14 December 2003
My personal account of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001 started off as a relatively normal day. I was somewhat anxious to get in to work since I was told the day before that my consulting assignment at The Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC) would finish on 11/15 and I wanted to get my resume in shape. I was also looking forward to the Mercury Astra test tool presentation being held at the Windows on The World restaurant in the World Trade Center (WTC) on Wednesday, September 12, at 8:00 a.m. I had been in the North Tower before for interviews but never to the restaurant.
I took a Trans-Bridge bus into the City at my normal time and got off at the Broadway & Wall St. stop. I worked at 55 Water Street but my routine was to do a little walking on the way to the office in the morning. Sort of wakes you up after the long bus ride. I picked up my breakfast at a deli on Pearl St. and arrived at my desk around 8:15 a.m.
After finishing my breakfast I started working on my resume. My habit was to keep a browser window opened on cbsnews.com just to keep up with what was happening and to see how the Market was doing. Just before 9:00 a.m., a breaking news flash came across the top of the browser window stating that a plane had crashed into the North Tower. It was a perfectly clear day, not a cloud in the sky. I thought it must have been some pilot in a small single-engine plane that passed out or died at the controls or something. Then I walked over to pick up my resume from the printer and the building shook. Some other office workers came running around from the west facing side of the floor and started screaming and saying that they saw a plane crash into the WTC. Immediately I knew we were under attack. I ran back to my desk to pick up my briefcase. I yelled to one of my co-workers to get out of the building. I got on the elevator and was in the lobby by 9:10 a.m.
The lobby started filling with people. It was loud and chaotic. No one seemed to know what to do or where to go. I expected security would take control and make an announcement but I didn’t happen. While waiting in the lobby, outside the sky overhead was filled with papers floating from the WTC. The wind was blowing from west to east—my office was one block from the East River near the Helipad. The reality still didn’t hit me. It was surreal.
Around 9:30 a.m. I ran into another one of my co-workers in the lobby and we decided to go outside to see if we could find out what happened. We started walking south on Water St. towards the Staten Island Ferry Terminal and Battery Park. It was difficult to see the Towers so we decided to keep walking west. When we got to West Street we had a clear view of both Towers. I could see the flames pouring out from the impact area I was fixated on the fire. I wondered what the people in the building were doing. I thought about what I would do if I were trapped there. Then my co-worker wanted to walk further north. I hesitated but agreed to go another block north. My guess is that we were standing about 8 blocks south of the South Tower.
As I was staring at the South Tower around 9:50 a.m., I saw flashes of light coming from the floor just below the fire line. They appeared and sounded to me like explosive charges going off in a controlled manner. Then the top of the South Tower just came apart and started falling. I turned and starting running for my life, along with everyone else there. I looked back and saw a dust cloud as high as the surrounding buildings come racing down the street. I knew then that I had made a big mistake in leaving the office building. I ran as far south towards the river as I could before the fence barrier stopped me. With the dust cloud rapidly approaching, I got down on the ground and pulled my shirt over my head, and covered my mouth and nose as best I could. As the dust cloud caught up to us, it looked like snowflakes were being sprayed from a paint gun. They were oily and stuck to everything. The taste was like kerosene or gasoline. The smell reminded me of times when I guarded crash sites as a security policeman in the U. S. Air Force. Now I was trying not to hyperventilate and not to breathe in the dust. After about 15–20 minutes the dust blew out over the river and you could start to see again.
It looked like a blizzard went through the area. I was very familiar with the Battery Park area, but I could hardly tell where I was. So around 10:20 a.m. I started walking east back towards the office. I walked past the American Restaurant and people there were trying to get help. I was glad I wasn’t a tourist that day. I found my way around the Ferry Terminal and started walking north on South Street. I decided I didn’t want to go back in the office. I didn’t want to be in or around tall buildings and I was afraid there would be a fire. I was so convinced that there would be underground fires spreading that I planned to walk as close to the river as possible. I was becoming claustrophobic so I decided to walk on the FDR Drive past the South Street Seaport. It was becoming hot outside with a strong burning smell in the air. The exodus of people from Downtown had begun. It was strange walking on the streets without any cars, trucks, or buses passing by. No horns blowing. You could hear sirens from the emergency vehicles. I was still breathing through my shirt and was beginning to get thirsty.
I realized that I would have to walk all the way to the Port Authority Bus Terminal (PABT) on 41st Street & 8th Ave. I wanted to stay away from tall buildings, bridges or any other structures. I thought there would be more attacks. So, when I got to the Brooklyn Bridge, I walked back down on South Street and continued north. When I passed the Manhattan Bridge the air seemed better so I stopped breathing through my shirt. There was now a steady stream of emergency vehicles heading south on FDR Drive while many of the survivors and myself were heading north. Tried to call home several times but the circuits were busy. You could easily spot someone from Downtown that day—just look for anyone covered in white dust. Police started lining up all along the way. I’ve never seen so many police. Many were cadets from the academy. Also, in many of the residential areas, people came out and set up water stations. I don’t know how they did it so fast. Looked like they had industrial strength containers not just plain old water jugs. This was the only water I had until 4:00 p.m. that afternoon.
When I arrived at E. 14th Street I decided to cross over to 1st Avenue. 14th is a wide street and I would eventually have to cross over to the West Side anyway. At this time the adrenaline started wearing off and I was beginning to feel exhausted. Had blisters on my feet also. I thought my shoes were broken in already. Walked past Bellevue Medical Center where there was a lot of activity. Somewhere along the way a journalist / newswomen walked along side of me and started asking questions like where I worked, what I did, where I was when the towers were hit, and did I know anyone who worked in the WTC. She was polite but seemed to lose interest when I told her I didn’t really know anyone personally who worked in the towers.
The police cordoned off streets around the United Nations so I cut over on 41st Street then over a block to 42nd. In Midtown, life seemed to go on as usual. The only exception being the very visible police presence. Seemed like there was an officer on every corner. I overheard a group of people (probably tourists) asking a police officer where it was safe to be. The officer said something like nowhere is safe.
When I got to the Port Authority, it had already been closed. Then I started having visions of spending the night on the street. It actually crossed my mind to go to the Intrepid Air and Space Museum and ask if I could stay on ship. In the mean time I saw a Trans-Bridge bus parked on one of the side streets by the PABT. It had the door opened so I was glad to get in and sit down. I estimated it took around 2 hours to walk up from Battery Park. So it must have been around 12:30 p.m. I still was not able to make a call on my cell phone; the circuits were still busy.
Someone on the bus had this small battery operated TV tuned in to the news. This was the first time that I learned what actually happened. Two hijacked jetliners crashed into the Towers. A third one hit the Pentagon and a fourth one crashed in PA. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable again. It was like a nightmare now. I thought about how we would recover from this and what the country would do. I was really getting thirsty. Around 2:00 p.m. I tried to call home again and was finally able to get through. I told my wife I was ok and briefly what happened. I told her I didn’t know when I would be home since all bridges and tunnels out of the City were closed. Slowly other commuters started arriving at the bus.
One of those commuters was someone from Allentown, PA whom I met a year or two earlier waiting for the bus. It happens that he knew many people from the church that my wife and I attend. He was also trying to figure out what to do. While we were thinking, we decided to get something to drink from a nearby deli. I was hesitant to leave the bus and risk being left behind if the bus was suddenly allowed to leave. Anyway, after we got back from the deli, the bus driver handed out a printed notice stating—in so many words—that we were not allowed to stay with the bus and that they, Trans-Bridge, assumed no responsibility for us. The notice also stated that trains were leaving out of Penn Station. After some deliberation, we decided to walk down to Penn Station.
I was not in the mood for another walk, but Penn Station wasn’t that far—only 7 blocks south on 8th Ave. It was around 5:00 p.m. when we started walking. Penn Station was a mad-house. Lots of pushing and shoving. Amtrak had a train heading south—no tickets required. About 6:00 p.m. we were on our way. I then remembered that NJ Transit runs a Raritan Valley line train from Newark Penn Station to High Bridge, NJ. We decided to get off in Newark and take our chances. Just as we made our way to the platform a train was pulling in that was going to make every stop on the way to High Bridge. No fares were collected. It never felt so good to get on a train.
When the train arrived at Annandale, the police were there to meet us and then gave us a ride to our cars parked in a commuter lot. My friend was able to contact his wife and arranged to have her meet us at the Perkins restaurant in Phillipsburg on Rt. 22. When we got to Perkins we both headed straight to the restroom. I couldn’t wait to wash off some of that dust and ash that I was covered in all day. My friend’s wife arrived at around 9:00 p.m. His wife and daughter looked happy to see him. I then left and arrived home about 9:30 p.m.Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2014 Gerard Sczepura