Pasadena native Blake Wallens was a 31-year-old vice president at a financial services company working in the World Trade Center’s North Tower when a hijacked plane crashed into it at 8:45 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001.
Wallens was one of thousands employed by Cantor Fitzgerald and its spinoff company, eSpeed International, more than 100 floors up in the air when the tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m.
“‘I can see a lot of smoke.”‘
Those were the penultimate words he left on a voicemail to his brother, Jordan Wallens, the latter said in an interview with the Pasadena Star-News in November 2001. “He pauses for a second. You almost get the sense he’s kind of looking around. He says, ‘I’ll call you whe-.’ He kind of cuts himself off, and you hear his voice start to quiver a little bit. And he says, ‘I’ll call you if we get out.”
20 years later
Images of the 9/11 attacks remain vivid in the minds of many who look to honor the thousands of people killed 20 years ago Saturday.
Sorrow, anguish and heartbreak are a few of the emotions that sweep through Jordan Wallens, the La Crescenta man said in a follow-up interview this week. But he also feels blessed every time somebody shares a memory of his brother.
“Everyone in my life used to come back around this time of year and pay a little tribute to Blake,” Jordan said. “And I’m just so lucky that they share it with me and don’t forget.”
Jordan Wallens holds the last picture of him and his brother Blake, left, at his La Crescenta home on Wednesday, September 8, 2021. Blake Wallens, a partner at Cantor Fitzgerald, died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks while on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Born April 16, 1970 — only months before the first tenants began moving into the North Tower in December 1970 — Blake Wallens spent much of his childhood with Jordan in Pasadena, where the two were inseparable.
Before graduating from Cornell University in 1992, Blake Wallens walked the halls of Polytechnic School, a K-12 he so thoroughly enjoyed that when his family moved to Claremont while in eighth grade, he opted to ride a bus daily to continue his education at the renowned private school.
With his parents split and after another move, Blake Wallens spent his sophomore year at Beverly Hills High but missed Poly so much, he got back on the bus and made a 95-minute daily commute for his junior and senior years.
“Some people would say: ‘Why does Blake get to call the teachers by their first names and no one else can?’ That’s just how it went with him,” Jordan Wallens said, describing his brother as a bit of a mischief-maker with a memorable Cheshire Cat kind of grin. “He just had a Ferris Bueller spirit to him.”
A prime example is the pair’s first Rose Bowl game in 1983.
“I had an injured knee and was on crutches. My mom got me and Blake tickets to the game for Christmas and when we got there, Blake commandeered a dolly, put me on it and wheeled me around the Rose Bowl,” Jordan said, chuckling at the thought. The crazy part is everybody got out of the way and never questioned what two kids were doing with a dolly.
“That’s just how he was though. It was always like, ‘Let’s see if we can tweak the rules a little.’ He was that kind of renegade spirit.” Jordan Wallens said. “He wasn’t a jock, and he wasn’t the smartest, but he was intelligent and liked by just about everyone.”
A “consummate big brother,” Jordan Wallens said, Blake continued attending football games over the years to watch his younger brother on the field. Jordan Wallens played in high school and college, following in his brother’s footsteps to Cornell.
Then in 1996, the two got the idea to reunite to attend a college football game near Chicago where Jordan Wallens was living at the time. It became the start of a tradition of sorts. The two would road trip to various venues between 1996 and 2000 as a way to see America, meet people from different walks of life — Blake Wallens’ passion — and, of course, enjoy a game.
“We had planned for Baltimore and Washington, D.C. in 2001,” Wallens said, “but everything went wrong.”
Sept. 11, 2001
Then living in Los Feliz, Jordan Wallens remembers entering a vanpool at 5 a.m. when he randomly heard over the radio that a commercial airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.
“My first thought was it was a little propeller-driven plane that drags the messages when you’re out at the beach,” he said. “And I thought, ‘Oh that’s random. Well, I’ll be at work in about 35 minutes, and I can call Blake so he could tell me how funny and silly it is.’”
Information continued to spread over the airwaves though, “and I thought, this isn’t an accident. This sounds scary,” Jordan Wallens said. Several moments would pass before he received a message from his crying sister, Nicole. “I knew I needed to call my brother’s number,” Jordan Wallens said, “but it kept beeping and saying, ‘All circuits are overloaded. Please try again later.’”
Xabi Wallens holds a piece of steel from the World Trade Center, just one of many memories of the uncle he never met, at his La Crescenta home on Wednesday, September 8, 2021. Blake Wallens, a partner at Cantor Fitzgerald, died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks while on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
After the building had fallen, Jordan Wallens discovered a message on his phone. He still remembers the trembling voice telling him not to worry.
“I could hear him looking around for a way out and saying he couldn’t believe how black the smoke is,” he said. “And in the last words, he said, ‘I’ll call you if I get out.’ And that was the end of the message.”
Much of the day beyond the morning is a blur, but Jordan Wallens specifically recalls the denial he felt in the ensuing moments — even taking denial to the absurd.
“I distinctly thought that Cantor Fitzgerald had thought about something like this in advance and had an escape capsule like C-3PO used in ‘Star Wars,’” Wallens said. “I thought they were all going to ride something down to the bottom, land safely, dust themselves off and be healthy.”
The delusion didn’t last for long.
“Oddly, my sister was at the OB/GYN when Blake’s call came in, finding out she was pregnant, and the due date was April 16 — Blake’s birthday,” Jordan Wallens said. “Nicole came home (where her brother was waiting), and as she was walking up, we collapsed together. That was the moment the denial faded away.”
His sister’s baby would be born a few days earlier than intended, April 2 — Jordan Wallens’ birthday, as it turns out — but the baby’s uncle found himself in a deep depression that would endure for years.
At the behest of a friend, Jordan Wallens said he started to travel to college football games and found the thrill of life. It wasn’t planned, but a nonfiction book resulted from the journey as well.
“I just learned the other day from the sixth person that they named their kid Blake in his memory,” Jordan Wallens said. “It feels as though there is nothing better.”
Well kind of, he admits.
“Don’t get me wrong, the whole situation is devastating, and I’ve never quite been the same. And I might not ever become whole,” he added. “I still find myself in dark places around this time, and I never know I’m in it until I emerge a couple days later. That said, the only thing I found that brings happiness is every time someone says, “Can I tell you a story about your brother?’”
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The fact people remember is special, according to Jordan Wallens, who still receives notes and mementos from his brother’s peers.
“So many people think to avoid the topic like it’s going to bring you down,” he said. “But it’s actually really healing because it feels like he’s present again for a moment, you know — the memory lives on.”
“I’m always uplifted by the solidarity and just the thoughtful consideration of so many people who remember and, thankfully, derive joy in commemorating people like my brother,” he added. “I’m truly grateful we all come together to feel reminded of how blessed we were instead of how sad and how much loss we felt.”