Several mutual fund managers and industry professionals found themselves in exactly the right place at exactly the wrong time last week.

Seven fund managers from around the nation had agreed to come to New York City's financial district to speak at a duo of press conferences co-sponsored by Quasar Distributors of Milwaukee. But as the managers traveled in taxicabs expecting to arrive early in the morning at the Hudson River Club conference site on Vesey Street on Sept. 11, they found themselves right in the middle of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers.

Bill D'Alonzo, manager of the $5.8 billion Brandywine Fund, managed by Friess Associates of Greenville, Del., was riding in a taxicab with a colleague, reviewing his upcoming presentation on the virtues of mid-cap growth investing. His cab suddenly stopped in traffic just next to some road construction. When the two men heard a loud thud, they peered out of the cab and initially thought that a construction worker had been injured.

A Deadly Realization

It wasn't until they noticed the construction workers straining to look high in the sky, and heard their taxi driver yell, "Oh my God, look up!" when they began to realize what had happened, D'Alonzo explained.

"We saw a gaping hole in the World Trade Center," D'Alonzo recalled. "We thought it was a terrorist bomb." But his companion Jeff Fields blanched, and immediately told him, "We've got to get out of here," he said. "He had been in New York during the first terrorist attack at the World Trade Center in 1993 and understood what we needed to do was get out of there, fast," D'Alonzo said. So they fled, as they watched what D'Alonzo described as "billowing piles of smoke."

"My first concern was for the people, and the families...the people we saw jumping [from the building]," he said.

For Ronald Muhlenkamp, founder and president of Muhlenkamp & Company of Wexford, Penn., and manager of the Muhlenkamp Fund, his reaction was "somewhere between shock and disbelief," he said.

He was traveling on New York's FDR Drive and had been stopped in traffic under a portion of the covered roadway. "When we came out [of the tunnel] we saw that the first tower had been hit, and then we heard the second tower get hit. We were three blocks away."

"I heard on the cab's radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Tower and we immediately thought that this must have been an accident. But when the first Tower crumbled, I knew this wasn't an accident," he said. He got out of the cab and began walking north.

"I saw a lot of grief, disbelief among people, and saw a lot of people helping each other. There was no panic, but lots of people were moving out urgently as people and cops and firemen were coming through," he said.

"You come away with the disbelief that people could be so evil," Muhlenkamp said. But New Yorkers rose to the occasion, he said. "New York was at its best and the people were superb," Muhlenkamp noted.

"The assets of the financial industry are its people," Muhlenkamp said. "But I'm not sure I want to be one of the top 10 tenants in a signature building."

Understanding the Unthinkable

Robert Millen, co-portfolio manager of the $60 million Jensen Fund which is managed by Jensen Investment Management of Portland, was also riding with colleague Gary Hibler in Manhattan's downtown area. Millen, whose daughter lives in Manhattan, is a frequent traveler to New York.

"We came out of a tunnel and were at the New York Stock Exchange but we couldn't go any further," he said. They got out of the cab.

"At first you think, well, maybe the sprinklers turned on or that the fire would burn itself out," Millen noted. Then came the complete horror, he added.

"We were about two or three blocks away when the first tower imploded and the smoke started rolling at us like a sideways tornado," said Millen. "We both took refuge in a nearby building and eventually were put on ferryboats going to Jersey City after plodding through two to three inches of ash. We eventually got back to our hotel," he added.

"Your first concern is instinctively for your own life," Millen admitted. "Then your heart goes out to the people in the buildings. I feel for those who perished, and their families. You just cry out for them."

Emotions Ran High

"The worst part of it was the emotional aspect of the people," said Dan Sondhelm, partner with SunStar, the public relations and media firm of Alexandria, Va., that helped set up the ill-fated portfolio managers' media event, and who was close enough to witness most of the two attacks and the disintegration of the towers. "We saw people crying, sobbing, some hysterical, and people crying into cell phones," he said.

Sondhelm and his colleague had arrived in town the night before and had stayed at the Marriott Hotel, which subsequently caught on fire and was destroyed in the fallout of the attacks.

"We had left the hotel at 8:15 a.m., just minutes before the first attack," Sondhelm said. But being just across from the World Trade Towers provided them with a clear view of the tragedy, including the unspeakable horror of seeing people jump out of the buildings.

While Sondhelm said that his biggest concern was not being able to reach his family to let them know he was all right, he was also concerned for the safety of the fund managers and reporters who were expected to be in attendance at the meetings, but none of whom he had actually seen.

Subscribe Now

Access to premium content including in-depth coverage of mutual funds, hedge funds, 401(K)s, 529 plans, and more.

3-Week Free Trial

Insight and analysis into the management, marketing, operations and technology of the asset management industry.