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Tuesday was a day of terror, tension and heroism for employees of small law firms with offices in the World Trade Center buildings, which collapsed to the ground less than two hours after terrorists crashed jetliners into each of the towers. At the office of Harris Beach, located on the 85th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, evacuation began as soon as a commercial airliner slammed into the building, about 15 minutes after the North Tower was hit with an identical attack. Hal M. Hirsch, a partner at Harris Beach since it merged with Gainsburg & Hirsch last month, said the most heroic escape was that of a firm secretary who has asthma. “She passed out about 10 floors down,” Hirsch said. “A construction worker picked her up and carried her all the way down the stairs.” The yet-to-be-identified construction worker was one of a crew that had been remodeling the firm’s World Trade Center office space. Hirsch said that nearly the full staff — about 80 to 90 employees — was in the office at the time of the attack, plus construction workers. A member of Harris Beach’s Rochester, N.Y., office said the firm had gotten in touch with all but five of its employees, who were still unaccounted for as of Wednesday afternoon. As far as beginning to recover from the tragedy, Hirsch said the company had secured new office space — the firm’s Web site lists 500 Fifth Ave. as the new address — and could be fully operational by Monday morning. Hirsch said the firm backs up its computer documents daily and lost no litigation time. He said he was overwhelmed by the support from the legal community, including clients and competing firms. Joel Simon, a partner at the international trade law practice of Serko & Simon, said he saw the first explosion at North Tower from his apartment in the vicinity of Canal Street, through a window that looks down Church Street. “I told my partner’s assistant, get everyone out of the building right now,” he said. Simon said six of the firm’s 21 staff members were in the 33rd floor office at the time of the attack, and all of them escaped — arriving at the ground floor of the building after about an hour on the staircase. Conway & Conway, which shared office space with Serko & Simon, had two employees in the office at the time, both of whom escaped. Simon said the firm will likely take up temporary residence with one of the firms that has offered to help, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart or Baker & Hostetler. Simon said all the firm’s computer files had been backed up, but the firm library was lost along with paper correspondence from those outside the firm. When the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, Simon was one of those who evacuated the building through stairways filled with black smoke. He said his secretary at the time, who inhaled large amounts of smoke during the escape and later had a lung transplant, recently died. The law firm of Drinker Biddle & Reath usually has 16 people in its New York office on the 89th floor of the North Tower, but luckily on Tuesday only one person was there at the time of the attack. The woman, whom the firm did not identify, escaped major injuries by wending her way down 89 flights of stairs. Because of her survival, said James M. Sweet, the firm’s chairman, “There has been a good deal of rejoicing in the office today.” Sweet said the firm has moved its New York office, which predominantly serves financial clients, to its office in Florham Park, N.J. He said some lawyers will be back to work Friday and the firm should be running full steam by the beginning of next week or sooner. Drinker Biddle was also lucky enough to have all computer files backed up, but it lost paper correspondence with courts and other outsiders. At Hill, Betts & Nash, which took up about a third of the 52nd floor of the North Tower, about eight employees escaped the wreckage, flames and smoke unscathed. Hill Betts has 15 attorneys, who generally arrive at 9:30 a.m. — after the attack occurred. A firm spokesperson said all paper files and computer files, excluding the accounting department’s computer files, were destroyed. Partners Wednesday convened an all-day meeting at the firm’s Newark, N.J., office. Gail Ritzert, managing partner at the Garden City, N.Y., office of Ohrenstein & Brown, said two of the firm’s 91 New York employees are still unaccounted for. Geoffrey Heineman, the managing partner in New York, led about 15 employees out of the building as the attack ensued. Ritzert said the company was deciding between two temporary offices in Manhattan, at one of which it hoped to convene a meeting at today. Some employees will be asked to work in the firm’s Garden City office, others in the temporary space. She said the firm’s server and e-mail access should be up by the end of the week or early next week. The firm had copies of all electronic documents, but lost paper copies of documents from outside firms and courts. Additional reporting by John Woods.

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