Sunel Merchant is a survivor the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, where he worked on the 49th floor of the North Tower. Now a resident of Alabama, he owns four Philly Connection establishments, including one in Albany. (Albany Herald file photo)
ALBANY — Over the last several years around the 9/11 anniversary, Sunel Merchant has used his role as business owner as a way of thanking the nation’s first responders for what they do.
To him, their duties have special meaning.
Merchant, who now lives in Alabama, owns four Philly Connection locations, including the one in Albany. At this time 12 years ago, he was working on the 49th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
“I remember standing and looking outside the window facing downtown,” he recalled. “I saw a plane flying low. Then something happened. I remember the ground moving forward, as a moving (flat) escalator. It was one of the most helpless moments of my life.”
After the building had stopped moving from the impact nearly 20 floors above him, he and his co-workers waited for instructions. Someone eventually suggested to evacuate, and they went into the stairwell.
“We thought we were pretty safe,” Merchant said. “We didn’t think (the building) would go down.”
When he reached the 42nd floor, he came across a woman who said she had seen the plane. At the time, though, not many folks were ready to believe what had happened — thinking perhaps it was a small plane that had suffered a pilot error — until a woman they ran into further down was charred from head to toe.
Then the impact to the South Tower came.
“The line kept moving,” he said. “When we got to the 32nd floor, there was a big, loud noise from the bottom and the building shook, but not as much as before and the lights flickered. We thought we might have been trapped.”
It was when he reached the 25th floor that Merchant said he saw the first firefighter climbing up the stairs.
“He had a smile on his face and said not to worry, that everything was under control,” he said. “I saw in their eyes that they (the firefighters) knew they probably were not coming back.”
Once they made it outside, Merchant and his co-workers were able to see the extent of the situation.
“We got outside and saw a big, black hole,” he said. “I realized then this was not small. This was bigger than that.”
He made it to a Starbucks a few blocks away and started speaking with his supervisor when a big chuck of concrete began to fall, and he began to run away.
His children, ages 5 and 1 at the time, had seen what happened on TV. The events of the day made cell phone reception hard to come by, but he was able to touch base with his family and let them know he was all right.
“We went to my supervisor’s house, and we were able to watch TV,” Merchant said.
While recalling all the first responders who rushed their way into danger that day as everyone else was running from it, Merchant’s son asking him who his favorite superhero was initially made him upset — but it got him to thinking about what defines a hero.
“I was running away from the building as he (the firefighter) was going up,” he said. “This was all without thinking about what could happen to him. They were trying to save people’s lives. If they are not the real superheroes, the who is? The only difference is that they won’t be revived the next episode.”
In 2004, Merchant decided to open his own business. Once his first Philly Connection opened, he and his wife discussed how they could use the business to honor emergency personnel every year on 9/11.
“We thought about closing that day,” he said. “We decided to feed them (the first responders). It’s a great idea, because I would be able to shake hands with my superheroes.”
Merchant said free lunches would be offered at the four locations he owns throughout the week. The Albany location, at 2831-B Ledo Road, is offering lunches from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on Thursday.
After the attacks, it was more than his view on first responders that had changed, the restaurant owner said.
“I used to look at life (as though it was important) to make money for my family,” he said. “What your family needs is you. Since I’ve opened the restaurant, I spend more time with my family now.”