World Trade Center | September 11, 2001
I was there, it is so terrible, but I'm okay. Many people weren't so lucky. I had started a new contract for the Port Authority about two weeks ago. I drove in that day down the East River Drive and parked in a lot three blocks south of WTC 2. I started taking pictures through the window of my car from the time I exited the drive. The light was beautiful that morning, at 8:05 I took a photo of the trade center and the Greek Orthodox Church that shares the lot with the parking lot just south of WTC2.
The PA had given me a cubicle on the south side of the 71st floor of WTC1 (the north building). At 8:30 I was in a status meeting on 71 East. AT 8:47 the building rocked first in one direction then shuttered back and forth and finally settled. None of us were hurt or knocked off our seats but getting up while the building was moving was difficult. The building felt like it had moved at least five or six feet in each direction. From the conference room door I could see out the window. The sky was so blue, papers were flying everywhere. It looked like a ticker tape parade. We speculated from the start that we were hit by a plane. I ran around the floor to the south side of the building grabbed my backpack, and laptop. Everyone was off the floor pretty quickly. The guy I report to and I headed out to the lobby.
One of the stairwells smelled strongly of smoke. The other seemed okay and we joined a group of others already beginning the walk down. Everyone handled it so well; we all helped each other. We walked down two by two stopping every so often for some unknown reason. Some people were helped down from higher floors with terrible burns over their bodies. Whenever necessary we would press ourselves into a single file line to let people get by. It was pretty hot; people were slipping on the sweat of the people who had come before them. In some places the smoke was worse than others. Thank god the lights always stayed on. People covered their mouths and eyes with whatever they had available. When fears bubbled up there were always reassuring words from the right person that calmed even the most frightened of us. I was told from someone who was on 81 that there was fire on his floor immediately after the first plane struck.
When the second plane struck we felt it, but had no idea what it was. It wasn't until someone began getting news on his pager that we knew that a plane had hit each of the towers and the pentagon. People constantly were checking their cell phones to see if there was service. Many of us had service but no calls could get out. I remember joking that we should all buy stock in the first company whose service worked.
Around the 35th floor we started meeting a steady stream of firefighters walking up and had to press into single file again. None of them said a word as they went up and past us carrying unbelievable loads of equipment. They were already exhausted by the time we started seeing them. I can't stop thinking about the look in their eyes and how heroic they were. I remembered then that my camera was in my bag and began taking pictures of the men as they went up. I pray some of them made it out.
A few floors lower water was flowing creating rapids down the stairs. This got worse as we got lower down. The stairwell led down to an outside door lined with emergency workers urging us to move to safety. There was debris and broken glass everywhere. The courtyard where this outdoor landing led us onto must have been blocked or too dangerous for us to cross because we were directed back into that second floor balcony again and down two escalators into the mall under Tower 1. Water was falling everywhere - 8 to 10 inches in some places. Many of the stores had windows blown out. All along the way emergency workers urged us to keep moving. I went up another escalator in the north east corner of the mall under building 5 and out onto Church Street. I was outside; in all it took 60 minutes to get down, as I stepped into the light, emergency workers were yelling "don't look up keep moving" I crossed the street and looked up. It was unreal. I saw someone fall from Tower 1: I stopped looking up.
Many people were just watching the buildings burn from Church Street up to Broadway. People I knew were helping each other gather themselves. I stopped to help calm a co-worker. I shared my cell phone with people desperate to get word to loved ones that we were okay. The phone didn't work. We talked about what to do next. I looked at the ground around us and there was a lot of blood. Some shrapnel caught my attention I couldn't stop thinking that it must have been from a plane. Shoes where everywhere, newspapers and blood. When I looked up the people I was with were gone. I thought I would head south toward my car so I headed down Broadway.
The doors to Trinity Church were open so I stepped inside. A priest was leading a prayer service; I knelt to say a quick prayer and minutes later the first building fell. The stained glass windows that were filled with color and light turned inky black. You could feel it as much as hear the building collapse. Debris hit the roof of the church. People dove under pews. I looked out the front door, I couldn't see three feet in front of me, I thought it must be impossible to breath outside. We gathered everyone inside the church, and made plans to evacuate. We searched the church, found some water, food and made up wet towels for people inside and out should we need to leave the protection of the church, we waited for the air outside to be clear enough to see. Someone found a radio and positioned it on a pulpit.
It grew lighter outside the church. A few minutes later my cell phone rang, it was my mother in-law calling from Holland. I asked her to call my wife and mom. Up until this time no one's cell phones had worked. I tried but still couldn't call out. In looking around the church I found a phone that worked and was able to get a call out to my wife at her office in midtown. She was devastated. She knew I was in the building, as did some of my close friends whom I had spoken with at 8:15. She told me that my brother in law was on his way to get her and take her to his apartment in the west village. I promised to meet her there. Minutes later the second building fell. Blackness again, larger objects were hitting the roof of the church, we had relatively clean air inside but there was a lot of deliberation about whether it was safer to stay in the church or take our chances outside. 40 minutes or so later it was again clear enough to see across the street. We said our good-byes to each other and in groups of two and three ventured out to find a way home.
There were three of us in my group. Outside it was a mess. Winds would whip through the streets causing temporary white outs and blacking out the sun. I remember thinking that they must have been caused by the draft from the fire. Emergency vehicles caused their own white outs and you would have to hide your faces as they came by. The group I left with headed south then east then north.
We passed others leaving the area and some firefighters heading in. At the Water Street entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge we said goodbye to one of our party and two of us continued north through Chinatown and into Soho. All along the way people were gathered in disbelief. Radios drew larger crowds. I remember someone talking on a cell phone telling his friend that no one above the 60th floor could have gotten out. I told him that that wasn't true, that I had walked down from 71. He called after me, "Thank you sir thank you". I just kept walking. I stopped at different places where I knew that I should have seen the towers. I left my last companion in Soho and wished him well.
I made my way to my sister's house where my wife fell into my arms. I can't imagine what she felt like not knowing. I can't imagine what it's like for thousands of others whose loved ones didn't get home. My heart breaks for them. From talking to people in the stairwell at least I know that some people up to the 81st floor got out okay. I'm grateful for that, I hope everyone got far enough away before the first building fell. I'm incredibly lucky, and incredibly sad.
Since September 11th I've talked to many people who were inside that day and many more people who watched and waited. I'm encouraged by how everyone treated one another in the stairwell and since. Each person I meet has a story to tell and an urgency to press the flesh; It's important to reassure oneself that the person in front of them is real. For me it's incredibly important to feel useful. Like so many of us, I've been actively trying to account for as many people as possible. It's also important for me personally to get the right message out. In the stairwell, people treated one another so beautifully. No one stopped to think what color or religion the other human being was. We were all in this thing together. And this is how I pray people go forward from here. I'm not a Buddhist, or particularly religious but I do believe in God. Personally, I look at all religions as trying to explain the same phenomenon. I've never understood why people choose to kill one another over whose explanation is better. On September 11th a lot of you went through the unimaginable. For many the suffering is far from over. Please if you read this, don't let my story or anyone else's become a reason to lose your head rather than use it. I had the book The Art of Happiness by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler in my bag when all this happened. The following is an excerpt from the page I had book marked. It seems to me a practical approach to beginning the journey ahead. I hope this helps.
"Although you may have experienced many negative events in the past, with the development of patience and tolerance it is possible to let go of your sense of anger and resentment. If you analyze the situation, you'll realize that the past is the past, so there is no use in continuing to feel anger and hatred, which do not change the situation but just cause a disturbance within your mind and cause your continued unhappiness. Of course, you may still remember the events. Forgetting and forgiving are two different things. There's nothing wrong with simply remembering those negative events: if you have a sharp mind, you'll always remember, he laughed. "I think the Buddha remembered everything. but with the development of patience and tolerance, it's possible to let go of the negative feelings associated with the events." - His Holiness the Dalai Lama