Hell on Earth
Some were on their way to work in lower Manhattan. Others were already sitting at their desks, checking e-mail, sipping coffee or reading their morning papers. Still others were working in kitchens and garages when they heard and felt the sickening crash. Bathed in soot and shaken to their souls, they are the survivors of what New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani called “one of the most heinous acts in world history.” The life and death drama that followed the twin attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center resembled, said many who lived through the buildings’ destruction, nothing so much as a big-budget Hollywood movie, with bodies falling from the sky, steel and concrete raining down on dazed onlookers, dark smoke billowing for miles and hundreds of heroes tending to the trapped and injured. “It looked like the end of the world,” says Abdullah Jones, 44, an office assistant who was standing a few hundred feet from Tower No. 2 when it collapsed. “It was a massive inferno, worse than any movie. It was hell breaking loose.” Here are the wrenching firsthand stories of those who witnessed the unthinkable.
Kim White, 32, an administrative assistant at TheBeast, a financial tech company on the 80th floor of 1 World Trade Center, was talking with an office temp when the first plane struck.
All of a sudden the building shook, then it started to sway. We didn’t know what was going on. I ran towards the reception area. It was completely collapsed, but the receptionist was able to crawl out from under it. People started to panic. We got all our people on the floor into the stairwell, and then people began to calm down. At that time we all thought it was a fire. Someone was joking, “I hope it wasn’t another bomb.” Everyone was trying to keep things up-tempo.
We got down as far as the 74th floor, and someone there pulled us into their office. They had a TV on, and we saw that a plane had crashed into the building. Then there was another explosion, so we left again by the stairwell.
It took about 40 minutes to get to the bottom. We were trying to get out through the building’s lower level when all of a sudden the power shut off and the lights went out. The police yelled, “Run!” Then something behind me collapsed. The building was starting to come down. All you saw was black, it was so dark. Now everybody was screaming.
I got out with a coworker, I grabbed his hand and we headed out together. Once we got outside, he went back in to assist, but I was so messed up, I just kept on walking. A detective came up to me and asked me if I was okay. I had an asthma attack and I had debris in my eyes, but I was okay.
Bob Borski, 32, a financial director at the AIG insurance organization, with offices six blocks from the World Trade Center, was standing on the 15th floor with his boss, watching as the first tower burned. Then he saw United Airlines Flight 175 heading for the second tower.
It just doesn’t fit into your mind—I’m used to seeing planes and helicopters disappear behind the building. And then they come out the other side. But this was so low and it literally disappeared into the building. You think, well, what would that look like? Would it bounce off? But it’s like the building swallowed up the plane. It was a swift explosion, it wasn’t resounding. It was boom—like a door shutting. Quick and loud. That silvery shiny plane, just going right into the building—I’ll replay it in my mind over and over.
At about 9 a.m., investment banker Richard Egües, 34, emerged from the downtown 2 subway line to walk toward his office at the World Financial Center.
On the street I saw crowds of people looking south. I looked up and saw gaping holes in both towers. As you looked more closely you began to see little things flying down, and then you realized they were bodies of people who had jumped from the building. I saw the somersaults, the floating bodies. It was like they were in slow motion, sort of turning around. You had to think there must have been such total desperation.
Louie Cacchioli, 51, is a firefighter assigned to Engine 47 in Harlem.
We were the first ones in the second tower after the plane struck. I was taking firefighters up in the elevator to the 24th floor to get in position to evacuate workers. On the last trip up a bomb went off. We think there was bombs set in the building. I had just asked another firefighter to stay with me, which was a good thing because we were trapped inside the elevator and he had the tools to get out.
There were probably 500 people trapped in the stairwell. It was mass chaos. The power went out. It was dark. Everybody was screaming. We had oxygen masks and we were giving people oxygen. Some of us made it out and some of us didn’t. I know of at least 30 firefighters who are still missing. This is my 20th year. I am seriously considering retiring. This might have done it.
Carl Cunneff, 36, an oil broker who works at the World Financial Center, located across the street from the WTC.
I was taking cover beneath the overhang of a building when I saw this big booklet fall from the sky and land on the sidewalk. I picked it up. It was a spreadsheet book with the name Cantor Fitzgerald. It’s a financial company where some of my friends work on the 102nd floor. I thought, “That floor must be gone.”
Police guided us across the West Side Highway, then we heard a loud roar and looked up to see a second jet headed right for the south tower. We heard the engines speed up as it turned sideways and hit the corner of the building head on. It looked like it melted into a fireball. We thought there might be other planes. So we all started running toward the Hudson River to the ferry service to New Jersey. The ferry was packed with people crying and hugging one another, not knowing if their coworkers were dead or alive.
John Frey, 52, an American Stock Exchange specialist on Wall Street, was just leaving the trading floor when Tower 2 was hit.
It was dark out with debris, like nighttime but you could see. It was snowing debris. A foot and a half of gray dust you were walking through. I was walking towards the Battery when a cloud of black ash overcame us. It was completely pitch black. You could not see your hands. I heard people bumping into people and falling and screaming for help. I was completely disoriented. I couldn’t even tell which way was the sidewalk. I could see absolutely nothing. I wasn’t sure if I was blind or if it was that black. My eyes were stinging so badly. I wandered around in the dark for 15 minutes and I was beginning to think I was going to die. I had trouble breathing. My eyes were closing. I was wandering around trying to get a landmark.
Eventually a cop saw me and put me on a bus. I got off at about 32nd Street on the East Side. I went to a pharmacy to get some drops for my eyes. The cashier looked at me and started to cry.
Trade Center repair and maintenance man Evan Silverman, 30, was scheduled to be working on the elevators for Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of Tower 2.
We were in the sublevel in Building 2 and we get a call to get out of the building. I didn’t hear a thing. As I came up, I see people running in the lobby, people screaming, just going nuts. We ran outside, then I seen the building’s on fire. Next thing we know, the foreman calls on the radio, “Come to Building 2, I want to do a head count.” We’re all standing in the lobby and the second plane hits. All of a sudden we’re running again. I ran to the Seaport.
After a little while, we do another head count. We were going to go in for a rescue, with the elevators, try to get people out. Next thing you know, the building’s collapsing. I’m in shock. I never seen nothing like this. I was doing what everyone else was doing, running, trying to stay calm. Now I’m out of work. But thank God I have my life.
Homemaker Sandy Silverman is the mother of Evan Silverman (above).
My daughter called just before 9 a.m. “Did you hear from Evan?” I turned on the TV. I was screaming. I thought the worst. When I saw the building…I thought he was gone. He called my husband at work at 11 a.m., but I wanted to hear his voice myself. Finally he called me at 2 p.m. I said, “Evan, if something would have happened to you, I would have went with you.” He said, “I’m all right, Mom.” I said, “I love you.” God gave him a second chance. It’s like you’re born twice.
It’s so sad, all those people. My son said one of his friends, his wife works there. He went back in to look for his wife. And now they can’t find him.
Ben Fountain, 42, a financial analyst with Fireman’s Fund, was coming out of the Chambers Street Station, headed for his office on the 47th floor of the south tower.
How could they let this happen? They knew this building was a target. Over the past few weeks we’d been evacuated a number of times, which is unusual. I think they had an inkling something was going on.
Mel Immergut, 54, is chairman of the international law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, based across the street from the World Trade Center.
My law firm employs about 800 people and [10 hours later] we have hundreds of people unaccounted for. At the moment, we have no way of tracking them down, so we’re trying to organize a phone chain.
The next step for us is to give whatever counseling and aid we can to our employees, some of whom have said that they’re not sure they can work in a high-rise again. Then we’re going to help others, like the law firms that were in the World Trade Center who no longer have offices to go to. My suspicion is that downtown Manhattan is going to be closed for a good period of time. The most amazing story I heard was from a friend who received an e-mail right before the first plane crashed into the towers, from a friend of his who was on the flight—actually on the flight from Boston to Los Angeles. The e-mail said, “We’ve been hijacked.” And a minute later the plane crashed into the building. The person in the airplane had one of those little BlackBerry portable e-mail machines, and sent his e-mail, probably having no idea the plane was going to crash.
Garban-ICAP broker Dan Monchek, who was working in the World Trade Center at the time of the first terrorist bombing in 1993, was at his computer screen on the 26th floor of 1 World Trade just before the first plane hit.
This was far worse: I remember in 1993 feeling very secure—”Hey, we got out”—but this time I’m down there in the lobby and it looks like something you’d see in the Third World. It didn’t seem like New York, American at all.
In 1993 we had smoke, a little bit of shake. This was a lot scarier. Last time you got the sense that everything was going to be okay. This was like an action flick without the heroes. There’s no happy ending.
Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield manager David Schnitzer, 59, made his way down from the 24th floor of World Trade Tower 1.
I managed to get to the ferry to New Jersey in lower Manhattan. Everybody was crowding onto the boat—there were hundreds of people down there, and I thought the dock was going to sink. Going across to New Jersey, we watched the towers burn. I’ve been in New York through blackouts. I was in the Army during the Vietnam era. But this surpassed all of that. I just kept thinking, “It’s a terrible world.”
Meanwhile, I’d been trying to call my wife on my cell phone and finally got through. She was worried sick and had been trying to call me for an hour. I just told her, “I’m alive.” She picked me up at the train station, and when I walked over to her, my knees were shaking.