Deborah Bohren, Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield vice president of public affairs, said her life was probably saved by her being at work by 8: 30 a.m. last Tuesday and by having an office on the 28th floor of One World Trade Center, the north tower. If she had arrived at work 10 minutes later, or if her office had been in one of the tower's higher floors, she might not be alive.
As it was, she saw the south tower collapse as she and another Empire employee were making their way toward the East River. When the second airplane crashed into the World Trade Center and they felt an incredible rumbling under their feet, they started to run. It took less than an hour after the plane's impact for the south tower to come crashing down.
Bohren's personal account of her experience, marching down 28 flights of stairs and into the plaza of the World Trade Center after the first airplane crashed into the north tower, reflects the broader good fortune of her employer, New York state's largest health insurer.
Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield occupied 10 floors and 461,000 square feet of office space in the north tower of the World Trade Center. The company also had 1,914 employees who worked out of those offices. Although the insurer's headquarters were reduced to rubble, miraculously, as of Thursday, all but nine of the employees who had worked in those offices were accounted for, and only four were still hospitalized.
The day after its offices were destroyed, Empire, which has roughly 4.4 million enrollees in a 28-county area of eastern New York, already was open again for business, with a temporary headquarters at its existing offices in Melville, N.Y., on Long Island.
The company's chief executive officer, Michael Stocker, M.D., had been en route by train to Washington for a meeting when the tragedy struck last Tuesday morning. Caught between the two stricken cities, he turned back, although he could not get back into New York City that night.
Bohren said the company was fortunate to have none of its offices higher than the 31st floor of the 110-story tower. Employees were well below the impact point of the first crash, and, as the north tower was the second to collapse, they had more time to escape. Because company policy said employees must be at work by 8: 30 a.m., most employees already were at their desks, not caught in elevators, entryways or passageways.
Empire moved quickly to set up a toll-free hot line last week that employees and their families could use to report in and find out about grief counseling. And as quickly as possible, employees were getting back to work, Bohren said. The company has also already begun to look for permanent office space, both in and outside the city.
According to a statement from Stocker, the company lost two days' worth of incoming mail. The bulk of customer service and claims-processing operations were at facilities in Albany, N.Y., Melville and Middletown, N.Y. Empire's telephone lines have been rerouted, and electronic claims were being processed normally late last week. Bohren said any paper insurance claims filed after Sept. 6 should be resubmitted and should be mailed to the old addresses for rerouting.
"We are up and running," Bohren said. "It takes time and energy and money, but you can lay down new phone switches. It's the human resource that we need to focus on."