SEPTEMBER 11TH, 2001
I'm re posting this as a tribute to the men and women who lost their lives, lost loved ones or worked in the rescue effort as a result of the terrorist attacks that occurred in NY, Washington and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11th. As we approach the first anniversary of this horrible day it's important to remember what happened, why it happened and perhaps think about those who are currently serving both here in the US and overseas to punish those who did this and perhaps help prevent it or anything like it from ever happening again. Thanks go out to George who was kind enough to allow us to post his story. I can't even imagine what he must be thinking as the 11th of September approaches.
The following is just one of thousands of stories being told about September 11th in NYC. This one is written by someone I know. Read his story and think of those who will never get the chance to tell theirs. - Bird
What I've written here is a sequence of events of my experiences on September 11, 2001, the day the World Trade Center was attacked. I've written it for myself so I wouldn't forget any of the details or sequence of events. Details tend to get jumbled up in one's head or forgotten over time. So, forgive me if it seems a little over-detailed.
I got to work, on the 74th floor of WTC1, at 8:00 am. At about 8:30 or so, I went to the cafeteria to get my usual coffee, milk and danish. To get to the caf, which was on the 43rd floor, I had to go to the 44th floor and take an escalator down one floor. Returning from the caf with my food, I entered an elevator in the bank of elevators that serviced floors 67-74.
A little note on how the elevators worked in the building. From the ground floor, if you had to go to an office on any floor up to the 40th floor, you went to a bank of elevators and took an elevator to your floor. If you had to go to a floor from the 75th floor on up, you took one elevator to the 78th floor lobby and then you went to a bank of elevators and took an elevator to your floor. If you had to go to a floor from the 41st through the 74th floor like me, you took one elevator to the 44th floor lobby and then you went to a bank of elevators and took an elevator to your floor.
So, I got into an elevator that serviced floors 67-74. Five other guys got in after me, the last fellow being a window washer. He was carrying his bucket of soapy water with his squeegee and his wooden extension pole. The elevator started moving. Suddenly it stopped and banged violently from side to side. The lights were still on. We pushed the emergency call button to call for help. As far as we were concerned, the only thing that happened was that the elevator had stopped. No one answered right away so we pushed the alarm button. We pried the doors open only to find a wall in front of us with "50" chalked on it. Apparently, we were stuck at the 50th floor. We closed the doors and then someone answered our calls for help and I believe said something about an explosion in the building.
Then I smelled smoke. This changed things. We had to get out. I got out my handkerchief and covered my nose and mouth. Then I remembered that it was better to wet it so I dipped it in my milk. I suggested to the others to do the same. We pried open the doors again and laid down the window-washer's pole to keep the door open. It was the perfect size. Now we started kicking the hell out of the wall in front of us. It was no use. It was sheetrock, a.k.a. plasterboard or drywall, in 2 feet wide sections with a steel frame around it. It hardly moved. We would have to dig through it.
Nobody had a knife or any tools. The only thing I had was my keys. The window-washer, John, pulled out his squeegee and another fellow, also named John, starts digging into the wall with it. This second John turned out to be Deputy Director of Operations for the World Trade Center. The squeegee had a sturdy metal piece, which held the rubber part in place. All this time the smoke is getting worse.
John the director and I both had cell phones but neither one of us could get a signal. As they worked on chipping through the wall, I climbed up on a handrail on the elevator wall and the back of another fellow to try to find a way through the top of the car. It consisted of metal panels. There was no obvious way to get them open. They didn't slide or push in or have any latches so I started to pound it with the heel of my hand. It didn't give. I had to get down anyway. The smoke was getting to me.
Eventually, someone got through the wall. We now had a hole about the diameter of a finger and fresh air was coming through. The elevator shaft wall turned out to be 3 inches thick. It consisted of 3 ply of one inch sheetrock held together by the steel frame I mentioned. We continued to chip away and kick at the wall. Then I noticed John the window-washer was holding a piece of the squeegee that had come off. It was the part where the pole screwed in. It was triangular with 2 pointy corners and the corner where the pole screwed in. I grabbed it and started hacking to one side of the hole and another guy worked on the other side. Then I got the idea to try and score the wall so that when we kicked at it, there would be weak points. As we took turns kicking the wall, my foot finally went through and we had a nice sized hole now. We took turns kicking at the edges of the hole making it bigger. Eventually, we had a hole about 2-3 feet high by 1 foot wide. But there was another wall on the other side.
We saw aluminum framing and more sheetrock. But this sheetrock was much thinner and we kicked through it easily. It turned out to be a bathroom on the 50th floor. We kicked through the thin sheetrock and wall tiles and made a hole big enough for a man to fit through. One guy went through and ran to find some help. Then I went through. Someone in the elevator started kicking at the aluminum stud, made the hole a little bigger and the rest came through. We were in there for about 40-45 minutes total.
The guy who was through the opening first came back with someone and we went to a staircase that took us to the 44th floor lobby. This was where we first learned that the towers were both hit by airplanes. We were led to another staircase, but before heading down, I made a cell phone call to my wife. She answered the phone crying and I told her I was not hurt and had been trapped in an elevator but had escaped and was on my way down from the 44th floor. It wasn't a good connection and I couldn't make out everything she was saying. I told her I would call her when I got outside.
The trip down the staircase was, at first, uneventful. It was stop-and-go. There were firemen everywhere. Many doors on the way down had either cops or firemen going in and out making sure the floors were empty. The occasional fire fighter passed us going up with axes and sledgehammers. They were huffing and puffing in their heavy outfits. I guessed they were going up to the impact site. It was like this until I got to the 13th floor where things changed drastically.
The ground below us shook and there was a long, deep thundering sound. Then dust started coming up the stairway. It got to where you couldn't see 3 feet in front of you. Someone said it was probably an elevator that fell down but that wasn't what happened. I covered my mouth and nose again with my handkerchief and we all made our way down the stairs led the whole way by the firemen. A few floors later, a fireman opened a door and said things were clear and to follow him. Since I was near the end of the line, only 3 or 4 of us followed him through. It was now pitch black and dusty and we were walking ankle deep in water. The only light came from the firemen's small flashlights. We came to another door but there were people standing there and things weren't moving. I pointed out to the firemen that at least the other staircase was moving and we were led back to where we came in. We continued down and came to a door, which also led into a dark, dusty and wet passageway. We exited the passageway and emerged onto the mezzanine, which overhang the first floor lobby of the building. This mezzanine was where the Engineering Department had our Christmas party last year. It was strewn with dust and debris. The firemen told everyone to stay close to the wall and we were led outside through a broken window.
What was once the beautiful plaza between the 2 towers was now like a scene out of a B movie. There was dust, paper and twisted pieces of metal everywhere. We walked along the building through the rubble and a policeman informed us that the Pentagon had also been attacked. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The Pentagon? When we were clear of the building I looked up and saw the gash in the tower where the first plane impacted. It was shocking. We were led down a set of stairs to the street and told to just keep walking away from the area. As I walked away, I heard someone say that World Trade Center 2 had collapsed. I totally dismissed this. It just wasn't logical. I looked up at where it should be and saw smoke and dust. That didn't mean it wasn't there, right? Then I came to realize the thundering and dust that occurred when I was at the 13th floor must have been WTC2 coming down. I just couldn't believe it. I tried and tried to get in touch with my wife but the whole town was also trying to get calls out. I couldn't get a line.
When the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, it took some people over 3 hours to make their way down the stairs. WTC2 collapsed a little over an hour after the whole thing started. I kept thinking that there must be thousands dead. Two blocks from the site, I ran into a friend of mine, Tom, who worked on the 82nd floor. Tom is a big man; about 6'3" and 330 lbs. in his early 50s. He was breathing hard. We stopped for a minute or two and chatted. We continued on and ran into a guy he worked with on 82. I thought to myself that this was a good sign. If people from 82 got out alright, there was a good chance for my coworkers and the rest on the upper floors. This fellow we ran into, Tad, told us that he was sitting at his desk, a window seat, when the first plane was approaching the building. It seemed to be coming right at him. He could see the pilot's face! It veered up and struck the building. I had been out of the building for only 15 minutes. We were about 5 or 6 blocks from the WTC when I heard some explosions and turned to look up at where they had come from. What I saw was surreal.
The antenna and the rest of the roof atop the building I had just left, leaned to one side and fell in on itself. The rest of the floors below collapsed under the weight and an enormous cloud of dust and debris was expanding outward from the Trade Center. Everyone turned and hauled ass. I turned around urging big Tom on but he wasn't able to keep up. When I turned again, I didn't see him. Today (9-13) I talked to him and he told me he had ducked around a corner and into a doorway. I spent 10 minutes or so in the area looking and waiting for him to come walking down the street but I couldn't find him. I felt horrible. I was sure he was OK but felt sad thinking about how he must feel to have been left behind.
I kept walking and found out that I was heading north. Then I ran into John the window-washer! We embraced and talked some and walked together. Finally I got through on my cell phone and spoke to my wife and my sister Lynn. After calming them down, I tried to reach John's wife at work for him. Eventually, we got a ringing phone, but no one answered. John went off on his own and I walked until I reached the Holland Tunnel. It was closed and there were a lot of people standing around talking and listening to the radio in some guy’s car. After ten minutes of that, I went west until I hit West St. and continued north. I stopped at a pizzeria and bought a Snapple then continued north.
Then I got a good idea. I got through to home again and got my friend Tom's home number from my sister. I called his wife and told her I saw him and that he was alright. Then I ran into a guy, Frank, who worked on my floor in the Mechanical Engineering Department. He told me he saw lots of people from our floor so things were looking good. After 10 or 15 minutes chatting with him, I continued north. Something Frank said stuck in my head. He said that he was avoiding the major train stations. Terrorists knowing these to be a likely place where people would flee might make them a target.
I figured I could get to the ferries in midtown and get the hell off of that island. I got to Chelsea Piers which is around 30th St. and there were people in the street with bullhorns telling anyone interested that ferries to New Jersey were leaving from Pier 61. I went in and was walking to the end of the line when I saw a another guy, Dennis, who worked on my floor in the Electrical Engineering Department. We shook hands and had a few words before I took my place at the end of the line. The line was about 600 feet long. It looked like a long wait. I called home and gave a status report. After 20 minutes or so, a ferry came and took a load of people and the line moved up some. I figured it would take 5 or 6 more ferries until I got on one. About 15 minutes after the first ferry, the Spirit of New York, and dinner cruise ship that runs out of that pier, parked itself at the dock and all of the rest of us who were waiting were loaded aboard and taken to Weehawken, New Jersey. We were told that buses would take us from there to Giants Stadium which was going to be used a staging area.
When I got to Giants Stadium, about 2:00 pm, I walked around the parking lot looking for someone I knew. This is the same parking lot, #13, that I had many a beer and barbeque in before heading in to a soccer or football game. I didn't find a familiar face. My wife and sister were on their way to get me but then they closed Rt. 3, the major highway to the stadium. I spent about 3 hours there and my wife was stop-and-go on the highway. I went over to a state trooper and asked him if he could find out exactly where on Rt. 3 the road was closed. He tried but couldn't get an exact answer. He took one look at my dusty pants and dust caked shoes and asked me what I'd been through. After I told him, he all but dragged me over to a reporter who was interviewing people about their experiences. I gave my story to channel 12, a local PBS station. I haven't seen it but lots of people have told me that they have.
I decided to take one of the buses to Newark's Penn Station. I called my wife and told her to get off of the road when she could and to try to get to Newark. Once on the bus, I overheard the driver's radio say that Rt. 21 into Newark was all clear so I called my wife to pass that on. The road was all clear but then traffic came to a stop. There was an accident about a half-mile ahead. My sister called to say that they were about a mile and a half behind us and also stuck. We sat there for about 30 minutes or so. The bus driver wouldn't let me out on the highway but once the traffic started moving, I talked him in to pulling over at the next exit to let me out. Ten minutes later, they came along and picked me up and there was an emotional reunion.
I got home (after 7:00 pm), kissed everyone, showered, phoned loved ones and had a bite to eat. I responded to as many of the messages on my answering machine as I could get through to. From about the time I was at Giants Stadium until I ate, I had had some pressure in my upper chest. I figured it was from the smoke and dust that I must have inhaled during the course of the day, but it had gone away after I'd eaten. Everyone nagged me until I agreed to go to the hospital to have myself looked over. My lungs and heart sounded fine but they wanted to do an EKG. Well, they saw a wiggle on the EKG they didn't like so they wanted to run some blood tests. It was now after 11:00 pm. They said I would be there for another 7 hours minimum. The blood tests had to be run 6 hours apart. In the end, it was going on 9:00 am when I got out of there. I had gotten a total of maybe 3 hours sleep all night and my poor wife didn't sleep a wink.
Later in the day, I spoke to a former boss of mine, Fred, in an office in New Jersey where I had worked for 9 years until this past December when I was transferred to the WTC. I was one of two guys unaccounted for that worked on the Civil Engineering Department. In the end, everyone was accounted for and unharmed.
The news reports of the day are very disturbing. The phone calls from the planes to their loved ones, the passenger lists showing children names, people leaping to their deaths avoiding the fires... Then there are the people dancing in the streets celebrating somewhere in the Middle East. Even in my town of birth, Paterson, New Jersey, where there is a section of Arab population, there were reports of people dancing in the streets celebrating. Police were there to stop a certain riot situation. What kind of people celebrate the deaths of the innocent?
The 2 things I think of most are the sight of the second tower tipping over and falling in on itself and of all of the firemen directing the evacuation and climbing the stairs in full gear to help those trapped high in the tower. There was never a doubt on which way to go and there wasn't much panic. This is because of the presence of the firemen, those brave souls who run into burning buildings. Every time I think of them, I cry.
Only a fool wakes a sleeping giant. These murderers have now given the civilized world just cause to go in and wipe out terrorists anywhere, anytime we see fit. We know where they train and we know who supports them. This is the beginning of their end....
©2001 - George S. Phoenix, III Garfield, New Jersey, USA