There was a time when Sachin Kulkarni hated missing a bus, train or a flight. His wristwatch was his lodestar, and everything had to happen on time, at home and at work. Now, he rarely wears one and if he misses a train, he just waits for the next.
Kulkarni is alive today only because he missed a train the morning of September 11, 2001. He was running almost 20 minutes late by the time he got to the World Trade Center, where he worked. It was on fire by then.
Marsh, the company he worked with then and now, was in WTC Tower 1. And it lost 200 people.
Being a fan of American football, Kulkarni had stayed up till late the night of September 10 watching a New York Giants-Denver Broncos game. So he got up late the next morning, and started late for work.
He had to change trains several times to reach work from New Jersey where he lived. "Having slept late, I wanted to take a train that would let me do the
journey sitting," he said. So he let the train at the platform go, and waited for the next. And on he went, hurtling through the underground subway.
When he finally emerged, at a station not very far from the WTC, he saw the towers on fire. And he then saw a colleague walking back from work. He should have been at work, but there he was, going home. Kulkarni thought of Matt - Mathew Horning, a friend and colleague. They were neighbours at work, and competed with each other in getting to work first. "Where are you?" Kulkarni texted him. Horning had beaten him to it.
He was at work and in trouble.
Their 95th floor office was on fire. Horning sent him a series of short two- or three-word messages: "I am stuck here." "Send help." "Stuck badly". And then the messages stopped.
Born in an army family, Kulkarni grew up in Pune and after studying engineering, reached the US in 1995. He married Bhargavi in 1997 and had their first child - son Aryaman - in late 2000. Now they also have a seven-year-old daughter called Ananya. Kulkarni's first thought on learning of the attacks was reach Bhargavi, to let her know he was safe. "But I had left my mobile home that day," he said. He sent her a message from his pager. Aryaman was just a few months old, and Bhargavi was a stay-home mother.
Kulkarni returned home late evening, scenes of the burning towers still swirling in him head. Next day, he was off to Boston with a colleague to retrieve what was left of the company's IT capability.
"We drove through the night," Kulkarni recalls, attracting stares and looks. Around the same time Leon Panetta, now defense secretary, was making his way across the width of the country in a rental car.
These seven-eight days are clearly etched in Kulkarni's mind. He remembers every little detail, the time, the turns in the road, food breaks. He returned home after retrieving whatever they could.
But things would never be the same.
Max, for one. He wanted Aryaman to grow into a New York Mets fan - stick to baseball, and not follow football like his dad. He had even bought the little guy a Mets uniform, hoping he would grow into it someday.
There's another change. "I've have learnt to relax," said Kulkarni. He doesn't get hyper if something doesn't happen on time. Earlier, if a colleague lagged, Kulkarni would take it upon himself to finish the work. Things had to happen on time.
He doesn't like talking about 9/11 much. It's always brought up by friends, said Bhargavi. Though Kulkarni doesn't walk out, he doesn't participate. It's still too fresh, too personal.