On His Birthday 20 Years Ago, Tom Lo Escaped the South Tower of the World Trade Center. He Vowed Never to Waste Another Day

Twenty years ago, Tom Lo was a 23-year-old sales assistant, hoping to find his place as a new hire at Morgan Stanley. His office was on the 73rd floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, just five floors below where the second plane would strike on September 11, 2001. Lo made it out of the building that morning, but the awareness of how close he came to perishing that day has remained, inspiring him to pursue his passions despite any uncertainty–first by becoming a physician and eventually through entrepreneurship. In 2019, Lo became a partner in Spy C Cuisine, a decorated Chinese restaurant in Queens, and in February, he founded his own practice, Modern Renaissance Anesthesia, in New York City. Lo made the decision to start his own firm as the carnage of Covid-19 colored his days working in a New York hospital, where he was reminded, once again, that life is too short to ignore one’s instincts. –As told to Marli Guzzetta

On September 11, 2001, I got to my desk at Morgan Stanley at around 8 a.m. It was only my third week on the job, and it was my 23rd birthday.

As a child, I had two dreams: to own my own restaurant and to be a doctor. After I graduated from college, I enrolled in the French Culinary Institute and began working for Didier Virot at his former restaurant, Virot. I loved food and loved working in kitchens, but the lack of stability in the restaurant industry made me uncomfortable. So it seemed like the right thing to do, a year later, to stop working in restaurants and use my network to find a job in finance.

I’d only been at my desk a few minutes that morning when I heard this bang–like someone had slammed a metal desk against the floor–and looked out the window. My side of the building faced east, so I didn’t have a direct view of the North Tower. What I could see was papers flying around outside, over 70 floors up, like it was raining paper. I kept thinking, “That doesn’t make sense. Are people throwing papers off the roof?”

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At that point, no one around me knew that the first plane had just hit the North Tower–no one had smart phones yet, so word was not traveling then like it would today–but the floor fire wardens were telling us to evacuate. Everyone got up to head to the stairwells and walk down in a calm, orderly fashion. I followed people out to the 44th floor, where there was an elevator bank to get to the lower floors. That’s where everyone was hanging out until a guy came on the PA system and announced that we could go back to our offices.

But something wasn’t right with this voice; it was timid, hesitant. Like, “Well, if you want to go back, you probably can …” So I decided to wait. That’s when the second plane hit our building, at 9 a.m. I didn’t see it happen, but the whole building shook. Some people fell down; I didn’t. Then, smoke started coming up and out of the elevator shafts, and the whole building started to sway.

The worst part of that morning was hearing the metal screeching and creaking as the building went back and forth. For a few minutes, I was thinking: ‘The building is coming down. This is it. These are the last moments of my life.” But then, the swaying stopped, and the building didn’t topple over, so I headed for the stairwell again. A lot of people were leaving, walking down in a single file. If someone had told us “the building you are in is going to collapse in an hour,” I think it would have been complete chaos. But people didn’t really know what was happening, so they were calm.

I thought things would be chaotic on the ground floor–but when we finally got down there, it was empty. Quiet. Everything was covered in ash. I heard someone say we were hit by a 737, and I thought, “That’s not right; that’s a jumbo jet. That couldn’t happen.” I was still confused.

People in suits with walkie-talkies kept us away from the doors that exited out to the street. Instead, they herded us all onto a single narrow escalator, which went down to the basement level, where a huge mall used to exist under all of the World Trade Center buildings. That’s how we were exiting the South Tower, single file on a single escalator. My head was pounding, and the slowness was terrible. I kept thinking, “Let’s move it along.”

When we finally got to the mall in the basement, I leapt off the escalator, walked through the shops, and exited up to the street about a quarter mile away from the building. I came above ground on a park lawn just outside the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. People were rushing everywhere, and fire truck after fire truck drove by with sirens wailing. I looked back at my building. It was on fire. I could see the smoke rising from just above the floor where I worked and thought, “Wow, I wonder how they’re going to put that out?’ It was pandemonium.

I started asking people what happened. Someone said two planes hit the World Trade Center. I thought, “No, that’s not right. It was just one plane that hit the North Tower.” There were also rumors in the crowd that other planes were headed for other cities: Washington D.C., Chicago, where my brother lived. I kept thinking: “Am I in a dream right now?”

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As I was talking with people, a fireman got on a megaphone and started yelling, “Stand back! The building is not secure!” Right when he said that, I heard rumbling and turned back to see my building just … collapse.

I didn’t really have time to process that, because a massive cloud of smoke formed at the base of the building and then started spreading out through the streets, towards us. No one knew what that cloud might contain–I thought there might have been a bomb, or maybe something poisonous in the smoke–so I started to run over the upper level of the Brooklyn Bridge.

After taking three buses and walking miles through Brooklyn and into Queens, I finally got to my grandmother’s house. The first thing I did was call my parents on the landline. They were on vacation in Italy–their first vacation ever. My mom said, “Hello.” And I said, “Mom…” And then there was silence–they hadn’t known for the last six hours if I was alive–followed by crying. Both my mother and my father were crying. Until then, I’d never heard my father cry before.

My mother likes to say that angels were escorting me down the stairs and that I was reborn that day. After the attacks, I stayed in finance for about two more years. I was getting great work experience, but confronting your mortality makes you appreciate how fragile your life really is. Surviving September 11 left me with a nagging sense that I wasn’t doing what I should be doing with my life. Finance lacked the soul I was looking for in my work, so I made some changes.

In 2004, I started medical school, which was instantly rewarding. I also reached out to my old boss, Didier, and took a job cooking brunch at his new restaurant, Aix, on weekends. I loved my work as a medical student and loved getting back to food again. I helped Didier cook for charity events and fundraisers, and that led to an appearance on Iron Chef with Aix’s pastry chef, Jehangir Mehta.

When I graduated from medical school in 2008, I stepped away from food for a while to focus on my specialization as an anesthesiologist. For another decade, I stayed pretty head down in my medical career. Then, one day, I’d just gotten off my shift at the hospital when I walked into a restaurant in Queens called Spy C Cuisine. The food was phenomenal, simple but authentic Chinese with a lot of flavor. But the chef, Tom Lei, didn’t speak much English, so he wasn’t able to present the menu in an enticing way. I started going there all the time, and we became good friends. I’d make suggestions on how to better position the restaurant, and eventually in 2018, one of my childhood dreams came true and I became a partner. Since joining the restaurant, I’ve been able to earn Spy C a Michelin Bib Gourmand distinction, and last year, Andrew Yang came to the restaurant to host an event during his campaign.

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When the pandemic hit, I’d been working for several years as an anesthesiologist at a New York hospital. It was carnage–people dying left and right. Once again, I was reminded to make the most of my life, to change.

If I started my own business, I thought, I’d have a bigger impact. So in February, I decided to leave my job with the hospital and establish my own anesthesiology practice.

I don’t have the stability of the hospital, and the learning curve is steep, but I love the freedom and opportunities entrepreneurship brings. When you start your own business, you step away from what may be a very stable and comfortable position working for someone else to live in relative uncertainty. But you’re doing it for yourself, and that’s so much more rewarding. Honestly, I wish I had done this sooner. Sometimes, you have to go with your gut, take a little risk. We are often capable of much more than we think we are.

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