Ed Fine wants his life back
In the third of a six-part series profiling memorable figures among the survivors of Sept. 11, PETER CHENEY catches up with Ed Fine, whose dust-covered image became an icon of 'the indomitable spirit of the American businessman.' He liked the attention, but drew more profound conclusions after the dust settled.
By PETER CHENEY
Monday, March 11, 2002
WATCHUNG, N.J. -- Ed Fine is a man who appreciates order. He has given letter-perfect directions to the house in suburban New Jersey where he will give what he says is his final interview.
Mr. Fine arrives early. He's wearing a houndstooth jacket, carefully pressed black slacks and shoes that have been buffed to a high polish. He's 59, a personable man who worked in corporate finance for decades without attracting attention outside his own small circles.
Now, sitting in his son's home in Watchung, a quiet bedroom community an hour from New York, he reflects on the circumstances that briefly lifted him from obscurity and made him an icon.
"No one would ever have dreamed up what happened to me. I certainly never did."
Mr. Fine's anonymity came to an end six months ago, when he became the subject of one of the most memorable photographs taken Sept. 11. The picture, taken by Agence France-Presse photographer Stan Honda, captured Mr. Fine as he walked through a cloud of debris, his suit covered in dust, a paper towel held over his mouth and nose, his briefcase still clamped in his hand.
Something about his photograph clicked with the public. One news writer said Mr. Fine "symbolized the indomitable spirit of the American businessman." The photograph was reprinted in newspapers and magazines around the world.
At first, Mr. Fine didn't even know his picture had been taken. But the weekend after the attacks, a friend called and said, "Hey, Ed, you're on the cover of Fortune magazine."
Mr. Fine went out to get a copy. His first thought when he saw it was, "That's not how I pictured being on the cover of Fortune."
He called the magazine, only to discover that they had been trying to find him for days. Like many others photographed on Sept. 11, Mr. Fine hadn't been identified -- the photographers were shooting at a feverish pace, not taking time to write down people's names.
After he was identified, Mr. Fine found himself caught up in a media circus. His telephone rang constantly. One of the calls was from the Today show; another was from Oprah Winfrey, who wanted to do a show about people whose lives had been devastated by Sept. 11. Mr. Fine replied that he wasn't devastated, so he wouldn't appear.
A short time later, he found himself on an NBC set, sitting across from Katie Couric. After years of watching the show, he found it thrilling to be on the other side of the camera. After a lifetime of obscurity, Mr. Fine enjoyed his time in the spotlight.
"It was fun. A guy like me doesn't normally get to be on the news."
But now he wants it all to stop. After six months of publicity, Mr. Fine says he's through doing interviews. "I've had enough of all this. I'm a regular guy who got his 15 minutes of fame. Now it's time to get back to my regular life."
No one who knew Mr. Fine, least of all himself, ever expected him to become a worldwide symbol of anything.
He grew up on Long Island, the son of an accountant who went on to become an accountant as well. He has been married to his wife Ingrid for 37 years, with two grown children who live near their home in New Jersey.
Mr. Fine spent years achieving quiet success in the corporate world. After working for years at Intercapital Planning Corp., a New York firm where he was ultimately appointed chief financial officer, he struck out on his own and founded a number of businesses, including a financial-services company and a plastics manufacturer.
Since last year, he has been running two companies with his son Stuart: EIF Capital Services, and a consulting firm called Carpe Diem. The companies are run, electronic-village-style, from their homes in New Jersey, using computers, telephones and fax machines.
Mr. Fine gives his job title as "entrepreneur," and says he's proud of the fact that he briefly became a symbol of the tenacity of capitalism.
Mr. Fine ventures into New York only rarely. He says he probably visited the World Trade Center only three or four times last year. On Sept. 11, he went to the building for a meeting on the 87th floor of the North Tower, the first building to be hit. When the jet flew into the building, between the 94th and 99th floors, Mr. Fine was on his way to the ground, waiting to change elevators on the 78th floor.
He had no idea of what had happened -- he thought a bomb had gone off. The building started to fill with smoke. Mr. Fine saw an illuminated exit sign and followed it, only to find that it led to a dead end -- someone had locked the stairway door, and no one in the nearby offices knew where the key was. This bothered Mr. Fine, who has a Boy Scout's instinct for preparation. He has always been the type who automatically checked to see where the exits are in theatres and airplanes.
So he focused on the immediate and the practical: He found a staircase and started down. He was still holding his briefcase. As he descended, he calculated his rate of progress, checked his watch, and estimated that he could still get to his next appointment, which was just a few blocks away.
Somewhere around the 60th floor, the stairwell traffic began to slow as firefighters started making their way up from ground level. Mr. Fine was starting to feel fatigued. He loosened his tie. He considered setting his briefcase in the stairwell and coming back for it later, but he was intent on making his meeting.
It was only when he emerged from the building that he realized how bad things were. The street was strewn with flaming wreckage. The bodies of people who had jumped from the tower were scattered around the sidewalk. A line of emergency workers motioned him away from the building.
Mr. Fine had started walking up the street when his thigh muscles began to cramp. He heard a terrific explosion and turned back to the building. It was starting to collapse, imploding downward in an incredible grey column.
Someone screamed, "Run!"
Mr. Fine tried to obey, but he could manage nothing more than a shuffle -- his thigh muscles had now seized up almost completely. As he moved forward, he noticed a priest and a firefighter staring back at the building. He followed their gaze and saw a colossal cloud of smoke and debris advancing down the street toward him like a dark wall. The priest, the firefighter and Mr. Fine all dropped to the ground.
For the first time, Mr. Fine thought he might die. He says he found it ironic that God might allow him to escape from the building, only to let him perish on the street. Then, he remembered that a woman had handed him a damp paper towel as he passed in the staircase. He took it out of his pocket and held it over his nose and mouth.
A short time later, light began to penetrate the gloom. Mr. Fine stood up and began to walk in the direction he believed was north. His briefcase was still in his hand, and he still had the paper towel at his mouth. As he moved out of harm's way, the photographer took his picture.
Mr. Fine came through the disaster almost unscathed. He went back to work just a week and a half later. After a checkup, his doctor said he was "perfectly fine."
"You seem incredibly calm and collected," the doctor said.
Mr. Fine replied, "I am."
He credits "blind ignorance" with ensuring his escape. "I had no idea what was really going on. I just kept thinking about getting out."
Likewise, he says, his limited view of the tragedy may have saved his mental health. "I didn't know what was really happening, and I wasn't responsible for anyone else. I only had to take care of myself."
Mr. Fine still has the suit he was wearing, a grey, Joseph A. Banks single-breasted model he bought in the late 1990s for about $300 (U.S.). He took it to a cleaner, and $10 later it looked nearly new.
Even though he was unharmed, Mr. Fine says he was changed by his experience. He recalls that as he prepared for bed at his home in North Plainfield on the night of Sept. 11, he looked out his window and saw a huge buck deer lying on his lawn. The deer turned and stared at him.
"It was like I was looking into God's eyes," he says. "And he was looking into my soul. He was saying to me, 'If you thought you were alone, you weren't. I was with you every step of the way.' "
Mr. Fine has found himself increasingly convinced that a higher power was at work that day, and has given new consideration to religious teachings that he hadn't thought about for years.
"I believe I was saved for a reason," he says. "But I don't know what that reason is. I believe that everything is in some way interconnected -- all the inches and seconds of our lives. You don't know how, but they are."
He has sometimes thought how easily things could have gone differently for him on Sept. 11. The elevator he was waiting for could have arrived more quickly, for example. If he had boarded it, he would probably have been trapped and died, rather than emerging as a minor celebrity.
But in the end, he has simply decided to accept his good fortune.
"It could have been me," he says. "But it wasn't."
Copyright © 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Help & Contact Us | Back to the top of this page