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I woke up feeling sick because I had worked late the night before. Commuting into work at ass-crack a.m. never appealed to me much, but especially not feeling like crap. But I had deadlines and my co-workers would count on me to come in that day to finish up a project.
Normally, at 8:48 a.m., I might have been on the elevator, but instead, I stood at the desk of my co-worker and friend, Steve, talking about our project, goofing around. We were on the 38th floor of WTC 1, otherwise known as the North Tower.
Without warning, the building shook with the sound of a bomb detonating. I lost my footing as our floor moved with the pronounced swaying of the building. I looked at Steve, and we froze with our eyes locked as we both tried to make sense of what was happening.
We went into a large office that had windows facing north and stood watching and puzzling at what could have happened. Out the windows, debris fell from the sky, paper mostly. Why was paper falling out of the sky? We tried to make sense of what we were seeing. Had a bomb gone off like years before? If someone had set off a bomb below the building, why was it raining paper?
My co-worker Peter had the presence of mind to suggest that we may all want to leave. Honestly believing we’d be back at our desks later – maybe not that day but sometime – I went to my desk and grabbed only my purse, not my camera or anything else of value. I left with my co-worker Keith, dubbed him my “escape buddy”, and we headed down the stairwell.
Our exit down the 38 flights was not dramatic. For a very long time, the stairwell was clogged and nobody moved. People on Blackberries were getting some information. we learned that a plane had struck the building and all just assumed it was a Cessna, an accident. We paused to let firemen ascend, tired and sweating, stopping to rest before continuing on.
Still making our way down the stairwell, we learned that another plane had struck the other tower. Everyone muttered “terrorists”. We continued our slow descent. Now firemen were coming down carrying people with them – people who had been horribly burned. The mood of the entire group turned somber. The firemen were burdened with heavy gear. One of them pushed a bottle of water into my hands – presumably because it was just one less thing to have to carry. Around the 10th floor, there was an open door onto an area where people could sit and rest before tackling the final steps. At that point, the stairwell opened up so that we were now able to run the rest of the way down.
Keith and I exited the stairwell into what can only be described as a war zone. The normally bright immaculate lobby was black, blown out by firebombs that had shot down the elevator shafts. A friend of mine who had been in the lobby when the elevators exploded told me that he heard something loud and had the presence to dive behind a desk. It was his first day working in that building. His hair and eyebrows were singed, but he had been lucky. Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly morbid, I think about an alternate reality where I climbed on an elevator a little later than normal.
In the lobby, the fire sprinklers uselessly sprayed water, and we were all soaked before we left the lobby into the underground mall. I pushed through the turnstiles only realizing after the fact that I’d done so out of habit and not necessity. The turnstiles were no longer connected to anything that would have blocked our exit. Upon realizing this, Keith kind of laughed darkly at me. I should add that even during something so horrific as this, there were many, many things that were so extraordinary that our instinctive reaction was to find the humor in it.
There were people just beyond the lobby who were directing us to go through the underground mall that ran from the WTC lobby to Church Street. We went all the way across to the E-train exit and emerged directly in front of St. Paul’s Chapel on Church St and Vesey, across from the Barnes and Noble. That was where I used to stand and wait for my bus back to NJ every night. I used to love to look up at night at the beautifully lit towers in wonder. Those towers just went up and up and up. It was always such a marvel to me.
On this day, the sight was something else. At some point, someone had told us not to look back but to keep moving. So of course, we immediately stopped, turned around and looked up. Nobody could have prepared us for the sight at all – both towers poured smoke and flames out of them, an image everyone in the world had been watching already for an hour. My escape buddy Keith said it was the most evil thing he had ever seen. We were stunned into inactivity for a few minutes.
People stood along the street, gawking. At first, we assumed that everyone had fled the building because it never occurred to us that people were coming to the site from elsewhere, or that anyone would just hang around for no reason. Someone asked us why we were wet. Keith and I looked at each other, confused, and said “because of the sprinklers” like “duh”. Then we noticed that those people weren’t drenched and realized that none of those people had been inside.
It didn’t seem like a very good idea to stand still, and I suggested we head up to the City Hall area where the company I consulted for had an office. As we turned to leave, I heard people making the kinds of “OH NO” shouts that led me to believe I shouldn’t look back again. I learned later that people were jumping – something I still can’t wrap my head around. I think about those people getting ready in the morning for a normal day, having no idea that they’d be forced to choose to leap out of the tallest building in the world. It’s one of the horrors that has never faded for me. Fortunately for me, it’s not something that I personally witnessed. I had friends who did and they had a much harder time dealing with their experience.
The headquarters of the consulting company I worked for were located across from City Hall, on Broadway about 4 blocks north of the WTC. Several other co-workers had gone there, and we were able to go in and send out some emails and let people know we were okay. I don’t think those emails made it out for several days though – my family told me later that when they saw the towers fall, they believed that I was dead. At this point in time, my fortunate husband had not yet turned on the television and was completely oblivious to what was happening in the world. His first piece of information came hours later, when my family called to tell him I was okay. On the other hand, my parents spent those hours in absolute uncertainty.
We all decided it would be best to keep heading north, so we went back outside to the street. People were running through the street, and dust filled the air. Out of the chaotic crowd, a man’s panicked face appeared directly in front of mine, his eyes looking directly into mine, as he yelled “The tower has fallen!” I yelled after him to repeat it. I couldn’t comprehend at all. Around this time, planes started flying in overhead, and new panic spread as everyone believed we were under attack. I was afraid we were going to be shot down in the street. It was soon established somehow that these were our guys, and we all felt a great sense of relief.
I had lost track of Keith, but latched onto Michael. He and I started north up Church Street heading for SoHo. We had gone a couple of blocks when we heard an incredible rumbling sound. I turned around to watch as the building I’d worked in for just over 8 months collapsed in on itself. I thought of the firefighters and I couldn’t move. I started to cry. Michael grabbed me, turned me around and pushed me forward. We were running with people who had no idea anyone had escaped the buildings and who were in complete despair because their sisters or fathers had been in the buildings. We assured them that many people survived and were out. We hoped that they would find their family soon. As we got further and further from the site, the level of panic dropped steadily but the sense of community was strong. We all managed to arrive at another friend’s apartment and gather together to share stories since we had all been separated at some point.
We went to a small corner grocery to stock up on food and beer for the unexpectedly displaced commuter refugees. My memory of those moments involves an almost comic sense of panic, with people running down the street in one direction sharing reports of a car bomb. Then people running the opposite direction with other paranoid and confused information. In the midst of this, a woman stood at the fruit stand, lifting, squeezing and smelling each item that she was considering buying – a quiet calm normalcy in the middle of hell.
We all went to a bar later that night and whenever a firefighter came in, the entire bar would cheer, even though the firefighter would protest that they hadn’t been anywhere near the site and hadn’t done anything heroic. We cheered anyway. Just by virtue of association they were all heroes to us. They still are.