September 11, 2001 Survivor's Account
The Story of A Survivor from Kemper Insurance, located on the 35th and 36th floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
That should say it all... but it misses by a mile. So many emotions and I expect tomorrow to be the hardest... when I start to find out which friends I won't ever see again.
I had a meeting on Long Island and was too tired to get out of bed. I came very close to just driving directly to Long Island but forced myself to make it in to the office first... just for an hour or two. For some reason, I didn't park in the usual (open air) lot adjacent to the World Trade Center. I figured I would save a couple of Kemper's dollars and walk a couple of blocks. I told the garage attendant I would be back around 10:30.
Up to the office on what used to be the 36th floor of what used to be One World Trade Center. Business as usual. Adrian Oddi was in from the Jersey office. I had too much to do to even tease him about showing up in NY. Cindy and Aklima hadn't yet made it in. Pretty much a normal mid-week work day. 8:30 I call home to see if I can catch Melody and Lara before they head out for school. As usual I get the machine. I ramble long enough for someone to pick up. Today it works. Lara answers. My morning is brightened by our little conversation. After telling each other that "I love you" she asks if I want to talk to Mommy. I tell her no. I'll talk to her later. The computer is booting up as I update my voicemail message for the day. I go to the file area to hunt for the files of the moment. I have a few files in my hand and am silently cursing the fact that I can't find a few others when Whump!!
The noise is loud and distant but ominous. The buildings are designed to sway in high winds but this felt like a giant fist of God had slammed us to the side. It almost feels like the building was going to slowly topple right then. First thought. Bomb? Plane? Whatever it was... the building did not just "sway" back into a normal position. The whump turns to a lingering rumble as the plane continues to blast through the building and the fireball explodes. A harmonic resonance seems to have started. It feels like an earthquake and looks like files and cabinets may begin toppling.
The unnatural and strong swaying and rumbling earthquake continues for what felt like more than a minute. Adrian is out of his office. I'm out of the file area. Everyone else in our area is suddenly gathered in front of the main work space.
Earthquakes do not occur in just one building. The rain of glass and debris from above roars outside of our own windows. At this point, I am convinced the building is going to fall and that we are going to die. I'm thinking "How many seconds will it take?" Someone asks, "What should we do?" but they know the answer. We all head for the exit nearby.
We are about five floors down before the first alarms are heard. Somehow the shaking stopped and we feel like everything is going to be OK for us. We and others in the stairs finally voice our thoughts of death and start guessing that it was likely a plane... because of the glass from above.
People were great. When workers diving into the stairwell from another floor look panicked and could start a stampede... we directed them to slow it down. At other times, we got people to keep it moving. Various little emergencies on the stairs got handled together.
Things start slowing down because of the crowd. We start to smell smoke. Maybe it was a bomb after all.
Somewhere around 25, we finally see building personnel. They are directing us onto the floor because the smoke is getting a little thicker and the air is better on that floor. I'm with Adrian. We hang close to the door (out of the way) to wait for Kathy and then Joyce.
I stay by the door. I'm taller than Adrian and could probably spot Maria and Wanda better if they are still behind us.
People are ignoring the door people and filing past the floor. We decide..we are going too. Kathy was able to see on a TV on that floor that it was a plane after all. Terrorists.
Maria and Wanda haven't made it to us yet. With the other floors merging into the stairwells, they could be a long way behind. It would only clog the flow to do anything other than keep moving. Keep moving.
Some floors below, we all make room for some burn victims to descend past us. There are two of them. They are black from the burned jet fuel. They look numb. The first looks relatively better though he holds his arms in front in obvious pain. The second is an African American woman with blistered and almost "melted" patches on her face. A large swath of her arm looks Caucasian where her pigmented skin was burned off. Sheets of it look like they will soon follow.
As they descend, we are also making a path for firefighters to ascend. A group of about 12 pass us. We probably made way for them to die. (I understand 200 of the 400 responding firefighters are dead as I write.)
The last flights are slippery from the torrent of water cascading down the stairs. No one is being particular about clothes or shoes. We finally splash out of the stairwell into our first view of the plaza. It looks like a war-zone. Glass, debris, burning chunks of who-knows-what, ash. We are all on the move. No time (or inclination) for a closer look. Kathy said she sees bodies.
We shoot across 30 feet of no-man's-land to the overhang of another building with arms over our heads. We enter and start heading across the pedestrian bridge to the World Financial Center by the river. No one brought anything. Jackets, wallets, keys, etc. are still 36 floors above. No one has a cell phone to let loved ones know we are OK.
At this point its Adrian, Kathy, Joyce, and me. We still believe that Wanda and Maria are somewhere behind us... though it would be pointless to look for them. Kathy is obviously shaken by the bodies in the plaza... and by the jumpers. "I'm going to look for a phone," I said. "Call Andrea and let her know I'm OK," Adrian responded. "Wait! You don't know my number!" "What town?" He yells it out... then, "We're listed" "Got it." I think I yell something about calling everyone as we part.
I dive into the area by Morans because security isn't tight yet. No phones. Security tightens. I can't get back to the others now.
No place is open. Whatever public phones are near... are thronged. I think to get to the other side of town to go to a friend's office to use their phone. I couldn't wait for a pay phone or the chance of getting answering machines... or other obstacles to collect calls.
I can't get across right away due to the effective emergency response personnel now deployed. The city was mobilized as a well ordered and incredibly efficient team. People were cooperative. There was no looting or signs of anything other than help or horror.
I finally see the holes in the building I just came from. Fire in both buildings. It finally hits me. I'm not the only one with tears. I can see the area that those holes and the fire zone cover and know that hundreds or thousands are dead. How can anyone above those floors of fire get past them? "Oh my God!" someone shrieks. "They're jumping!" I can't get myself to look. Adrenaline keeps my legs going. I need to get to my friends at the Fleetwood Agency for their phone. Amongst all the thoughts and emotions, I keep thinking of Melody and all of our families who must be going through Hell not knowing.
I still don't know the course of events but think that the plane that hit our building must have passed through and hit Two World Trade. The fire at Two looked too low though. From the snatches of passing conversations, I come to understand that there were two crashes. (The second must have occurred while we were in the stairwell still.)
I make it to Fleetwood. They are a mess of emotion. Whatever composure I had is lost as they tackle me with hugs of relief and tears. Though Kemper was fine, we are all worried about others.
Ralph gives me his office to use for calls. I look at my watch for the first time since 8:30. Melody has dropped Lara off at school and is probably still home before work! We can barely talk between our sobs. There is a TV on. Between calls and talking with everyone there... I'm getting the media perspective. It looks so unreal on the TV. The impact is strong but somehow diluted from the first person perspective.
I'm on the phone with my sister-in-law Johnna. I can see the trade center burning as I talk. Debris, ash, smoke. It's already dusk in lower Manhattan... though it's not yet 11:00am. The clouds of smoke are flowing East. The TV doesn't see the perspective I do. Suddenly, I'm distracted from my talking. The corner windows of Two are starting to blow out in a horrifying "unzipping" motion from top to bottom. I have no idea what is
happening and my first thought is that the heat has created some kind of domino effect. Then I see the plume of the top floors collapsing down on the others even as the horrible "tttttttttttttttttttttttt" sound of the unzipping reaches us. The roar and cloud are too much. I can only babble to Johnna.
"Oh my God... Oh my God... Oh my God... Oh my God..." Johnna sounds frantic to know what is happening too. I can barely breathe no less speak. Somehow I say something and am diving out of the room to be with the others. Emotions are high. It gets dark.
When my old building follows shortly after... it becomes a dusty night for a short while. The snow that covers everything is soot, and ash, and powdered concrete. It's thick.
What followed after with my friends at the Fleetwood Agency was just one of many stories that will be told about coping and somehow getting people home safely. Tomorrow will be the hard day.
My friends at Aon were on the 92nd floor of #2. Fortunately, a friend who recently transferred from their NY office to LA told me that he knows several who made it out. After our building (#1) was hit, many were told to "sit tight and wait for instructions." I was told that Glenn Pellitiere, Rob McDonnough, Betty Calderon, Tom Rhatigan and a couple of others had basically said "Screw that" and started the evacuation on their own. They made it from what I am told. No word on many though.
A friend at Marsh told me that some 1,300 to 1,500 Marsh employees are unaccounted for from our building. No news on the Fireman's Fund people who just recently moved into 2. No news on the RLI guys in 1. Sounds like a number (if not all) of the Guy Carpenter people may have been below the main crash like us.
Another friend told me he was held up 15 minutes for a meeting. He could be another of the Marsh "unaccounted for" if it weren't for the hold-up. He was walking to our building when he watched the first plane hit. He saw about twenty people jumping from the flames before going home.
I'm glad I'm home myself but still coming to grips with it all. I hate to be un-Christian but I feel anger and the need for retribution mixed with my other emotions. I was so happy to hear Bush say that we will make no distinction between the terrorists and those who harbored the terrorists. IF it turns out that those responsible were shielded or harbored by a country like... say Afghanistan... then we should go to war and make that country pay so badly for this atrocity that no one will think to repeat it. I do not want a protracted war. I said it half-jokingly to someone that we should drop the bomb in such an instance. The more I thought of it... the more I actually started to believe it might be the ONLY response that would serve the purpose of protecting Americans from this sort of evil again. Anything less might start a Jihad. (What good are weapons of "deterrence" if they will never be used.)
If my soul is stained by this hope... then so be it. I would like to hear on the morning news that four bombs have been dropped. One on Afghanistan, one on Libya, one on Iran and one on Iraq. Let the world condemn us. I don't particularly care. I just want to be "safe" from animals like those who are quietly or not so quietly dancing at this news. I want it to end. I want the world to fear U.S. retribution so intense that this NEVER happens again.
By a Survivor from Kemper Insurance, located on the 35th and 36th floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
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