On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks Building talks to Larry Silverstein, owner of the World Trade Center complex, about how the responsibility of rebuilding the site keeps him awake at night, his controversial insurance claim - and what saved his life on that fateful day

Larry Silverstein will never forget one simple rule - his wife is always right. While the American businessman and real estate magnate may be the unrivalled king of property in New York City as chief executive of Silverstein Properties, it’s abundantly clear that Mrs S rules the roost at home. And the 80-year-old owner of the World Trade Center complex considers himself very fortunate to have such a powerful woman by his side - after all, it was her wrath that saved his life on the morning of the 9/11 attacks 10 years ago.

“When you have been married to the same woman for 45 years and she gets upset, trust me, you will do whatever it takes to make things right,” he says with a mixture of humour and earnest sincerity in his voice, like he is passing on the golden chalice of marital advice. “On the morning of the attacks I was at home preparing to go see the dermatologist. I have light skin and hair, you see, and the sun has always been an enemy to me. But that morning I turned to my wife and said: ‘Sweetheart, would you cancel that appointment for me? I’ve got so much to do; I have to get down to the World Trade Center.’ Well, my wife got angry. Very angry indeed. And I knew what to do. I saw her reaction and quickly said: ‘No dear, I’m sorry, you’re right. I’ll go to the dermatologist.’ And so I did. And that’s what saved my life.”

Of course there were another 3,000 people who weren’t so lucky that morning. At 8.46am New York time the first plane crashed into the north World Trade Center tower, swiftly followed by a second attack on the south tower at 9.03am. Silverstein had turned on the television in time to see the second plane hit and he watched as the site he had bought a $3.5bn 99-year lease for six weeks earlier - the site he was contractually obliged to repair in the event of any damage - became nothing more than a pile of rubble, ash and dead bodies. “It was the worst moment of my life,” he shudders. “One I hope no one will ever have to go through in such a way again.”

I live this project 24/7. It even creeps into my dreams and I wake with a jolt at 3am. My soul is in this

Ten years on and it has been a rollercoaster ride for Silverstein and his development company Silverstein Properties to get going with the rebuilding of the site. Legal issues, battles with insurers and construction delays have put many a spanner in the works and Silverstein himself admits that a speedy reconstruction was “just not meant to be”. Plus he has been dogged by criticism that he has come out of the attacks financially better off - most famously as a consequence of his suggestion to “pull it” in reference to 7 World Trade Center after it caught fire on 9/11. Silverstein has since defended his comments, insisting they were made in relation to the fire department within the building rather than to the structure itself. He said on a PBS TV show in 2006: “I remember getting a call from the fire department saying they were not sure they were going to be able to contain the fire, so I said after such a terrible loss of life, the smartest thing would be to pull it.”

For an estimated $386m original investment, Silverstein collected nearly $500m in insurance as a result of the collapse of this building alone. The insurance payout for the site, after a five-year battle, was $4.6bn for towers 1, 2, 4 and 5. Here the man behind the rebuilding of probably the most high-profile scheme in the world talks about how far the redevelopment has come in 10 years and how this will be his last ever commercial project.

9/11

“This wasn’t just an attack on the towers,” says Silverstein. “It was an attack on America and on everything we believe in. The sheer audacity of it, the outrageousness of it means that this is now one of the most sensitive rebuilding projects in the world.”

Silverstein says that when the attacks happened, his first thoughts were for his children - two out of three had been heading to the World Trade Center site that morning - and then for his staff. He says that if there is any comfort to be taken, it was that the first attack was at quarter to nine: “If that first attack had been at 9am, then two of my children and half of my company would have gone forever.” As it was, Silverstein Properties lost just four staff members, although Silverstein says this was still “excruciatingly difficult” to come to terms with.

He concedes that his thoughts after the human impact of the disaster did move to his commercial involvement in the scheme and that “the full impact of my obligations under the terms of the 99-year lease I had signed six weeks previously began to dawn on me.” Those terms included a clause that meant he had to pay the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey $120m a year in rent and that he was also responsible for undertaking any repairs to the buildings if anything happened to them.

Silverstein says he had to decide almost immediately whether or not to collect on the insurance, with a view to rebuilding the site: “I saw what sort of impact this would have on lower Manhattan if we didn’t rebuild - people would move, en masse, out of office towers - away from the site. Unless we moved fast, it would be a disaster for the city - we had to go ahead and get it done.”

If only it were that simple. What followed was a five-year battle with 22 insurance companies to try to claim the funds to get the rebuilding going: “They decided they didn’t want to pay me,” shrugs Silverstein. “The battle was long and we suffered huge, huge fees - hundreds of millions of dollars. My life became one revolving around getting the collection. It was a horror. I never want to go through anything like that ever again.”

Silverstein did collect in the end - funds to the tune of $4.6bn (£2.8bn), and there have been allegations that he actually did well out of the deal. But a spokesman for Silverstein Properties argues that this is far from the case: “Around $3bn of that $4.6bn went to the port authority for ground rent and the remaining $1.6bn has gone towards construction and rebuilding. The rest of the financing has come through traditional methods and liberty bonds.”
Silverstein originally argued that, because the two separate planes struck two separate buildings, this made up two occurrences to claim on. He therefore sought to collect double the face value (around $7bn) of the buildings he owned (1, 2, 4 and 5). After a lengthy trial, the total payout was capped at $4.57bn.

What next

Silverstein predicts that the World Trade Center project will be completed within five years. He’s learned to accept that not everything will go up with the speed of 7 World Trade Center, which burned to the ground following the attacks. There was no loss of life when this structure burned down, so Silverstein was able to get on with building it back up almost immediately, in April 2002. The job was finished by May 2006. “That building is a real testament to what can be achieved here,” he says. “So that’s why I was thinking, after this quick build, that we would be finished with everything sooner. But it was not meant to be.”

Janno Lieber, president of World Trade Center Properties, has been overseeing the construction of the various buildings on the site and is well placed to provide an update on where things are at the moment. He says that after several years of masterplanning difficulties and delays, the site is finally coming on at a substantial pace: “There is now a clear path to get the main site completed and the teams really are going great guns now.

“The biggest challenge has been rising to the occasion of working on such a huge scheme. There are dozens of projects going on in the WTC site space; apart from the four towers, you have the retail buildings, the transportation hub, the memorial pools, the museum building - each one of these projects has a design team and a construction team so it all needs to be tightly co-ordinated in terms of logistics. But everything is going well. Two of the tall towers are rising into sight - the Freedom Tower, or Tower 1, is 70 storeys up and Tower 4 is 40 storeys up. Tower 3 is approaching sidewalk level. In 2012 we expect to see the topping out of Tower 4 and Tower 1 - so progress is certainly being made.

“There will be a mass transit hub on the site with all the main transport lines coming together so we will have transformed the area into a 24/7 neighbourhood with a mix of residential, commercial and first class hotels.”

Under pressure

As the man leading this mega-scheme, Silverstein doesn’t hold back when asked whether he feels huge pressure and responsibility: “Are you kidding me? Absolutely. I live this project 24/7. It even creeps into my dreams. I sometimes wake up with a jolt at 3am and have to jot something down or just wander around the house because I can’t sleep. This has been a huge, huge investment of the psyche. My soul is, quite literally, in this project.”

So would it be fair to say it’s the project of his career? “There is no question,” he says. “I have never experienced anything like this in my entire life.”

And in terms of what’s next for him, Silverstein says it’s a case of one day at a time: “For the next five years my life will be about completing this project - it will undoubtedly be the last commercial scheme I do. But it has become my passion and my focus for so long now that I want to see it through. For those who lost loved ones, this will hang over them for the rest of their lives. They will never get over it. For many people who died, no remains were found and so they couldn’t be buried. With no burial, there is no closure. Which is so terrible for the families.

“But life is for the living and with time, memories will fade and this site of such a tragedy will become known as something that has moved on to better things.

“Once the scheme is finished I really don’t know what I will do next. I will be 85 years of age so, quite frankly, I’ll be happy if I am still around. One thing is for sure, no matter how old I am, I will never forget the importance of the phrase ‘yes, dear’”.

Vital statistics

May 1931 Born in Brooklyn
1957 Established Silverstein Properties with his father Harry
1980 Won a bid to build 7 World Trade Center
January 2001 Put in a $3.2bn bid to the Port Authority for the whole WTC site
July 2001 Signed lease for 1, 2, 4, and 5 World Trade Center, and about 425,000ft2 of retail space - six weeks before 9/11 .

For additional interviews with key people working on the World Trade Center site -

Click here to read an interview with Richard Paul, director with Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and British architect behind WTC 3

Click here to read an interview with Janno Lieber, president of World Trade Center Properties