Trapped in the Towers
IT WAS NOT A GOOD PLACE TO BE IF YOU WERE CLAUSTROPHOBIC. Or acrophobia. Or, for that matter, nervous about the dark, fire, smoke, small children or terrorist bombs. Just after noon on an uneventful Friday, 72 people, including 17 kindergartners who had been visiting an observation deck atop New York City’s World Trade Center, jammed into an elevator roughly 10 feet by 20 feet for what they thought would be a 90-second, 107-story ride to the ground. As they passed the 45th floor the elevator suddenly jolted to a halt and the lights went out. Gradually smoke began to seep in. Tim Runels, 24, a farmer from Arroyo Grande, Calif., was in the car and took the pictures that appear on these pages. Here is what it felt like to be trapped in that car for five uncertain hours following a massive bomb explosion nearly 600 feet below—one that killed at least five people and injured 1,000 more.
Deborah Bernhardt, a wife and mother from Brooklyn, admits she is overprotective of her 5-year-old son, Lawrence. So much so that she will not let him go on field trips with his kindergarten class unless she is able to go along herself. And so, on Feb. 26 she accompanied Lawrence on a school outing to the looming twin towers of the World Trade Center.
After admiring the view from the south tower’s 1,300-foot-high observation deck, Deborah, 38, and four other supervising adults guided the youngsters into one of the oversize elevators for the descent. Fifty more passengers wedged in before the doors closed. “We were really squashed,” says Deborah. “But we only thought it was going to be a few minutes.” The children began counting off the numbers of the floors as the car descended. “Then all of a sudden—boom! ” says Runels. “It stopped. All the kids screamed.”
Throughout the rest of the World Trade complex, alarm spread. A powerful blast, apparently from a car packed with explosives—possibly by terrorists—had rocked the building at 12:18 p.m. It demolished much of the underground parking garage, knocking out electricity and sending thick smoke into air shafts and stairwells. Initial attempts to evacuate the complex’s 55,000 workers were chaotic: The huge blast had also destroyed backup generators, the public address system and a police operations center where emergency evacuation plans were kept. Some people on lower floors managed to escape quickly down stairways; others found themselves turned back by crowds or smoke.
But there was little panic, and there were many small acts of heroism. In one instance, two building managers carried a wheelchair-bound man with no legs down more than 50 flights of stairs. Nervous workers on packed stairwells made way for a woman on a stretcher who had gone into premature labor. “If it was a terrorist bomb, it had the opposite effect from what they wanted,” says New York City police lieutenant Daniel D’Eugenio, one of the first officers to respond to the catastrophe. “It didn’t create terror; it bonded people together.”
In the close confines of the stranded elevator, of course, there was little choice but to bond. The only sources of illumination were cigarette lighters and a string of glow-in-the-dark rosary beads belonging to teacher Anna Marie Tesoriero, 51, who was in charge of the kindergartners. “Some students [from another school] were saying, ‘I am going to die. Thai’s it. I am going to die,’ ” says Tesoriero of the ordeal. “The older kids were the ones who were vocalizing their fears. My kids are too young. They just started crying.”
As best they could, the adults tried to distract the children. The kindergartners sang songs from their Thanksgiving pageant, the alphabet song and the theme of the TV dinosaur Barney: “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family.” The youngsters sought comfort from the adults. “They were clinging to us,” says Runels, who, with his friend Ben Reveley, 29, of Cuyama, Calif., was on his way to Sweden to lake part in an agricultural exchange program. “I had one little kid hanging on one leg and another on another. I had four hands in my one hand.” Eventually some of the children fell asleep, a few of them standing up.
As the hours wore on with no sign of rescue, several of the adults felt their nerves start to fray. The elevator became unbearably hot, and eventually the doors were pried open for ventilation. Deborah Bernhardt began to cry silently and popped a tranquilizer. “Lawrence and I were standing next to each other,” she says. “He kept saying, ‘Ma, Ma, where are you?’ ” Her dread only increased when she flicked on a lighter and, for the first time, saw smoke. “I thought we were all going to die,” she says. But through her terror she coolly planned what to do if the cable snapped and sent the car plummeting. She decided that the only choice, futile though it might be, was to put her son on top of her own body to break his fall.
Mercifully, that was never necessary. After four hours, fireman James Sherwood made contact with the elevator’s occupants, shouting through the wall, “How many people do you have in there?” “Seventy-two,” someone answered. “No,” said Sherwood, who was used to small elevators. “How many people do you have in there?” “Seventy-two,” came the reply again. A shocked Sherwood quickly opened a small hole into the car and passed in a flashlight. In the next hour, Sherwood and other rescuers sledge-hammered through a wall above the elevator car. Finally, five hours after the explosion, he aimed a flashlight into the car and was greeted by cheers. “I told them they were the bravest people I had ever seen,” says Sherwood, who lowered a ladder so the children could begin climbing out.
Ten kids escaped that way. Suddenly and unaccountably, though, the car began to descend, its doors still open. Moments later it came to rest safely at lobby level, and everyone piled out. Only then did they learn that a bomb was suspected and that the World Trade Center had been fully evacuated.
“We got stuck on the elevator and the lights went off,” is about all Lawrence Bernhardt would say last week about his adventure. “I knew the fireman was going to come.” He does, however, want to pass on a message to his rescuers: “Thank you for saving my life.” As for his mother, she is willing to let her son go on future trips with his schoolmates, but nothing too risky. “He can go to the zoo or the Botanical Garden,” she says. “But nothing with an elevator.”
A Long Island father reaches safety with seconds to spare
Billy Schneider, 33, who works as an oil-futures trader on the Mercantile Exchange at the World Trade Center, knew he had to leave work by noon. He had promised his 3-year-old son, Dean, that he would attend a religious service that Friday afternoon at the youngster’s nursery school in Oceanside, N.Y. In his haste, he didn’t notice anything unusual as he retrieved his 1989 Mazda sedan from the B-2 level underground parking garage. By the time he had paid the attendant the $16 parking fee and eased his car toward the exit ramp, it was already 12:15, three minutes before detonation.
As luck would have it, Schneider found himself inching along. “I’m sitting behind this idiot taking his time, and I’m late,” he says. “I kept thinking, “my wife is going to kill me.” And I didn’t want to disappoint my son. I knew he was counting on me.” Finally the driver ahead picked up speed. An electric eye opened the exit door, and Schneider slipped out right behind. Picking up his car phone, Schneider called the trading floor, chatting for the few minutes it took to get to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel out of Manhattan.
Moments later, he emerged on the Brooklyn side of the East River and called a fellow trader once more. “The first thing he said was, ‘Where are you?’ ” Schneider recalled. “I told him I just got outside. He said there had just been an explosion.” The garage Schneider had left just minutes before was wrecked and ablaze, a crater five stories deep and 200 feet wide gaping where the bomb had exploded. “I’ve been freaked out,” he says. “I didn’t experience what the guys at the office experienced, but I was actually closer to death than they were. It puts everything into perspective. I didn’t have such a great day at the exchange financially. But then I thought, ‘Who cares?’ ”
They won’t take Manhattan: A honeymoon turns to high anxiety
For out-of-towners Paul and Melissa Beasley it was, in its way, a quintessential New York experience—scary, bewildering and, finally, unexpectedly heartwarming. Trapped atop the south tower of the Trade Center with several hundred terrified workers and visitors, with smoke billowing into the floors below them and police helicopters clattering overhead, the honeymooning couple decided it might not be a bad idea to say a little prayer. All around them, others seemed to be doing the same—or were they? This being New York City, it was hard to tell. “A lot of people were speaking different languages,” says Melissa, 21, a college student who had married Paul, 21, a railroad signalman, six days earlier in their hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. “I don’t know what they were praying.”
The Beasleys, who had been honeymooning at Friar Tuck Inn in the Catskills, were paying their first visit to New York City. That Friday they had barely stepped from the elevator onto the enclosed observation deck when they heard a muffled bang that sent a shudder through the whole building. At first Paul thought it might be an elevator that had plunged to the ground. Then he realized that “if it rattled a building this big, it had to be something else.” Five minutes later, black smoke began to fill the area, and building staffers began herding people onto the roof. There was little panic, except perhaps among the children. “They all wanted their parents,” says Paul. “They were crying. A lot had to use the rest room, but they couldn’t go down the stairs because of how dark it was.”
Many of the 300 or so people huddled on the icy, windswept roof were lightly dressed, like the Beasleys, who had left their coats in their car. They had not expected to be outside on that snowy day. “This poor guy from Miami had on a flowered shirt, like Magnum, P.I.,” says Paul. Within an hour the first of the rescuers arrived, bringing with them a few fireman’s coats, one of which Melissa put on. Three and a half hours later, as smoke began to thin, officials told them they could begin the long walk down.
Starting their 107-floor descent, Melissa gave Paul the fireman’s coat. “I put it on, and people kept asking me if I was a fireman,” says Paul. “I kept telling them no.” In this case, though, the clothes made the man. He discovered that his coat was helpful in keeping people calm and moving down the darkened staircase. “People were starting to listen to me because I stopped telling them I wasn’t a fireman,” says Paul. “I was barking out stuff: ‘Just a little farther,’ ‘We’re almost there,’ ‘Everybody’s going to be all right.’ ”
As the couple neared the bottom, word filtered up that a bomb was suspected. Hearing that, Melissa began to hyperventilate. Paul needed the help of several paramedics to get his wife down the last three floors. “She was shaking really bad and had a hard time calming down,” says Paul. He and Melissa were taken immediately to Bellevue Hospital, where she was examined and released.
New York City had not treated them kindly. They had been bombed. The hotel where they had planned to spend the night—part of the Trade Center complex—-had been sealed off by authorities. Their rental car, containing their belongings and all of their honeymoon photos, had been blown up.
Of course, this being New York, one more unexpected thing happened. Bellevue administrator Walter LeStrange, spotting the perplexed and soot-smeared couple in the hospital lobby, invited them to spend the night at his home in suburban Eastport, which they gladly accepted. “They were so lost, so hopeless,” says LeStrange, 36. “They needed something good to happen to them.” Along with that pleasant memory, the Beasleys retained one other memento: the fireman’s coat. “We’d kept that,” says Paul. “We’re not giving that back to nobody.”
BRYAN ALEXANDER, MARIA EFTIMIADES and ALLISON LYNN and GAVIN MOSES in New York City