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I was inside the north tower (1 World Trade Center) on the 12th floor when the first plane crashed into the north tower. I was also inside when the second plane hit the south tower.
I had gone into work early that day. Public schools had started up the week before, and it made the commute into the city a little crazy (that is funny in hind sight because now it is ridiculous – traffic was much worse afterwards). The day before this crash had happened (9/10/01), it actually took 2 hours for me to get into work. It should have taken me between 30-45 minutes. I woke up on 9/11/01 thinking that I wanted to get to work early and beat the traffic. So I got up and caught an earlier bus into the city. When I got off the bus, the bus driver told me to “Have a good one!” I sat down at my desk at about 8:30 am. There were a couple of engineers on my floor rebuilding cubicles. I could not believe how fast that they were working. Within two days, they had torn down almost all of the cubicles on my floor and started rebuilding new ones.
About 15 minutes of working at my desk, I heard a loud bang. I first thought that a heavy piece of equipment had fallen on my floor (I was thinking that something related to the cubicles had fallen). I immediately stood up to try and see if some one got hurt. By the time that I stood up, the entire building was shaking as if I was on a roller coaster. The building actually moved side to side in all four directions. I actually put my hand on my cubicle wall to brace myself. When I felt the building shake, I realize that something much bigger had happened, but I still did not know what.
I stepped outside of my cubicle, and I could see outside our conference room windows. Debris was falling from the sky. I also heard an elevator falling down the elevator shaft. I looked out the window of our main door that leads into the hallway and I saw dust coming out of the back data center towards me. (All of the floors have drop ceilings and the amount of dust that came through the floors and elevator shafts was incredible). The dust moved much faster than smoke. There were a group of engineers that came running out into the hallway trying to gasp for air. I went to the conference room window to look outside. There was a 10 story building right next door, and its roof was completely covered with debris. Some people were saying that it was an earthquake.
Security had come onto our floor and said that we needed to get out of the building. We heard another explosion and saw debris on fire falling out of the sky (This was the second plane hitting the south tower). They instructed us not to go out into the hallway where all the dust was. We took the long way around the floor to the fire escape.
When we opened the door for the fire escape, dust came flying into our floor. The stairway was completely packed and the people were panicking. They were actually running up the stairs, not down. They said that the fire door at the bottom of the stairs was locked and that they could not get out. In case of a fire everyone is instructed to go to the 13th floor and to await instructions. When the people in the hallway saw that our floor was free of dust, they came running onto our floor. Security then said that it was safer on our floor than on the fire stairs.
The people had said that they heard a report that a military plane accidentally collided with the World Trade Center. When I heard that I did not think that the problem at hand was that serious because a bomber plane had hit the Empire State Building in 1945, and the Empire State Building withstood the crash. I figured that we would be okay, and I did not want to overreact. I asked Security to call on their radio to someone downstairs on the main floor to see what we should do. He could not get a hold of anyone, and he did not know what to do.
I went back into our data center and tried to use the phone. I knew that in a couple of minutes that the news would be reporting what had happened and my family would be nervous. When we got inside the data center, we could see out the window into the courtyard. The debris was all over the place and on fire. Some of the people had said that it looked like a war zone outside. I tried to call my wife but the line was busy. (She is the principal of a Christian school and parents were calling the school after they heard what had happened.) I called my mother, but she was not there. I left her a message that I was okay and that it was not as serious as the news would portray this story. (I said that so she would not worry about me.)
I called my sister, who works two blocks away. I could not get a hold of her at her office, so I called her cell phone. When I got a hold of her, I told her that I was okay. She said that she was outside watching what was happening. People outside the building had said that the heat from the north tower caused the south tower to catch on fire (what had actually happened was that the second plane hit the south tower). She told me to meet her downstairs on Broadway.
I knew it was going to take me a while to get out of the building. We had heard that Security wanted us to go back to our desks and work. I went back to my desk but I did not work. After I had heard my sister’s description of what was going on from the outside, I reflected on what was possibly going to happen. This is the closest I ever came to death. At moments like these, it is important to know what you believe. As I was standing by my desk, I decided if I was going to die, I was going to die quoting Scripture. I had been involved in Bible Quiz as a teen and studied 6 books of the Bible. I had returned to Bible Quiz after college and was a coach and sectional coordinator. We had actually just won Adult Bible Quiz State Finals a few months previous. I started to try to quote verses in my head. I could not think of one verse. I had actually been reading my Scripture portion that morning and memorized a few verses. I could not quote one of them. I felt it was a bit odd that I could not think of one verse. I could not quote verses that I memorized that morning, verses from the last few months, or any verse that I studied after college. All of a sudden, I was able to recall verses from Hebrews chapter 13 (a book that I studied when I was 15 years old). I was happy that I could quote anything so I continued to quote as many verses from that chapter that I could remember. I came to verses 5 and 6, which state, “I will never leave you or forsake you, so that you may boldly say, ‘The Lord is my helper and I will not fear what man shall do unto me’”. All of the feelings of fear and nervousness had left me. I continued to quote other various verses that I had memorized as a teen quizzer. Bible Quiz was something fun for me to do in high school. It now had become a strong foundation that had become a very present help in the time of trouble. After spending that time quoting Scripture, I felt renewed and capable of handling any situation that might unfold. If I got to get out safely, then I would get to go home and see my wife. If I did not make it out safely, I got to go home in heaven and see my king. I saw it as a win/win scenario.
Security then came in and said that it was okay to go down the stairs. The people inside the fire stairs were all standing still and could not move down. Some people were panicking and started pushing through the people. After waiting a couple of minutes of waiting and not going anywhere, I went back into our data center to call my boss and tell him what had happened at this point and not to come into the building. I was also going to tell him where I was going to be in case we were going to reenter the building later in the day. I never got a hold of him.
Security came in again and said that the stairs were open and that we could go down now. I entered the stairs but nobody could get down. People from the floor above started yelling to move to the right and to let the injured through. People covered in dirt and skin ripped off their forearms and faces came walking down. When everyone saw these people, everyone got a hold of themselves and stopped pushing everyone. A calm came over everyone. After they passed, firemen started coming up the stairs. They were in full gear and had hoses on their shoulders. They were trying to get up to the 60th floor. They were all asking which floor they were on.
They stopped about every 10 floors to get a break. Younger firefighters were instructed to take off their helmets and hoods by the veteran firemen so they could breathe while they were resting. When they stopped, they took up the whole landing and no one could get around them. When they caught their breath, they continued moving up the stairs. I heard that people were clapping for them on different floors. Most of them were young men between the ages of 20-23.
We worked ourselves downstairs to about the 5th floor. Water was pouring out of the floor. As we continued down to the lower floors, water was coming from the floor on to the stairs and from a drainpipe in the ceiling. We exited on the second floor and we were told not to go out into the courtyard, but to go down the escalators to the basement level (debris was still failing from the upper floors and hitting people on the street). We cut across the escalators by the PATH trains and exited the building by Borders bookstore. Police were guiding people telling them not look up. They pushed us along towards Broadway. I looked up anyway at the twin towers and they both were burning like two matchsticks. It was a very eerie feeling. I made it to Broadway and met my sister.
At this point we still thought that this was all just some kind of accident. People were in the streets watching the towers burn. Everyone was trying to use their cell phones but they could not get a signal. People in the crowd screamed as they saw people actually jumping from the top of the towers.
Some one on the street was holding a radio to their ear and told all of us that a second plane had hit the south tower. Everyone started saying that this is war. The person holding the radio said that a plane had also hit the Pentagon. (There were also other erroneous reports that the White House, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Seattle and a couple other places were hit, which we didn’t find out until later were false.)
Since we could not use our cell phones, Milena (my sister) and I decided to go to her office building a block away (Liberty and Nassau) to use her office phone. We went to her desk and while she was on the phone the south tower had collapsed. If I did not see it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it. A huge cloud of gray soot came rolling in like a tidal wave. People on the street were trying to outrun the cloud, but within seconds the cloud had enveloped them. We really did not know what was inside the cloud and did not know if we would survive the cloud passing us.
I told Milena to get on the floor under the desk. The cloud came towards our building and the smoke came up the building. Within seconds all of the windows were completely gray. We could not see a thing. Everyone in Milena’s office was panicking. We went into the conference room and watched CNN. That was the first time that I saw the second plane fly into the south tower. I could not believe it. Part of me still thought it was a tragic accident. Seeing the video really made me believe how deliberate the attack was.
The people in Milena’s office argued whether to evacuate or not. Some thought it was better to get out of the building. Others thought that it would be safer inside the building. While we were still deciding what to do the north tower had collapsed. This one looked a little bit different. The soot was black this time, not gray. Since we saw the first one, we knew what to expect with the second cloud.
After the cloud passed, the building was evacuated. Everyone was forced to go down the fire stairs. When we got to the lobby, it was filled with dust. Building maintenance handed out paper towels and rags to cover our mouths. The police did not allow any of us out into the street. We stayed in the lobby for about a half an hour. A fireman came in off the street. He was covered in ash from head to toe. His face was completely covered in ash. He asked for a sink to wash his face off.
A short time after that, police allowed us to move from the building to the South Street Seaport. When we stepped outside we could not see the sun, sky, or to the end of the block. Soot covered the street and was about ankle deep. I noticed that Milena was wearing open toe sandals. I asked if it would be easier if we walked on the sidewalk. When we looked at the sidewalk, it was just as bad as the street so we had a good laugh.
We walked down Liberty to Water Street. There was so much dust, ash, and soot in the air that it was difficult to breathe. We needed to keep rags over our mouths. Fire engines came rolling down the streets kicking all of the soot back into the air. Buses were parked on the streets and in the small parks. It looked like a scene out of a movie about Armageddon.
The farther we got, the less soot and garbage was on the ground. We got to the Seaport and asked police what forms of transportation were available. They were letting people walk up the FDR and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. At Pier 11, there were ferries going to Brooklyn and New Jersey. We had heard that all bridges and tunnels were shut down. My sister and I decided not to take any of these options (we knew that if we did not go directly to Staten Island, we would not make it home that night). We used the ATM and phones in the Chase Building across the street.
We waited at Pier 11 to see if any ferries would be going to Staten Island. After waiting a while, we walked down to the South Ferry (Staten Island Ferry). Milena had wanted to cut through some of the streets and try to get to Broadway. Taking Water Street would have been more direct and faster, but we wanted to see what remained of the World Trade Center (we did not know if the buildings partially collapsed or completely collapsed). Police only let us get so far, and we had to navigate through a maze in the streets. We could not see anything within a two-block radius of the World Trade Center. The dust and smoke was so thick that we could not see, and we had to keep rags over our mouths to breathe. We finally gave up and went back to Water Street.
As we walked along we saw all of the coffee and bagel carts, as well as fruit carts, abandoned and covered in ashes. They had been left there. Some people were going into them taking bagels, orange juice, or fruit.
We walked to the South Ferry. A blockade stopped us. We asked the emergency service person how we could get to Staten Island. He pointed to a pier that was just opened up. There were tugboats taking as many people as possible to Staten Island. Every two feet someone asked us where we were going. When we said Staten Island, they pointed us to the next tugboat that was docking. People kept asking us where we were going and pointing to the next ferry. Everyone kept telling us that they were glad we were okay. It was a comforting feeling. People are not usually that friendly in New York City. Everyone working on the dock went out of his or her way to make everyone feel as safe and comforted as possible.
We all stood on a single file line waiting for the next tugboat. A lady behind us was walking along the pier collecting her office papers that were on her desk. The pier was at least a mile from where the twin towers use to be. The explosion had thrown the paper all the way to the pier (and beyond).
When the tugboat docked, people were loaded onto the boat. They were happy and jolly. Someone had asked them if they were going to Staten Island and one of the people from the boat said that he was going to “Staten Island, Long Island, Coney Island, wherever you want! ... We’re going anywhere today – we’re going to have a good time!”
There were no seats on the tugboat, so we all stood and sat wherever we could. At least 100 people got on that tugboat and we took off. As we sailed back to Staten Island we looked at the skyline. We could not see most of the buildings around where the Twin Towers had been because of the smoke and soot. It was so awkward to see the skyline and not see the Twin Towers.
We eventually passed the Statue of Liberty, with the skyline behind her. In the past, I always enjoyed looking at her. On this day, I saw her hold her torch so high. Even though the city was on fire, she did not move. Of course, she is just a statue, but it is not every day that you see Manhattan on fire. I wish I had a camera to take that picture.
We eventually heard that Tony (Milena’s fiancé, now husband) was okay. The police had forced him uptown, and he ended up in Queens. A taxi cab driver had picked him up and brought him back to his house.
We docked at the ferry terminal on the Staten Island side. We pulled into the slips to the left of the terminal. After getting off the tugboat, we took a train to my parent’s/sister’s house.
I finally got to get a hold of my boss. By this time, it was about 1:00 pm. We stopped at Gennarro’s and I ordered a chicken parm hero with extra cheese. After what had happened, I decided that I deserved extra cheese.
We all got home safely, and we are okay. Thank God!
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