Sam Epstein left the oil patch in 1985, not only did he remain an
AAPG member, but his contacts and knowledge of the industry helped
him achieve a measure of success as an investment adviser with Morgan
Stanley in Houston.
That led to a job in the firm's flagship office in
the World Trade Center in New York City -- seven months before a
terrorist truck bomb rocked the building and killed six people.
Epstein remained with the company and was mere minutes
from his 73rd-floor office when terror struck again this past Sept.
11, this time with catastrophic results.
"For the first two weeks, I couldn't even speak about
it," Epstein said.
But, interviewed five weeks after the disaster, Epstein
felt composed enough to describe his experience. He spoke fondly
of AAPG friends who called almost immediately to check on his welfare,
and discussed how his geologic training and experience brought him
to the place that has become known as Ground Zero -- and helped
him cope with the aftermath.
An AAPG member since 1979, Epstein was "the real
thing" as a geologist working the oil patch.
He earned his bachelor's degree at Brooklyn College
and his master's from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and his
thesis entailed working as a diver in the Red Sea -- a project under
his professor, Gerald Friedman -- on modern processes of carbonate
diagenesis. After graduating, he worked successively for Cities
Service, Getty and Texaco. He published several papers with AAPG
concerning his work offshore on the east and west coasts -- including
work on the Monterey Formation and Point Arguello off the California
coast, and the elusive offshore Mesozoic reef of the U.S. offshore
In 1985, the "big shakeout" in the petroleum industry
impelled Epstein to consider other career options.
"I had to diversify," he said, and he headed to Morgan
Stanley in Houston as an investment adviser, where his oil industry
expertise and contacts helped him become one of the office's most
He went "home" in 1992, transferring to Morgan Stanley's
New York office.
"I always wanted to work in the World Trade Center,"
Epstein said. "It was a big building; it was exciting."
He gave up his private office and secretary in Houston
to work in the 73rd-floor "bullpen," ranking 40th among 60 brokers
because, as he said, "I like challenges."
Welcome to New York
In February 1993, seven months after his arrival,
a bomb exploded in the underground garage of One World Trade Center,
creating a 22-foot-wide, five-story-deep crater. Six people were
killed and more than 1,000 were injured.
"The building filled with smoke -- we lost the lights,"
he said. "I was totally black from the soot and smoke."
The evacuation took three and a half hours. The towers
were cleaned, repaired, and reopened in less than one month, however,
Epstein stayed on.
By 1998 he ranked 10th among 160 brokers and was
named office sales manager -- essentially the No. 2 man in the office.
He was ensconced in a large corner office and helped supervise a
staff of 250-300 employees as the firm experienced record years.
Even so, Epstein kept his geologic roots alive. From
1997 through this year he served as co-chairman of the geological
sciences section of the New York Academy of Sciences -- just this
year he hosted AAPG member Roger Sassen, of Texas A&M University,
for a lecture there on offshore gas hydrates.
Epstein also recently presented a program there on
"Mesozoic Manhattan," which he called "When Dinosaurs Roamed Broadway."
In many ways, he said, his Texas clientele helped
fuel his advancement.
When friends came to the city, "I was the AAPG mayor,"
he said. His visitors usually were treated to a view of the Statue
of Liberty from his office, and they seemed "pleased one of their
oil and gas buddies had made it in New York City," he said.
Likewise, the photos in Epstein's office of him on
an offshore rig, "hard hat and all," often drew comments from his
"They couldn't believe they had a manager who had
actually worked for a living," he said with a laugh.
"It was the most gorgeous day I can remember," Epstein
said of Sept. 11 in New York City, a fact that made the events to
come seem even more jarring.
As usual, Epstein drove a 91-year-old attorney friend
to work near City Hall.
And, to Epstein's minor annoyance, "he insisted I
vote" in the city's mayoral primary election being held that day.
Epstein pulled into his regular parking lot a block
from the Trade Center. The rattle and hum of the busy city floated
through the open windows of his 1993 Cadillac Deville.
Then, suddenly, another sound, directly overhead:
A jet "revving -- like he was gunning the engine ... then a god-awful
sound -- the loudest sound I've ever heard."
He stepped out of his car and followed the gaze of
others upward to see a gaping gash in Tower One, glowing inside
"like barbecue coals at their center.
"Someone said it was a commuter plane," Epstein said,
"but my geologic training helps me judge size and distance ... I
realized it was a larger area of destruction" than a small craft
could have caused.
The stricken monolith blocked Epstein's view of Tower
2, where he worked, and where 18 minutes later a second hijacked
jetliner would slam through the area of his office.
"If I had been there," he said, "I would have been
As a manager, Epstein knew he would have additional
responsibilities to his staff and employers during a crisis. Still
thinking it was an accident rather than an attack, and recalling
the three-and-a-half hour evacuation years earlier, Epstein decided
to wait at ground level for an all clear before heading up to his
The "beautiful but awful day" soon filled with surreal
images, he said. "Things I'd never seen before."
To his right, five ferry boats bobbed and rolled
on the Hudson river, loaded with sightseers, commuters and evacuees.
Around him, the streets filled quickly with thousands
of people, including police, Secret Service and FBI agents.
Above, more horror. People clung to the outside of
the wounded building. Some began to leap from the skyscraper. Some
jumped together, some held hands Epstein estimated he saw 40 to
45 people fall to their deaths.
On the ground, human body parts lay among the debris.
Then another sound, "a weird, primordial scream"
from thousands of throats. A thick cloud rolled over the ferries.
I thought it was an explosion or fire."
It was Tower 2, still blocked from Epstein's view,
"I remember looking up (at Tower 1) and thinking,
'I'm sure glad this building is strong.'"
Epstein was still a block away when a shout went
up that Tower 1 was coming down.
"It was outright terror at that point," he said.
"Everyone started running ... a cloud engulfed us.
"People to my right and left were hit by debris and
went down ... I don't think they made it.
"Debris hitting the cars sounded like small asteroids
-- I knew the cars were being crushed," he said. "I was lucky I
didn't get hit."
Epstein ran most of the 15 blocks to Canal Street,
away from the carnage.
"I was in shock," he said, "functioning but fragile."
Epstein began working his way toward his brother's
home in lower Manhattan, passing people who were shaking their fists
at U.S. fighter jets overhead, angrily signaling, "Where were you?"
Lines at pay phones stretched a block or more.
He reached his brother's place about 3 p.m., and
learned later that one of his sons was already working on a "wanted
poster" of Epstein, like those picturing so many of the thousands
lost in the catastrophe.
Epstein made scores of calls to determine which co-workers
had survived what should have been just another day at the office
-- not a chore an office manager expects to perform.
Epstein lost several staffers and friends, including
an office mate of nine years.
Many in his office survived, probably saved by the
18 minutes between the two crashes, he said.
"A lot of them had time to walk down," he said, "while
some on the higher floors didn't."
Morgan Stanley relocated their offices at Penn Plaza
two days later.
"We were here one hour when there was a bomb scare,"
he said. "The feeling was, these terrorists wanted to shut down
the country's financial system ... and we were on the front lines
... it was a proud thing."
Today and Tomorrow
Separated by only a short distance from the scene
and a short time from the horror, Epstein and others are coping.
Family, friends and work are major supports. Epstein's
family includes his wife, Peggy, whom he met in college; two sons,
David, 20, and Daniel, 18; and a daughter, Rebecca, 15.
Almost immediately, friends from AAPG called to check
on his well being and offer support, including Gerald Friedman,
Ross Davis, Richard Wilkerson, John Howe, George Kronman, Marc Helsinger
and Gary Lewis.
"I got hundreds of calls ... many from AAPG people
in Houston and Bakersfield the first day.
"You felt they were behind you ... it was a good
feeling as an American."
Today, even with new threats rumored continually
and anthrax-laced letters claiming lives and much of the nation's
attention, Epstein voices resolve and optimism.
He recalls how Londoners adjusted to the daily threat
of death during the Blitz in World War II.
"There is a new equilibrium," he said.
There is also much grief to deal with. "We have been
going to funerals. That's what we do," he said.
And with time, Epstein and his colleagues find new
coping mechanisms, including humor.
He joked about his resume, saying he has gone from
being "experienced" in dealing with terrorist attacks to "over qualified."
Remembering the Past
Although New York City sounds far from the oil patch,
Epstein maintains a strong identity as a geologist, and credits
his geologic training for much of his success in the financial world,
ticking off some of those skills:
- Problem solving and critical thinking.
- Working and interpreting data in traditional and creative ways.
- Presenting ideas to others.
- Using communications skills, especially writing.
- Working with teams.
Epstein believes his experience gives him and edge
over someone with strictly a business background. For example, he
said, when looking at a company's reserves and potential, he may
see trends not reflected in price.
He ventured that his writing skills have helped him
deal with the tragedy by allowing him to express personal and professional
While the awesome death toll from Sept. 11 overshadows
all else, there are some smaller, material losses that sting, nonetheless.
Books, souvenirs and other reminders of his career
vanished in the rubble.
The oil rig photos are gone, as are his framed Certified
Petroleum Geologist certificate and his 20-year AAPG membership
After 15 years in the financial world, Epstein mentions
these tokens because, "I'm still a geologist at heart."
And he offers a final view from Ground Zero:
"I'm optimistic we'll weather this."