Tom Coughlin and son remember 9/11

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Tom Coughlin remembers that Sept. 11, 2001 was a Tuesday, and he remembers that for the kind of reason you’d expect the New York Giants' head coach to remember something like that.

"It was game plan day," Coughlin said in an interview last month at Giants training camp. "And so we were buzzing a million miles an hour, holed up in our meeting rooms, and I didn't realize what was going on. And all of a sudden the phone's ringing, and it's my daughter saying, "Dad, do you know what’s going on?'"

Coughlin, then the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, ran to the video room, where TVs were showing pictures of the World Trade Center towers in flames. Panic was tearing through him. His son Tim worked for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, in an office on the 60th floor of World Trade Center Two, and every time Tom dialed Tim's number he got the same busy signal so many thousands of others were getting at those frantic moments.

"We can't contact Tim," Coughlin remembers. "Can't make any contact."

Tim had been on the 44th floor when the blast occurred and was now walking down the stairs with everyone else who worked in that tower below the spot where the commercial airliner had crashed into it. He was passing the 30th floor when his phone finally rang. It was his brother Brian, a law student at the University of Florida -- the first family member to reach Tim since the news had broken.

Brian told Tim exactly what had happened -- that the plane that had struck the tower was a commercial airliner hijacked by terrorists and that it wasn't the only plane that had intentionally been flown into a building that day. Tim was startled, but it was still beyond the realm of comprehension for him and everyone else that the building he was in could or would collapse.

"Never, ever a thought in my mind or anyone else's mind who was there," Tim said in a phone interview Wednesday. "Looking back on it, I remember the firefighters walking past us up the stairs and I'm just amazed thinking they had to know, somewhere at least in the back of their heads, that they might not make it out of there."

Tim was nearly out when his phone rang again. This time it was his father, who'd quickly forgotten about game plan day. Tim remembers that conversation word-for-word.

"My father isn't usually one for idle chit-chat to begin with," Tim said. "So it was (a) 'Do you know what’s going on?' and then (b) 'Do whatever you have to do to get out of there right now.'"

It was around that time that Tim realized the horror of what was occurring -- that people were falling or jumping from the high floors to escape the flames. Tom Coughlin remembers his son asking, "Dad, can you believe what you're seeing?" but the father stayed on-message, repeatedly telling the son to move as quickly as he could away from what was happening.

"Looking back on that conversation, I think that was largely responsible for me kind of picking up my step and realizing that the important thing was to get out of there and get as far away from that place as possible," Tim said.

Tim now works for J.P. Morgan and goes home every night to three Tom Coughlin grandchildren -- for whom Sept. 11 will be a day chronicled in the pages of a history book they're not yet old enough to study.

"That's why it's not something I really like to bring up," Tim said. "We like to stay quiet and in the background, because we know how lucky we were and that there are so many people who weren't as fortunate as we were."

Father shares son's sentiment on this, though if you press him on it, Tom Coughlin shows his religious side and tells you he believes "the holy spirit went into that inferno, took Tim by the hand and walked him out of there." But with the 10-year anniversary coming up Sunday, he says he prefers to keep the focus away from how lucky he is that he didn't lose his son in that building.

"I'm very, very grateful for that, and I'll be thankful for that for the rest of my life," Tom Coughlin said. "But I don't tend to want to dwell on that story. What I want to dwell on is the incredible number of American heroes that died on that day, and I don't ever want the people of this great country to forget that. No matter how forgiving and moving-forward we are, let's not forget the tremendous price that was paid on that day for our freedom. And that this world is a whole different place to live in as a result of that."