Robert Saleh walked into his Dearborn, Mich., home on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, turned the corner, and found his parents in a state of distress. His father, Sam, was pale and his mother, Fatin, was in tears as they watched the north tower of the World Trade Center burn on TV.
“And then the second tower was hit, and my mom just loses it,” Saleh told The Post on Friday. “A waterfall of emotions went through the entire family.”
Robert’s big brother, David, the oldest of the four Saleh siblings, was in the south tower, training to be a financial advisor. He was on the second day of a 90-day Morgan Stanley program, and now he was under attack from a terrorist group that had decided to fly hijacked planes into American symbols of financial and military might.
“If I ever wanted to know what my mother would look like if she lost one of us,” recalled the rookie head coach of the Jets, “that was it.”
Robert Saleh spoke as he stood on top of a small building at his team’s facility. At 42, projecting the look and physicality of a Marine, Saleh was two days away from his debut, in the Jets’ game at Carolina, as an NFL head coach. With a swirling wind howling around him, Saleh was asked if there was a time on 9/11 when he thought his big brother was dead.
“In my mind, he was gone,” the coach said. This was after David had called his parents to tell them he was alive, but before the towers collapsed and inspired another overwhelming wave of anxiety and fear.
“It wasn’t until darn near 4, 5 o’clock that we heard back from him,” Saleh said. “As the hours go, it felt like forever. And you’re praying for the best, but you’re thinking the worst.”
Twenty years later, David Saleh was on the phone describing how he dodged the worst possible scenario. He was looking out a 61st-floor window, admiring the view of the Statue of Liberty and the size of a yacht with two helipads, when a monstrous fireball raged out of the adjacent tower. A manager emerged and asked about the commotion.
“The building next door blew up,” David told him. “Look at the debris outside, it’s on fire.”
David grabbed his belongings and headed quickly down the stairs. When he reached the 40th floor, a voice on the intercom announced that it was safe for everyone to return to their offices. Some employees listened and did a U-turn, and some, like David, kept going. On the 24th floor, he heard a sonic boom and felt his tower shake. People swayed back and forth in the stairwell, and the lights flicked on and off. David had no idea that a plane had caused that fireball in the north tower, and he had no idea that a plane had just slammed into his tower. “I thought the building next door was crumbling on top of us,” he recalled.
David made it to the lobby, where those fleeing the carnage were escorted past blown-out elevator shafts, back up a flight of stairs, and out a back exit, away from an area where most of the debris and bodies were plunging from the sky. He made it onto the street and ran for seven or eight blocks before his legs gave out.
“It was like a complete crash of my adrenaline,” he said. “I started coughing up black phlegm.”
His cell phone rendered useless, David entered a party store and asked the man at the counter if he could use his phone. David called home, and his father told him about the hijacked planes. When the towers ultimately collapsed one after the other, making for an apocalyptic scene, David felt shock, sadness, and anger all at once. He made it back to his Times Square hotel and finally called his parents back. That’s when the Salehs knew for the first time that their boy was going to make it home.
On Feb. 4, 2002, five months after the 9/11 attacks and one day after the Patriots upset the Rams in Super Bowl 36, Robert Saleh, then a 23-year-old credit analyst at a bank, called his big brother. He was sobbing.
“He felt like he was in the movie, ‘Office Space,’ ” David recalled. “He’s not a crier, but he was crying this time like he had snot everywhere and couldn’t breathe. He said, ‘I can’t take it anymore. I have to be on the football field.’ ”
At Jets camp Friday, the coach explained, “I felt like I was stuck in a cage, and the only way I could get out is if I forced my way out.”
The Salehs were all football players at Fordson High in Dearborn. The father, Sam, was a hell of a prospect who wrecked his knee while trying to make the roster of the Chicago Bears. David described himself as a serviceable and dependable tight end and defensive end at Fordson. Robert was better than that; he became a Division II star at Northern Michigan.
After David’s near-death experience, Robert started seeing every day as a precious gift that could not be wasted. He loved football, and he needed it back in his life. So he reached out to the big brother, who had driven him to his first Fordson practice in his Camaro, and who used to wake him up at 2 a.m. and feed him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to add weight to his skinny frame.
They talked that day on the phone, and talked some more face to face after David summoned Robert home. Big brother was always little brother’s confidant and best friend. Coaching, they decided, was the answer.
“I knew it was going to be a journey,” Robert said. “I just knew this was the life I was supposed to have.”
Robert Saleh started at the bottom of the Michigan State staff, and all these years later, he has ended up at the top of an NFL franchise. David, an investor and residential loan officer, can’t wait to be there in the flesh Sunday to watch the improbable dream come to life. He has a pregnant wife due to give birth next month, and his house is under renovation, but nothing could keep him from Robert’s head coaching debut.
David is scheduled to take an early Saturday morning flight to Charlotte. Though he felt some trepidation over flying on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, in the end, David said, “I feel like a kid going to Disney World.”
It’s going to be a wild ride for the Salehs, and a safe bet says David will be Robert’s keeper for every twist and turn.