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Fred Van Remortel moved into his new office late last month. It’s two stories lower and about 70 blocks north of the one he occupied a year ago. The sound of carpenters working is a lot like what he heard last September, when tenants were having work done above him. That construction, in fact, was the first thing Van Remortel thought of when the first plane hit the north tower. Then he heard the explosion and felt the building move. “The building absolutely shook,” says Van Remortel, a 38-year-old associate at New York’s Conway & Conway, “and I thought the building was going to tip over.” It swayed one way, then the other before it steadied. Van Remortel, a graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), knew it wasn’t an earthquake because there was no rumbling. He looked out and saw debris falling past his 33rd-floor window: metal, sheets of aluminum, swirling office paper and a green baseball cap. His first glimmer of what was happening came when he called his father. Sitting in his home hundreds of miles away, in Alexandria, Va., his father told him CNN was reporting that his building had been hit by a plane. Still, he and partner Kevin Conway, the other lawyer in the two-lawyer firm, had no idea that it was a commercial airliner and a deliberate attack. They remained in their office, listening for an alarm. When it didn’t come, Van Remortel grabbed a shoulder bag, and he and Conway ventured into the hall, never thinking it would be the last time they left their office. “When we walked out,” Van Remortel says, “I wasn’t even sure we’d be going down the stairs.” The smoke in the hall convinced them. The stairs were already packed. After they began to descend, every so often a voice told them to move to the side and firemen marched up, sweating under the burden of the oxygen tanks they carried. Van Remortel didn’t fully understand the magnitude of what was happening, he says, until he’d left the building, walked a distance and looked up. He saw the flames and the people leaping. “That’s when we knew it was like ‘The Towering Inferno.’” As he made his way uptown to his apartment, his thoughts turned to his roommate, Sean Lynch, who worked on the 104th floor at Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond trading firm where more than 700 people perished. Van Remortel spent days trying to learn the fate of his friend, fielding and placing innumerable calls to Lynch’s friends and relatives. One was Lynch’s girlfriend, Joanne Katsch. Even that day, when he answered the panicked messages she’d left, Van Remortel sounded composed, Katsch remembers. “He was calming. It was almost like he had a job to do and he was doing it.” She was struck then, and in the ensuing months, by his selflessness. “Here’s a guy who had barely escaped with his life, and immediately he begins calling other people, saying, ‘Are you OK? Don’t worry. I’ll keep you posted.’” Bill Snedeker, Van Remortel’s fraternity brother at UCLA and roommate before Lynch, remembers the toll that period took on his friend. The athletic lawyer, who was recruited by UCLA’s football and track teams, was gaunt and pale. “He was a shell of a person,” Snedeker recalls. “He looked like he was trying to hold up for everyone around him.” An example was the eulogy he delivered. Capturing Lynch’s quirky and endearing qualities, it elicited laughter as well as tears. “For the first time in weeks, I remember a lot of smiling,” Katsch says. It wasn’t easy, Van Remortel acknowledges. He had trouble sleeping and often felt lethargic. He allowed himself to cry only in the shower. Though he never sought therapy, he thinks his state of mind “did border on clinical depression.” Work was also exhausting. Most of the firm’s files and all backup tapes were destroyed. Van Remortel had grabbed current files on his way out, and he and Conway had documents on home computers. They struggled to keep cases on track while a new associate — originally slated to start Sept. 10 — reconstructed older files from court records, clients’ files and the documents of adversaries. Other lawyers helped. Bressler, Amery & Ross of Florham Park, N.J., provided documents and work space, as did New York’s Serko & Simon and Rosenman & Colin. Eventually Cleveland-based Baker & Hostetler rented them offices and cheerfully put up with severely cramped quarters for months. Van Remortel didn’t start feeling like himself again until April or May, he says. These days he feels an urgency that was absent before his brush with death. He doesn’t procrastinate the way he once did. He spends less time fretting over petty problems or getting angry at obnoxious people. Where once he would have argued, now he walks away. Amid these changes, a funny thing happened to Conway & Conway. The firm, which specializes in securities and commodities litigation, is doing better than ever. The case list has doubled. It’s partly due to a backlog of cases delayed by the terrorist attacks and a jump in shareholder lawsuits, but they’re also getting lots of referrals. And they’ve received a surprising boost from Sept. 11. “It amazes me,” says Van Remortel, “how often people come in and say, ‘We were looking at you and some other firms, and we picked you because you were in the Trade Center.’”

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