, to help younger people grasp its meaning.
“It’s still difficult to remember, but I consider myself a very hopeful and optimistic person. I think of myself as one of the lucky ones,” said Danni, who grew up in South Pasadena. “I got to see incredible acts of heroism and kindness on that day, and it has always stayed with me.”
Twenty years ago on Sept. 11, Danni arrived excitedly at the 61st floor of the World Trade Center South Tower to report for his second day of what was supposed to be a six-week training course at Morgan Stanley. The then-22-year-old still could hardly believe his good fortune — a recent Occidental College graduate, he had just been hired at the financial brokerage after completing an internship there his senior year. After a harried arrival the day before, Danni took a break to wander through the office, sneaking in a breathtaking view of the North Tower and the New York City skyline.
Danni retells the experience in vivid flashes. He recalls watching confetti fly about outside the window (thinking, “Maybe there’s been a parade”) — he realized later the papers were bits of documents from a gaping hole in the North Tower, which a hijacked American Airlines Boeing 767 had just struck. Then he saw the flames, and he quickly made his way back to the group.
After a brief deliberation on whether there was a need to evacuate, Danni and his trainee team all headed toward the stairs. They had reached the 55th floor when an explosion rocked the building. He remembers the stairwell walls cracking; he thought it was an earthquake or a bomb (learning later it was the second hijacked Boeing 767 — United Airlines Flight 175 — crashing into the South Tower). On its way down, the group passed numerous firefighters who were trudging upstairs to secure the building and reassured them: “Keep going. You’re going to be fine.”
“They were incredible, they were so calm, told us everything was safe down below,” he said. All told, 412 emergency workers would die while responding to the World Trade Center.
It took Danni and his other teammates 45 minutes to evacuate. The South Tower would collapse 57 minutes after the second plane crashed.
On the street, he remembers, people were helping one another, pulling others in one direction or another, collecting belongings. His group dispersed and Danni began to run. He remembers a dust cloud rushing toward him. The former St. Francis star quarterback ran for his life — all 30 blocks back to his lodgings at the Shelburne Hotel. By the time he was able to call his family, both towers had collapsed.
“I outran the dust cloud,” he said. “It was a very surreal moment in time.”
Now a Morgan Stanley vice president and financial adviser in wealth management, Danni moved back to the Pasadena area in later years, near where he grew up. He married his girlfriend, and the couple have two children, Luke, 13, and Molly, 11. He credits his survival to the Morgan Stanley head of security at the time, Rick Rescorla, whose quick decision to evacuate the firm’s offices saved nearly 2,700 people. Rescorla refused to leave until the entire department was out — he perished escorting a few of the last employees down the stairs.
“I give my kids an extra squeeze every 9/11 anniversary — 3,000 people did not make it out of those buildings,” Danni said. “I know how lucky I am, and if it weren’t for Rick, I wouldn’t be here, and my kids wouldn’t be here.”
The 20 years that have passed now bring mixed emotions, especially with the recent exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Sometimes, a small event or occurrence brings back unexpected feelings, he noted.
“I was watching the old footage with my son, and when that first plane crashed, my son said, ‘Dad is still in the building.’ … That gave me a lot of pause,” he said. “My kids are starting to understand, I think. But how do you explain to students or children, why would someone fly a plane into a building to hurt people? It’s a really tough question to answer. … I still don’t understand it. I say there are evil people in the world.”
But Danni digs deeper into the lesson he learned that day, the one he feels impassioned to speak on all these years later: “I can’t ever forget the bravery I witnessed, and the sacrifice that was made for others.”
He hopes everyone will look around them and go thank a first responder.
“I’m so grateful to the first responders, firefighters and all those who serve — all those who saved so many lives on 9/11,” he said. “I can’t ever say thank you enough, and I tell my kids to say thank you. I tell anyone I can to thank those who wear a uniform.”