On top of the World Trade Center, a restaurant served as a ‘little UN’: How people still feel its legacy today
Originally Published in USA Today
Rebecca King – September 8, 2021
The restaurant Windows on the World showed off New York City at its most beautiful.
High above the bustle, situated on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, one could see sparkling Manhattan to the north, the zig-zagging bridges of Brooklyn to the east and the stately Statue of Liberty to the south.
Downtown office workers went there to drink and dine, as did tourists, New York natives entertaining visitors, folk celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, bosses treating workers to dinner.
In the kitchens, Windows employees from all over the world — about 450 people from more than two dozen countries — laughed over potluck meals quite different from what was served in the formal dining room. People from Bangladesh, India, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Australia and more brought in dishes from their home countries.
“I’m a Muslim, and at Ramadan, we fast from sunset to sundown,” remembers Sekou Siby, a former cook and dishwasher at Windows, now the executive director of Restaurant Opportunities Center United. “Afterwards, we would all break fast together. You’d see dishes from Indonesia, Pakistan, West Africa — where I’m from. Everyone was coming in with dishes.”
Bartender Frank Maelen said they called Windows “the little UN.”
Windows employees speak fondly of the golden years they spent working on top of the world. But we know how the story ends.
At 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, a plane crashed into the North Tower. All 79 people on the 107th floor died, including 72 staff members.
Yet not every story ended that day.
ROC United was founded in 2001 as a relief center for Windows workers and is still fighting for restaurant employee rights and social justice in the industry. Management created Windows of Hope, which raised millions of dollars for displaced workers, and is still providing financial aid for their children. Out-of-work employees began new careers outside of the restaurant industry.
And a tradition was born. Those who survived meet up every year on Sept. 11 to reconnect and honor the dead. They’ll gather again, most likely on video chat this year, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
The Greatest Bar on Earth
Luis Feglia, 73, who lives in Long Island and is originally from Uruguay, will attend. He was one of the “lucky ones,” he said.
Feglia worked as a captain, the highest rank of servers, at Windows. He had worked in several restaurants before, but nothing compared to the meticulous service required at Windows.
“The manager used to say we need to provide legendary service,” he said. “People need to leave and never forget their experience.”
The work was rewarding, he said. He made more than enough money to support his wife and three children, only working five days a week — a rarity in the restaurant industry, where long hours and daily service are often the only way to make ends meet.
Before the attack, Windows was the top-grossing restaurant in the country. It made about $40 million dollars a year in revenue. Banquet sales brought in $20 million. The bar grossed about $6 million in its last fiscal year.
Service was nearly non-stop at Windows, said Glenn Vogt, who worked as general manager. Wall Street workers and power brokers kicked off the day with a private breakfast club. The closer a person worked to the tower, the less expensive was their fee.
Lunch was served in the Windows dining room and bar, called the Greatest Bar on Earth. A more formal dinner was served at the former, whereas the Greatest Bar on Earth would have themed nights. Vogt remembers fondly one Latin-themed party called Mambo Baby. Hundreds of people waited in line at the elevators to come up and dance to the Latin bands performing that night.
“It was not only a special place, but I felt that it was the pinnacle of the industry,” said George Delgado, the head bartender at Windows who created The Greatest Bar on Earth’s signature cocktails. “There was no place to move up from there, in fact, I felt I couldn’t even make a lateral move from there, which ultimately led to entrepreneurial endeavors.”
A separate, more intimate restaurant called Wild Blue, tucked off the main Windows space, was a tiny hot-spot for locals, said Vogt. Tourists preferred to dine in the grander rooms.
“We didn’t just want people to come up and spend a lot of money,” said Vogt. “We were going to give you really good food, really good wine, really good cocktails.”
Warren Beatty would stop in for dinner with his family. Wayne Gretzky used the banquet space for a celebration when he retired from the Rangers. It was a place where celebrities, tourists and New Yorkers rubbed elbows.
“The restaurant was beautiful — on sunny days, rainy days,” Feglia said. “We could see everything. If the tower didn’t fall, we would all still be working there.”
On the morning of the attack, Feglia left the building at 1:30 a.m. after his shift.
He planned on returning to the building around 8 a.m. Though his shift started later, he had a meeting at 10 a.m. and planned on getting to the employee cafeteria early to eat breakfast and wait for the meeting. He dropped his son off at school that morning and, when he got home, dozed off on the sofa instead of heading in. He awoke to a call telling him to turn on the TV. He saw smoke billowing from the North Tower.
“We thought maybe somebody survived,” Feglia said. “Nobody survived. The city was so silent. Usually, there’s all this noise. I felt like people didn’t touch the ground when they walked.”
Vogt was driving into the city when he heard about the first plane crash on the radio. He was buzzing from an exciting meeting he had the day before about the upcoming Windows New Year’s Eve party. When he left his house he was looking forward to nailing down some specifics about the party. When he arrived in New York it was pandemonium.
Vogt was able to get into the city because a few Port Authority police officers recognized his car. He drove to the bottom of Tower 1.
“The top was down on my convertible,” he said. “I put it up and put my tie on. I remember looking in my car mirror, making sure my tie was perfect. I thought, ‘Oh, we’re going to have to be closed for months.’ I didn’t know the severity of what was going on.”
Few did. The lobby was full of firemen waiting for orders. As Vogt stood there, a person fell from the tower and landed close to him. “You have to get away from the building,” the firemen told him. “You’re going to get killed.”
Seeing people fall from the tower is still the hardest thing to process, said Vogt. He managed to drive out of the city. Shortly after, the first tower fell.
Windows of Hope
After the attack, nothing could make up for the lives lost or the trauma of helplessly watching the tower collapse from the ground. But people did what they could.
“I had people from all over the world calling me, saying they were thinking about me,” said Feglia. “It was very surprising, the kindness I received.”
FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, offered assistance. Therapy and psychological support were given. Customers reached out offering money and all-expenses-paid vacations. They told Feglia their doors were open if he needed to stay in their homes.
Most of the management team, said Vogt, wasn’t in the building during the attack. They made it their mission, he said, to get people the help they needed. Vogt worked every day, figuring out the legal and financial support they could offer the displaced employees. They founded Windows of Hope, an organization that raised $30 million in relief money for employees.
At some point, Windows workers were given money to visit their home countries — Feglia can’t remember by whom. There were too many government agencies, organizations and individuals offering support. Feglia went to Uruguay for a time to heal and be with family.
“We had a lot of workers that were undocumented who died,” Feglia said. “We all tried to help their families.”
There was no government assistance set up for undocumented people, yet Windows of Hope and other support organizations wrote out checks to the families of the about 15 undocumented employees who died.
“It really helped a lot of people survive,” said Vogt. “There were a lot of people who passed away who were the main breadwinners. Not just for their families in New York, but back in their home countries, too.”
Windows of Hope handed out $20 million to 110 families with collectively 160 children — not just employees of Windows, but other food service workers from the towers. The other $10 million was put in a low-risk investment fund to be used to cover educational costs for the children of the deceased.
Vogt said they defined children as the unborn (some women were pregnant) to young adults in college — up to doctorate programs. The money paid for nursery schools, private schools, medical programs.
“No questions asked. We just wrote the checks,” said Vogt. “You hear about good things coming out of terrible things.”
The fund is now worth about $22 million, said Vogt. Windows intends to keep dolling out money until 2022.
For Gen Z, Sept. 11 is history:Here’s how they’ve come to understand the attacks
Meanwhile, the prototype of what is now ROC United was forming.
A relief center that gave money and support to former Windows employees morphed into the nonprofit ROC United in 2002.
One of the organization’s first collective actions was staging a demonstration to express what they perceived as a betrayal by David Emil, the president of the company that owned Windows on the World. Emil, they said, promised to offer jobs to Windows workers at his new Times Square restaurant Noche, but fell short of that promise.
”The truth is, a restaurant of this scale can’t possibly have jobs for all of our former employees,” Emil told the New York Times, which wrote about the demonstration. ”Unfortunately, there are a number of former Windows employees who feel that they are entitled to a job at Noche, whether or not they are qualified or even whether a job exists.”
ROC United also founded a restaurant called Colors, which opened in Manhattan in 2006. The goal was to give Windows workers a job, while offering training to help others gain experience in the restaurant industry. According to Eater New York, the restaurant was slammed with allegations of late payments and alleged wage theft. It closed in 2017 and reopened with a bold vision in December 2019.
Breaking from the tip-based wage model used at most restaurants, Colors paid servers $15 an hour plus tips, and back-of-house workers made $18.30 an hour. Colors, despite its ambitious goal, opened and closed and opened again, eventually faltering due to mismanagement, said Siby, and shuttered for good in 2020.
ROC United continues to offer bartending and serving training online, as well as entrepreneurial classes. Siby said they predominantly train women and people of color.
ROC United attempts to do what Windows did — provide well-paying jobs to underrepresented people.
“ROC wouldn’t have been born without Windows,” said Siby. “This is an organization that has benefited thousands.”
It’s a small comfort, said Siby, for those who survived.
The ‘lucky ones’
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years,” said Maelen, who started his shift at Windows at 2 p.m. — which wound up saving his life. “It’s always with me. But it does get harder around this time of year.”
He’ll join other survivors at the Sept. 11 gathering.
“It’s a celebration,” he said. “There’s a lot of story-telling and laughter because that’s what we choose to focus on.”
There’s always a lot to catch up on. The 9/11 catastrophe sent the tight-knit Windows family spiraling in hundreds of different directions. Windows was a microcosm of New York in a single floor high above the city, full of mechanics and cleaners, cooks and servers, managers and bartenders. People who knew how to fix a sink and others who could raise a soufflé.
“People found out they could do things they never wanted to do before,” said Feglia. “A lot of us found brand new careers.”
Feglia became a real estate agent. He knows people who became teachers and doctors. Siby rose from a volunteer at ROC United to a community organizer and now heads it as executive director. Vogt took a break from the restaurant industry for a while, but eventually went on to work at restaurants such as Crabtree’s Kittle House in Chappaqua, New York. He’s now a partner at RiverMarket Bar and Kitchen in Tarrytown, New York.
Their time at Windows unites them all.
“There’s joy and sadness. It’s a time to be with people you worked with and remember all the great workers we lost,” said Siby of the yearly event — a gathering of the “lucky ones.”
Siby’s daughter, who is starting her third year of nursing school, was born on Oct. 3, 2001, less than a month after the attack. “I could have lost the chance of seeing my daughter,” he said.
Delgato’s family, too, has brought him joy during the most difficult times. He met his future wife, Frances, at Windows in 1996. His daughter, Genevieve, was a baby in 2001, and his son, George Jr., was born on Sept. 9, 2002. Delgato brought George Jr. home from the hospital on the 11th, which he said, “greatly helped me cope with every 9/11 since.”
“For me, 9/11 redefined loss, and redefined fear,” Delgato said. “There was nothing to lose after what my friends and co-workers lost, and there was no fear of failure after living through that nightmare.”
Feglia said he sometimes cries on the anniversary of the attack, even as he remembers the kindness he saw in its wake. He recalls seeing a Black woman with two young children in Times Square that day. Three white men with suits and ties on were helping the woman with her baby.
“I thought, if the towers never fell, I would have never seen this,” he said. “There were no colors — everyone was the same.”
Feglia’s mother died when he was 14. He always wished his mother could have met his sons, who now have children of their own.
“God gave me a chance to know my grandchildren, to spend 20 more years with my wife and friends,” he said. “And sometimes I ask myself this question: ‘Why them and not me?’ Luck? Destiny?”
Twenty years later, does he have an answer?
“No,” he said. “I still haven’t found it.”
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