Escape From The 80th Floor
September 11, 2001
As I told my husband, I truly never expected to add "survival of a terrorist attack" to my resume. My company was located on the 80th floor of One World Trade Center, the north tower close to ground zero. When the plane struck the building it felt exactly like an earthquake. The only advanced sound was a large windful swoosh. At first we had no idea if it was a bomb or the building had been struck. The mayor was correct when he talks about the toughness of New Yorkers. It was amazing how calm, supportive and helpful everyone was throughout the day.
Here's my personal account of the day.
It began as any ordinary workday. My husband dropped me at the Dover, NJ train station and I caught my usual 5:47 AM to Hoboken. It has always been my habit to get to work early. I like those quiet early morning hours in the office. Once in Hoboken it was a quick run down the stairs to the Path Train and a 10-minute ride to the World Trade Center complex. Lately I had begun to walk up the stairways and even the one long escalator to the shopping mall level. As a Baby Boomer it had become important to me to get in better physical shape.
At the top of the escalator I walked over to the Fine and Shapiro Deli. One large flavored coffee to go please. I love their cinnamon flavored coffee but there wasn’t any this day and I settled for Vanilla Almond. Immediately upon leaving the deli I passed an Asian grandfather who walked with a limp. I never knew his name but he always boarded my train at the Summit stop and it had become our laughing habit to wave at one another or sometimes to even stop and speak to each other as we re-met every morning outside the deli. I remember we only wished each other a “good day.”
I continued walking past the flower kiosk and admired the sunflowers and lilies. The flowers were beautiful but I remember thinking always too expensive for my budget. On past the Gap and checking out the windows to see the latest in their fall fashion offerings. On past Banana Republic and the American Café, into the revolving door and out onto the first floor of tower one pulling out my building pass as I walked. I looked up to see an elevator with it’s doors open in bank one and rushed ahead to slap my ID on the electronic reader and push through the turnstile and into the elevator thinking how happy I was that I didn’t have to wait extra minutes as there were only a few elevators available in this bank. Two had been out of service for over 6 months as renovations were taking place and one had been commandeered for the use of Windows on the World for the past month or so. Here visitors to the 107th floor received escort service.
It strikes me now that I never paid much attention to how long the elevator ride took, it always seemed like minutes but it may have been less than a minute. The doors slid open onto the 78th floor lobby and I along with other passengers moved onto the next level of elevator banks to get to floors 80 to 107. Those going to the 79th floor took an escalator. It was now 7:15AM and there was already trade center personnel manning lobby posts and waiting for the visitors who would be shepherded to the top floor for a risk management conference.
A co-worker reminded me, that we had been working to get a speaking spot at this conference. The coincidences of the day still amaze me. The door to the second bank of elevators slid open and I stepped out onto the 80th floor. Two other passengers continued to higher floors as the doors slid closed. I think about them and wonder if they also made it out. I stooped down to collect our copy of the Wall Street Journal and moved down the hall through our office door at my company TheBEAST and into the reception area. We had recently installed an electronic clock-in system and I punched in my employee number to register my attendance. The clock read 7:16 AM. As I moved through the office on my way to my desk, I waved to Jerry Sabbagh and Luke Liotti, two fellow workers monitoring our server farm.
I went to my desk and booted up my computer and began my workday. As other co-workers came into this side of the office (which we had dubbed the West Wing) we said hello to one another. Jeff Borenstein one of our sales staff who suffers from MS, Josephine Buonaguro another marketing staff member planning a December wedding, Carl Carrie our President and CTO who had recently recovered from two broken wrists, Geoff de Lesseps our CEO, Peter Rushing our resident Power Point guru, Kim White Sales Administrator and Sharon Premoli our EVP of Strategic Partnerships and Alliances. I know others were also arriving on the other side of the office; our official list includes a number of our technologists. I later found out that the exact count was 16 of us on the floor when the plane struck.
Jo stopped by my desk to comment on how we were both wearing the color red. We had an ongoing joke about the power color of the day being the one color most employees were wearing on any given day. Pete and I had a discussion about changes to be made to a presentation that Geoff needed before 9AM. I picked up a research survey and headed to the copy machine. The copier was on the interior of our side of the office just outside Sharon’s office. I stepped over to speak briefly with her. She’d recently lost of pair of reading glasses and I wondered how she was making out. Had she found them, did she have to get them replaced? I walked around the corner to see how Pete was doing and he commented that he was just about finished. Later I would learn that he had just hit the save button when all hell broke loose. I walked back towards the copier when we heard the almost silent swoosh of wind, followed by a loud thunderous ka-boom, and the building shaking under our feet as if an earthquake had rippled by. Ceiling tiles fell and both Sharon and Carl ran into the hallway.
We felt as if something had hit the building but everyone thought about the potential of a bomb. No one thought about a plane being used as a bomb. I headed for my office intent on grabbing my purse. Only a few months earlier I had complained loudly about the fact that a fire alarm had been installed directly over my desk and the matching strobe light on the opposite wall. I kiddingly told everyone that if there were a fire someone would have to come and get me because I would be both deaf and blind from the alarms going off. One of the sales staff had joked back that they would tie a rope around my ankles and extend it to the fire exit where there would be a sign that read, “in case of emergency pull this rope.”
But the alarm didn’t go off immediately. Other than our own voices, it was amazingly quiet. We heard no screams or further explosions. The office did fill with smoke within a minute or two and our personnel headed for exits. A hallway wall that had been pushed in blocked the way out from the northeast hallway that led from the front door of our office. We believe now it may have been part of the plane that pushed the wall in. It would also account for why the elevators would have filled with flame and smoke so quickly. I wonder if they knew that and aimed on purpose for that side of the building. It may have saved our lives.
We exited into a stairwell and started what we thought was a long climb down 80 flights of stairs. We got only as far as the 77th floor when we came up against a locked door. As we discussed options, the smoke started to get thicker. I was incredulous and frustrated. How could a damn door be locked in what was meant to be an escape route? I used my scarf to cover my mouth and nose. I heard a commotion behind me and heard people saying someone with a key was coming through. We stepped aside our hopes rising. The key made no difference, the door was jammed shut.
We were ushered into the Port Authority office on the 78th floor. There was no smoke here and we could breathe. We were told they were looking for another way out and we should go into any one of the empty conference rooms along the south west side of the building. We asked if we could turn on the TV and use the phones. I turned to look at the television to see the exterior of our building. I could hear that our building had been hit by a plane. No mention of a terrorist attack. As I turned to watch some of my fellow co-workers making phone calls, there was a second ka-boom, the building shook again and debris started hitting the windows.
I thought some part of the plane or some part of the building that had been hit by the plane had exploded and debris was sliding down from the floors above us. I would later learn it was a second airplane diving into the other tower and it was debris from that explosion hitting the windows. I advised people to move back into the interior of the office and away from the windows. Thank God they never shattered. We left the TV and so never saw or heard any more about what was happening. It struck me later that at that moment I only had one fleeting thought that perhaps we were stuck on the 78th floor and I might not get out. I immediately dismissed that thought and just knew I wasn’t going to die there.
Within 5 or 10 minutes we were advised that another route out had been found. I would learn later that another coincidence of the day was ending up in the Port Authority office as they had all the keys to all the stairwell doors. One of them would lead us out. We moved to the opposite side of the office forming a single file line. I could see Carl, Sharon, Lee, Angela, Kim and Leslie ahead of me. I expected to move immediately into a stairwell and was surprised that it was a hallway. As we turned the corner we entered a second hallway where one of the employees from the office we had just left was hosing down the ceiling above our heads. You could see where they had put out a fire and where it was starting up again. Ceiling tiles lay at our feet and smoke was still filtering through the gaping ceiling as we ducked down to get under wires hanging loosely from the ceiling and then ducked under the hose and sloshed our way to the stairwell. This is what I mean by the spirit of New Yorkers. It is because of the initiative of these Port Authority employees that we got out. We started down. I started to pray that none of my co-workers were in the elevators on their way up when the plane struck.
We didn’t pass any other building personnel, firefighters or police. I assumed that the flames and smoke shooting down the shafts from the explosion of the plane’s fuel on impact had immediately knocked out all the elevators. I knew that the only method for getting up or down now was the stairs and 80 flights is a long way whether you’re going up or down.
The calm of the people around us as we walked down was amazing. People who
had been hurt or were having a problem getting down were being assisted at
every point. When congestion slowed us to a stop no one shoved or made a scene we all waited patiently until we could move again. People passed information up and down the line to try and keep people informed about what was happening and those with blackberries sent as many emails as they could for folks around them as none of our cell phones worked.
I was about a third of the way down and we had come to a point where we were stopped for a few minutes when I heard my name called out. I turned around and saw Jo and Peter about a flight and ½ behind me. Jo asked if I wanted Peter to send an e-mail to my husband. I was so glad to see some of my co-workers as we had become separated when we left the Port Authority office. I reached a stairwell landing and stepped aside to wait for Jo and Peter to catch up. I would later suspect that doing this saved my life.
We sent Roger an e-mail. I realized he probably wouldn’t be logged onto our home computer but I couldn’t remember his work e-mail. His address was always just a click in my work computer’s email address book. I pulled out my palm pilot and looked it up. We sent a second message. He would only see them after I was out and had spoken with him by phone. We finally got out of the smoke when we hit the 35th floor. It felt great
to breathe fresh air and lifted everyone's spirits. We had been walking down for a little over ½ an hour at this point. Peter took my book bag and Jo mother-henned me into taking off my jacket. We could feel the heat in the stairwell. Peter continued to offer to send e-mails for those around him. Jo always asking if I was ok and reassuring me, I thought, how strange, she’s younger than I am and I’m really not afraid. Perhaps I don’t look as tough as I feel.
At this time, we also started running into building personnel. One young black man standing at the back of a stairwell landing advising everyone to be careful, hang onto the handrail, don’t slip because an injury would mean you’d have to be carried out. He told us that; “God loved us and would see us through this. He was with us and we would get out.” We shared a smile. I doubt he ever made it out. I thought to myself, “you sound like one of God’s angels, sent to reassure us that we were not meant to die this day.”
Around the 27th floor we ran into firefighters climbing up. I can't imagine what it must have been like to walk up that many flights with all the gear they had. They looked so winded at that point. I doubt that they made it out before the building collapsed and my
prayers and thoughts are with them and their families now.
By the 7th floor, the stairwells were flooding with water from what we assumed were the firefighting efforts or maybe building sprinklers that had gone off. I looked down at my feet and the water was ankle deep. The stairs became even more slippery and we clung to the handrails. I felt one moment of panic when I thought, “would these stairs hold up under all this human and water weight?” And then a feeling as if someone had squeezed my shoulder and whispered in my ear, “you are going to survive this, do not be afraid.” I was immediately calmed. We continued trudging down.
We were feeling buoyant when we hit 3 and thought we're almost out of here. It had taken us a little over an hour to get this far. But the adventure it seems was far from over. At that point, as we learned later, building 2 collapsed and hit our building. Once
again it felt like a bomb had gone off as the building shook again and there
was this tremendous whoosh of air that almost knocked us off our feet. At that point the lights went out. We were pulled into some sort of vestibule until the air had calmed. Jo and I clung to each other until the noise from debris falling had stopped. Jo always reassuring me that we’d be ok, we’d get out. I believed her. I knew that by waiting for Jo and Pete I had just missed being on one of the lower floors now covered in debris.
There was so much debris that our way out was blocked. I remember thinking there is no way I walked down 77 flights to die 3 floors from safety. There was a fireman on this floor with us. He advised us that he was going to look for another way out. Someone passed up a flashlight and he and another person moved through the vestibule and down a hallway. We heard there was no way out we’d have to go up.
We formed a human chain each person hanging onto the person in front of them and in back of them. We climbed back up to 4. No way out. We were advised to climb another flight. I hung back and said no, it’s the wrong way, we have to go down not up. Then the news came up the line to turn around, come back to 3, a firefighter has found a way out. We clung to each other as we followed the person in front of us and moved toward the flashlight we could see ahead of us. The firefighter had punched a hole in the wall to get us out. We made our way out into the 3rd floor rotunda in the dark. We got our first glimpse of what looked like a war zone.
We walked through ankle deep dust and I remember thinking that I was disgusted that my shoes were going to be ruined. I loved them and they were fairly new. Then I heard my husband’s voice in my head telling me that was the last thing I should be worried about and I could always get new ones.
We followed the directions of rescuers telling us to hug the wall and walk toward the flashlights. We were directed through a doorway that led into the outside plaza in front of the US Customs building. As we were directed to a stairwell leading to street level we climbed over girders and moved around office furniture and layers of office papers, twisted metal, broken glass and other debris. I remember thinking it was too much debris to be just from the top of our building. We still didn’t know that the south tower had collapsed and with all the smoke and floating ash we couldn’t see that it was no longer standing. I still can’t quite picture exactly where we were despite the fact that I walked through that plaza almost daily at lunchtime. Nothing looked like it used to.
By now we were wet and covered in this ash. People all looked like their hair had turned pre-maturely gray. We were told to walk quickly up the street. By now my eyes were burning and I couldn’t see anything because I had so much dust in them. A man came up and told us there was an ambulance on the next corner where I could get my eyes washed out and he started walking us towards it. Just as we got there, it drove away. He left us and Jo and I walked another block where we found a truck giving away bottled water. He handed me one and I upended it into my eyes and washed them out. We turned around and saw Geoff de Lesseps and Jeff Borenstein walking towards us. Then we saw Pete who we had been separated from when the lights went out. He had helped a woman who was having trouble walking to get out.
Within minutes of getting out (we now know it was no more than 4) we heard a rumble, turned to see our tower begin to collapse and a large cloud of black moving up the street. We ran. I don’t know how many blocks we covered before we couldn’t see the cloud chasing us. We slowed to a walk and I tried my cell phone. It took a few tries and I thought, I won’t be able to get through and Roger and Steve won’t know I’m alive. Finally, the phone rang and I heard my husband say “hello.” “I’m out, I’m ok.” Oh, God it’s a miracle he cried, where are you?” I thought he meant what street are you on and I tried to find a street sign. We continued to talk reassuring each other. I told him I needed to save the phone battery and I’d keep checking in to let him know what I was doing.
Geoff got stopped 3 times by press to be interviewed. We finally came to a small corner park and stopped to see if we could find any of our co-workers. We made calls and started a list, one column for those we knew were out and safe because they weren’t due in the office that day, vacations, business travel, trade shows, doctor’s appointments and one for those we didn’t know anything about.
As Jo reached her mother, the offer of an apartment on 23 west 10th street came and we began to walk up. We spent the better part of the rest of the day in that apartment on
10th street, calling around to track down the rest of our co-workers. By Thursday we would know that all 65 employees were safe and sound and we owed God our thanks.
At 3PM Pete and Jo’s mother went for pizza. We discovered that all the ATMs and credit card machines had been shut down and the only place open were a few pizza shops. Nothing ever tasted as good. At 3:30 PM we got news that trains were running from Penn station. Kendra who had come across town to join us, Pete and I walked up to 6th Ave and took a bus up to 32nd Street. We got off and walked up to Penn. I looked up at the board to see that the 4:07 PM was delayed. I was tired and itchy at this point. By 4:30PM they announced a gate and like salmon we swam towards the gate and down the stairs to the platform. The cars, aisles and doorways filled up quickly. I couldn’t get on and for the first time felt frustration. I had to get on the train; there might not be another one. I turned and ran down the length of the train in the opposite direction until I found a doorway with enough room to squeeze through. I walked into a car and sat down.
The train was packed, standing room only and would take almost 2 hours to get from New York to Dover. As we pulled into the Chatham station I saw people in hazardous jumpsuits and boots. One lady, accompanied by a man got on with a bag marked hazardous materials and sat down right next to me. I turned around and saw a lot of empty seats and thought, “why me?’ I stood up and changed seats. I’d had enough adventures for one day. I would later learn that the bag was full of clothes of people who had been in the WTC incident. The rumor was there might have been some kind of chemical (like anthrax) on the plane.
I was met first by the local and state police and then by my family, Steve, Kim and Roger at the Dover train station. I had to be interviewed by the police. “Had I seen anyone celebrating on the bus or train?” No, everyone was very sober, thoughtful and sad. Finally, I got to go home.
It is surely by God's miracle alone that I got out. I am grateful to be alive and grateful for my family and friends who prayed for me that day. Amazingly, I never felt afraid and I believe that was because I truly felt God's hand upon me. It was not my time and I'm sure he heard all the prayers on my behalf. I feel sadness for the families and friends of those who have not been found and I add my prayer now to those of others from around the world. I'm not sure what is next. But for now smelling the flowers is just fine with me.
Susan A. F.
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