September 11, 2001: A World Trade Center Survivor's Account
Originally posted on another host site September 11, 2003
September 11, 2003
By Tilly (edited by Mike Austin)Editor's note: This is a true, first-person account, one story of survival of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. It comes from one of our occasional RN posters, who uses the screen name of Tilly. She has understandably requested that her real name not be used. We decided to let Tilly tell the following story in her own words what occurred on that terrible Tuesday morning. We can better understand it has affected her, our nation, and the world, forever - we believe you'll be appreciative after reading it. We thank her for her generous permission to use her account, and think of those she mentions in it, as well as in our own lives, who were so affected that day.
This article first ran on the site (September 11, 2003). However, we believe that many new RN visitors and members since then might have never read Tilly's story, as well as longtime members who have. In the former case, we hope you'll gain a stark and clear understanding of what some went through; for the latter, we hope that you'll appreciate returning to this reminder brings remembrance and awareness. We know it's lengthy, but we can think of no better way to commemorate September 11, 2001 here. We hope you'll understand why after reading it.
September 11, 2001: I started my daily commute routine from my apartment at 76th and Lexington in Manhattan's Upper East Side to my World Trade Center (WTC) Tower 2 office. Getting to the 77th Street/Lexington Avenue subway station around my usual 7:40 a.m., I found that the downtown local was running late, but I was happy to see my three buddies on the train. They had the same commute as I did (they worked in WTC 1), and they were often feeling the morning effects of a previous night's socializing; I enjoyed teasing them on the way to work about what a long day it was going to be. We had gotten into a conversation about college football one morning, and we had made plans to meet up that weekend with various friends to watch the kickoff of a new season. I bid them "later," after we made plans to meet up after work that day at the Sphere fountain in the WTC plaza for the commute home.
I got my daily cup of coffee at the Church Street Starbucks. Whenever the weather was as pretty as that day, I always walked across the Plaza level entering WTC 2 (the "South Tower") on the north mezzanine level entrance, and headed down one flight of escalators to the main lobby level. I took one of the three elevator banks in the lobby (each serving floors 3-43, 44-77, and 78-110 respectively). I took the second set, and then transferred to internal elevators to get to my office; the morning's delays caused me to arrive in my 59th floor office (in the center of the South Tower's west side), at 8:43 a.m. instead of my usual 8:30 a.m (I glanced at my desk clock). I set my backpack down and with coffee in hand started towards my boss's office nearby. My co-worker and friend Karen, who was in early that morning (she usually got in at 9 a.m., but we commuted together that morning), had just turned on the morning radio news.
At that moment, a horrific boom resounded throughout the office, so loud that it reminded me of a supersonic jet screaming right next to the window, only 10 times louder. The building shook so severely that I had to grab the desk to keep my footing! Instantly, I spun around and ran into my boss’ office to look out the window facing west into New Jersey. Stepping up on the air conditioning vent that ran along the floor's perimeter, I pressed my face and body against the window (in hindsight this was not the smartest move, but it gave me a perspective on how severe the situation was). I saw monumental amounts of debris blowing by and raining down everywhere: chunks of burning metal, papers, desks - and bodies.
I could not believe what I was seeing.
It was too much for any one person to filter. The entire West Side Highway, the roof of the Marriott Hotel directly below, and everything flying through the air, was on fire. I stood there for what seemed an eternally long time, fixated in shock and amazement as the cars on the West Side Highway blew up, one after another. It took me about two seconds to deduce that I needed to get out - immediately. Although we had a good evacuation procedure in place, I was not going to wait for it to be dictated to me. I grabbed my backpack, then a frightened Karen, and stressed in a loud, forceful manor laced with foul language (using everything in the book and then some!) that everyone needed to move now! I didn't know at that moment what had occurred, but I knew that we were all in grave trouble, and that our best course of action was to be as close to the ground as we could go, in case something occurred that could trap us in a place where rescue was impossible. I've never at all liked being up high, which I know might sound silly coming from someone who worked in one of the tallest buildings in the world, but all I could think of was Towering Inferno at that moment, like I had thought everyday I worked there. Karen had been through the 1993 WTC bombing, and she had told me in detail what had happened, which always had frightened me; ironically, we had just been talking about it the day before. But these latent fears had served me well; I really did think often about the worst case scenario. Any time I went to another floor, or out to run an errand, I always took my belongings with me just in case something might happen. I was always looking at clocks, because for some reason the time was important to me. Now it was real.
Still, like most of the WTC occupants, I didn't yet know what exactly had happened. My first thought was that one of those traffic or commuter helicopters flying around us had lost control and hit the building, as happened during the 70's at the Pan Am Building. It still wasn't yet clear that anything happened to the tower next to us from my viewing angle; at that moment, I thought that it was above me in my tower. All I knew was that I sure wasn't going to hang around to find out! I went straight for the emergency stairwell about 12 feet from my desk with Karen in tow. Starting at our 59th floor, we zipped down the stairwell two and three stairs at a time, while in my head I could hear my father's voice saying, "Just get the hell out - focus - worry about what happened when you get home." I tied my jacket around my waist and ripped my dress shirt off (I had on a T-shirt because the office was always so cold), tearing it in half to wrap around our hands as they slid down the railings, or over our faces if we came upon smoke. We saw no one until we reached the 52nd floor. Everyone was descending orderly but rapidly, joking among ourselves to keep our own fears under control, but to also calm those around us that were more obviously scared. I remember passing the 44th floor thinking after what seemed like going down endless flights of stairs “Oh Lord I'm just at 44!" When I reach the 42nd floor, the P.A. announced that a plane has struck Tower 1 and to remain calm (which remarkably, everyone was at this point). When we reached the 38th floor, the now controversial P.A. announcement was issued that we should either return to our floor or exit onto the floor where we were, but to stay in the building because the falling debris made it unsafe to be outside, and our South Tower was not yet secure. No one going down in the stairwell stopped, although I know that others in the building took this advice, which for many of them was a fatal decision. We descended on.
It took me exactly 17 minutes to get down 59 flights of stairs because eventually it turned out to be the time difference between the two planes hitting each tower. I exited the emergency stairwell into the 1st floor lobby center elevator vestibule servicing floors 3 thought 43 about eight seconds before the second hijacked plane went through my Tower 2. I didn't think of it until later, but now as I recall, at this point I lost track of Karen.
What followed was unlike anything I have ever experienced, or could imagine experiencing; the only thing that comes close is the movie Die Hard. When that plane blew through upstairs the repercussions only took about 25 seconds, but it all seemed in slow motion to me, as if I was watching myself on a movie screen. All of the oxygen was sucked out of the building and my lungs (like being in a vacuum). I felt doomed because the turnstile exiting the elevator bank would not unlock for me to get out and run for the revolving doors leading out of the lobby and into the mall under the plaza level. I could not have known at that panic-filled moment, but that locked-up turnstile would save my life. Instead I'm thinking, "This is where I will die," because I can hear an explosion roaring downward inside the building. Yet somehow I looked over to see that the end turnstile wraps around a support beam forming about a two-square-foot space, but there is only about six inches to squeeze through between the end of the turnstile and wall beam. Something inside me told me to get in there. I'm about 100 pounds soaking wet, so I pressed myself through and balled up facing the support beam with the steel barrier wrapped around my back giving me a little protected cubby hole.
This is when the explosion came.
It progressed down the building, breaking the windows as it went; the entire building was groaning, an unnatural, unearthly sound, much like a can squeezing, or cracking uncooked spaghetti. By the time it reached the lobby, the marble veneer was cracking and falling off the walls; the chandeliers shattered on the floors along with the plaster ceiling, and the force imploded in at about 50 mph, pulling metal, balled safety glass, and other material with it. The pipes were bursting over my head and dense materials were flying around me as if they were being pureed in a blender. In the next instant came a horrible noise and a flash of extreme heat and light blown directly over my head. I concluded later in the day that this was from the huge airplane fireball sent down the 78-110 elevator shaft that exploded out into the lobby, and blew around the walls and curled into the center vestibule where I was taking cover. The third and last explosion occurred when a huge chunk of burning wreckage fell to Liberty Street, which runs parallel along the south side of the South Tower, and crashed through the building into the lobby behind me, bringing metal, glass, marble and revolving doors with it. There had been four security men and some fleeing WTC workers behind me near those revolving doors; I realized that they were all taken out by either a huge chunk of the building exploding outwards or the tail end of the plane falling to the street. I now know that there were nine of us in the lobby that day when the plane hit, two NYPD officers on the 44-77 elevator side, and two others coming out of emergency stairwells on the 78-110 elevator side. The two officers and I were the only ones who made it out alive.
As the debris and dust settled, water started to rain down, and black smoke began to roll through with the strong smell of jet fuel in what was left of a once beautiful lobby. I jumped up, wedging myself out of my cubbyhole, and tried to crawl under the turnstiles and out for the revolving doors leading to the mall. I was covered in dust, glass, water and a variety of other stuff, trying to get to one of the 10 revolving doors in front of me with every bit of calm I could muster. It was not easy. I looked back at two bodies, then forward to notice a ladder perched in front of one revolving door. Used to reach flowers in planters above the doors, it was a startling sight, completely undisturbed, along with the flowers and planters, in an otherwise chaotic, collapsing, rubble-filled lobby. After crawling to the revolving doors leading into the underground mall, I went about 14 feet further and came to a NYFD firefighter at the mall doors, who was pulling the door from the mall side. I couldn't move those doors because of all the debris in the footwell and their weight, nor did I think fast enough to crawl through the openings where the glass had been. He reached his hand in and pulled me through the door by my jacket shoulder, and asked if I was okay. I thought to myself, “Thank God the cavalry is here, everything is going to be okay, if anyone can fix this the Fire Department can." Of course I didn’t know the full scope of the situation at that moment and I don't think they did either.
Now in the mall, I looked straight ahead at the Chase cash bank, where there were some 100 people cowering; screaming, some hysterically started to run out of the bank and down the hall, as now the mall was rapidly filling up with thick black smoke. I was hanging onto this firefighter for dear life, while telling him, “You cannot go in there - that place is exploding down around our heads!" He looked at me and in the calmest manner said, “Honey it's going to be okay, its my job. You just get out of here." He asked me if I new where the Borders book store was and I said yes, so he said, “Go there and get out as fast as you can”. By this time he had a whole battalion behind him and they went in towards the lobby. I started for the Borders at top speed, while hearing secondary explosions going off above my head, almost like an .08 gage gun or larger. All this made me want to hit the floor and all I could think was, "What in God's name is happening up there?"
I found myself next to a man who is taking out a cigarette, all the time while we both were running. I was thinking, "I could sure use one of those right now!" He tried to light it with very shaky hands at a dead run, when a Port Authority security guard (directing people to safety) said in a very Brooklyn-ish accent, “Hey buddy this is a no smoking zone! You can't light that down here!” The man looked back at the guard, aghast, and I'm sure I had the same look on my face! The man said, “You have to be f-ing kidding me! This place is burning down around us, we are all going to die, and by God I am going to have my last cigarette before I go!” I managed at least one laugh that morning, as it was funny as hell, and I wished I could have stopped to get a cigarette from him myself. But the mood quickly turned serious again, as I came upon two portly grandmothers in their late 60's or early 70's; they're holding onto each other, crying, unable to keep up with the mass exodus. The explosions above our heads on the plaza were scaring them and they kept stopping. I grabbed one of their hands and told them to hold on and keep up. Dragging them behind me, I told them to worry about any resulting medical problems later - for now we had to get out of there! I thought to myself, "If I can just get out, we can get to a hospital if someone starts to stroke out."
I finally made it next to Borders Bookstore in the other end of the mall. This was in WTC Building 5 at the northeast corner of the WTC complex facing Church Street, directly across from the Millennium Hotel. People were actually waiting in line for the escalator to go up the one level from the mall to the plaza, despite an immediately adjoining staircase that was about 15 feet wide and with only 20 steps! I couldn't believe it! I screamed at everyone in line saying, “People, this is very serious! Go up the f-ing stairs, move your asses, and get the hell out of here!” I was met with a few blank stares, but quite a few actually listened and followed me up the stairs. As I came out onto the street, dragging the two women behind me after going up the steps and through a revolving door, I was met with the most unbelievable scene I think I will witness in my life.
It was like being in a strange dream. Off to my right, all the way out onto Church Street and for about four blocks going south, was plane and building debris. It was everywhere, and the plaza was covered; I soon realized I was standing in about eight inches of it. There were monumental amounts of paper and ash floating everywhere like some bizarre storm, and the body parts - I could see body parts at every turn, some of which were just melted into the ground as they were blown out of the building, or jumped from the fire. I stepped over about three or four charred bodies and tried to make my way to the street while maintaining what was left of my composure. I got the two women to the east side of Church Street and told them to go east until they came to the South Street Seaport (on the lower East Side) as I knew that there they could get a ferry to Staten Island. Meanwhile, I had to try to get to my apartment to get my dog and try to get off the island of Manhattan.
At this juncture I was frantic because, finally having time to think, this is when I realized I had lost Karen, and the chance of me finding her seemed to me to be nil. Yet unbelievably, after I headed east on Fulton Street, I can only say now it was by God's grace, I see Karen sitting on the steps of an office building across from the street from a church graveyard, crying! I grabbed her and said, “We have to get out of here. I know this is real bad but we can have the nervous breakdown when we get to my apartment and get a stiff drink”. If you were in my shoes you would understand why I was thinking about a bourbon and cigarette quite a bit that day as we made our dash for the Upper East Side. As we started toward Broadway I looked back at the WTC and I now saw for the first time the situation was graver than anything I could have ever imagined. I was thinking to myself how lucky we are to have gotten this far. The top of both towers was engulfed in thick black smoke reaching up into the sky as far as I could see. There was a massive, black gaping hole in the north side of the WTC 1 around the 94th floor to 104th floor, and a massive section missing, wrapping around the east and north sides of WTC 2 at about the 80th to 90th floors. We were just 20 floors below where that fire was burning, and I thank God we moved when we did. We still heard the secondary explosions consistently so I continued to look back at the WTC and noticed that people were jumping out of both towers from above the fire lines! It was then that I started getting sick to my stomach because I now knew what those noises were as I ran through the mall.
They were the sounds of the people jumping out of the towers hitting the plaza floor above me.
I knew that Karen and I had to get moving, so we continued to make our way east, until we reached Broadway, while all of the surrounding buildings were evacuating. Thousands of people emerged out of their buildings but were just standing around, 100 deep, looking up with their mouths agape. I was quite astonished at the general lack of concern regarding their own well-being. I guess we all react in different ways to different situations and I know a lot of people were in shock but I was thinking, "People, this is not a movie!" It was here I heard from a police officer that we had a terrorist attack on our hands, and it is about as bad as one can get - but I decided it was going to get even worse. We headed down into the financial district and made our way into a deli we frequented to use the phone. I'm now desperately thinking that I need to let my little brother in Mississippi know I have made it out, but as I franticly dial all I am getting is rapid busy signals. I finally was able to reach my little grandmother on the phone at her house. She has a severe hearing problem, and had no concept of what was going on, which in a way for now I thank God. I couldn't make her understand the urgency of the situation, or that she needed to call my brother and tell him I was out of my office and so far, safely on the ground. The only thing she did manage to comprehend was my excessively foul language, about which she told me, “I do not care what kind of situation you are in, there was no need for it." She also asked me whether it was really that important that she call my brother to tell him she had talked to me because she was on her way out the door to go shopping and was running late. Obviously she didn't know what was happening. After some even more foul language and a few stern warnings, she finally did call him - but only said, "Well I don’t know what is wrong with your sister but there is something going on in New York. I did not know if she was at home or in her office because she was screaming and cussing at me so that I could not figure it out." She asked my brother if she needed to stay at home. He wisely called my cousin to the phone and said, “You take her to the mall and you keep her away from the phone, TV’s and radios for as long as you can.” He was afraid that if she figured out what was really taking place she would die of a stroke or heart attack at the thought of me being in such a terrible holocaust. And, while he was glad to hear I was alive, none of this really helped him in knowing where I was, and if I was in any danger.
After the phone call, I returned to Karen, where, on the deli TV, we watched the coverage, like everyone else in the world by now- only I'm two blocks east! At this moment the NYPD came in and told everyone to evacuate because there are three more hijacked planes in the air which have yet to be accounted for, plus it was believed that there were bombs planted all throughout the city, set to go off every 30 minutes. Running out of the deli with Karen, I noticed that we were standing right next to the Federal Gold Reserve. "Not a good place to be," I decided, because I know if I was a terrorist that would be on my top ten, so we headed north, at least now in the direction of my apartment. We reached the Brooklyn Bridge and City Hall, which is only two blocks north of WTC complex, and I looked back now with a clear view of the towers. What I was seeing is the most horrific thing I think I could ever witness - not just one thing, but the whole picture: fires you realize that no one, regardless of how well trained they were or what equipment they may have available, can extinguish! And the people! They're still jumping and they just kept coming... it was a sign of how terrible things were up there that they were choosing to leap from 80 plus stories as opposed to burning to death. It was simply one of my worst nightmares and I could no longer watch… At this moment I had a terrible fear – not that the buildings would ever come down, because that was just not a possibility in my mind - but rather that the subway system below me was a prime target for a bombing campaign. It just made sense to me. You have everyone on the ground in a panic and you blow up the streets beneath their feet. I start to think, “Okay, that is when the bodies are really going to pile up and we are not going to be in that count- we have to move!" Grabbing Karen, we headed past City Hall, and I turned and looked back to see the towers again - I never thought it would be for the last time…
We ran through the courthouse district (just north of City Hall) and took a right (going further east) trying to get away from the subway system underneath us, but somehow as we headed north, we weaved back east over it again. At this point, we made what I’m sure seems to be a strange decision - we had to get Karen a pair of tennis shoes because she was in high heels (I was fortunate to have on my lucky cowboy boots that I wore during my commutes). We stopped at a Levi's store and bought her shoes; then I called home to Mississippi again. Believe it or not, I had to first wait on some moron discussing casual dinner plans with his wife; I let him have it because I was at the end of my rope. I got my little brother, who was drinking a bourbon and chain smoking, while waiting to hear from me (it was before 9 a.m. where he was in Mississippi). He was frantic. I told him that I was north of the building and have somehow managed to escape without so much as a scratch. He told me, “I am trying to find someone to get you off the island or come get you. Please call me as soon as you get to your apartment!" Karen called her husband to let him know she was out and we were revitalized with the new shoes in place. By this time Karen’s phone was not working and mine had been left on my desk along with my palm pilot and my digital camera. I still wish I had thought quickly enough to grab that camera to have a pictorial of that day through my eyes, but getting out alive was just a bit higher up on the agenda. We came out of the store into the middle of the street and not two seconds later we heard screams coming from seemingly everywhere. I looked up but I couldn't see the towers because a building is blocking my sight line. Karen is looking down the avenue we are on and she says, "What is that?"
There was a black cloud rolling toward us and it is seemingly eating everything in front of it; people are trying to outrun it but they are just disappearing behind the wall of ash; we can hear glass breaking and debris flying as it rapidly mushroomed toward us. We started to run north as fast as we can, hysterically fleeing this ash tornado! We cut off on a side street, going east for about two blocks, at a full run while I was thinking, “The subways are blowing up!” (It just never occurred to me that those buildings would come down!). Cutting around a corner, we stopped and looked down the street to see the cloud going up the avenue, black as night, dissipating into the side street where we had just been standing (we managed to stay out of the thick of it somehow; although we were still covered in dust, we could at least breathe!). Still holding my composure, I remembered that I had a Discman in my backpack. I pulled it out and turned it to WINS, a primary news station. I heard the newscaster say, "Oh my God, this cannot be happening! Oh my God this is just unbelievable!" I say “What tell us what is happening!" He said, "Number 2 WTC has just fallen to the ground!" This is when the big alligator tears stared to roll down my cheeks and Karen is looking at me, shaking me by the shoulders seeing the fear cross my face screaming, "What in hell happened?” When I told her that our office building has just fallen to the ground, she could not believe it and was still shaking me, saying, “That cannot be! Those buildings cannot come down!" I thought quickly and told Karen, “If Number 2 has fallen then Number 1 is going to go too!” It seemed like the newscaster read my mind as he said, “Get out! Run north! The Number 1 Tower is going to come down!” The streets were unbelievable, full of people moving north. The only vehicles were emergency and officials going south or city buses trying to carry passengers north, as the subway had been shut down. People were stopped on the side of the streets with their car doors open and the radios on, with strangers gathered around them trying to hear any news they could of what was happening. Civilians were directing traffic for emergency vehicles to get through the crowds and intersection. We both stopped and talk to some guys running cable for Con-Edison power company; they told us about 20 of their fellow employees in the basement levels whom they had as yet to hear from. No one said anything but I think we all knew that it was not looking good for anyone below City Hall, much less the basement.
We didn't see the first tower fall, so I thought that it went over like a domino, as opposed to pancaking like it did! I grabbed Karen and said, "Okay, we are only about six blocks north and about three small blocks east; if the other one falls in this direction we are so dead." We again ran just as fast as we could. By this time we learned that the Pentagon had been hit, but we also heard that there are two other planes in the air that cannot be found. I started thinking, "UN, Chrysler Building, Empire State, Citicorp and Rockefeller Center" - we had to go between all of those with the UN to our right by about three blocks and then all the other ones to our left about one block, all in the same area. I think we were around the south side of Soho when Tower 1 came down. I felt the ground shake a little but only could see the airborne smoke. When we went through the 3000 through 5000 blocks, we had to move fast because of all the potential targets for falling debris. Soon we crossed over to 3rd Avenue around 59th Street, and then it was home to 74th Street from there (between Lexington & Park) to my apartment. I would swear that at least once every block I turned in disbelief and said to Karen, “Our office building fell to the ground!” and she would look at me with a hollow stare and say, “I know, I know... how the hell are we still alive?" We crawled up five flights of stairs to my apartment, as we feared if we used the elevator, the power would go and we'd be stranded. When we walked through the door of my apartment, we began taking several drinks, and tried to reach family on the phone and the computer. At this point, there were ten people in my apartment - five whom I had never seen before that day, and five who were close friends, with whom I'd had escaped or who didn't want to be alone at their places. Most everyone stayed overnight because all of the bridges and tunnels out of the city, as well as the mass transit systems, were shut down, and to be honest no one wanted to be alone. That day and night all the TV’s were left on. While watching the news coverage we just sat there in amazement that we were alive, drank steadily and watched in further shock when we saw Building 7 fall to the ground around 5:30 p.m. But we knew one thing - we wanted to get out of New York.
I was lucky, as I had a close friend with me who had his vehicle parked on the street that day (if you had your car in a parking garage it would only be released after the FBI cleared it, which took days and weeks). My friend went and got his car at 6 a.m. the next (Wednesday) morning. Tuesday night I had managed to pack everything that I could put in duffel bags and then some - I also got my dog. Wednesday the 12th, we set out for the George Washington Bridge, which opened at 6:30 a.m.; we were heading that way by 8. It's indescribable unless you were there to see firsthand what it was like in Manhattan, a city under siege, that morning. There was no one anywhere! Few have any idea what it's like to drive through the "City that Never Sleeps" and see no one on the street or driving in a car. Again, I felt like I was in some kind of never-ending movie - this time a la Stephen King. When we went across the GW Bridge there were cars simply abandoned in the middle of it, and we saw more abandoned cars on the West Side Highway below the bridge; all incoming traffic was being searched by the military, and there were tanks on both sides of the bridge. I kept waiting for someone to yell, “Cut! It’s a wrap! That was excellent people; you can go to breakfast!” but it just never happened... As we crossed into New Jersey and drove down the highway that parallels the Hudson River on our way to Philadelphia, I caught my first glimpse of New York the day after. All one could see was smoke, which had changed direction in the night, and was now drifting northward over the island from the southern tip. When we got closer to seeing the southern end of the island, the skyline as I have always known it was gone, only a gaping hole left with black smoke rising where my once majestic office buildings had stood. The smell was almost as disturbing as the missing outline- pungent, a mixture of burning rubber and steel. A great deal of very visible airborne debris was flying around the highway as we were driving south, as the wind had blown westward since the Towers had collapsed. I could not look at any of this without thinking about all of the innocent souls that had not been as lucky as we had been.
I got to Philadelphia about 11:00 a.m. Wednesday morning and managed by the grace of God to get the last SUV for rent at the train station. And what a madhouse the station was, with everyone stranded from every direction and the trains being the only way, besides cars, to move around! While I was reserving the car, the young woman behind the counter was going through her regular information check, and asked me a question I had not anticipated in my stunned state. “Miss, I need your employer, work address and a work phone number." I looked at her with what must have been the oddest expression on my face as I said, “Number 2 World Trade Center, 59th Floor, New York, New York, 10014," and I gave her the phone number. She just looked at me and said, "Oh God, I am so sorry… don’t worry about this." I drove with my friends Julia (who was trying to get to Chicago) and Tilly to Akron, Ohio, to stay with old family friends, where I remained until Friday morning the 14th. I left Akron in my little rental at 10:00 a.m. Of course I went 95 mph the whole way, and never got pulled over for a ticket! My brother told me, “If you get stopped tell them you lost your license, give them that World Trade Center ID, and trust me, they will let you motor on!” I had my dog and the radio news for company, but now that I finally had some downtime away from the scene, it was hard not to dwell upon how lucky I had been. The further I drove, the more people I thought about or remembered who were up on those high floors, and the more phone calls I knew I would have to make most likely to receive bad news on the other end. Some of them are listed below. I was in Birmingham, Alabama by 6:30 p.m. that night.
When I got to Birmingham, I met my brother, who had driven there from Mississippi. He had gotten a small trophy and had it engraved with a "Survivor Award, September 11th 2001, World Trade Center #2, 59th Floor." After Caroline told him her story (which was even more severe than mine!), he went and got her an even bigger one that said "The Ultimate Survivor Award, September 11th 2001, World Trade Center #2, 102nd Floor." I thought that was pretty cool. My brother and I returned to our family home in Mississippi Saturday morning the 15th. I have never been so glad to see in my entire life what I will always call home, even though I consider myself a New Yorker after 14 years of residency in the Big Apple! I thought while I took a sabbatical down south that I would do something constructive with my time, so I started raising money for the New York City Firefighters' Fund. I elected to give the money to a fireman’s widow who was from my neighborhood station house on east 75th street in Manhattan. Mike Lyons was killed in the South Tower rescue efforts that day, and he left a two-year-old little boy and a pregnant wife, who gave birth last November to a little girl. Yet, I felt it really didn’t matter what I did, it would never seem to be enough at the end of the day to match having been so blessed with all of the factors that contributed to my survival.
Since that day, as you can imagine, I've found myself awash in a spectrum of ups, downs, and unresolved questions, along with my memories. From the time I was driving at breakneck speed from Akron to Birmingham, up through today, I'm left with just too many thoughts to neatly process. I can't help at times but to think back...
I think back to maybe what could have been done, although I know that no one could fully anticipate the scope of these events. Still, I think back to the eleven critical minutes when most of the air traffic controllers on the eastern seaboard realized where the second plane was going, and not thinking to call New York Port Authority to get the people moving quickly down in the WTC towers. I also don't know why the Port Authority didn't use the WTC intercom system after the first explosion to get people moving downstairs quickly. Was a "lost workday" worth this delay? I think back to those like me who thought in the most urgent terms and lived, as opposed to those who didn't, and died; those who, just coming down from the upper floors, turned around because they didn't have the forethought or telling fear to think that something else could happen that might affect our building. I remember the eerie feeling I’d have before that day whenever I went into the 59th floor bathroom and heard the pipes and tiles creak as they bent when the building swayed. Or of my brother's very assurance, ironically when I called him the 10th (the night before), and told him about the lightning, the pencil, and the pipes and tiles. He said, "You don’t hear the lightning because of the high-tech grounding system, and the sway is all part of what makes them so strong. Those buildings will never come down, you are as safe as a baby in a bassinette!" and his later response in Birmingham when he said, “I am so sorry, but you did not ask me about a 767 with full tanks!"
I think back to my own "what if’s." I sometimes awake at night in a panic thinking, "What if I had been one of the unfortunates on the floors above the planes' impact areas?" I know that I wouldn't have done anything differently had I been on 104 (where I had gone the day before at about the same time to pick up some papers), but that would have meant that if I had started my descent from there, I would've been around the 44th floor when the plane went through my building, leaving me a short 55 minutes to get out and away. That means I would have been in the Death Zone of ash not far past City Hall when WTC 2 came down! Or what if I had not been fortunate enough to see the cubby hole in the 1st floor as the fireball hit? What if that fireman hadn't been there to pull me through the mall doors to safety? It's just hard for me not to think about these types of things and play them out in my head.
I think back to those who didn't make it, or about whose fate I still don’t know, some of whom I knew very well. Of the now-horrible sounds of those bodies hitting the plaza surface above me while I was in the mall; what if that had been my only choice? Of a girlfriend whose husband worked on the WTC 1 102nd floor, sitting at home with an 8-month-old daughter who would never know her father. Of the countless people with whom I exchanged pleasantries daily. Of a gentleman who I only knew as "Fred" in the 44th floor cafeteria, who would cook me a beautiful breakfast and who always had a funny story. Of the lovely little girl who sat three desks down from me, who was to be married in a few months, died we now believe in a trapped elevator. Of my good friend on the 60th floor, who was missing because he stayed behind while others fled, trying to ensure that no one was left; of his six and three year old daughters, along with his wife left to wonder. Of my three "subway guys" with whom I was going to watch college football that weekend; they were Cantor Fitzgerald employees who perished along with 700 of their co-workers on the 105th floor. Of the people who died not 10 feet from me in the first floor lobby. And, of that brave firefighter who pulled me through to the safety of the mall from the lobby. Oh, how I wish that I had thought to look at his badge or fire shield so that I would have known who he was! I don't know if he made it out alive but I believe he didn't. I wish I could have thanked his wife or mother and told them what he did for me and countless others. While I oddly remember many small details of that day, his face is a blur; I can only see his green eyes in my mind's eye, which makes me believe he was of Irish descent. I went through every photo of the lost firemen but could not positively identify him. This does give me some hope that maybe he made it out, but I just cannot imagine that being one of the first ones there, he was not on an upper floor when the building gave way. I can only hope...
And still, I can be encouraged by the people who made it. Of the nice maintenance man with whom I would speak every day, who had been on that ladder watering those flowers above the revolving doors. Of the two officers who, along with me, lived though that 1st floor lobby implosion; I first knew they were alive after I saw them being interviewed on Larry King when I made it Birmingham that Friday. Of a few friends that made it out of far worse circumstances than I encountered and in all honesty had beat odds that were mind-boggling. One of my girlfriends had been on the 102nd floor and was one of six people from her firm to live, because her brother called her from WTC 7 after the first plane struck, and told her to get out of there now! Of my friend Caroline, who had her own harrowing escape. And, of my friend Karen, who I feared lost and dead, yet who was behind me the entire time in the 1st floor lobby. Karen went for the revolving door with the ladder in front of it. She said, “I just went right under the ladder and out into the mall.” I said to her, “You mean after all of that you went under a f-ing ladder?” She laughed and said, “Well, I figured at that point, how much more bad luck could we possibly encounter?" And of all things, getting shoes during our escape out into Manhattan. My brother said later, “Leave it to you and your girlfriend to stop and shop for shoes in the middle of the worst act of war in United States history - women!"
So in the end, I'm left with my thoughts, memories, and experiences. I've really wanted to go back to New York, and even though I've kept my apartment there, I don’t know when I will return on a permanent basis, if ever. There's that fear that if there is a next time, it would make September 11th look like a day at the beach. Furthermore, I experienced firsthand that if a catastrophic event happens in Manhattan, you cannot get off that island - you're likely trapped. And that scares the devil out of me as it did on September 11th. I know that if something along the lines of chemical weapons is unleashed it could easily be more like 4 million, not 2,800. Beyond that, this experience has created a new self-identity for me. I find now that people who know me stare at me sometimes like I have Martian antennae atop my head, and I'm often greeted by people who address me as, “Oh you’re the one that was in World Trade.” I always think to myself, "This is not how I wanted my 15 minutes of fame if I had to have them. I would have much rather opted for the, “Oh that is Brad Pitt’s wife!” Yet, once again I have to come back to the fact that I have nothing to complain about at the end of the day because I did get out and I am completely thankful for it, even if it means getting out the standard issue Martian antennae. I'm left with the impression of so many who made the ultimate sacrifice of going in those buildings when every fiber of their being must have been saying, "Run the other way!" but they didn't because that was their job. I'm left with remembering so many on the upper floors who were already as good as dead when that plane cut off their escape route, or they were in the direct path of the hit, and of course there are all of those poor souls that were on the planes...
September 11th, 2001 was played out on the most watched global stage in history. In all likelihood for those of us that were there or lost a loved one, it will always seem like yesterday. It certainly does not seem like that much time and distance has already passed from that fateful day that changed so many of us and our city, country and world forever as we know it. But, I know that if any nation could bounce back from this, we can, as long as we don’t forget what it was like that day, and how important it is to protect what we hold so dear.