There is a man in our area who bears many labels. He is a native of Belo in Mingo County, West Virginia. He is a current resident of Banner in Floyd County. He is an investment broker in Pikeville. He is a survivor of the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York City.
However, amid all these labels it took a while for him to find the one that was perfect for him. He said that even after the historic and tragic events that unfolded in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, left him wondering about his purpose in life and why he was a survivor instead of a victim.
It would take a decade after 9-11 for Ronnie Spence to meet a woman named Bridget and her 2-year-old daughter Kate.
“It was then, I found that my true calling in life was to be a dad. Once I became a father, I found the meaning for my life,” he said. “I don’t want to be known as a 9-11 survivor. I want to be known as a great dad.”
Spence’s life journey took him from the hills of West Virginia to the bright lights of New York City, from a wide-eyed college graduate entering the workforce to an eyewitness to one of the most pivotal events in our nation’s history.
Spence was born in 1979 to Clyde and Pauline Spence Sr. He graduated from Burch. He began studying business and finance at Pikeville College (now University of Pikeville) where he graduated in May 2001. Two days later he started his career with the investment firm of Morgan Stanley in its Louisville, Kentucky, office.
In July of that year, he passed his securities licensing test, a requirement for this continued employment. Following that he was scheduled for a training session in the company’s New York headquarters. The date his training began was on Sept. 10, 2001.
This was not Spence’s first trip to “The Big Apple.”
“I had gone to New York on my senior trip while I was at Burch High School,” he reminisced. “I fell in love with the city and was looking forward to going back.”
However, upon arrival in the city the second time he felt a trepidation that seemed to overshadow his new adventure.
“We got there on that Sunday and it didn’t feel right,” Spence recalls. “Monday was rainy and dreary and the feeling continued. I didn’t even go to dinner that night. You want to call it intuition or a gut feeling or homesickness or anything else. I don’t know what it was, but something seemed off to me.”
On the fateful day of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, he arrived for the second day of his training class on the 61st floor of Two World Trade Center (or South Tower) around 7:30 a.m. The first speaker ended early and his group was taking a break in a commons area when the first plane hit the North Tower.
“I saw what looked like ticker tape falling from the sky. I looked out a window and down on the street, and while you couldn’t make out any details, you could tell there was already chaos starting,” Spence said. “Then you could see smoke coming around the building and larger pieces of paper that were on fire.”
He said a co-worker who came to the class with him from Louisville said the building was on fire and they should leave.
The head of security for Morgan Stanley — the tower’s largest tenant with 13,000 employees occupying several floors — began an evacuation plan.
“He already had a plan in place because he had survived the bombing of the World Trade Center 10 years before that,” Spence said. “He wanted to make sure that if anything like that would ever happen again he could get the employees out. He did that. Of Morgan Stanley’s 13,000 employees in the building only 13 lost their lives. Sadly, he was one of them because he refused to leave until everyone else had evacuated.”
Spence said he and his friend began the trek down 61 floors not knowing what had happened.
“As we got to the 45th floor, announcements from the (New York City) Port Authority, which was the security for the World Trade Center, came on saying everything was secure and for people to return to their work stations,” Spence said. “We kept going.”
As the pair made it to between the 21st and 20th floors, Spence said, “The building swayed. The lights went out and emergency lights came on. We could see cracks in the drywall. I didn’t know what had happened, but I knew it had to be terrorism.”
He said just a few weeks before that day, he had watched an HBO movie about the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the movie and terrorist attack came back to his mind.
“We stood there for a few minutes looking up and watching the building burn,” Spence said. “It never occurred to me that the buildings would collapse, but you could see people starting to jump out of the building in fear.”
It was not until a little while later that they learned that planes had crashed into the buildings.
“Because we were some of the first to start leaving, we had made it to safety before the towers collapsed,” Spence said. “By the time we got back to our hotel, Morgan Stanley already had grief counselors on duty. It was a good thing because a lot of people needed it.”
He told a story about one of Morgan Stanley’s employees who was still in South Tower when the second plane hit.
“He was trying to get out and the stairway was too crowded. He ran back in to try to use an elevator. Just as he got there, the door was closing and he yelled for the people to hold it but it was too late and the doors closed,” Spence said. “Then when the doors reopened all he could see was the elevator cables hanging in an empty shaft.”
He compared New York City on 9-11 to some type of post-apocalyptic movie scene.
While most traffic in or out of the city had been curtailed, he and his friend were able to find a train leaving the following morning that was traveling to Richmond, Virginia.”
“The strangest part is, I lived through it, but it feels more like a book I’ve read,” Spence said. “I guess it is my mind’s way of coping with it.’
As he fled from the towers, his mind was back in Mingo County worrying about his family who most likely thought he would be dead.
“About an hour later, I was able to talk to my dad,” Spence said. “He was a mountain of a man. He was a superhero to me. During that phone call he and I had the realization that he was helpless to protect me. He was reduced to crying and telling me to run.”
He said when he returned home, he suffered survivors’ guilt for a long time. Then his life turned around after getting married and becoming a father.
He and Bridget now have three daughters, with Kate having since been joined by sisters Kassidy and Kameron.
Spence said he has been back to the World Trade Center twice since the terrorist attack. Once was with Bridget on the 10th anniversary, and once afterwards with his two oldest daughters. He said he plans to go back one more time when his youngest daughter is old enough to understand the event. After that, Spence said he does not think he will go back anymore.
As a permanent commemoration of 9-11, Spence designed a tattoo for himself. It features the Eye of Providence (Eye of God) overlooking smoke billowing from the New York City skyline — with the towers still standing — and three clock faces with his three daughters’ names on them and the hands pointing to the times of their birth.
Spence said fatherhood became the meaning for his life; however, fatherhood may also be his saving grace.
“I have a really special bond with Kate. I have talked to her more about 9-11 than anyone else,” Spence said. “Every year our roles become reversed. I am supposed to protect her. But when the anniversary of 9-11 comes around, she is there for me, checking on me to make sure I’m alright and protecting me.”