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Pittsburgh businesses close offices, try to account for workers

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

This story was reported and written by the Post-Gazette business staff.

Local companies this morning shut offices and scrambled to account for all their workers in the wake of a string of airline crashes in New York City, the nation's capital and Somerset County.

US Airways said all of its planes have been accounted for and have been instructed to land at the nearest airport, except for Pittsburgh International Airport, where no flights were scheduled to land.

At the North Side headquarters of Alcoa, which also has 55 workers at its offices on Park Avenue in New York City, people were gathered around the televisions on each of the Pittsburgh building's six floors. Spokeswoman Joyce Saltzman said the events were "a total shock to everyone." Alcoa closed its New York office and evacuated its North Side complex.

Just after 10:30 a.m., building management at the USX Tower, Downtown, closed the tower and evacuated the building, said USX spokesman Don Herring. Federated Investors and Highmark Inc. also closed their Downtown offices as a precautionary measure. PPG Place as well as Fifth Avenue Place also closed.

H.J. Heinz Co. canceled its annual shareholders meeting scheduled for 2 p.m. at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

The Regional Enterprise Tower, the old Alcoa building now home to regional economic development agencies, has not been closed.

But employees of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, the Pennsylvania Economy League and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development have been told they can go home if they're uncomfortable. Many employees accepted that offer made by PRA President and Chief Operating Officer Ronnie Bryant.

Downtown marketing firm Burson-Marsteller and Mellon Financial Corp. were among the many sending employees home. "Honestly, my people just didn't feel safe," said Laura Gongos, head of the local Burson-Marsteller office.

One of the first calls at Ambassador Travel Service in McCandless was from a client heading out today to a triathlon in Rimini, Italy. He was scheduled to fly through New York, then was rerouted to Atlanta, then the word came down that all flights were canceled. No one was going anywhere.

"It's just a disaster beyond anyone's imagining," said Charles Wysor, president of Ambassador Travel.

Thirteen Ambassador clients had planned to fly out today. Wysor wasn't going to reschedule them until it was clear when things would return to normal. "We'll just take it day by day," he said.

A television was blaring in the background at World Travel BTI on Smithfield Street as the staff tried to keep up with developments. Word of the airplane crash in Somerset County came across as Marc Zelenski, director and general manager, was explaining how they were coping.

Zelenski said the top priority for the agency, part of a national organization, was to determine if any clients had been aboard the affected flights.

"We're all trying to sort things out right now."

Mellon, which has hundreds of people in Manhattan working at its Dreyfus investment unit, said the employees at its 2200 Park Ave. offices have been safely evacuated.

But spokesman Ken Herz said Mellon also has 230 people in three buildings closer to the World Trade Center and that, as of late morning, "We cannot say everybody is accounted for." But he added, "We know that many of our people are safe inside all three locations [in Manhattan]."At 110 William St., one of the three Mellon buildings in downtown New York, some people are staying inside, where they feel safer.

"Apparently, the situation outside is poor due to the collapse of some buildings," Herz said.

PNC Financial Services Group also has about 200 people in New York, working at the bank's Blackrock investment unit at 245 Park Ave. "We have some people in New York we know are fine and safe, but not everybody has been accounted for," said Brian Goerke, a bank spokesman.

FreeMarkets Inc., the online auctioneer based Downtown, had to cancel an e-sourcing seminar scheduled tomorrow for a hotel in Times Square and told its employees that they could go home. Two FreeMarkets employees were at Pittsburgh International Airport this morning at 9 a.m., when all flights were canceled. All told, about 14 FreeMarkets employees were supposed to be in New York tomorrow.

The company canceled the seminar, FreeMarkets spokeswoman Karen Kovatch said, "due to the national tragedy and concerns for the safety of our customers and employees."

Nova Chemical closed its U.S. operations center in Moon because of its proximity to the airport and a flight pattern that brings planes over it.

James Mead, president of Capital Blue Cross in Harrisburg, began a teleconference with reporters mentioning that the insurer's parent organization has its offices in the World Trade Center and that he and others at Capital Blue are usually in frequent touch.

Today, he said, there had been none.

He said the company's "prayers are with the victims and with our country.

"The irony is that I was supposed to be in Washington today," Mead added. "I'm thankful I wasn't. This is very sad."

Mead had remained in Harrisburg after Pittsburgh-based Highmark Inc. notified Capital Blue that it was terminating a joint business arrangement that the two have had for 30 years, Mead said. He called the teleconference to explain that there would be a six-month transition and that the two would then compete for business.

At area law firms, shock gave way to more serious concerns about safety, even in Pittsburgh.

"How can you concentrate at a time like this?" said Mike Scherpereel, a Reed Smith spokesman.

"There has to be some kind of consensus on how to deal with a situation like this."

Moments later, Reed Smith's Downtown workers were ordered to evacuate their building at 435 Sixth Ave.

Reed Smith has a New York office, but it is in Midtown Manhattan. Scherpereel said he had not heard of anyone in New York who was hurt. Other Pittsburgh firms with offices in Manhattan include Buchanan Ingersoll, Morgan Lewis & Bockius, and Kirkpatrick and Lockhart.

Buchanan Ingersoll shut down its Midtown Manhattan office, and a firm spokesman, Mark Miner, said he hadn't heard of any injuries among his colleagues.

The firm DKW Law Group, which has its main office in the USX Tower, Downtown, shut down after the entire tower was evacuated. Mary Hendrix, a firm spokeswoman, said, "Everybody's just trying to get out of Downtown."

Jack Barbour, managing partner of Klett Rooney Lieber and Schorling, had opted to keep the firm's office open as of 10:30 a.m., but he noted that efforts to conduct business had been largely unsuccessful. "Everyone's walking around kind of numb, and nobody's getting any work done," he said.

Karl A. Schieneman, managing director of Legal Network, was at a meeting in the Rivers Club, Downtown, when he and an associate learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The business meeting abruptly ended.

"With all this stuff going on, you just couldn't talk. It just brought back how unimportant day-to-day business is at time like this."

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