Broken Windows

Tragedy strikes New York City, and a culinary landmark is lost

Sep 21, 2001

The morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, began as it always did for Michael Lomonaco, the executive chef of Windows on the World. With one exception: Before ascending to his kitchen near the top of the World Trade Center's north tower, he stopped off to get a new pair of reading glasses. It was 8:15 a.m.

Within half an hour, terrorist hijackers would fly an airliner into the north tower. The entire Windows on the World morning staff would be trapped above the impact site, on the 106th and 107th floors. And Michael Lomonaco would be running for his life.

"There was debris falling all around me, burning," said Lomonaco, who fled from the concourse of the Trade Center into the chaotic streets. "Paper was raining down like confetti."

Once clear of immediate danger, Lomonaco paused to witness the horrific scene, the north tower hemorrhaging black smoke. "I started to head back, to be near an exit when my friends got down. That's when the second plane hit."

At 9:05, a second hijacked plane slammed into the south tower, its full load of jet fuel exploding in an orange fireball. "I wandered north and west for what seemed like hours," Lomonaco said. "Then the south tower collapsed."

By 10:30, just over two hours after Lomonaco had arrived at the World Trade Center, the north tower, and with it Windows on the World, would lie in a smoldering crater of twisted steel and shattered concrete. Of the restaurant's 450 employees, an estimated 76 were lost. As of Sept. 21, the estimated death toll from the Trade Center attack had risen to a staggering 6,333 victims. Hundreds more were killed when a third plane slammed into the Pentagon and a fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania.

But even as the overwhelming scale of the tragedy paralyzed financial markets and grounded air traffic, it did not shut down the New York City restaurant community.

At St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village, less than 2 miles from the Trade Center, medical personnel gathered to aid the injured. Around the corner from the hospital, the James Beard House, a culinary institution, canceled its scheduled dinner, and guest chef Philip Mihalski of Nell's Restaurant in Seattle sent the food that he had prepared for the event to the St. Vincent trauma teams and a nearby police command center.

By Wednesday, Sept. 12, a hastily assembled coalition of restaurateurs calling themselves "Chefs with Spirit" had organized regular meal deliveries to rescue workers at Ground Zero. Led by Drew Nieporent of the Myriad Restaurant Group and Danny Meyer, owner of Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, the lineup of chefs included Tribeca Grill's Don Pintabona; Mesa Grill's Bobby Flay; Daniel Boulud of Daniel; Grey Kunz, formerly of Lespinasse; Charlie Palmer of Aureole; and Tonic's Joseph Fortunato.

Authorities had sealed off lower Manhattan below 14th Street, so City Harvest, a New York food charity, contributed a fleet of refrigerated trucks, and a convoy system was set up to deliver cooked meals to Tonic, four blocks north of the cutoff line. From there, a police escort led the trucks to Tribeca Grill, just blocks from the World Trade Center ruins. Dozens of food purveyors donated tens of thousands of dollars worth of provisions to the effort.

On Friday, ships from Spirit Cruises were pressed into service to transport food to the site of the attacks. The Spirit of New York was docked a few hundred yards from Ground Zero, while another vessel, the Spirit of New Jersey, served as a commissary farther uptown. Boulud, Kuntz and Palmer all put in marathon shifts preparing meals for grateful firefighters.

"I'm in complete awe of how appreciative the rescue workers were," said Steve Schwartz, Spirit Cruises' regional director. "They're thanking us, when what we should be doing is thanking them."

One week later, as control of the food-relief effort began to shift to federal agencies and national organizations, including the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, the food donations continued to come in. Eventually, it became too much for New York to handle, and so the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, another hunger-relief charity working on the relief efforts, opened their huge warehouses to the overflow. All of the contributed food is needed, as authorities estimate that the disaster relief effort could take a year.

By Wednesday, Sept. 19, a grim sense of loss had settled in, but it did not distract the New York restaurant and wine communities from resolving to help the families of the Windows on the World victims. "Tom Valenti, the chef at Ouest, called me immediately," said Lomonaco. "He said we had to do something."

A meeting of more than 50 wine and restaurant professionals took place at Ouest, presided over by Windows' owner David Emil, Lomonaco, Valenti and Waldy Malouf, the chef at Windows' Upper West Side sister restaurant, Beacon. Their objective was to organize the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund, which plans to kick off its efforts nationwide on Oct. 11, one month to the day from the attacks.

"It's not just for families of the Windows employees," explained Glenn Vogt, the general manger of the restaurant, "but for survivors of any food worker lost in the trade center -- a pizza maker from Sbarro on the concourse, or a cafeteria worker in a corporate kitchen on the 44th floor. Many people we lost are not high-paid workers, but they are the sole support of their families, and our concern and the industry's concern is to try to take care of these people."

Vogt was in his car on the West Side Highway at the time of the attacks, and heard the news on the radio. "I drove right down and parked one block north. I really thought I was going to help my friends. I walked right up to the front of the north tower and stood there knowing that my friends were up there. Helpless."

Vogt learned later that two wine cellar employees were among the missing. "We had a little over 50,000 bottles on hand," he said. "Most of the wine was stored in the subbasement of the south tower. The assistant cellar master's job was to go down to that temperature-controlled storage and replace the wines sold the night before. It was a real ordeal. We lost two assistant cellar masters, who always got there early to get things in order: Stephen Adams and Jeffrey Coale. So bright and passionate about wine."

From the beginning, in 1976, the wine program was one of the principal strengths at Windows. In 1981, the restaurant was one of the original Wine Spectator Grand Award winners, and that year hosted the first Wine Spectator Grand Award Wine Weekend. This extraordinary commitment to wine was due to visionary impresario Joe Baum, who created Windows, and Kevin Zraly, the pioneering sommelier and educator who shaped the restaurant's list and established its wine school.

"In 1976, everybody said it couldn't work," recalled Zraly. "They said the World Trade Center was a mistake. No one would go downtown. But I was the happiest guy in the world. To work with the gurus of the wine and restaurant business, like Joe Baum, Alexis Lichine, Sam Aaron and James Beard. And it was a success from day one."

The Windows on the World Wine School also began in 1976. From modest beginnings as a public relations service for the restaurant, it grew into one of the most highly respected wine schools in the country. "We taught more than 14,000 students over the years," Zraly said. "Classes went on uninterrupted for 25 years, even through the 1993 bombing, which closed the restaurant for three years. And we were sold out for this semester." He said the wine school will resume classes for now at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.

The attacks directly affected other members of the wine world. Christian Adams, the 37-year-old deputy director of the German Wine Institute, who was heading from a trade tasting in New York to one San Francisco, was on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.

Lucio Caputo, president of the Italian Wine and Food Institute, took an office in the Trade Center when it opened and had worked there for most of the 25 years since. On the day of the attack, as on every day, Caputo had breakfast at Windows before heading to his office on the 78th floor, at 8:30. When the plane hit, he headed for the stairs. Less than a minute after he reached the street, the building collapsed behind him.

"The stairs were like a river of mud and water," he said of his escape from the building with his staff, all of whom made it out. "It was hot, slow and hard to breathe. The firemen were going up the stairs with all their equipment. Their faces were dire."

But when the wounds finally heal, positive memories will linger, vow those closest to the tragedy.

"We all knew that we were lucky to work at such an amazing restaurant," said Vogt, who joined the staff in 1998. "We were so proud that we served the most diverse clientele in the world. And I believe we employed the most diverse work force of any restaurant in the country. It really was a window on the world."

"It was a spectacular place," agreed Lomonaco, who became chef there in 1997. "I had a great time up there. It was a delight. The thing that I'll remember the most is what a wonderful group of people I got to work with. Everyone had the best of intentions and did the best they could, and I think they succeeded in making it the very best it could be. It was much more than a tourist attraction. If you wanted to be part of New York in a very special way, you went to Windows. New York will never see its like again."

In response to this tragedy, Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator, is donating $50,000 to the Windows of Hope fund from the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation. "It's our industry's obligation and privilege to assist the families of the food service workers lost at Windows and elsewhere in the Trade Center," Shanken said.

NOTE: Donations to the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund may be sent to:
Windows of Hope
c/o David Burden & Co. LLP
415 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10017
Checks should be made payable to "Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund"


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