Windows on the World chef on his near-miss on 9/11 — he stopped off at the World Trade Center concourse to repair his glasses

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Charles Passy

Because of a twist of fate, Michael Lomonaco wasn’t working at Windows on the World when the first plane hit the twin towers

Michael Lomonaco escaped with his life on Sept. 11, 2001 all because of a detour on his way to work and a pair of busted reading glasses.

On that day, the New York City chef was headed to his job as culinary director of Windows on the World, the famed dining space at the World Trade Center. He took on the position in 1997 after an already impressive career that included stints at such iconic Big Apple eateries as Le Cirque and the 21 Club.

But Windows represented a towering next step, literally and figuratively, since it was a high-profile restaurant situated near the top of one of the Trade Center’s twin towers.

It was also an extremely demanding job — the “restaurant,” spread across the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower, was actually a few dining and drinking spots rolled into one, serving as many as 1,000 customers a day. And that meant Lomonaco typically put in long hours, arriving at 8:30 a.m. and working through dinner. It also meant he had little time to attend to personal chores.

So, Lomonaco took advantage of whatever free moments fell his way. And on the morning of Sept. 11, he used one such moment to get his glasses fixed, pushed to make an appointment by his wife ahead of an Italian vacation the couple was taking the following week. He was at a LensCrafters store in the Trade Center’s shopping concourse when the first plane hit.

MarketWatch spoke with the 66-year-old chef, who now heads Porter House Bar and Grill and Hudson Yards Grill, two restaurants in New York City, to talk about what happened that day and how he has since moved on with his life.

8:46 a.m.: The first plane hits the North Tower

Lomonaco was originally scheduled to visit the LensCrafters at noon on Sept. 11. But because he was running ahead of schedule due to a lighter-than-normal commute, he decided to pay a visit early that morning when he had a chance — “What chef doesn’t want to save time?” — with the hope he could be accommodated. “I thought, ‘Let me see if I can do this now.'” The store indeed had an opening.

When the first plane hit at 8:46 a.m., Lomonaco was still at LensCrafters. “We were minutes away from being finished…They were probably about to sell me a new frame,” he says. Suddenly, he was jolted by the crash. “I just thought, ‘Could that be the subway?’ It turns out it was the impact of the first plane.” The lights flickered and then went out in the store. And within a minute or two, the building’s security team arrived and advised that the concourse was being evacuated.

When Lomonaco got to the street, he saw that “the sky was littered with paper, like confetti. That was all from the offices.” He also saw “smoldering, burning debris” on the ground. “I took it to be a small car,” he says, but he realizes now it was probably part of the plane’s fuselage.

He headed away to make calls at a pay phone since his cell service was out. He reached his wife — “I said, ‘I don’t know what’s happened. I just want you to know I’m outside” — and the Windows on the World ownership. He started thinking of his employees at the restaurant. “I was trying to make a mental list of who was working.” He figured he’d return immediately to the Trade Center. “If I can help in any way, I thought, ‘Let me go help.’ It was not logical. It was emotional.”

9:03 a.m.: The second plane hits the South Tower

But Lomonaco didn’t make it back to the scene. Instead, he was one of many bewildered New Yorkers on the street when the second plane hit at 9:03 a.m. “I heard the roar of the jet engines. I looked up at the moment of impact,” Lomonaco recalls. And then, he realized the full gravity of the situation: “This is an attack. We’re under attack.” Someone grabbed his arm and tried to pull him into a building — “They offered me safety” — but he walked north.

Eventually, he stopped to see the damage. “It was terrifying and shocking all at once…I could see people waving tablecloths out the windows of what I took to be the restaurant. I imagined they broke the windows. I imagined the space was filled with smoke.” At 9:59 am., the South Tower collapsed, followed by the North Tower at 10:28 a.m. The Twin Towers were gone, but Lomonaco remained safe.

The aftermath

Lomonaco says that 79 people who worked at Windows lost their lives that day. So did 91 restaurant guests (the dining spot had its a.m. regulars and was also hosting a conference that morning). The Windows staff was a diverse, international group — to the point the team referred to itself as the “little UN.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, Lomonaco helped set up the Windows of Hope fund to support the families of Windows employees who died, along with the families of other Trade Center food-service workers who perished.

“These are people who could be easily forgotten, overlooked and neglected, the people (often) at the lowest strata of the economic pay scale,” he says. To date, the fund has raised $22 million.

A new chapter in New York

After 9/11, Lomonaco held different restaurant and consulting positions. He also says he had some choice opportunities to work in Chicago, San Francisco, Las Vegas and elsewhere. But he never considered leaving the city post 9/11: “I’m a native New Yorker and I was never going to move after this.”

Eventually, he got to realize a dream and establish his own restaurant in Porter House, a steakhouse with an upscale, gourmet-centric approach. In many ways, the Midtown establishment, which is celebrating its 15 anniversary this year, is a continuation of Windows on the World, since Lomonaco borrowed some culinary ideas he began exploring at Wild Blue, the restaurant-within-a-restaurant at the Trade Center dining spot. Lomonaco also brought aboard key staff people he had at Windows.

Lomonaco recalls how people were hesitant to return to restaurants in New York after 9/11. And the same has been true during the pandemic, albeit for different reasons. It took him many months before he reopened Porter House. And he’s finally reopening Hudson Yards Grill, his other establishment, in the coming weeks. But Lomonaco remains bullish on the city and its dining scene. “New York may be down, but you can never count us out,” he says.

Lomonaco notes that he was hardly the only one to cheat death on 9/11. Indeed, customers left Windows as late as 8:44 a.m., according to one report.

“Many people survived that day in other ways, too,” Lomonaco says. But he considers himself “among the fortunate.” And ever since 9/11, he has aimed to look forward. “I’ve tried to balance my life by never taking life for granted,” he concludes.

-Charles Passy

 

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09-11-21 1112ET

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