I have been employed by Kemper Insurance Companies since November 27, 1977 and had worked in the World Trade Center since February of 1978 with the exception of 9 months when I worked in our New Jersey offices.
My father was the Deputy Chief of the NYC Fire Department for almost 40 years. When he heard that my company was moving to the World Trade Center, he almost begged me to seek another job. He was quite experienced in the problems related to high rise fires and felt that the World Trade Center was the most dangerous buildings in the city. When built, it did not conform to New York City’s strict building code as it was a project of the quasi-governmental agency – the Port Authority of NY/NJ.
In fact, it was retrofitted for sprinkler systems some time later and, as I learned “the hard way”, it had no emergency lighting in the stairwells. This was evidenced by the difficulties in evacuating the building during the first WTC bombing in February of 1992.
We had first moved to 5 WTC on the 8th floor. Having lived in a 9 story apartment building my entire life, I felt my father’s concerns were somewhat alarmist in nature, and as most grown up children are prone to do, I rationalized that I was as safe as I was in that apartment.
We later moved to the 36th floor of 2 WTC. By that time, any concerns that I may have had were mitigated by the fact that there were no real problems with the building. The only complaints that I had were related to the size of the complex, the fact that the retail shops and restaurants were quite expensive, and the antiseptic nature of the property. While always afraid of heights, as long as I didn’t lean against the windows, the height never bothered me.
The severity and danger related to the 1992 bombing was not known to me until I had left the building and learned that it was a terrorist attack. We had quite a bit of snow that winter and I had assumed the explosion we heard (similar to the explosion one hears if you threw a firecracker into a toilet) was an electrical transformer explosion on West Street. The lights went out, but the telephones worked and I was able to call my wife and mother (my father had just passed away). I was able to “manage” the external information and internal situation and never felt as if I was in any imminent danger. When I learned that the plan was to tip one tower into another, it did not concern me, but I felt that their failure was complete and never had any qualms about moving back. The most difficult part of the day was traveling down the darkened staircase with firemen lighting the way every 2-3 floors. However, where it was not lit, it was totally dark. The company moved to 1 WTC on the 31st and 32nd floors a few years later.
The issue of security was discussed a number of times. Usually, these discussions were the product of a client’s complaints about having to obtain passes before being allowed into the elevator banks. In fact, I remember thinking (while looking at a passing airplane that may have been no higher than the 32nd floor) the only way the building could be attacked was by air. Of course, I thought this chance was slim and my imagination only considered a small plane that may have contained explosives.
On the morning of 9/11, I had walked from South Ferry with a friend who worked in the South tower. It was a non-descript day (except for the weather) and I faced a frustrating business problem. My colleague, Scott Bell and I were in my office (facing West) when we heard an explosion. The sound was indescribable (certainly more pronounced than the 1992 blast.) Our secretary, Ann Marie Madail yelled, “What the hell was that” and as Scott and I jumped to our feet, we felt the building tip to the northwest. The sway was so pronounced that I was sure the building was falling and looked out the window to see where I would land. When the building righted itself, Scott and I just looked at each other without a word.
I typically kept my wallet in my suit jacket, which I hung behind my office door. I kept my keys at my desk. I immediately ran outside my office. I saw many of our employees running for the exits. I could see the east side of the building and debris falling.
I will never forget the feeling I had running to the staircase. It was as if someone were pushing me. I felt I had no time to lose and it was as if I was not running at all, I was flying. When I got to the reception area, one of our employees said that the noise was only the freight elevator and that it had apparently fallen. Another was standing by the passenger elevators and you could hear all the elevators falling. We did not know it then, but the crash had severed the cables.
My first thoughts were that this was another terrorist attack and that they were about to topple the tower. Ironically, the 1992 incident resulted in the installation of emergency lighting in the stairways. This clearly led to the saving of thousands of lives.
The staircase were full and moving slow. Of more concern, there was considerable smoke below us and the strong smell of what I later learned to be the jet fuel. As an adult Boy Scout Leader, I remember what we always told the boys in an emergency situation – don’t panic, look around you and think clearly. I was concerned that we were walking into a more dangerous situation than we were leaving, but I knew that there was something terrible happening above us.
In the staircase, there was a sprinkler standpipe. Knowing that heat rises, I thought that if the pipe were hot, I’d have to do something different. Luckily, the pipe was cool and I felt that, at the very least, we were not walking into a fire.
I could not look at what floor we were on. If I did so, I was concerned I would panic. I prayed all the way down and only checked the floor numbers every 5 minutes or so. I set interim goals – “God, please get me to the 25th floor, then the 20th floor” and so on.
As we got closer to the ground floors 2 detectives were running up the stairs. I wanted to yell at them that the last place they should be is in that building going upstairs. I sensed it was a desperate situation. We then felt cooler, fresh air and the only complaints we heard were people walking through puddles.
When we emerged from the staircase, the security people directed us out a door, which led to the West Street overpass. To this day, I do not recall crossing West Street. However, when we exited the staircase, we were level with the plaza. They told us not to look, but I did and will never forget what I believe to be bodies burning in the plaza.
When we got to the crossing, the security men would have to stop us and check to see if anything was falling. Whatever relief I felt was gone and for the first time, the true gravity of the situation hit me.
As we collected our people outside the building on the Financial Center side of West Street, we could not believe what we were seeing. The images of people jumping, the smoke, fire, debris and all came together. Scott and I remarked that the North Tower looked a little off center where the fire was and advised our people to leave.
On the way down the stairs, I did get a call from our Branch Executive, Gene Kelly, who was in Chicago at the time of the attack. He was watching it unfold on TV and called to ask what was going on. I remember telling him something like “I’m in the middle of something and I’ll call him back.” After seeing all of our employees we could find moving away from the buildings, we decided to go to a client’s office on William Street to make calls to home and our Home Office and to Gene.
As we traveled north and then east, we learned that 2 Jets (I wondered how they could steal military jets never thinking they were airliners,) planes had hit the building. We had just about circled around to being 3 blocks east of the complex when I heard a dreadful noise, heard people screaming to run and seeing the top of the South tower begin to collapse.
Not being able to run, I looked into a doorway (I did not feel safe being inside) and I made my way to the corner of William and John and pushed myself against the building so as not to take the brunt of the debris cloud following me. The street was blanketed in dust. I had lost touch with Scott and now realized the most unimaginable had happened. I needed to get out of the area for fear of the North tower falling (perhaps over to its side) and I made my way to the East River and traveled north. The North Tower fell at some point when I was behind one of the buildings, I knew this when I looked west at the skyline and could not locate the antenna that characterized the building.
I walked about 7 miles that day through Brooklyn to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge where I was able to get a bus home.
Luckily, none of our employees were lost, but we all lost many friends.
Terrence C. McCormick