Daniel Hoffe’s license plate now reads: “Carpe Diem.”
He doesn’t remember when he changed it, but it was sometime after 9/11. Since that day, the former Longboat Key resident thinks he had become more grateful for life, more spiritually in touch and more willing to hug the people he loves.
“Every day, I’m more appreciative,” Hoffe said. “I think of everything I’ve done in the past 10 years. And I think it could have been stolen from me.”
He was in the South Tower of the World Trade Center for his second day of a three-week Morgan Stanley training program on the morning of Sept. 11. He was on the 61st floor, probably for a coffee break when American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower. He didn’t see the impact but saw the tower ablaze and thousands of documents pouring from the skyscraper. The window glass in the South Tower cracked as a result of the impact.
Hoffe and others made their way down the stairwell in the South Tower.
“As we’re walking down, there was an announcement that Tower One had been struck but Tower Two was secure,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Thank God, we’re safe.’ Maybe five or 10 seconds later, the second plane struck. When that hit us, my first thought was, ‘We almost made it.’”
Hoffe said those inside the stairwell didn’t know at the time the building had been struck. They felt the building shake and sway and felt the smoke blow up from beneath them while jet fuel poured down the HVAC, but he thought the impact could have been the result of damage to the North Tower.
In that narrow stairwell, Hoffe recalls the way people instantly bonded with the person walking next to them.
“You became a team,” Hoffe said. “The guy next to me, I think, was from EuroBrothers. It was like, ‘The ninth floor. Thank God it hasn’t collapsed. The eighth floor. We’ve made it another floor.’”
They came out through the mall underneath the World Trade Center.
“When we got back, I was so happy to have the blue sky above me,” Hoffe said. “That was my goal. I turned around, and the thing I’ll never forget is this beautiful sky and then that horrible sight. My first thought was, ‘This can’t be happening.’ My second thought was, ‘This can’t be happening to me.’”
While some people wanted to stay and see what was happening, Hoffe insisted on leaving and walking toward mid-town — something that, in retrospect, he considers the best decision of his life.
It wasn’t until he spoke to utility workers who told him that the Pentagon also had been hit that he realized the magnitude of the day’s event.
Hoffe isn’t sure when he realized the South Tower had collapsed. But at some point, as he walked, he turned around and saw that the tower no longer stood.
The first person Hoffe called that day was his wife. He left her a message saying that a plane had hit the tower, that he was OK and that he was trying to reach her while sirens blared in the background. He still has that message — an eerie reminder of that day’s tragedy.
Hoffe stayed in New York for the next three days before driving back to the Sarasota area. Immediately upon his return, he and other survivors began giving talks about their experiences on Sept. 11 to raise money for the New York Firefighters Benevolent Fund.
“It was cathartic to be able to get out and do something,” Hoffe said. “The real heroes of that day were the firefighters and those who lost their lives.”
Later, they directed their energy toward “Triumph Over Tragedy,” an event held on the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11 that raised more than $100,000 to purchase lifesaving equipment for the Sarasota County Fire Department.
Hoffe said this year, he plans to attend the 9/11 Memorial March and Celebration in Payne Park. There, he’ll say a few words at a ceremony of remembrance. He also will be speaking at “Triumph Over Tragedy: Remembering 9/11 a Decade Later” at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 7, at USF Sarasota-Manatee campus.
For Hoffe, now 45, Sept. 11 of every year brings him back to that tragic day of 2001. But he doesn’t want to forget it, because he believes that if people forget, history could repeat itself. His desk at Sarasota’s BB&T, where he is now vice president and wealth management adviser, faces a series of five photographs his friend took of the first plane hitting the North Tower.
“You don’t want to let people forget,” he said. “Part of me will always be in that stairwell.”
Read more Longboat 9/11 coverage here.