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Cathy was really my sister Marcy’s friend, not mine. They had been cabinmates at Interlochen arts camp. They had gotten close (as camp friends do) and stayed in touch, even though Marcy lived in Michigan and Cathy on Long Island. She and my wife Patti were both bridesmaids at Marcy’s wedding.

We watched the events of 9/11 with a kind of detached horror, since we didn’t personally know any of the victims. Or did we?

Cathy was very smart, Marcy recalls. After college, she worked at the United Nations as an interpreter, then at Morgan Stanley. Marcy visited her in her Brooklyn Heights brownstone, where she lived with her husband and three kids, the youngest adopted from Asia. Then Cathy came back to Michigan and they attended a camp reunion together. Eventually Cathy got sick of the city, dropped out of the workforce, and moved to Princeton, NJ.

In the ‘90s and ‘00s, I maintained an email list to which I occasionally sent interesting or amusing content—mostly jokes or what we would now call memes, but sometimes more serious. (That’s how we circulated humor in the years before Facebook; now, it seems like sending smoke signals.) Marcy forwarded one of my messages to Cathy, who liked it and asked to join the list. Once added, she would occasionally reply to messages to express her amusement or share new content.

Patti and I watched the events of 9/11 from the West coast, like many, with a kind of detached horror. It was awful enough even if we didn’t personally know any of the victims. Of course, I suspended my email list. Everyone was too horrified and shell-shocked to enjoy anything funny.

A few weeks after 9/11, I finally shared something to the list. I have no recollection what it was, but the email to Cathy bounced back. The unresponsive server was from Cantor Fitzgerald.

Cantor Fitzgerald? Wasn’t that the financial firm that occupied five floors of the north tower of the World Trade Center?

I called my sister. “Oh God,” she said, and hung up to find out.

Cathy Chirls and family

Cathy and her family. Photo source:

Cathy, it turned out, had gone back to work as a banker at eSpeed, Cantor’s electronic bond-trading platform. She was one of 658 Cantor employees lost in the attack.

A few years ago, in New York for a wedding, Patti and I visited the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero. We searched for Cathy’s name, now engraved in the granite panels surrounding the pit where the north tower stood. I took a photo and sent it to my sister.

Cathy’s loss reminds us that we are all interconnected and intertwined. As I write this, Hurricane Harvey has devastated East Texas and Irma is sweeping through Florida, where my aunt and a close friend are hunkered down. Each tragedy, each disaster ripples and resonates across the country and around the world. It’s true what we used to sing in high school: no man is an island; each man’s grief is my own.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Tags: 9/11
Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    John, you made me cry with this story! So beautifully written and so unbearably sad! And now I have that “No Man is an Island” song stuck in my head, but that’s okay, it’s a good song for today.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Yes, John, we are all connected. I was very friendly with Marcy at camp, so probably knew Cathy too, though it has been too long for me to dig out that particular memory. As you noticed when I posted my story to Facebook, one Brandeis classmate responded with the names of several friends he had lost (so many locals, since two of the planes came out of Boston). A tragedy, like a scab, that just can’t heal in the nation’s psyche.

  3. rosie says:

    John the story was a reminder of so many things. It was really well written, and I agree with the other comments on your sensitivity.

  4. John, I’m glad Retro reposted your 9/11 story and thus I could read it.

    I wrote my story entitled 9/11 for the Close Calls prompt. I and other New Yorkers I’m sure still think often of that surreal day in our city.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    You reminded us all that all the people who died that day, and indeed have died in the resulting fallout and wars, were all individuals important to their friends, family, and colleagues. That is indeed something never to forget. So well described, and heartbreaking.

  6. An eerie and powerful story, John, beautifully told and with such full thought and emotion. A ghost of the fallen towers whose loved ones will carry the scars of the survivors. Thanks.

  7. Dave Ventre says:

    Considering where and when I grew up, it is a bit odd that no one I know died that day. I’ve never had to experience that stomach-dropping sensation when the realization hits.

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