New Pasadena entertainment venue a passion project for 9/11 survivor

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Billy Forney is trying to pinpoint the moment he realized the 110-story building he occupied on Sept. 11, 2001 — the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City — might crumble. 

“I was on the 85th floor on the first tower to be hit, and the second tower to go down,” he said. 

Forney has the time mentally stamped at approximately 8:46 a.m., when militants associated with the Islamic extremist group al Qaeda crashed the first of two hijacked commercial airplanes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Forney, who was an assistant commodities options trader at the time, had arrive earlier that morning. When the sudden loud explosion shook the building, causing it to sway at least six feet sideways back and forth, Forney thought he and the others in his office could die. 

The thought only lasted a few seconds, but the feeling of anticipating the unexpected and the extreme has remained with him since, he said.  

“It was kind of like being at the top of a roller coaster,” Forney said. “Even today I remember thinking that we were going over. You wake up every morning not knowing what’s going to happen on a particular day and not anticipating anything like that, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a bullseye on your back. I clearly remember the sights, the smells and sounds (of that day).”

Now, as the CEO of Palace Social — a family-friendly entertainment and restaurant venue — Forney has grown more accustomed to the peripheral noises of arcade games, falling bowling pins, and the occasional roar of gamers on virtual reality missions, where chairs rock and strobe lights flash in a darkened theater.

His business recently opened its second Houston area location in Pasadena.

Two decades removed from 9/11, the venue is a happy place for Forney. The 49-year-old Houston native and Rice University graduate developed Palace Social after working for years in the oil and gas industry. He describes the bowling center-anchored entertainment complex as a place for kids and grownups looking for high-octane but non-threatening fun, quality food offerings, and opportunities for guests to celebrate birthdays and other events. 

After opening the Houston complex in 2021 on Bellaire Boulevard, Forney is hoping the Pasadena location can expand the Palace Social footprint in the region. 

“There are a lot of entertainment facilities that are between 20 and 40 minutes away from the area,” said Forney. “Because of its central location between Pasadena, Deer Park, and La Porte we knew we had an opportunity to give people another offering.”

Palace Social Pasadena took over the building formerly occupied by Itz, and before that, Incredible Pizza — both recreation venues. 

One of the misconceptions since its opening in June, he said, has been people associating it with the building’s former tenants. But Forney said it’s a new take on the concept, with modern and interactive features intended to appeal to a new generation of fun seekers, foodies, and their families.

Traditional bowling lanes are not far from intense gaming sessions and themed, interactive experiences such as the XD Dark Ride Experience, an immersive thrill ride that incorporates video game features and involves 3D glasses and laser guns.

Combining party venue and recreation with elements of Florida’s Disney World, Palace Social shifts a traditional concept in another gear, he said. 

“This was a chance for us to take over an existing operation and rejuvenate it back to life,” he said.

Outside the Palace Social venue, Forney’s sensory receptors — busy scanning for threats in sudden movements or sounds — remain sharpened by two decades-plus of absorbing the visceral memories of 9/11.

“Every time I go to a restaurant or establishment, I’m always looking at emergency exit doors, or looking at how to get out of a situation, and that has become more of thing for me (since 9/11),” he said. “Loud noises that occur out on the street when truck hits a pothole — those sounds scare me to death.”

Forney revisits 9/11 often at public events, like anniversaries, where he takes listeners on his inside story as a survivor. He started speaking about it openly a year after the attacks and found something healing in the retelling. 

He tells his listeners how the swaying of the north tower stopped after about 10 seconds that felt like an eternity. 

The office he was in, he recalls, still had electricity and the phones were working even as papers flew in all directions, ceiling tiles fell to the floor, and the sudden increase in air pressure violently slammed the door shut.

In the hallway during the descent down the stairwells, Forney remembers the smells of jet fuel, metal, and smoke and how he and thousands of others in the building barreled toward ground level for an exit.

In real time, Forney said, the realization of what had happened was numbed by shock and disbelief. 

“I was just trying to get down; I had blinders on, and I couldn’t see the forest for the trees — I was in the trees,” he said. 

Even as he stood outside on the street covered in ash and soot, Forney said the event’s magnitude didn’t immediately register. 

“It was snowing debris in the air when we surfaced, and the south tower right behind me had fallen and I had no idea, I never turned around,” he said. He said he’s still not sure why he didn’t turn around. 

It wasn’t until later that night, said Forney, that he “pieced together” the emotional weight of the event as he watched footage of the attacks on television. 

Even now, 22 years later, the memories are both surreal and real to him. 

He said he has felt survivor’s guilt when thinking of the nearly 3,000 people that were killed during the attacks at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and even stopped speaking in public about it for a few years. 

At Palace Social, Forney welcomes all the noises and bustling activity that are part of job he says he finds life-affirming.

“I love seeing the smiles on guest faces when they come to Palace,” he said. “One of the things that excites me about my role as CEO is that we’re creating memories for people.” 

But 9/11 will always be a central piece of his personal story, he said, and he shares those memories as a cathartic exercise to not only make sense of the personal aftermath, but to be a witness to a history he fears will be dismantled by conspiracy theories or fade with each generation. 

Several years ago, when his elementary school-age daughter was researching for a book report on 9/11, he found a renewed purpose to keep telling his own story. 

“I know the story of 9/11 is just going to get muddy with so much misinformation, and if I can share mine … and if it inspires or informs people, then I’m going to continue to do that,” he said. “Otherwise, your mind starts to say ‘What if? What if you were 10 seconds slower, or didn’t turn this corner, or leave in time…?’ You can bury yourself in misery and worry and anxiety. I chose not to do that.”

Palace Social is located at 5950 Fairmont Pkwy., Pasadena, and can be reached at 281-998-2424.

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