On Sept. 11, 2001, Bob and Margie Neihaus barely made it out of Manhattan alive, and every day since, they’ve thought about those who didn’t.
Mr. Neihaus is an economist, and together, the couple founded a consulting firm in 1983. Mrs. Neihaus serves as a corporate officer of the firm and is also a self-employed interior designer.
The Santa Barbara natives were visiting for work and pleasure, staying in the Marriott Hotel which connected the Twin Towers on the 17th floor. Mr. Neihaus was attending a conference with Mrs. Neihaus tagging along, and the two planned on a vacation after business.
Mr. Neihaus attended a breakfast meeting at 8 a.m. in the hotel lobby that morning, on what he called “a beautiful Tuesday morning” where “the sky was absolutely crystal clear.”
As far as he knew, his wife was in the hotel room when the first attack occurred at 8:46 a.m.
“The entire hotel jumped a foot in the air and fell back to the ground,” Mr. Neihaus told a gathering of students, parents and community members at Young America’s Foundation “9/11: Never Forget Project” on Thursday just outside Rancho del Cielo atop the Santa Ynez Mountain range.
Because he couldn’t go up to find his wife, he waited in the lobby for her to come down. He saw the last people file down the stairs in their swimsuits and towels from the 22nd floor and there was no Margie.
Unbeknownst to Mr. Neihaus, his wife had breakfast down in the Greenhouse Cafe, a restaurant enclosed by glass. She said when the first plane flew into the North Tower, all the glass shattered and pipes broke through the walls.
“I climbed underneath the table where I had my breakfast and my initial thought was, ‘I didn’t think I would die like this,’” Mrs. Neihaus said. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to die like this,’ and I decided it was a good time to leave and I didn’t pay my check.”
She exited the building and as she did, the second plane flew right over her head into the South Tower.
Meanwhile, Mr. Neihaus was trying his best to stay close to the World Trade Center in hopes of finding his wife.
“As I stood there and waited, I forced myself to watch what was going on,” he said. “I saw people jump to their deaths from above the fires… I saw women fainting… People were crying — adults, men and women crying… shrieking.”
As neither one knew where to go, Mrs. Neihaus set out to the south part of Manhattan with the full intention to hop on a ferry and get as far away from the mess as she could.
As she walked, she remembered she had her husband’s cell phone, and called her son’s financial office in Los Angeles.
“He didn’t answer the phone, but God provides,” Mrs. Neihaus said. “Who answered the phone? A Navy seal. He took all the information I could give him and told David I was alive and that they’d try to find Bob.”
After that, the call dropped. Mrs. Neihaus then made her way down to the river.
“I figured I might have to get in that river, so I took my purse and I took out my wallet, my ID and a little money and put it in my bra,” she said. “I thought, ‘They’ll be able to identify my body.’ I wanted my kids to know if I didn’t come home.”
Mr. Neihaus was gradually being pushed back from the explosions and managed to find a pay phone. He also called his son, who was able to connect him with his wife.
“I heard Margie’s voice,” Mr. Neihaus said. “She was on the Staten Island ferry, so I got on the next one.”
When Mrs. Neihaus reached Staten Island, she was forced to leave the ferry terminal, so she hopped on a train and rode it to the end of the line. Once she got off, she tried to enter a police station, but the officers weren’t letting anyone in, citing bomb threats.
With nowhere else to go, narrowly escaping the terrorist attacks, Mrs. Neihaus saw a pizza parlor down the street, and so she went.
“A lady came up to me and said ‘What happened to you?’ I said, ‘I was over there.’ She said, ‘I’ll help you.’ Her name was Patricia, and she helped us,” Mrs. Neihaus said, fighting back tears.
Meanwhile, Mr. Neihaus was closer and closer to locating his wife amid the chaos.
“We’d been married almost three years by that time, and I was trying my best to think like Margie,” he said. This thinking led him to board the train, ride it to the end, and also get denied from the police station.
“I turned around and walked outside and stood in the middle of the street wondering what Margie would’ve done next, and I looked up the street and I saw Margie waving at me from the pizza parlor,” he said.
From there, Patricia from the pizza parlor got the couple the last hotel room on Staten Island. Mr. and Mrs. Neihaus got supplies together, snuck over a bridge to New Jersey, got the last rental car and started their three and a half day drive back to Santa Barbara.
“It was not God’s plan that we would die that day,” Mr. Neihaus concluded. “That’s 2,977… Every one of those is a life. They were almost all Americans. Every one of them had a piece of the American Dream and it was ripped away from them that day. We’re the ones who are left here.”
Mrs. Neihaus added, “To the police and firefighters running into the buildings, running into their sure death, all lives mattered. It lit more inside of us to love our country even more fervently than we had.”
Now, the couple has joined an organization in Santa Barbara that helps firefighters to be better equipped, and they share their story on the anniversary to remind everyone what it was like, and honor each life they saw end that day.