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Published September 10, 2021

It was a bright, sunny Tuesday morning, with not a cloud to be seen in the clear blue sky. Around New York, the usual routines were getting into full swing; traffic filled the streets, kids went to school, shops opened for business and commuters packed onto trains, grabbed their coffee-to-go and prepped for their first meetings. The city was full of hustle and bustle and noise – just another day.

But in the space of just a few moments, all this would change – and the world would never be the same.

At 7:59 on the morning of September the 11th, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 left Logan International Airport in Boston, bound for Los Angeles. The Boeing 767 had 11 crew on board – Captain John Ognowski, First Officer Thomas McGuinness Jr., purser Karen Martin and eight flight attendants. There were 81 passengers; this was about 58% of the plane’s capacity, so there was plenty of space for everyone on board.

Amongst them were five men who had no intention of reaching Los Angeles. 

Mohamed Atta had flown into Boston from Portland earlier that morning to catch this flight. Born in Egypt in 1968, he had studied architecture at Cairo University before moving to Hamburg in Germany to continue his studies. There, he attended the radical al-Quds mosque and befriended others with extreme views. He is believed to have travelled to Afghanistan to meet Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders sometime in late 1999 to early 2000, where he was chosen for the “Planes Operation.”

On the 2nd of June, 2000, he took a bus from Germany to the Czech Republic, and then the following day flew from Prague to Newark in the USA. Soon after arrival, he began flying lessons at a flight school in Venice, Florida, where he passed the private pilot airman test in mid-August. Continued training at this school and another not too far away led to him obtaining his instrument certificate from the FAA, and a commercial pilot license in December 2000. He then started training to fly large jets – like the one he was on – in a simulator.

Now seated in business class, Atta most likely tried to relax and avoid drawing attention to himself, or the other four men he knew on board. Next to him sat Abdulaziz al Omari, and a couple of rows back, Satam al Suqami. Further forward, in first class, brothers Waleed and Wail al Shehri were seated in the very first row.

We have few precise details as to what, exactly, happened on the plane. We do know that it began at approximately 8:14, fifteen minutes into the flight.

It was the al Shehri brothers who were the first to invade the cockpit, perhaps waiting for the moment that the cockpit door was opened by a flight attendant taking refreshments to the pilots. At the same time, al Omari and al Suqami would have jumped up to threaten and control the passengers, while Atta – with his flight training – made his way forward to take the controls. 

We know most of this because, at 8:20, flight attendant Betty Ong placed a call from an Airfone at the back of the plane to an American Airlines reservations desk, speaking first to Vanessa Minter.

“Number 3 in the back. The cockpit’s not answering. Somebody’s stabbed in business class and—I think there’s mace—that we can’t breathe. I don’t know, I think we’re getting hijacked.”

Remaining remarkably calm, Ong remained on the line as Minter patched in her supervisor Nydia Gonzalez, and then American Airlines manager Craig Marquis. She explained the situation again.

“Betty Ong: Okay, my name is Betty Ong. I’m number 3 on Flight 11.

Male Voice: Okay.

Betty Ong: And the cockpit is not answering their phone, and there’s somebody stabbed in business class, and there’s—we can’t breathe in business class. Somebody’s got mace or something.

Male Voice: Can you describe the person that you said—someone is what in business class?

Betty Ong: I’m sitting in the back. Somebody’s coming back from business. If you can hold on for one second, they’re coming back.

Betty Ong: Okay. Our number 1 got stabbed. Our purser is stabbed. Nobody knows who stabbed who, and we can’t even get up to business class right now ’cause nobody can breathe. Our number 1 is stabbed right now. And who else is?

Male Voice: Okay, and do we—

Betty Ong: And our number 5—our first class passengers are—galley flight attendant and our purser has been stabbed. And we can’t get into the cockpit, the door won’t open. Hello?”

The details were recorded by a shocked Marquis. A little later, Ong added,

“ I think the guys are up there. They might have gone there—jammed the way up there, or something. Nobody can call the cockpit. We can’t even get inside.”

A second recording released was of a recording between Gonzalez and the American Airlines emergency line. Although Ong’s voice was not recorded, Gonzalez was still speaking to her, relaying details.

“Nydia Gonzalez: Okay, hold on. Hey Betty, do you know any information as far as the gents—the men that are in the cockpit with the pilots, were they from first class? They were sitting in 2A and B.

Male Voice: Okay.

Nydia Gonzalez: They are in the cockpit with the pilots.”

Nydia Gonzalez: She doesn’t have any idea who the other passenger might be in first. Apparently they might have spread something so it’s—they’re having a hard time breathing or getting in that area.

What’s going on, Betty? Betty, talk to me. Betty, are you there? Betty?

Okay, so we’ll like—we’ll stay open. We—I think we might have lost her.”

Meanwhile, another attendant, Madeline “Amy” Sweeney, also made calls, speaking first to American Airlines manager Evelyn Nunez, and then at more length to another manager, Michael Woodward. 

According to Woodward, who had known Sweeney for ten years, she was “controlled and serious” as she told him to “listen to me very, very carefully.”

Like Ong, she explained that the plane had been hijacked. A passenger in first class had his throat slashed, and the two first-class flight attendants – Karen Martin and Bobby Arestegui – had been stabbed. 

It’s believed that the passenger who was attacked was 31 year old Daniel Lewin, an American-Israeli mathematician and entrepreneur. He was seated in 9B, directly in front of al Suqami and behind and to the left of Atta and al Omari.

Lewin had served for four years in the Israel Defence Forces or IDF, in a Special Forces unit. Because of this, it is theorised that he may have been alerted to the attack, and attempted to foil it, being killed as a result. However, it is also possible that al Suqami simply attacked whoever was in front of him, as a means of terrorising the other passengers into compliance. Whatever the reason, it seems that Lewin was the very first to die that day. 

Sweeney noted that the attackers were Middle Eastern, that one spoke good English and one very little, and gave the seat numbers 10B, 9D and 9G. 10B was the seat occupied by al Suqami; 9D and G were supposed to be empty, but Atta and al Omari were allocated the row in front, 8D and G.

Sweeney said that the hijackers were in the cockpit, but didn’t specify how. However, it was confirmed that all the flight attendants carried a key to the cockpit; since two had been stabbed, it’s possible that the attackers had taken a key from one of them. 

While Ong and Sweeney reported events as best they could, the other uninjured flight attendants gave the passengers – at least, those seated in coach, who hadn’t seen the attack – the impression that there was simply a medical emergency at the front of the plane.

On the ground, meanwhile, air traffic controllers knew otherwise. At 8:24, they had heard the first of three transmissions that sounded like they were intended for the passengers.

“We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you’ll be O.K. We are returning to the airport.”

And then;

“Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.”

A few minutes later, at 8:33:

“Nobody move, please. We are going back to the airport. Don’t try to make any stupid moves.”

Towards the end of her call, Sweeney told Woodward,

“Something is wrong. We are in a rapid descent.” 

She told him that the plane was “all over the place”. He asked her to look out of the window, to try and establish where they were.

“We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low… Oh my God we are way too low.”

Like Ong’s, and presumably at the same time, the call ended abruptly. It was 8:46, and Mohamed Atta had piloted American 11, at speed, directly into the north face of the North Tower, One World Trade Center, in the heart of Manhattan.

The plane tore through the building between floors 93 and 99; everyone on board would have been killed instantly, as were many of the office workers already at their desks on those floors. A fireball erupted, fuelled by a heavy load of jet fuel; Atta had chosen a long-haul flight for that very reason. Smoke quickly engulfed the top of the tower, spreading up the outside and sending up a plume of smoke like a dirty candle. 

At the top of the North Tower, occupying floors 106 and 107, was the Windows on the World restaurant. Christopher Hanley was attending a conference there; following the explosion, he called 911. He didn’t know what had caused the explosion; at that point, very few did. 

“Yeah, hi. I’m on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center. We just had an explosion up here… there’s smoke, and we have about a hundred people up here.”

A fire department call handler told him, “Sit tight. Do not leave, okay? There’s a fire or an explosion or something in the building. Alright, I want you to stay where you are…. We’re coming up to get you.”

The alarm had been raised quickly – there were firehouses so close to the World Trade Center that they had heard the explosion, and were already gearing up before the call came. At this point, however, many believed that it was a small plane – a private aircraft – that had hit the tower. This had happened in New York before; in 1945 a B-25 bomber had crashed into the side of the Empire State Building, killing three crewmen on the plane and eleven people in the building, and in 1946, a Beechcraft Model 18 had crashed into 40 Wall Street, killing the five crew on board. 

If this had been the case, dealing with a fire so high up the tower would have been difficult, but not impossible. 

Christine Olender, the assistant general manager of the restaurant, also made a phone call out, speaking to the Port Authority Command Center – the Port Authority owned the World Trade Center complex.

“We’re getting no direction up here. We’re having a smoke condition. We have most people on the 106th floor – the 107th floor is way too smoky. We need direction as to where we need to direct our guests and our employees, as soon as possible.”

Officer Steve Maggett, on the other end of the line, told her:

“We’re doing our best. We’ve got the fire department, everybody, we’re trying to get up to you, dear. All right, call back in about two or three minutes, and I’ll find out what direction you should try to get down.”

Some people, however, had seen the plane before it hit the tower. Two French filmmakers, brothers Jules and Gédéon Naudet, were working with the Engine 7, Ladder 1 firehouse in Lower Manhattan, following the experience of a rookie firefighter. Jules had gone out with them to a suspected gas leak, following Battalion Chief Joseph Pfieffer so he could get some camera practice, and they were on the corner of Lispenard and Church Streets when they heard the roar of the jet’s engines. Naudet turned his camera just in time to catch footage of the plane slamming into the tower. 

Pfieffer said, “Immediately I knew that this wasn’t an accident. We knew this was gonna be something unusual, something tough, but it would be something we could handle or at least deal with.”

The firefighters were audibly shocked, but quickly piled into their vehicles, heading towards the Trade Center. Pfeifer made the first official report from his car:

“Battalion 1 to Manhattan. We have a number of floors on fire, it looked like the plane was aiming towards the building, requesting a third alarm, we’ll have the staging area  at Vesey and West Street.”

Still accompanied by Naudet, he went into the lobby of the North Tower. The filmmaker later recalled:

“I go in and I hear screams and right to my right, there was two people on fire, burning. I just didn’t want to film that. It was like, no-one should see this.”

Although the plane had hit more than ninety floors above them, the lobby was devastated. Windows were broken, and people were badly burned. After the plane hit the building, a jet-fuel fireball had come down the elevator shaft, bursting through the twelve-foot high aluminium doors.

Pfeifer set up a command post in the lobby, where he was soon joined by other fire chiefs, working to coordinate their response. They quickly learned that the elevators were not working, which meant that the firefighters would have to make their way up the stairs. In their heavy protective gear, and carrying the tools and breathing apparatus they would need to fight the fire, it would usually take them about a minute to climb one flight of stairs. They knew they had to go up more than eighty before they could do anything. It was going to be a difficult job – but despite the obvious concerns, they all felt that the job would get done.

Naudet stayed in the lobby with the chiefs while the rest of the men started to climb. He saw company after company arrive, and set off up the tower. One was Engine 33, headed by Kevin Pfeifer – the battalion chief’s brother. The chief sent him up the tower, just as he had many others.

“I just remember we both looked at each other, said a few words, but it was more the look, of real concern that this was gonna be something tough.”

There were three stairwells in each tower, designated A, B and C, each about 44 inches or 111 cm wide. This gave just enough room for the firefighters to climb up on one side, single file, while the people escaping the towers came down single file on the other side. Most would come out on the mezzanine level, above the lobby, and be directed through another building to reach the street. The fire chiefs couldn’t have them leaving straight through the lobby, because it was too dangerous. Not only was there debris falling from the top of the tower – but also people. A woman falling from the tower had hit firefighter Daniel Suhr, making him the first emergency responder to die that day.

Naudet later said:

“You don’t see it but you know what it is. And you know that every time you hear that crashing sound its a life which is extinguished. It’s not something you could get used to. And the sound was so loud.”

Everyone who was there that day was deeply affected by this particular aspect of the tragedy.

Dr. Charles Hirsch, the chief medical examiner for the City of New York, was accustomed to dealing with the gruesome, but he said;

“It was a sight and sound that I’ll never forget. The awful sound of people impacting.”

Detective David Brink, from the NYPD, recalled,

“There were a lot of bodies that were coming down. I saw daisy chains of four people holding hands, just leaping out of the buildings. I kept looking up, saying, “I want to help you guys. Hold on. Please hold on.” But I knew there was nothing I could do. I felt so helpless and powerless.”

PAPD officer Will Jimeno recalled one in particular.

“It’s almost like my eyes could zoom in up to him – it was a blond gentleman wearing a pair of khakis and a light pink shirt, collared shirt, and when he jumped, he jumped almost like he was on a cross, like Jesus. He jumped, looking up in the air, and he went down.”

Firefighter Bill Spade recalled that the North Tower had motion-activated doors.

“These doors kept opening and closing with the bodies that were coming down… We’ve seen death at other things, but this time it was something different. There were so many, so many.”

Many of these people were caught on camera as they fell; this was somewhat controversial in the days and weeks that followed. While some instinctively turned their lens away, others felt it was important to record those moments. Sunny Mindel, communications director for then-Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, recalled her own conflict. 

“I was so riveted to this moment of people making this decision to jump that my gut instinct was: This is an invasion of the most intimate moment ever. My hands started to go up to block the lenses. But then I thought, No, this has got to be recorded for history. I just stood there.”

The most famous of those images is one taken by photographer Richard Drew, and known as The Falling Man. In that single frame, the man looks to be almost peaceful, falling straight down. However, it was one frame out of several; the rest reveal that he tumbled as he fell, taking around ten seconds to reach the ground. The man in the image was initially identified by Toronto Globe and Mail reporter Peter Cheney as Norberto Hernandez, a worker at the Windows on the World restaurant. This identification was vehemently denied by his close family, who maintain that his strong beliefs would mean he would never have jumped.

His daughter said, “”He was trying to come home to us, and he knew he wasn’t going to make it by jumping out a window.”

A later identification was suggested, that of Jonathan Briley, but as his sister said in the documentary about the image, “I hope we’re not trying to figure out who he is and more figure out who we are through watching that.”

It has been estimated that two hundred people died in this way, falling from the narrow windows of the towers – just eighteen inches, or 46cm, wide –  but the New York Medical Examiner’s Office would maintain, “We don’t like to say they jumped. They didn’t jump. Nobody jumped. They were forced out, or blown out.”

In the film the Naudet brothers eventually made, titled simply 9/11, you can see the fire chiefs flinch every time that crash is heard. One of the firefighters, Joe Casaliggi, said later, “I just remember looking up and thinking how bad is it up there that the better option is to jump?”

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would later estimate that the fires burned at a temperature of 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,800 degrees Fahrenheit). Pictures and video from the day make it clear that the smoke was thick, rising around and through the floors above, and would have quickly made conditions intolerable even where the fire did not reach.

Just below Windows on the World, financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald had offices from floors 101 to 105. CEO Howard Lutnick would usually have been there, but had instead taken his son to kindergarten for his first day.

“We had speakerphones in each office – all of the offices across the country were connected to each other all day. The other offices heard the New York office saying, “We need help. We need help. We need help.” It wasn’t screams. There was nowhere to go. Couldn’t go down. Couldn’t go up.”

While he had avoided fate that day, his brother, Gary, had been in the office.

“Later that night, when I spoke to my sister, she told me that she spoke to my brother. She had said to him, “Oh, my God. Thank God you’re not there.” He said, “I am here, and I’m going to die. I wanted to tell you I love you.”

He said goodbye.”

Melissa Harrington Hughes was on floor 101 of the North Tower, overseeing a business merger. She had travelled to New York for just that one day, planning to fly home as soon as her business was done.  Now, however, she was trapped above the impact zone. She too made frantic calls to her loved ones, speaking to her father, and leaving a voicemail for her husband.

“I just wanted to let you know I love you and I’m stuck in this building in New York. There’s lots of smoke and I just wanted you to know that I love you, always.”

Nobody who was above the impact zone would survive that day. All three stairwells were blocked by debris, the elevators inoperative.Doors had jammed in their frames because of the twisting force of the impact, and flames and smoke barred their way down.

On the floors below, fate and fortune would determine who lived and who died.

Port Authority employees Frank De Martini, Pablo Ortiz, Peter Negron and Carlos de Costa were in their offices on the 88th floor when the plane struck above them. They didn’t know what had happened, but they knew that they had to evacuate. One of their colleagues, Elaine Duch, had been standing near the elevators, and the impact had driven a fireball out of the doors; Duch was severely burned and in desperate need of medical aid. With De Martini’s aid and  direction, Duch and many of the workers on the 88th floor were able to get past debris blocking the corridor into Stairwell C, and make the long, painful trek down.

De Martini’s wife, Nicole, later spoke to documentary filmmakers in 9/11: Heroes of the 88th Floor:

“His character was such that he had a way of hyperfocusing on something so he really probably didn’t even know what was going on so much around him, he knew he had to save  this person’s life, let’s say, and that’s it. The last words we exchanged, he said, I’ll be right behind you.”

However, first, Frank searched the rest of the 88th floor for survivors, accompanied by Ortiz, Negron, and De Costa.

Meanwhile, more people were gathering on the 89th floor, without direction. Tax lawyer Rick Bryan recalled debating with others whether to leave; their usual procedure in a fire drill was to wait for an announcement before evacuating, unless there was fire in the immediate vicinity. However, the PA system was not working, so no such announcement could be heard. They moved when the smoke became overpowering, making their way to Stairwell C.

“I was leading the crew out and they were following me … I put my hand on the doorknob to the exit stairway, turned the knob and put my shoulder to the door as I had done a thousand times, and that door would not open. My heart went way up into my throat and I knew, right there, we had a problem.”

Fortunately, there was also a solution; the men from the 88th floor had heard the sounds of Bryan and his colleagues trying to escape, and had turned up the stairs, instead of down. Pablo Ortiz, wearing a yellow hard hat and equipped with a crowbar and flashlight, smashed through the sheetrock surrounding the door.

“Going through the door, and this fellow whom I’ve since learned was Frank De Martini, I just gave him a thanks and he just nodded in, you’re welcome. And I just continued down the stairs and that was the last I saw of the fellow.”

Again, De Martini, Ortiz and the others continued to search for survivors instead of descending with those they’d rescued. They went on to find graphic designer Tom Haddad and others, whose office on the North side of the tower had been devastated in the impact.

“When I saw their faces… that was, let’s go, we’re gonna get out. Basically I owe my life to Frank and Pablo. They are my heroes. They are the reason that I can continue to have a life of any kind. We followed the two gentlemen out to a stairwell door. I was the last one on 89. And the two gentlemen from the Port Authority were standing on the landing of the stairs and everyone else from our group had already started down, and the two of them were contemplating following behind us and one turned to the other and said, no, let’s go up, I think there’s more people upstairs.” 

Frank De Martini, Pablo Ortiz, Peter Negren and Carlos da Costa were credited with saving more than seventy people that day, including some from as high as the 91st floor. However, none of the four would make it out themselves.

Once in the stairwell and making their way down, many felt that the danger was over. However, one in the group from floor 89 had a brief cellphone connection and was able to speak to his wife. After telling her that he was on the stairs, she told him to “Keep going, keep going, get out.” This was how they learned for the first time what had actually happened to the tower.

Elia Zedeño, a financial analyst with the Port Authority in the North Tower, recalled the odd state in which she descended from the 73rd floor.

“Most of my journey down the stairs was in this complete state of non-emotion… I remember a woman who was screaming and screaming and screaming. I couldn’t really completely understand what she was saying, but there was a man helping her, and he had blood on his forehead, and all he kept saying to her was, “We were the lucky ones, we were the lucky ones.” He kept repeating that. I was thinking, what in the world did this woman see?”

Eventually, those descending started to meet firefighters coming up; the sight of them ascending the stairs would stick with many for the rest of their lives.

Bruno Dellinger, coming down from the 47th floor, said, “While I was walking down, they were going up to their deaths. And I was walking down to live. I will never forget this.”

Lila Speciner, a paralegal coming down from floor 88, said “That will stay with me forever. They were going where we were running from.”

One of the firefighters from the Naudet documentary recalled,

“If we dared talk, it was to the people coming down, trying to comfort them, tell em it’s alright, get out, stay calm.

They was pretty much saying God bless you, can’t believe you’re all going up and we’re coming down, people pretty much said why are you going up there? Get out.”

While all this was going on in the North Tower, the disaster had grown into terror; at 9:03, seventeen minutes after American 11 hit the North Tower, another commercial airliner had flown directly into the South Tower.

Captain Jay Jonas, from the Fire Department’s Ladder 6, was awaiting orders in the lobby of the North Tower when the South Tower was hit.

“I’m standing there. It was very loud – as you can imagine, the acoustics in the lobby of the World Trade Center weren’t really good, a lot of echoes, – and all of a sudden it got very quiet. One of the firemen from Rescue 1 looked up and said, “We may not live through today.” We looked at him, and we looked at each other, and we said, “You’re right.” We took the time to shake each other’s hands and wish each other good luck and “Hope I’ll see you later,” which is especially poignant for me because we all had this acknowledgement that this might be our last day on earth and we went to work anyway.”

The rescue effort was now split, with firefighters being diverted up into the South Tower as well. 

The evacuation continued, and for some it was a little more complicated than others, even though they had access to a clear stairwell. John Abruzzo was an accountant for the Port Authority – and also a quadriplegic, using an electric wheelchair. He had been there for the 1993 bombing, when it had taken six hours for him to get out. This time, he had a special EVAC+CHAIR – and ten colleagues willing to take turns carrying him down 69 floors to safety. They carried him all the way out – even though firefighters told them to leave him with them at the tenth floor.

There were also two blind men working in Tower 1 that day, both of whom relied on their guide dogs to lead them to safety. Omar Rivera and Salty were on the 71st floor, and Michael Hingson and Roselle on the 78th floor.

For their efforts, Salty and Roselle were jointly awarded a Dickin Medal, “For remaining loyally at the side of their blind owners, courageously leading them down more than 70 floors of the World Trade Center and to a place of safety following the terrorist attack on New York on September 11, 2001.”

Those making their way down from the upper floors hoped that their ordeal would be over once they reached the 78th floor. This was the sky lobby, where the express elevators from the ground floor stopped, and local elevators served the rest of the tower. Unfortunately, they would not be able to use the elevators; the impact and the resultant fireball had disabled them. The sky lobby was devastated and darkened by smoke, and the stairs did not continue straight down either.

Bryan got separated from his group in the sky lobby, disoriented by smoke, but was able to join another group who were moving with hands on each others’ shoulders, like a conga line. They had to navigate various new dangers, including a loose electrical wire that was sending off sparks as they crossed the waterlogged floor.

Haddad recalled coming out onto a long landing, which took them across the building. At the other end, there were stairs to the left, going down, and doors ahead of them; an exit sign pointed to the stairs. Two men were arguing over which way to go.

“One was saying that we should follow the arrow… the other gentleman said I did this before, I did this in the 93 bombing, we need to go down this staircase, this will take us directly to the street… Eventually the one fellow said, you know what, I’m following the sign, you do what you want to do… I decided, I’m following the guy that did this before, we’re going his way.”

Following those stairs did indeed lead them out, to the plaza at street level – but as the evacuees reached the street they faced even more devastation and horror. 

Jean Potter, from Bank of America, recalled reaching the lobby and finding it completely devastated.

“They took us down into the Concourse. I’m so grateful I kept my shoes on because the water was ankle deep and there was broken glass all over. There was a human chain of emergency workers yelling at us, “Run! Run! Ruuuun!” When do they tell you to run in an emergency? It was so horrifying.”

Richard Eichen, a consultant who worked on the 90th floor, recalled,

“As we got closer to the door, there were security guards helping guide people out. I think they were some of the bravest people – unsung heroes of 9/11 – because they could have run away. This was way beyond their pay grade. But they stayed.”

Zedeño recalled the sight outside.

“I saw debris all along the outside perimeter of the building. I was looking and thinking, Oh my God, this is more than what I thought. My eyes started to focus a little bit more. I realised I was looking at bodies.”

Haddad, too, recalled this; as he realised what he was looking at, he stopped in the street. 

“It was at that exact moment that we heard the cracking of the glass from building 2 starting to fall. I thought the building was gonna fall straight down on us, and I yelled, Run!”

At 9:59, the South Tower fell. Many people were still evacuating the North Tower; firefighters still climbing upwards. 

Captain Sean Crowley and officer Eddie Aswad Jr were at the intersection of Liberty and West, talking to another officer, Glen Pettit. Crowley remembered:

“I was looking away from the building, toward Eddie. I saw his face, and he goes, “Fucking run,” or something like that. He turned around and ran toward where our cars were parked, which was right in front of Three World Financial Center, underneath the walkway. I never saw Glen again.”

Bruno Dellinger described the collapse as “a sound that today I cannot remember. It was so powerful, such a huge sound that I blocked it. It scared me to death. I blocked it, and I cannot bring it back up to consciousness.”

And then the cloud followed.

“In about five seconds, darkness fell upon us with an unbelievable violence. Even more striking: there was no more sound. Sound didn’t carry anymore because the air was so thick.”

In the lobby, Naudet, Chief Pfeifer and others at the command post ran to a more sheltered point at the base of an escalator. 

Naudet said later:

“I waited. Time slowed down and everything became pitch black. And then realised, okay, I’m not dead. So let’s turn on my floodlight on top of my camera. They asked me, you with the light, help us out, so it was pointing my light wherever they needed. I remember seeing Chief Pfeifer.” 

Covered in dust, draped in near complete darkness, and with no clear idea of what exactly had just happened, Pfeifer gave the order for all fire units to evacuate. 

“He gave it right away, very calm, didn’t wait, and for him it was a precaution. Ok, something wrong is happening, let’s get everybody out. I was not even consciously filming, I just had my camera by my side , pointing the light wherever they needed.”

Steven Bienkowski, an officer aboard an NYPD helicopter, said:

“All of Lower Manhattan was covered in a giant white dust cloud. As we came around in our helicopter to the North Tower again, you could still see people falling and jumping, except it didn’t look so violent anymore because you weren’t watching them hit the ground. It almost looked peaceful because they were falling into a white cloud.”

Those who had been at the command post immediately looked for a way out, and then somewhere to re-establish command.

In the towers, some of the firefighters had heard the order to evacuate, others had not. Some had heard it, but chose to disobey it. 

Captain Jay Jonas got as far as the 27th floor before the South Tower collapsed. He later recalled:

“Over the radio I did hear Chief Hayden calling for an evacuation, for guys to get out. In particular, he engaged Paddy Brown. He called him by name: “Capt. Paddy Brown. Command Post to Ladder 3. Capt. Paddy Brown. Evacuate the building.” Paddy got on the radio and he said, “I refuse the order. I’m on the 44th floor. I got too many burned people here. I’m not leaving them.” Even in that high-anxiety situation, I thought, Wow! That’s unbelievable! That was an incredible act of bravery.”

Brown and his men were last heard from on the 35th floor.

Captain Dennis Pardio and other men from Engine 7, based at Chief Pfeifer’s firehouse, were descending the C stairs when they met the Chief’s brother, Kevin. He advised them to switch to the B stairs, which led out to the lobby, instead of C which came out to the plaza. They did so, and would thus escape the collapse of the tower by less than a minute.

Meanwhile, Jonas and his Ladder 6 crew were making their way down when, around Floor 20, they found Josephine Harris. A 59-year old bookkeeper from the Port Authority, Harris had made it this far from the 73rd floor, but could go no further. She had been injured in a car accident just two weeks earlier and the pain was too much.

“Tommy Falco looked at me and said, “Hey, Cap, what do you want to do with her?” I looked at her, and it seems like an easy decision to make: “Of course we’re going to help her.” Every fiber in my being was screaming at me to get out of this building. That spooky music was playing. Looking back on it now, yeah, it was an easy decision to make. But it really wasn’t, because not only was I endangering myself, I was responsible for five firemen and their families. That’s not an easy decision to make. I looked at her and I couldn’t say no. I said, “All right. Bring her with us.” And we did.”

Helping Harris slowed them down considerably, and a queue of people backed up behind them. They stopped a couple of times to let this backlog pass them, determined not to leave Harris behind. As they descended further, they encountered colleagues who were similarly determined.

“On the way down I ran into Lt. Mike Warchola from Ladder 5, and this was to be his last day in the fire department. He was going to retire on September 12th. I knew Mike. We were firemen together. He and two of his firemen were working on a man in the stairway having chest pains. I looked at him. I said, “Mike, let’s go! It’s time to go!” He said, “That’s okay, Jay, you have your civilian, we have ours. We’ll be behind you.”

We kept going and made it to the fourth floor and Josephine Harris fell to the floor. She was yelling at us to leave her, to leave her alone. We weren’t going to leave her.”

It was now 10:29. With the same ominous rumble as before, the North Tower collapsed, its tall aerial sinking straight down into the roiling cloud of dust.

Jonas recalled:

“All the air that was in the building was being compressed, creating tornado-like winds in the stairway. We kept getting battered by debris. It was like 30 people were punching you at the same time. It’s industrial-strength dust. We covered up and waited for what we thought was going to be our demise. But for us, it didn’t come.”

Pasquale Buzzelli, an engineer with the Port Authority, was also still in the building.

“I was probably on the 22nd floor when all of a sudden the building started to shake violently. There was a huge sound from above, this loud, loud noise. I must’ve dove down about five or six stairs and pushed myself right into the corner. I basically curled up in a fetal position, and I covered my head with my hands… I heard people screaming. It was loud, like boulders, safes, whatever, a freight train type of noise. In that split second, I felt the wall I was laying next to give way and crack open… I found myself freefalling. I felt this wind, abrasive wind. I stayed tucked into a fetal position. I saw flashes of light from hitting my head – five or six. I was seeing those stars you see when you get hit in the head.”

Outside, emergency workers, reporters, and many of those who had just stepped out of the tower had to run for their lives.

Firefighter Bill Spade said later:

“I remember getting picked up and blown into the wall. I hit my face so hard, I thought I lost my eye. I said, “I’m not dying here.” I found a window and rolled into it. Inside was an office. I put my head under the desk. Everything was coming down. I said goodbye to my wife and kids.”

Another firefighter, Dan Potter, said, “It sounded like a freight train, like rumbling thunder. We laid in front of Deutsche Bank because we figured you couldn’t outrun this field of stuff coming down. If it clocks you, you’re out – you’re done.”

Reporter Andrew Kirtzmann recalled:

“There was this massive, massive boom, and a huge plume of smoke. As the building fell like a pancake, that smoke and soot and fire, it went north. It started to chase us, and we went running for our lives.”

And then, once more, the strange silence fell, pierced by the shrill sound of the PASS alarms worn by the firefighters, each one the sound of a man who had stopped moving – and would move no more.

Al Kim, from TransCare Ambulance, recalled:

“It was everywhere. That’s all you heard. Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep sounds everywhere.”

The New York Times later estimated that there were 33 fire companies still operating in the North Tower at the time of collapse; at least 121 men were killed there.

 But all were not lost. 

Lt. Mickey Kross, from Engine 16, would later recall:

“I was encapsulated in the debris. I couldn’t move much, and I realised I didn’t feel like I was injured. I got my wits about me. I said, “Okay. Let me see what I have, what equipment I have.” I was feeling around. I still had a light. All the other equipment I was carrying was gone.”

Billy Butler, from Ladder 6, remembered:

“Immediately, you look at yourself to make sure all the fingers are there, the toes are there, and you wiggle them to make sure that nothing is broken. I was beat up, but I was okay. I was trying to extricate myself, and pick these large pieces of drywall off myself, when Josephine suddenly came up out of the dust, like the Blob coming out of the swamp. She scared the shit out of me.”

Jonas said:

“My first thoughts were, Who do I still have? Who’s still alive? I gave out a roll call, and all my people answered. I didn’t know Josephine’s name yet. I called her “the woman” and said, “Do we still have the woman with us?” They said, “Yeah, she’s still here.”

Harris would later say, “Somebody was watching over us that day. We had no broken bones. We had no scars.”

As for Buzzelli:

“I had some bumps on my head when I woke up. I was numb. I looked up, and I could see clear sky – a blue sky. For that one moment, I thought I was dead because I felt no pain. I thought I was dead until I started to cough. Then I started to feel pain in my leg, and that’s when I realised, Oh my God! I can;t believe I actually survived this. I’m alive.”

Even before the dust had time to settle, many more emergency workers – and volunteers – were making their way into Manhattan to offer their assistance.

Joe Finley was a firefighter with Ladder 7 who had been off duty that morning. 

“At a rally point in Cunningham Park, Queens, hundreds of firemen waited for city buses to come in and pick them up. Nobody was saying anything to each other. We all looked out the window at the skyline of New York City, and the huge plume of smoke going miles up in the air.”

The scene they found when they arrived was eerie:

“We couldn’t even hear our own footsteps. Nobody was talking. There was no sound, no cars. Downtown Manhattan in the middle of the day, and it was absolutely silent.”

Paul McFadden was with Rescue 2. He was familiar with Ray Downey, who was the fire chief in charge of special operations, and expected to find him at the scene.

“When we got down to the World Trade Center site, the first two people I saw were Ray’s two sons, Joe and Chuck. I went right up to them – because I thought this was a real good thing – and I said, “Joey, Chuckie, where’s the command post? Where’s your dad?” Joey looked at me and he said, “We’re on our way home to my mother. My father’s under the rubble.” That was like getting kicked in the head by a horse. It was the last thing I expected to hear – that Ray was dead. That set the stage for the night.”

James Luongo, an inspector with the NYPD, recalled the arrival of volunteers. 

“At one point, there had to be 200 construction workers walking down West Street. I said, “Who’s in charge?” They said, “Nobody’s in charge. We’re here to help.” I’ll never forget those men – big burly guys, coming down. So much of that day, so much of that day was just New Yorkers. People who can help people. A lot of credit goes to the fire department. A lot of credit goes to the police department and emergency response people. But that’s what we get paid for. The amount of New Yorkers – just everyday New Yorkers- who stepped up to the plate that day was incredible.”

All of those now gathering at the site of the World Trade Center were set on one thing – finding survivors in the rubble.

Buzzelli found himself on a pile of rubble, at the level of what would have been the fourth floor, had the buildings still been standing. Somewhere below him, in the remains of Stairwell B, were Captain Jonas, his crew and Josephine Harris, as well as Port Authority Police Officer David Lim. The firefighters were able to put out a Mayday call over the radio:

“Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. This is the officer of Ladder Company 6. We’re in the B stairway and we’re trapped.”

Teams immediately mobilised to look for them, but finding them would not be easy. They asked Jonas for details of where they were; how they had got there.

“I said, “We came in off of West Street. We walked through the glass doors. We made a right and a left and the B Stairway’s your first left. You can’t miss it.”

I spoke to Nick a few days later, and he said when he asked me that he was surrounded by about 100 firemen who were ready to go. When I said, “We walked through the glass doors,” there was a collective sigh because there wasn’t a piece of glass intact for about 20 blocks.

They explored the limits of their confinement as best they could; they found that there were also some men from Engine 39, and – somewhere below them, beyond a mass of debris that they couldn’t get through – Chief Richard Prunty.

Kross recalled:

“He was about 20 feet below us and was trapped up to his chest in debris, and he was losing consciousness. I remember we were talking to him on the radio and telling him to hang in there. The last thing he said was, “Tell my wife and kids I love them,” and that was it.”

The rescuers found Buzzelli first:

“When I saw the first fireman… I said, “Hey! Help! I’m up here!”… He said, “Who are you with?” Because I had a blue shirt on, black pants, he thought I was another fireman, searching the rubble that got stuck. I’m like, “I was in the building. It collapsed.” I said, “I’m stuck here. I can’t get down.” He said, “Holy shit guys! We got a survivor!” He got on the radio and then he goes, “Hold on! We’ll get to you!”

A specialist equipped with ropes was able to reach Buzzelli, find a pipe that was sturdy enough to take the weight, and lower him down to safety. Only when he stood up at the end did he realise that he’d broken his foot. Nevertheless, he still climbed and walked as far as he could to get out of the rubble, before being strapped onto a gurney for the last stretch.

“When they put me in the ambulance, the paramedic – first thing- said, “All right, so what hurts?” I was like, “Before we get to that, I need a phone… My wife is home. She’s seven and a half months pregnant. She knows I didn’t get out of the building.”

Buzzelli was able to use the paramedic’s phone to call home at about 3:30 in the afternoon – much to his wife’s immense relief. Two months later, their daughter was born- and given the very appropriate name, Hope.

From inside the stairway, Jonas spotted a ray of light, coming through the rubble into the stairwell. Looking up, he saw something unbelievable – blue sky. As Kross later described it:

“It was clearly sunlight. It was all dirty and full of debris. It looked like pepper was floating around in it, but it was sunlight! I’m amazed. A 106-storey building above us and I’m looking up at the sun!”

None of them had realised how total the collapse had been; now they realised that they were actually near the top of the debris pile. Since the dust cloud from the collapse had settled, and sunlight could now reach them, they had better visibility, and were now able to find a point they could break out through. 

“We looked out initially, and we could see there’s all kinds of buildings on fire. We could see smoke. We could see twisted rubble all around… We waited a little while longer, and then we could see a fireman in the distance.”

Using a lifesaving rope that one of the men had fortunately kept with him through the collapse, they were able to start climbing out and make contact with their rescuers.  Jonas quickly told them about Warchola, who they had passed before the collapse, telling them that he was on the 12th floor. He got an odd look in return. Only when he got out himself, and was properly able to see the scene that surrounded him, did he realise: there was no 12th floor. 

The rescuers helped the other firefighters out, and pulled Josephine Harris out on a Stokes stretcher. Then, like Buzzelli, they had to climb or be carried over the treacherous rubble to reach safety.

“Going across the rubble field we crossed between the North Tower and the smaller buildings. The New York office for the Secret Service, they had their ammunition depot inside the World Trade Center. Munitions started going off as we were crossing, and it almost sounded like a war zone. In addition to everything else that was going on, we could hear bullets going off. We’re thinking, this is bad.”

However, they were at the end of their ordeal. They were able to reunite with their surviving colleagues, see their names taken off the list of “missing, presumed dead” and go home to their families. 

Many of the other firefighters who had survived that day regrouped at their firehouses. Gedeon Naudet filmed emotional reunions at the firehouse on Duane Street, all the while wondering where his brother Jules was – until finally he returned, too. Many couldn’t understand what had happened. Some didn’t even realise that Tower 2 had collapsed first, while they were still inside Tower 1. Very soon, a list was being made of all the firefighters who were willing to go back to work at the scene. They queued up to put their names down. Some, who had families, went home to see them for just a few hours before coming back.

Although the attack was now over, in many ways what was to come would be just as bad.

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Sources, References and Further Reading

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