It is now the 15th anniversary of September 11th. Fifteen years. And yet I remember every detail and emotion of that tragic morning as if it were just yesterday. The World Trade Center had always been a very secure and peaceful place for me. I started working there when it officially opened in May of 1973, and I was there almost every day thereafter for what seemed like my entire adult life. I worked in the financial departments of the Port Authority, the agency that financed, owned, and built the World Trade Center. It was our building, and I considered this huge landmark to be both a friend and a major part of my personal history. But then. On the morning of September 11th, my world and my sense of security changed rather quickly. I was sitting with two of my closest colleagues and dear friends in our office on the 64th floor of One World Trade Center. When suddenly. At approximately 8:45 am. There was this huge, jolting, and indiscernible noise. Wham!! The first of two hi-jacked terrorist planes crashed into our beautiful One World Trade Center. The whole building shook and swayed off-center. We went up and airborne out of our chairs.
Amid the alarm and confusion of the moment, someone exclaimed that a helicopter flew into the floor directly above us. Someone else thought it might have been one of those twelve passenger private business jets because the sound was so sharp. But such thinking made no sense. It could not explain the magnitude and huge impact of what had just happened. I remember telling people to stay away from the windows. However improbable, thoughts of getting sucked out of the building through a broken window were always in the back of my mind. Also at this time, people were shouting to look outside. “Look. Look at that.” as pieces of debris from the building, and probably from the hi-jacked airplane, came falling past us. Although no one knew or could imagine at this point what was yet to come, certain instincts and a special kind of anxiety had been aroused in everyone.
In the midst of this commotion, a group of five or six of us had gathered together and were discussing the situation. We were still in our main office area on the north side of the 64th floor. Suddenly, I began thinking that we would not only have to leave our office, but that we might not return for some time. (Of course, I had no idea that the entire building would soon collapse and be totally destroyed.) And so I went back to my desk to get my suit jacket. As I recall the events of that morning, it appears more and more that going back for my suit jacket was a life and death decision. Because I then began to direct my attention elsewhere and wandered by myself into the inner hallway. And thus, I had separated myself from my colleagues. A most notable point, since fourteen people stayed on our 64th floor that morning of September 11th and went down with the building.
Everyone in the inner hallway was focused on one thing, getting into the stairways and getting out of the building. The stairways were already overcrowded and beyond capacity. Nevertheless, someone asked me if I wanted to start walking down. I hesitated, but when I looked into the stairway and saw some familiar faces, I instinctively joined them. With all the turmoil, adrenalin, and underlying emotions, I was totally focused on the immediate moment. But then, half a minute later, after about twenty steps down, I stopped and looked back for my two closest colleagues and friends. I did not see them. But in the midst of all those people in that packed and crowded stairway, I decided the best choice was to keep moving. I said to myself that they’d soon be right behind me. And so I continued walking down the stairs with another colleague and our departmental secretary.
We made it down the crowded stairway from the 64th floor to the 35th floor at a slow and steady pace. Some people were joking as their legs became tired and their knees began moving on their own. Sort of like involuntary dancing. However, when we got to the 35th floor, the situation became most challenging. It was here that we hit total gridlock. The stairway was now so crowded that it came to a complete stop. I remember thinking that if the smell and smoke gets any worse, we could all suffocate. However, despite the traumatic situation, and although some people were now visibly scared and softly crying, no one outwardly panicked or acted out of place. I am sure this is partly due to the fact that no one knew at this point in time that our indestructible World Trade Center was going to collapse and be totally destroyed within the next 60 minutes. Don’t forget, this same place, along with many of us in the stairway, had recently survived the terrorist bombing of February, 1993. It was now perceived to be a matter of staying calm. Do not panic. Think positive thoughts. And slowly, very slowly, make our way down and out of the building.
We eventually got down to the 28th floor. It was here that we had to squeeze to the right of the stairway to allow room for the firemen to get upstairs. This was the first sight of firemen or police that I can remember. Many of them were exhausted, and rightfully so, with all the stuff they had to carry. In addition to which, September 11th was a Tuesday morning. I’m sure most of them were up late the previous night watching the New York Giants on Monday night football, and most likely, having a beer or two. Never imagining that they would soon be walking up the stairs of the World Trade Center under circumstances of life and death. Nevertheless, some of the firemen did seem to be in good spirits. Although they gave us no instructions and no information, some of them were talking and sort of nervously joking with the women in the stairway. One of them broke open a vending machine with an ax and handed out bottled water and soda. The firemen shared with us the apprehension and instinctive uneasiness of being inside the building.
Our progress down the stairs continued to be so slow that at times it was almost agonizing. More people were having difficulty breathing, and the overcrowding and gridlock that kept us from moving gave no relief to the high anxiety of our situation. When we had finally made our way down to the 6th floor of One World Trade Center, we came to a very long and complete standstill. We were trapped on the stairs. No one could move. Then, suddenly, this huge roar came over everything. The entire building began to sway and shake. It was like we were in an earthquake. I had no idea, nor did anyone else, what was going on. And not knowing what was happening made things even more alarming. Of course, this was Two World Trade Center, the South Tower, collapsing and crashing to the ground about 200 feet away from us. After the noise and shaking subsided, we were all standing in total silence, stuck in this tomb of a stairway, in a strange dimly lit darkness (only certain battery powered emergency lights, installed after the bombing of February, 1993, were working). Huge amounts of water were pouring down and over the stairs, and the air was very damp, cold, and filled with an oily smell, smoke, and fumes. I must say, things had become very scary. And very confusing. Like I said, neither I nor anyone else could figure out what had just happened. An explosion on one of the 104 floors above us? Where was all this water coming from? Nothing made sense. Even if someone had told me right then and there that the 110 story South Tower of the World Trade Center had just collapsed, I would not have believed it.
At this point, we had been in the stairways of One World Trade Center for well over an hour. And now, finally, after the collapse of Two World Trade Center, for the first time that I can remember, firemen showed an interest in getting us out of the building. Before this, other than being told to get out of the way, to stay on the right side of the stairway, and, at times, to literally stop moving so that firemen and police could pass, we had been totally on our own, observing everything, and making our way slowly down the stairs.
We were now instructed to get out of the stairway and go onto the 6th floor, or back up to and onto the 7th floor. I can’t remember exactly which floor it was. But once we got out of the stairway and onto the 6th or 7th floor, it was totally dark. Everyone kept yelling “Keep your hand on the person in front of you.” “Keep your hand on the person in front of you.” We continued forward in single file and made our way down several floors in another stairway. A while later, the total darkness suddenly turned into a bright dense fog. I could not see anything at first. But gradually, as we slowly walked forward, with our hands on the person in front of us, I could begin to see the carpeting and the railing and soon realized that we had come out onto the mezzanine (the balcony) above and surrounding the lobby of One World Trade Center. We walked around the entire mezzanine and finally exited the building via the northeast doorway. We came out onto the area alongside the U.S. Customs Building and not too far from where the big brass globe and fountain were. This is what was called the Plaza. The Concourse is, or I should say, was, the indoor mall area with all the shops and restaurants.
As we came out, the Plaza was covered with about a foot of gray soot. There were huge pieces of aluminum all over the place. I could not figure it out. How could a plane crashing into our building cause all this debris and damage? I remember standing there, outside, in front of the northeast corner of One World Trade Center, and looking directly at Two World Trade Center. I did not see it because it had just crashed to the ground a few minutes earlier. But at that time, I just thought the soot and smoke were blocking my view. And of course, little did I know that the 110 story North Tower (One World Trade Center) that I was standing right next to was also going to collapse in another few minutes. In fact, my two co-workers and I could be the last people to ever stand right in front of One World Trade Center. For some reason, all of the other people we had been with in the stairways had exited from the mezzanine via another route. Probably out to West Street. And so the three of us were standing there on the Plaza by ourselves.
In an attempt to look around and figure things out, I put my foot on one of the huge pieces of aluminum. As I began to shake the aluminum, my co-workers both shouted that we should get moving. There was also some far off voice near the Vesey Street escalator that kept screaming at us to get out of there. Had I discovered any airplane engine parts, or come across the remains of those poor people who were trapped and then jumped to their death from the upper floors, I am sure that I would have stayed right there at the foot of One World Trade Center, wondering if I could help in some way. As it was, after exchanging hugs and being thankful that we were out of the building, we walked across the Plaza towards Vesey Street, went down the broken Vesey Street escalator, and joined other people on Church Street in front of the U.S. Post Office. And then, amid some screams and a roar, everyone ran north as our beautiful One World Trade Center crashed to the ground. I did not see it come down. (In recollecting these events, I have estimated that we got out of One World Trade Center with only eight or nine minutes to spare. Sort of an unnerving thought when I think of all the little things that could have slowed us down on those crowded stairways.)
As we headed north on Church Street, amid sirens, fire engines, police cars, mobs of people running around, store employees quickly closing shop and hurrying to get out of Manhattan, amid this whole scene of confusion, high anxiety, and pandemonium, we made our way up into Soho. We came across an art gallery that was still open. When the people running it saw us covered with soot and all disheveled (my suit jacket barely recognizable), they not only bombarded us with questions and an intense interest, but they allowed us to clean up as best we could in their restrooms. They also gave us water. After leaving this art gallery, we came across an open grocery store and deli. This was a big find. Earlier we had been forced out of a food store that was being closed in a panic by the people that worked there. But this place was still open for business. It was packed. I immediately focused on some bags of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. I figured that with five or six bags of these cookies, we could survive on the streets of New York City for days.
When the three of us got to 23rd street, it was time to separate and face the challenges of getting home. But rather than go into the many challenges of getting home that day, September 11th, and surviving on the streets of New York City, let me just say that I got home that night at about 8:30. I was most thankful to be back with my wife and daughters. To be home and alive. I then made several phone calls. No one had heard from my colleagues on the 64th floor. I did not know at that time that so many had lost their lives.
I mentioned earlier that 14 people from our office on the 64th floor died that morning, including my two closest colleagues. The fact that the three of us were sitting together and talking when that first plane hit. That they died. And that I survived. Creates certain thoughts and a recurring question that plays itself over and over again. Had I not left the 64th floor of One World Trade Center when I did, would they have talked me into staying with them? (In which case, I would have gone down with the building like they did.) Or, after the second hi-jacked terrorist plane crashed into the South Tower, after what was happening became somewhat more clear, would it have been me that talked them into getting into the stairway and getting out of the building. (In which case, they would now be alive and well and writing their own accounts of what happened on the morning of September 11th.) Of course, there will never be an answer to this question.
There is much more that could be told here. The memorial services. Certain conversations. The trauma and personal loss suffered by friends and family. Reflecting on what people did and what they should have done. The happenings, hindsight, and ongoing psychology of getting back to work and moving on. In fact, just telling how I got out of Manhattan and home that day, could, by itself, be a most interesting narrative. Nevertheless, I am going to end my story here.
Edward Lazarus lives with his wife, Wendy, in Montgomery Township. They have three daughters. Edward belongs to two Princeton writing groups: “Read, Write, Share” and the “Writers Room” at the Princeton Public Library. After getting his MBA degree from Michigan State University and serving in the U.S. Air Force, he began his career in accounting and finance at the Port Authority. After commuting in and out of Manhattan for more than 35 years, he is now retired.