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11/23/2001

Tragic Experience Sends Pharmacist Back to His Profession

Donna Young

Last spring, pharmacist Gavin H. Yee decided he needed a change in his life. While working for seven years as a pharmacist for California’s Orange County correctional system, Yee pursued master’s degrees in business administration and electronic commerce.

In May, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co.’s Pasadena, California, office hired Yee as a financial adviser.

After a few months on the job, Yee said, he was required to attend a three-week sales training seminar in New York City.

Yee stayed in a hotel near Central Park and said he spent the Sunday before his training began visiting sights around New York and "just being a tourist."

The following day—the first day of the Morgan Stanley seminar—the weather in New York was rainy and blustery, Yee said.

It was September 10.

"I didn’t have a good feeling about the whole thing," Yee said. "I thought I was going to be sitting in my hotel room being depressed for the next three weeks. At that time, I thought it was because I wasn’t sure if I had made the right decision in changing jobs. I even told my brother on the way to the airport that I didn’t have a good feeling about the trip. But I thought the seminar would give me an opportunity to find out if I was doing the right thing."

But the next day, Yee said, the sun was shining bright. And by then, he added, he had settled in and was looking forward to the next three weeks of training.

Yee and about 280 other trainees gathered early that morning in a conference room on the 61st floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower.

"The first speaker had just completed his presentation, and we decided to take a break," Yee said. "It needed to be a long break to let those who are smokers have enough time to go to the ground floor to smoke outside."

Yee left the conference room. It was a little past 8:30 a.m. About 15 minutes later, he entered the hallway from another room when suddenly the fire alarm sounded.

"I didn’t know what was going on," he said. "I thought it was a fire drill. Some people told me we had to leave the building right away. Some of the other trainees told me they had been looking out the window and saw debris falling. They told me they saw paper, lots of paper in the air, and that some of it was on fire."

Yee said he quickly followed several other people down the stairwell.

"When we got to the 44th floor, we had to stop at a landing that led to the next set of stairs," he said. "We were sort of stuck there for a few minutes."

At that time, Yee said, a voice came over the building’s public address system and announced that a plane had crashed into the building next door.

American Airlines Flight 11, which had departed earlier that morning from Boston’s Logan Airport and was bound for Los Angeles, had just slammed into the Trade Center’s North Tower.

"But they said that Tower 2 was secure and, at our discretion, we could continue to evacuate, remain where we were, or return to our suites," he said.

Yee said he and his colleagues stood in the elevator area of the 44th floor, trying to decide whether to continue on down the stairs or return to their conference room. When suddenly, he said, "the building rocked."

"I was looking down to the end of the hallway, and I saw flames. I thought: ‘Gee, this is kind of interesting.’ It sort of reminded me of when I once [shocked] myself when I was trying to fix a desk lamp and I stuck the screwdriver into the wrong spot. It was the same sort of shock."

Yee and his colleagues entered the stairwell that went to the ground floor.

"I felt pretty detached from reality at that point," he said.

When Yee and several other people reached the ground floor, rescue workers led them through a corridor of the Trade Center’s underground mall that eventually led up to the street, he said.

"I suppose if I would have stopped, I could have seen really bad things," Yee said. "But I just wanted to get out of there."

Yee and his colleagues headed in a direction of what they thought was east.

"When we reached Chinatown we sort of got our bearings," Yee said. "We sort of got a view of everything then. We saw a big cloud of black smoke that, . . . we found out later, was probably when Tower 2 was coming down. We tried to use some pay phones, but they weren’t working. We consulted a map. We walked for a long distance."

Yee’s hotel was several blocks away. So, he said, he went to a colleague’s hotel room where they spent the rest of the day watching news reports on television.

"It wasn’t until then that we really knew what was going on," he said. "I was able to reach my parents in California from the hotel’s phone. They didn’t have a clue about what I was talking about. I said, ‘Just listen and accept this for what it’s worth.’ They knew I was going to be in New York, but they didn’t know I was going to be at the World Trade Center."

The training course was canceled.

The Federal Aviation Administration suspended all air travel that week, so Morgan Stanley chartered a bus for the trainees so they could return to their homes.

Yee spent three days on a long cross-country ride from New York to California.

"I re-evaluated pretty much everything," he said. "I’ve decided I want to return to pharmacy. I’m right now in the process of trying to get my old job back."