My yearly 9/11 post. From an old boss's brother.
Now that I can begin to think clearly again, I would like to take the time to thank each and every one of you for your concern of my well-being. It was a very close call, and I am grateful to be alive.
As you probably all know by now, I narrowly escaped from the World Trade Center attack this past Tuesday, unlike the thousands who are still trapped beneath the rubble. At 8:48am on Tuesday morning, I was reading my email like I do every morning. I had just gotten off the phone with a traffic engineer at the Port Authority regarding a file that I had transmitted to him on the previous day. As I was finishing off my usual peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I heard a loud explosion, which was immediately followed by tremendous building sways and vibrations. As I was thrown out of my chair, I immediately thought that this was an earthquake, but still thinking rationally, I thought that it was abnormal since there are no earthquakes in NYC, especially of this magnitude. I remember thinking that the building felt like it was going to collapse from this initial explosion.
As I picked myself up and ran to the emergency staircase located in the core of the huge building, I saw through the east facing windows debris and fireballs falling from the top of the building. The building had stabilized by the time I reached the stairwell, and evacuation had commenced quickly but calmly. Not knowing the gravity of what was happening above us, people had started pouring into the stairwell from the hallways of the different floors. I saw a coworker from my floor (72nd), and we held and consoled each other.
There were no public announcements in the stairwell, but the evacuation seemed to be going smoothly, there were no more explosions as far as we could tell, no smoke coming up the stairwell, and the building had stopped swaying. We all felt like we were out of imminent danger. As we started to make it down the stairwell, people started chatting and gathering their composures. I heard some people who had been there in '93 telling others that this was a piece of cake since the stairwell was dark and full of smoke in '93. Others were joking about how Mr. Silverstein, who had just recently taken control of the complex, must be fuming at what was happening. A few moments passed and people began to receive messages over their pagers that a 767 had accidentally hit our building. There was no mention of a terrorist attack, and at no time was there any panic. Mobile phones were completely out in the core of the building due to its immenseness and the large distance from the core of the building to the exterior where signals were usually stronger. There was no smoke at all in the stairwell, but there was a strange peculiar smell, which I later remembered it smelling like how it does when one boards an aircraft. I later found out that this was jet fuel.
Soon we heard shouts from the people above us to keep to the right. I started seeing blind people, those with difficulty moving, asthmatics and injured people filing down to our left. People were burned so badly that I won't go into describing it. People kept filing down orderly and calmly, but stunned.
Sometime around the 30th or 40th floor, we passed the first firefighters coming up the stairs. They reassured people that we were safe and that we would all get out fine. By this point, they were already absolutely breathless, but still pushing upward, slowly and unyieldingly, one step at a time. I could only imagine how tired they were, carrying their axes, hoses and heavy outfits and climbing up all those stairs. Young men started offering the firemen to carry up their gear for a few flights, but they all refused. EACH and EVERY ONE of them. As I relive this moment over and over in my mind, I can't help but think that these courageous firemen already knew in their minds that they would not make it out of the building alive and that they didn't not want to endanger any more civilians and prevent one less person from making it to safety on the ground.
We continued down the stairwell, slowly and at times completely stalled. The smell of jet fuel had gotten so unbearable that people began covering their mouths and noses with anything that they could find - ties, shirts, handkerchiefs. Every few floors, emergency crew were passing out water and sodas from the vending machines that they had split open from the hallways.
I had no idea how much time had passed by as I didn't have my mobile phone with me. Around the 20th or 15th floor, the emergency crew began diverting the people in our stairwell to a different stairwell. They led us out of our stairwell, across the hallway where I saw exhausted firemen and emergency crew sitting on the floor trying to catch their breaths. I began to think why? What's going on? This whole operation looked very confusing.
Nobody was giving us any indication as to what was going on. The wait in the hallway to get to the other staircase was excruciatingly long as we had to wait and merge with the people who were coming down the staircase into which we were filing. Why had they diverted us? As we started to get down to the lower floors, water started to pour down from behind us. I figured that a water pipe had burst or that it was water coming down from the rescue on the higher floors.
At this moment for the first time since the initial explosion, a sense of panic began to grip me. Only floor 7, then 6. A few more to go, and I would be free. I couldn't wait. It didn't matter that the water was ankle deep.
I was a few floors from the ground. Floor ,,,,4,,,,then all of a sudden, a loud boom, and the building began to shake unbearably again. People started falling down the stairwell as smoke started to rise from the bottom. The emergency lights flickered and then went out. The building was still shaking, and I could hear the steel buckling. Rescuers below us shouted for us to go back up the stairs. At this moment, I was choking and shaking tremendously. I managed to climb back up to the 6th or 7th floor and opened the door to that floor. The water had already risen to my ankles, and the floor was completely dark. A fireman led us with his flashlights to another staircase by the voices of another fireman who was guiding him through the darkness. We finally made it across that floor to the other stairwell where we were greeted by the other fireman and told to hold. The look on that fireman's face said it all. He said something under his lips to our fireman indicating the severity of the situation.
With the image of the firemen communicating to each other and hindsight, I believe that the fireman had whispered to the other one that Building Two had collapsed.
After a few minutes of huddling by the stairwell on the 6th floor, we were given the green light to run for our lives. I made it down six flights with a few other people and came out onto the mezzanine level of our building.
I don't know what I was expecting to see when I got out of the stairwell, but I was not ready for this apocalyptic scene. It was completely covered in white dust and smoke. My initial reaction was that I couldn't believe that one plane, albeit a 767, 80 floors above our head caused all this damage on the ground floor - inside. I covered my head and ran towards the huge opening in the north side of the building through which we were being evacuated. As I approached this threshold, the firemen yelled to us to get over to the wall of the building quickly. Debris was still raining from all sides of the building. We could see the other firefighters who were outside standing underneath the cantilevered parts of the black immigration building (4 and/or 5 WTC). At their cue, we ran from our building to the outside world and back underneath the immigration building. I was completely disoriented, coughing, and looking at the strange new landscape at the WTC plaza - burning trees, wreckage, fireballs and dust, nothing short of a nuclear winter. I climbed over huge pieces of steel wreckage and made my way through to the skybridge leading to 7 WTC (building 3 to collapse). From there, I descended the escalators down to the street level onto Vesey Street and trotted to safety onto Church Street. I immediately looked back and saw the charred remains of the upper floors of my building. Smoke filled the sky, and I began to have this eerie feeling that WTC 2 was not there. I couldn't be sure because of all the smoke that was billowing from my building blowing eastward. As I was trying to find WTC 2, I saw the unthinkable happen in front of my eyes. WTC 1 began to disintegrate from where it was burning. I turned around and ran.
I later learned that another 767 had hit WTC 2 around the floors where sit in my building. I later learned that WTC 2 had collapsed when we were still inside my building on the fourth floor when it began to shake for a second time. I later learned that I had been spared from the sight of people falling from the higher floors. I am grateful to be alive and uninjured and to be able to share this life-changing experience with you. And, I am so grateful for the courage of the firemen and policemen who gave up their lives to help us down the burning tower.
LM's old boss' brother's co-worker
September 24 2001