The Strange Connection Between Bach and The World Trade Center Attacks of September 11, 2001
I am pretty sure that I was still at my desk, probably shutting down my computer, and I know I was still in the office, when the second building was hit. I did not see the second plane come in, for which I am grateful, although I would have had a spectacular view. (When I get our next phone bill, I'll check the times when I was on the phone against the published sequence of events.) There was another "boom", and our building shook again. I passed along what I had just learned about our building to my colleague, who had been on the phone with his wife.
He decided that this seemed to be a good time to leave, but he first took the trouble to first walk the entire floor and make sure that no one else was behind, which is typical of his character. He ran across a third fellow who also was about to start down, so we decided to go together. Meanwhile, I took off my shirt and tee shirt, and soaked them in water. My colleague thought that was a good idea, and also soaked a shirt. We talked about hitting the mens' room one last time, but decided it wasn't necessary, so off we went. I felt absolutely no sense of danger. My only concern was that my legs might be sore the next day.
I had heard stories of a couple of workers who had walked all the way down from the top floor, and then weren't able to make it to work the next day. Every now and then someone writes a letter to the editor, suggesting that each high rise building run a practice evacuation once a month, which doesn't seem to me to be very practical.
When we first started down, the stairway had a little smoke in it, but it wasn't bad. More worrisome was the water running down from the floors above. The soles of my shoes were slippery on the wet floor, and I almost fell once, but was able to grab the railing. It didn't help that I was carrying a briefcase, which I did not intend to leave behind. The shoulder strap had broken a couple of months ago, so I had to lug it with one hand, while trying to hold on to the railing with the other. (My wife was involved in a situation a couple of years ago where some idiots had turned on the gas jets in the science lab, directly below her room, and then left, waiting for the place to blow up. By pure luck, enough people started feeling sick, and it was discovered before there was an explosion. Meanwhile my wife, and everyone else, ended up outside in the parking lot, in the middle of winter, without coats or car keys.)
Based on my wife's experience, I had decided that in a fire, my briefcase and coat were going with me, no matter what, and had practiced our regular fire drills that way, which had gotten me some good natured ribbing. I've noticed in our recent fire drills, people now take their coats, keys, handbags, and briefcases with them.
When the Trade Center was bombed in the early nineties, all the lights had gone off, and people had to evacuate down smoke filled, pitch-black stairs. After the bombing, emergency lights had been installed, and they worked pretty well. We ran into a few isolated areas in the upper floors without light, but not enough to cause problems. I had a small flashlight with me, but I wanted to use it only where absolutely necessary, to conserve the batteries. It came in handy, though, towards the bottom, where the smoke was thick. Before the bombing, the stairwell lights were powered on an emergency power system, which theoretically would come on if the regular power were lost. Unfortunately, the bomb blast severed the emergency power feeds, so the lights went off and stayed off. The stairwell lights had since been provided with backup batteries, so with one or two isolated exceptions, they stayed on this time.
Somewhere around the thirtieth floor, we started catching up to others going down, and we met the first firemen coming up. A young woman was having trouble trying to climb down the stairs in high heels, and it took a couple of minutes for people to talk her into taking them off. The air in the stairwell also cleared up somewhere around here, and the stairs were dry, so I was sure that I was home free. The clear air didn't last for long. It turned out to be sitting on top of more smoke, and it soon became difficult to see and to breathe. I had used my wet tee shirt occasionally, throughout the descent, to help filter out the smoke, but from here on down it really helped.
I have never been in a burning building before, and I don't know at what density smoke stops being a nuisance and becomes a threat. The firemen were not using breathing gear, so I suspect that the smoke was pretty mild. With people starting to fill the stairwell, it was starting to get warm, so I took out my other wet shirt and wrapped it around my neck to keep myself from overheating. At this point I was getting a little concerned, but figured that with firemen around, nothing too bad could happen.
By this time we had gotten back into smoke, and had also come across an injured man trying to get down the stairs. He had a few cuts, and one of his legs was giving him trouble. My colleague took the guy's arm, wrapped it around his shoulder and helped him down several more flights. The firemen had set up a temporary rest station on the twenty first floor, to give people who were having problems a chance to sit and rest, or take a little oxygen. The man with the bad leg stopped here, and when he went in, I saw a rather heavy-set woman sprawled out in a chair. She looked beat. I don't remember seeing any others. Stopping to rest might have cost them their lives.
We continued down, through increasing smoke, but guided by firemen with bright flashlights. I'm not sure which floor I was on when I almost fell down the stairs again. I couldn't see where the floor ended and the steps began. Maybe I could have caught myself, because I was moving slowly, but I let out a "oops" and two very strong hands grabbed me. I have a pair of bruises, one on each arm, to remind me of two men whom I hope got out in time.
When we reached the sixth floor, there was another big boom, and the building shook again. I head someone say, "it's ok, we're in the strongest part of the building", which I knew was true. What I didn't know was that the boom was the other building collapsing. We stayed put for couple of minutes, and then started down again. Firemen were directing us to "go straight ahead, don't look to the right". I assumed they didn't want us to take a wrong turn, and I concentrated on trying to go straight ahead. Later, my colleague told me that he had looked. The firemen hadn't wanted us to see dismembered bodies.
I was surprised by the amount of smoke in the air, considering how low we were. Thinking about it now, what I then thought was smoke was probably mostly dust. At any rate, it was gray and dense and I couldn't see for more than a few feet. We came out of the stairway on the second floor, more or less at grade level. By this point, I knew where I was, but even so, could hardly see my hand in front of my face. I was able to find the exit, though, and on my way out a policeman, I think, asked if he could have my shirts to cover a dead body.
I think that I was in one of the last groups to leave the building. We had to walk single file over rubble, and ahead of us, a couple of workers were pulling a piece of sheet metal out of the way, so that we could stay under the protection of the overhang of an adjacent building. This delayed us another few minutes. The windows in this building were blown out. Police cars were covered with ash, some had their windows smashed in, and there were little fires burning on the ground. I wondered what could have happened here to cause such a mess. There was still enough dust in the air to keep me from seeing more than fifty yards. I took my time getting out to the main street (parallel to Broadway, a block to the west), not wanting to trip and get hurt at the very end.
As I started walking north, towards a barrier set up by the police a few blocks away from the trade center, I noticed that there weren't many people in the street ahead of me, although there were a few policemen and firemen at the barrier. Suddenly they started to wave and shout "hurry up, run". I thought they were just trying to keep the street clear, until they turned and ran themselves. I looked back and saw that the building was collapsing, and that there was a wall of dust and debris heading my way. I saw one rescue worker grab a man who was limping, and in a split second drag him into a nearby ambulance. The last time I tried to run was to catch a train, and then I ended up tripping and falling face first into some briars. In spite of that experience, I ran again. I didn't think I could out-run the building, but thought it would be worth trying.
Now here's a strange thing. I looked back over my left shoulder and I saw the building falling northwards, the way a tree would fall, tipping over, pivoting at its base. The picture in my mind is as clear as a bell. I saw the top half of the building falling to the north, but off to the side of me, above the surrounding buildings. This is not what actually happened, and I had to watch the re-runs on TV to convince myself that what I had "seen" was completely wrong, and that the building had actually come straight down.
Anyway, I ran as fast as my legs would take me, and managed to get into a cross street to the east. I saw a couple of cops dart inside a doorway ahead, and I made for that. The wall of dust and debris was right behind me when I reached the door. I managed to get into the vestibule and close the door just as it went by. The air outside was dark brown. We all went inside the main building, which was apparently abandoned, to get some good air. Even inside, the air was slightly dusty, probably from the first collapse. After about fifteen minutes, the air outside had cleared enough for me to be on my way. I went over to Broadway, and started hiking uptown, looking for a phone to call my wife. By now I was recalling my last words, that I was going to stay in the building, and I wanted to find a phone as quickly as possible. The few pay phones that were still working had long lines. I had a cell phone, but it didn't work until later in the day.
I found a phone after an hour or so, and when I called home my daughter answered. She was relieved to hear from me. She and her husband had left work to be with my wife, who, it turned out, didn't know that my building had fallen. My daughter had found this out herself, minutes earlier, and now she had to break the news to her mother. When they heard my voice, the three of them were so relieved, they wanted to jump in the car and come to Manhattan to rescue me. With great difficulty I persuaded them not to do so.
To make a long story short, I made it up to Thirty Second Street, where there is a PATH station. There I found that no busses or subways were running, and that all the bridges were closed. By early afternoon, my cell phone had come back on, and I was able to let my wife know how things were going. Around two thirty, I decided to walk over to Penn Station, which I could see a block away, to find out if any trains were running, and to see if it might be a good place to wait for the city to come back to life. As luck would have it, there was a train getting ready to leave for Washington, via Newark, and I managed to get on. When we arrived on the Jersey side, we had a clear view of Manhattan. It was awful. There was a huge column of smoke over the entire southern end of the island. I got off in Newark, and with a little shuttling, arrived back in Hoboken in time to catch my regular train home. There weren't many people on the train, which is normally filled. New Jersey Transit deliberately didn't collect any fares, which was a nice gesture. So ended my day.
To anyone working in a large building, I'd offer the following advice:
1. Get going and don't stop. Don't stop to catch your breath. Don't stop to rest a sore leg. Don't stop for anything.
2. Have a comfortable pair of walking shoes, with soles strong enough to let you walk on scrap metal. If they don't have corrugated rubber soles, get a pair of new rubbers with lots of bumps on the soles for traction in water, and make sure they fit your shoes. Keep them in your desk.
3. Keep a towel and a tee shirt in your desk, along with a couple of bottles of water. A wet tee shirt helps you breathe. A wet towel around your neck helps keep your body temperature down.
4. Always have a flashlight, but only use it when you absolutely have to.
5. Don't call from inside to say that you are all right, and above all, don't say that you are staying in the building. Call from the outside.
6. Hold onto the railings with a death grip.
7. Bring your keys and your coat.
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