Stuck on the New Jersey Turnpike, Amer Ghalayini, 34, watched the second plane hurtle into the World Trade Center. Terrified drivers abandoned their cars and wandered about, not sure what to do next.
Born and raised in Kuwait, Ghalayini came to the United States 17 years ago as a student. Now the franchise owner of three Subway restaurants, Ghalayini was returning from a trip to Canada with his 5-year-old son, Zachary. He was dumbfounded and terrified. "I was shaking-like everyone else," says Ghalayini, who just wanted to go home. To Washington, DC. With the Pentagon on fire, home was not the safe haven he'd hoped for.
Ghalayini eventually got past his shock and realized he could contribute. One of his Subways is on G Street, a few miles from the Pentagon. Another restaurant is just across from a fire station. Ghalayini adopted a policy, splitting costs with Subway's corporate headquarters: "Unlimited free food for the rescue workers," he told his staff, who didn't get the concept at first.
"What do we do if somebody wants two sandwiches?" one of his employees asked.
"Then give it to them!" instructed Ghalayini. "No questions asked."
Over three days, the two stores gave away about 2,000 sandwiches. Ghalayini refused all offers to pay for the food. "I have never lived through anything like this. Even in Kuwait, I have never experienced anything like this," says Ghalayini. "I was so emotional during that week." He found it therapeutic to give away sandwiches to everyone from FEMA workers to the Secret Service. "If I couldn't have given something back, I don't know what I would have done."
Aiding the Search
During that first week, Mike Komondy made his way through the ash-laden air, searching for anybody alive. The 42-year-old franchisee of four Dunkin' Donuts stores in New Jersey is also a volunteer fireman and an EMT search and rescue specialist. He handed the reins of his businesses-which collectively bring in $2 million a year and have 53 employees-to his general manager on September 12 and spent the next 36 straight hours searching for bodies among the rubble. He will always remember the silence, broken by cell phones and beepers strewn about the towering heap of debris as anxious friends and family called the dead, hoping for a miracle. Says Komondy, "I won't forget it for the rest of my life."
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.