'The Big City Felt Small After That:' Alumni Recall 9/11 Attacks

Brent and Tina McCutchin, who both graduated from Texas Tech University, give their firsthand account of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, for its 15th anniversary.

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Fifteen Septembers later, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, are still haunting us today. The scenes that replay in our heads and on the news seem to be out a movie, but the tragic events that happened on that fateful day were real. We can even recall what we were doing when it happened, where we were and how the day unfolded because it is so ingrained in our minds.

Brent McCutchin remembers checking the weather before he left for work that day. He was wearing a golf shirt and walked from Times Square to his office at MCI Telecommunications in the MetLife Building on Park Avenue. It was one of the most beautiful days he had seen in New York City, he said.

His wife, Tina, was pregnant with their first child. She remembers wearing regular pants, thinking the weather was really nice and that she would soon begin wearing maternity pants while on her way to work. She worked at Saks Fifth Avenue for its online store and arrived at work a little later than usual. It was the day of the New York City mayoral primary elections.

The seemingly normal day in New York City would soon change for the couple as it did for the whole country forever.

A young couple

Tina & Brent

Tina and Brent were just babies when they moved to New York City, Tina said.

Both grew up in Lubbock. She graduated from Coronado High School; he graduated from Monterey High School.

“I’m a proud Plainsman, for the record. Even though Tina is a Coronado Mustang, we figured out a way to get along,” Brent joked.

He and Tina had known each other their entire lives and began dating while attending Texas Tech University. He was working on his bachelor’s degree in communications and she was working on her bachelor’s degree in fashion merchandising. The two graduated from Texas Tech in 1996-97 and were married the following April.

After graduation the couple moved to San Francisco, then soon after moved to New York City in 1999. They lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and worked in Midtown Manhattan, just three miles northeast of the World Trade Center.

When they moved to the Big Apple, they couldn’t believe they were really there.

Brent said they acted like tourists when they arrived.

“We were really just kids,” he said. “We were maybe only 25 when we moved. One time, we went to the towers and just stood in between them and took pictures looking straight up. We thought, ‘Wow! We grew up in Lubbock and here we are, just two kids living in Manhattan,’ while we stood there. It was the coolest thing.”

That day

On that beautiful September day, Brent and Tina’s day began no different than usual. They both got ready and began their commutes to Midtown Manhattan.

Shortly after Brent got to his office, his mother called.

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“My mom called, which was unusual unless something was going on during business hours,” he said. “I took the call and she said, ‘Hey, they’re showing a plane hit the World Trade Center,’ and my initial response was that it had to have been a private plane, pilot error or something like that. It was weird.

“It hadn’t really hit the news yet. The news about the plane was on the local AM radio for New York, and they said a plane hit the towers but no one understood the size or anything about it. My mom then called me back about 20-30 minutes later and said, ‘Brent, it was a commercial plane.’ Right as she said that all of the building alarms started going off.”

The leaders of Brent’s office came quickly after he received his mother’s second call. They told all of the people in the building to leave their belongings and leave immediately.

By then, the second plane had crashed into the south tower. 

“After we cleared the building, I just started walking west,” Brent said.

Now in Midtown Manhattan on Madison Avenue, Brent could look southwest and the World Trade Center towers were framed perfectly as if they were right at the end of the street.

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“I remember walking up to Madison Avenue and all of the taxi cabs had just stopped. All traffic had stopped,” he said. “When I looked down Madison Avenue, I saw so much smoke and the magnitude of what was going on. It was bizarre, especially since all of the cabs had stopped, which was just crazy. At that moment, everyone was just looking down Madison Avenue and we were all just seeing it unfold before our eyes. You couldn’t really understand what was going on; you could just see it.”

After evacuating from the MetLife building, Brent caught one of the last subways back to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Tina’s building, on 50th and Fifth Avenue, hadn’t even cleared yet.

By the time she and her coworkers evacuated, the subways had shut down. So they walked.

“I was about five months pregnant,” Tina said. “It was pretty scary. I was walking down Fifth Avenue and remember seeing a big hole in one of the towers and all of the smoke that surrounded the area. Smoke was everywhere. Just like Brent said, everybody just stopped. There was not one taxi driver who hadn’t stopped. All of their car doors were open and we just didn’t really understand what was happening. Everyone was asking what was going on.”

It was as if time stood still. Everything froze – jobs, businesses, taxi cabs, traffic – and it stayed that way for several days.

“You know how people always say New Yorkers are unfriendly?” Tina continued. “It was the complete opposite that day. Everyone from work walked together, and we would drop people off as we went along our way. I just remember everyone coming together and talking to one another, even if it was people you didn’t know.”

When Brent and Tina met back at their apartment on the Upper West Side, one of their neighbors was still waiting to hear whether his wife was safe. Brent sat with him until he received word on her whereabouts.

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“Our neighbor worked from his apartment and his wife worked at the New York Stock Exchange,” Brent said. “By the time we got home, all of the phone lines were jammed and no calls could get out. I ended up sitting with him for an hour or so, and by this time the towers had collapsed and the stock exchange building was right around the corner. He didn’t know where his wife was.

“After a while, he needed to step outside to get some air and it was then that his phone rang. His wife had got caught in all of the smoke from when the towers came down, but she and a group of people were able to make it out safely. In his wife’s group, they had to walk from the stock exchange building all the way through the east side for several miles, across the park and on to the west side.

“Somebody’s spouse in that group of people was able to get a phone call through to the group and took all of the names and numbers of that group’s family members to let them know they were OK. And that was the call that came through to my neighbor.”

When the neighbor’s wife finally got home, her suit was covered in grey ash. She said everyone was trying to get away from the wall of ash that billowed up when the towers collapsed. People dove under cars, ran away or even jumped into the Hudson River.

“They just didn’t know what was behind that wall of ash, which was the scary thing,” Tina said.

Later that evening, out on the street around their apartment building, everyone came out with candles for a vigil to remember the thousands of people who died. It was the unity Tina remembers most. 

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The aftermath

In the days that followed the 9/11 attacks, the sound of fire trucks and police sirens were constant and the smell of ash lingered in the air. The chaos and horrific sights that engulfed New York City were nothing like anyone had seen before.

Almost immediately Brent had to go back to work. MCI, the telecommunications company for which he worked, brought a satellite phone truck filled with phone booths to the family crisis center so people could make free calls to anyone, anywhere.

“We manned that truck around the clock,” he said. “It was helpful for people who were from out of the country to make free phone calls around the world to their loved ones to let them know they were safe.”

Once he got back to his normal duties, he began helping financial institutions get back up and running so the stock exchange could reopen.

“The stock exchange had been closed down for five or six business days,” he said. “There were so many of our clients that had become disconnected from the stock exchange, and it seemed like for me and back then, the country needed the stock exchange back open and commerce going again.

Tina & Brent

“Pretty much we were working in constant shifts to get businesses and financial companies reconnected to the stock exchange so the country could open up for business again. It was a focus for the people in New York to show that it was going to power on, and for the stock exchange, reopening meant the city was going to come back.”

When Tina went back to work a few days after the attacks, she said for about a month after memorial services occurred every day.

“My office was next to the St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue,” she said. “I would be sitting in my office, and I could hear the bagpipes coming. Whenever you heard that sound, you knew it was a service member’s funeral.”

Tina also was a member of the Junior League and helped make food for the New York fire and police departments.

Remembering 9/11 15 years later

Even though it happened 15 years ago, Brent and Tina remember 9/11 as if it happened yesterday.

Fortunately, neither knew anyone who died in the attacks.

Tina & Brent

“We didn’t lose anyone,” Brent said. “We knew a few in the towers that, thankfully, made it out alive. But from that perspective, we were just two of the many in the city that day. We weren’t among the thousands who lost a parent or a spouse. We were just witnessing it.

“It’s not something we talk about much. It’s a strange day that 15 years later is still driving our country’s activities every second of every day.”

Shortly after their first child was born in 2002, they moved back to Texas. They now reside in Austin with their three children.

“9/11 is a reminder to hug our kids a little tighter, because so many children lost their parents that day,” Brent said. “It also is a source of motivation because of all of the people who had the courage to run into those buildings that day.”

Even though it was a terrible tragedy, both Brent and Tina are proud of how New York City rebuilt itself from the ashes.

“Seeing the New York community come together to help each other was wonderful,” Tina said. “It didn’t matter if you knew anyone or not. Everyone just came together and rallied around each other. The big city felt small after that.”


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