Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Part 1: Pete Murphy played baseball; He then survived 9/11

Two aspects of Pete Murphy's life - Left: The former Riverside Stadium in Harrisburg, Pa.; Right: Ground Zero in New York City in 2002. (Photos by Greatest 21 Days)
NEW YORK - Pete Murphy had a meeting to get to across the street, but, as he approached the elevator, he realized he'd forgotten something at his desk.

Murphy had spent six seasons in professional baseball, but that was a decade earlier. Now, he was putting his computer science degree to work at Lehman Brothers in New York City.

As he returned to his desk, the quiet morning instantly shattered.

This was Sept. 11, 2001, and Murphy was returning to his desk on the 38th floor of North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Murphy made it back to his desk, one of many low-slung cubicles that gave a panoramic view of the outside, he grabbed what he needed.

"As I was standing there, the building just shook," Murphy recalled to The Greatest 21 Days. "You didn't really hear anything, but the building shook and it moved. It moved so much I kind of stumbled. I had to grab a hold of the cubical there and I was like 'What the hell was that?'"

Straight ahead of Murphy were the windows of the building's north side, next to him the windows of the east side.

"All of a sudden all this stuff started coming down, all the glass started coming down" outside, Murphy recalled. "It was kind of like it was snowing, except it was glass. Everything was kind of twinkling out there."

More came down the east side. Then, at the center of the building, from the elevator shafts that moments before Murphy had nearly entered, came dust. Some ceiling tiles also started coming down.

Over the next few minutes and hours, Murphy first worked to make it out of the building. He then worked to make it out of Manhattan, back  to his wife and two children in Queens.

He also needed to let them know he was still alive.

It all happened a lifetime away from his youth in that same borough, in Queens, a youth that led to baseball and football notoriety at Columbia University in Manhattan, and a unknowing chance to pitch in front of a Pirates scout that led to an unexpected pitching career in the pros.

Murphy recounted all of that in a phone interview with The Greatest 21 Days, his professional baseball career that included a stop at AA Harrisburg for much of the 1990 season, and his career afterward that included surviving the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

He also recounted how, years after the attacks, he found his way back into the game he once played.

He took a job putting his computer skills to work with Major League Baseball, in the commissioner's office.

Grew up in Queens
Murphy grew up across the East River in Queens.

His father, John, he recalled, was very sports oriented. Father and son spent time throwing the baseball back and forth and watched baseball and football on TV.

Baseball, though, was his first sport.

"My father told me I had a bat when I was like two years old and I just started swinging it around," Murphy said. "It was the first sport that was kind of accessible to me. My father had been following it."

His father was born in Ireland. Once in the United States, John Murphy played football and boxed. He also followed baseball. Mickey Mantle was his guy, the son recalled.

Murphy's guy growing up was Bobby Mercer. Mercer threw right-handed and batted left-handed, just like the young Murphy.

"He was my kind of go-to guy, kind of my motivation of who I wanted to be like," Murphy said. "I was a Yankee fan, the whole deal."

Helping him along in the game, he recalled, was that he grew up with a city park right across the street.

He regularly spent his evenings there. Once he got his homework done, he'd head over there and there'd regularly be 20 to 30 kids there, whatever the season was.

There were always enough kids for pickup games in whatever sport, he recalled.

"That's how you kind of got your skills, just by playing games every day," Murphy said. "It's much different today, everything is a lot more organized."

Murphy also had his brother, Brian Murphy, to play with. Brian Murphy went on to play football at Brown University.

He was just a year younger and the two worked out together and played together.

Murphy's family started out in Woodside, Queens. After fifth grade, they moved out a little further, to Little Neck, on the border of Nassau County and Queens.

Murphy started playing football in fourth grade, something he would continue with into college.

He played baseball at all levels, including Catholic Youth Organization - CYO - and into high school at St. Francis Prep in Flushing.

He played football all four years there, but baseball three, earning all-city and captain honors in both.
The reason he didn't play four years of baseball in high school was because of his baseball coach. The baseball coach cut Murphy his freshman year.

Murphy recalled finding the turn heartbreaking. But he respond to it by continuing to work elsewhere, in CYO ball and over the summer. He also kept practicing and, the next year, as a sophomore, he made the team.

"I kind of used it as motivation to not let it stop me," Murphy said. "I was determined to make the team and play for him. I thought I was good enough and I was going to prove it."

It's something Murphy said is regular topic of conversation upon his annual returns to his old school's awards dinner, on the part of his old coach, the coach noting that he'd cut Murphy as a freshman and then Murphy went on to play in the pros.

The reason for Murphy's annual return is for his brother. Brian Murphy passed away suddenly in 1997 from a fast-moving brain tumor. St. Francis gives out an award and scholarship in his name.

Looking back on his survival on Sept. 11, Murphy said he knows both his brother and his late father were with him.

The Impact Came
Murphy started work at Lehman Brothers in 1995, serving as assistant vice president and project manager.

On the morning of Sept. 11, he had been scheduled to attend a meeting across the street with his boss at Lehman's headquarters in the World Financial Center.

The meeting was set for 9 a.m.

Murphy, along with most of Lehman's information technology staff, were housed in the North Tower, the company occupying space on the 38th, 39th and 40th floors. They had moved there just the previous January, Murphy recalled.

Murphy had gone in early for the meeting. That Tuesday was supposed to be busy, he recalled.

His boss had just came by and decided to go down to the street for a cigarette. Murphy was to meet him on the ground floor.

Murphy gathered his things and waited for the elevator.

Then he realized he had forgotten something.

It was about 20 minutes to 9.

Back at his desk, the impact came.

"The craziest part, you felt the entire building move," Murphy said. "So when the building shook, I grabbed onto the cubicle. It leaned so much, I thought it was going to topple over right at that time. I was like, 'holy cow, this is going to be a long ride down.'"

"Now, I can't imagine what it was like up on top, higher up, and how much the building moved and shook up there if it moved that much with me."

Luckily it happened before 9, Murphy said. Had it happened later, there would have been a lot more people in the building.

Murphy recalled his first instinct was to scan the room to see if anyone was hurt. There were a few other people there, but no one appeared injured.

"It was maybe 20 seconds, 30 seconds before I started heading toward the stairway," Murphy said.

He also recalled trying to work out in his head what had just happened. His first thought: Transformers on the roof. But, no, he wouldn't have heard something like that so far down.

When he got to the stairway, it was already crowded. Everyone was headed down. The lights remained on.

Everyone, he recalled, was also fairly quiet.

This stairway was small, maybe two people wide, so two people could head down shoulder-to-shoulder.

"Everybody was pretty calm, it was kind of like, step, step, step, as people were going down," Murphy said.

They talked possibilities. One of the possibilities: A plane.

Pagers began going off with bits of information, Murphy recalled. A plane had hit. Maybe a Cessna.

"We were like, 'if that was a plane, it wasn't any Cessna,'" Murphy said.

The evacuation started off rather smooth, Murphy said. Every so often, it would slow and back up and people would start getting a little nervous.

But, aside from the pages, there in the middle of the building, they had no idea what was actually happening.

The first sign of how bad it was higher up came in the form of other evacuees covered in blood. Murphy and the others who weren't injured moved to the side to get them down quicker.

Eventually, though, the pace began to slow enough that Murphy became nervous.

He decided to try and find another way down, in another stairway.

"I got down to like 20 something and thought 'let me stick my head into one of the others to see maybe if there's a better way to go," Murphy said.

He looked and the new stairway was less crowded.

He then continued his descent.

"That was them," Murphy said of his late father and his brother, "that gave me that little tweak away from the elevator and to get me down to change the stairway when I did."

Go to Part 2: From his brother, news he'd been drafted, appreciation for playing

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