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Published September 10, 2021

When a commercial jetliner crashed into the North tower of the World Trade Center on a bright Tuesday morning, workers in the South Tower were appalled- but also relieved that it wasn’t them. Announcements were soon made over the building’s PA systems, telling people to remain where they were and reassuring them that their building was secure.

But then, another passenger plane came sailing through the clear blue sky over Manhattan.

It was 8:14 on the morning of September 11th, 2001, when United Airlines Flight 175 departed Boston’s Logan International Airport, bound for Los Angeles.

On board the Boeing 767 that day were nine crew members – Captain Victor Saracini, First Officer Michael Horrocks, purser Kathryn Laborie and six flight attendants – and 56 passengers. This was only about 33% of the plane’s capacity, and less than they would usually expect on that flight, so the crew probably expected an easy day.

Five of the men on board would change that. 

In first class, Fayez Banihammad and Mohand Al Shehri were seated in the second row. Behind them, in business class, Marwan al Shehhi took seat 6C, and Hamza and Ahmed Al Ghamdi were in seats 9C and 9D. Although for the time being they were acting as normal as possible, they were there to wreak terror.

While their flight began normally, the pilots were soon aware that something odd was happening elsewhere. At 8:38am, they were contacted by air traffic controllers asking them to look out for another flight out of Boston, American 11, which had left just before them and was believed to have been hijacked. 

“New York Center: OK, United 175, you have him at your 12 o’clock, now five, ten miles.

United 175: Affirmative, we have him. He looks about 20, say about 29, 28 thousand.

New York Center: OK, thank you. United 175… turn 30 degrees to the right, I want to keep you away from this traffic.

United 175: Thirty degrees to the right, United 175, heavy.”

A few minutes later, United 175 called to say that they had heard a suspicious transmission – “Sounds like someone keyed the mike and said “Everyone stay in your seats… it cut out.” This would have been one of the transmissions accidentally made by Mohammed Atta, the hijacker pilot on American 11. And this message from United 175 was the last transmission made by the pilots.

At 8:51am, air traffic control tried to contact them with some routine instructions. They didn’t respond. At some point in the preceding ten minutes, those five men had stood up and forcibly invaded the cockpit. Marwan Al Shehhi was now at the controls.

Meanwhile, in New York, American 11 had smashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. A fireball exploded out, and the top of the tower was wreathed in smoke. This was seen by some – and felt by many – in the South Tower.

Marissa Panigrosso worked on the 98th floor, and recalled later:

“You heard a loud pop and then it kind of got you up from your desk. My desk was second from the window. It was very odd like the Fourth of July. There were papers that were singed. I would not go near the window. But you could feel the heat. It was just so so hot, I turned to look at the window and I felt the heat on my face. Like an oven door. That was instantaneous. We all stood up, people started to scream.”

Robert Small, an office manager with Morgan Stanley on the 72nd floor, said that the explosion “felt very similar to the explosion in ‘93”.

“We walked north, looking out the windows, and you could see the smoke, you could see the flame. We started trying to guess what was falling. Was it a book? Was it a piece of paper? Was it a drape? Was it a chair? After a few minutes, we saw people jumping, falling, landing. That wasn’t good. After a few of those, we decided not to watch. Let’s go back, call our families, let them know we’re okay.”

The voicemail left by 24 year old Brad Fetchet for his mother exemplifies the level of concern felt by many in the second tower at that point.

“Hey mom, it’s Brad. Uh, just wanted to call and let you know, I’m sure that you’ve heard, but a plane crashed into World Trade Center 1. We’re fine, we’re in World Trade Center 2. I’m not – obviously alive and well over here, but obviously a pretty scary experience. I saw a guy fall out of probably the 92nd storey all the way down. So *coughs* you’re welcome to give a call here. I think we’ll be here all day but give me a call back later.”

What was happening was obviously awful; but the South Tower had not been damaged; everyone there was okay. Announcements to that effect were made over the PA system, advising that, while Tower One was being evacuated, those in Tower Two should remain at their desks.

Despite those announcements, many were saved by individual decisions to get out anyway. Rick Rescorla was the vice president of security at Morgan Stanley, a major tenant in the South Tower; in a phone call to his best friend he is reported to have said:

“The dumb sons of bitches told me not to evacuate. They said it’s just Building One. I told them I’m getting my people the fuck out of here.”

He also called his wife, saying, “I don’t want you to cry. I have to evacuate my people now. If something happens to me, I want you to know that you made my life.”

His evacuation was almost entirely successful; there were more than 2,700 employees of Morgan Stanley in the South Tower, and all but eleven escaped. Rescorla, overseeing the evacuation and reluctant to leave until he was sure everybody else was out, was one of the eleven lost.

At Aon Corporation, on the 99th floor, accountant Constance Labetti was ordered by her boss, Ron Fazio, to go to the staircase. 

“I returned to my desk to grab my sneakers because I had 99 flights to descend. I started to climb down on the steps. I still had my heels on, and my sneakers in my hand… I caught up to a couple in the staircase – maybe the 90th floor, 92nd floor. I said to them, “Could you wait a moment while I put my sneakers on?” They said, of course we’ll wait. I was trembling so much I couldn’t tie my sneakers. I remember the man saying to me, “Just tie your sneakers. Don’t worry. Don’t worry.” I tied my sneakers, then we continued on down.”

Still, the evacuation seemed to many somewhat leisurely. Judith Wein, senior vice president of Aon, recalled that every so often, somebody would head back up, saying they’d left something at their desk. She and a colleague, Gigi Singer, debated going back themselves for pocketbooks and other personal items. Wein’s boss, Howard Kestenbaum, told them not to worry about it; if they needed money for the subway he would lend it to them. 

Janice Brooks, who had moved to New York from London just a few weeks earlier, was on the 84th floor, working at Euro Brokers. Her departure from the office was also unhurried; after hearing somebody shout “Everybody out”, she stopped to speak to two people, and went back to her desk to collect her bag.

“As I was about to leave, I hesitated and decided to call London to tell Gil what was happening. Kerry Stewart, the London receptionist, couldn’t find him, so I asked to speak to Robin Clark, the Managing Director of the London office, and until recently my boss, and I remember vividly my conversation with him:

“Rob, something’s happening next door, we’re all okay, but we’re leaving.”

“Something’s happening next door?!?!?!?!?  Fucking hell Janice, a plane’s gone into the building – get the fuck out of there!!!!”

She reached Floor 72 before hearing an announcement by the building’s security, instructing people in the South Tower not to evacuate, to use the next re-entry point on the stairs, and return to their desks. She left the stairs at Floor 70, one of the many floors occupied by Morgan Stanley, and when they discovered the lifts weren’t working, she and several colleagues started back up the stairs once more. 

Meanwhile, on United 175, some of those on board were able to make calls out. From those conversations and messages, we have some details of what happened – and it seems to have been much the same as onboard American 11. They used knives, Mace, and the threat of a bomb to control the passengers; both pilots had been killed, and they had stabbed members of the flight crew. From the fact that calls were made from the back of the plane, by passengers originally seated in the front, it seems that the passengers, and probably the remaining crew, had been moved there, in order to more easily control them.

Two calls were made at 8:52; a male flight attendant contacted a United Airlines office, reporting the hijacking, the death of the pilots and injury of one flight attendant; this call lasted about two minutes.

At the same time, passenger Peter Hanson was able to reach his father, Lee. 

“I think they’ve taken over the cockpit- an attendant has been stabbed – and someone else up front may have been killed. The plane is making strange moves.”

Lee Hanson called the police to relay this message.

Passenger Brian Sweeney left a voicemail for his wife Julie at 8:59. 

“Jules, this is Brian. Listen, I’m on an airplane that’s been hijacked. If things don’t go well, and it’s not looking good, I just want you to know I absolutely love you. I want you to do good, go have good times. Same to my parents and everybody, and I just totally love you, and I’ll see you when you get there.”

He also called his mother, telling her that the passengers were thinking of storming the cockpit to regain control. Sadly, they would not have enough time.

Peter Hanson made a second call to his father at 9am.

“It’s getting bad, Dad. A stewardess was stabbed. They seem to have knives and Mace. They said they have a bomb. It’s getting very bad on the plane. Passengers are throwing up and getting sick. The plane is making jerky movements. I don’t think the pilot is flying the plane. I think we are going down. I think they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building. Don’t worry, Dad. If it happens, it’ll be very fast. My god- my God.”

Lee Hanson heard a woman scream before the call was cut off. It was 9:03.

At that same moment, Steven Bienkowski from the NYPD’s Aviation Unit was in a helicopter responding to the incident at the North Tower.

“Our helicopter was on the southwest side of the South Tower. I glanced over my shoulder, and there came a United Airlines aircraft right at us, a little bit underneath where we were – I do mean underneath us – it probably missed us by about 300 feet… It proceeded to fly right through the building, right in front of us. I must have gone numb. I don’t remember hearing an explosion, although it must have been extremely loud. It was all I could handle to watch that happen.”

TV news cameras carried the image of the airliner dissolving into a fireball into homes and businesses around the world. 

Katie Couric was one of the anchors for The Today Show on NBC. They were still struggling to establish what had happened to the North Tower when United 175 came into view.

“We were talking, we were getting eyewitness accounts, and then of course the really chilling, and shocking, visual was when the second plane was flying toward the building. It felt like it was in suspended animation.”

At that moment, it became obvious to millions that this was no accident; it was a deliberate act of destruction.

The impact would have instantly killed everyone on board, including Peter Hanson, his wife, and their two year old daughter. Little Christine became the youngest victim of the 9/11 tragedy, but she wasn’t the only small child on board.

David Gamboa Brandhorst was a three year old who loved to play with Legos, and was traveling home with his fathers after visiting family, while Juliana McCourt was four, and her mother was going to take her to Disneyland. By coincidence, Juliana’s uncle, Ronald Clifford, was at the World Trade Center hotel at that very moment, tending to a woman who had been badly burned by jet fuel from the first crash. He had no idea that his sister and niece were on United 175 as it exploded above him. The woman, Jennieann Maffeo, survived for 41 days, through 14 surgeries, before eventually succumbing to the burns that covered 90 percent of her body.

It’s impossible to know how many people in the tower were killed by the impact itself. The plane hit at an angle, cutting through the tower from floor 77 to 85, and throwing wreckage down to the street. NYPD officer David Norman was with the Emergency Service Unit, Truck 1.

“One of the landing wheels from the aircraft fell, burning, right in front of us. It was almost like the size of a Volkswagen landing in the street.”

Immediately, the fire department chiefs, some already on site in the North Tower and others just arriving on the scene as the incident escalated, dispatched crews into the South Tower, and into the connected Marriott Hotel at 3 WTC. It was quickly obvious that fighting the fires so far up the towers would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, and with a barrage of 911 calls reporting people trapped and in need of assistance, rescue and evacuation were the primary focus.

However, the chaos and confusion of the scene, difficulties in communications, and the evacuation of the city’s Office of Emergency Management – located in 7 WTC – meant that nobody really had a full picture of what was going on. This was exacerbated after a full recall of all off-duty fire department personnel was issued at 9:29 by Chief Ganci; without specific instructions, some went directly to the scene, some to their own firehouses, or to nearby firehouses, and others to recall staging areas, so it wasn’t always known who was operating where.

A study by USA Today suggested that two-thirds of the occupants of the South Tower had already been evacuated using the elevators in the sixteen minutes between the first plane’s impact, and the second. Of the remainder, between 1,000 and 1,700 would get out of the tower, many before 9:30, when Chief Burns called an additional second alarm for the South Tower. It’s unclear if anyone in the fire department knew how many were already out, or if they would have sent so many companies in if they’d had this information.

The impact zone included the tower’s Sky Lobby on floor 78. This was where the express elevators ended, and people going to the upper floors would switch to local elevators – often taking the chance to enjoy the view and chat to colleagues while they waited. 

Many of those who had begun to evacuate the upper floors had stopped here; waiting for an elevator to take them down to the ground floor, or, having gone down and being reassured that their building was safe, waiting for an elevator to take them back up again. It’s been estimated that as many as two hundred people were gathered there when the left wing of United 175 sliced through.

Judith Wein was amongst them. 

“…We were standing around in the Sky Lobby, waiting our turn to get in the big cattle car elevators to go down. When the second plane hit, I basically went flying to the total opposite end. I thought, So is this how it ends?… I landed on my arm, which got smashed. I had three cracked ribs, a slightly punctured lung. I had abdominal bleeding. But I was okay. The arm broke my fall.”

Ling Young was also in the Sky Lobby.

“I flew from one side of the floor to the other side. When I got up I had to push things off me. I can’t see because my glasses were filled with blood. I took them off, cleaned them very carefully, and I looked around and saw everybody lying there, not moving. It was like a flat land. Everybody was lying down.”

Rejoining the group she had been standing with meant Wein had to walk over bodies. She found Kestenbaum lying flat on his back, motionless, most likely dead; she had known him for 23 years. Other colleagues were badly injured or trapped by debris. Venturing further towards the south – the point of impact – meant finding more bodies. 

While the impact on the North Tower had blocked all the stairwells and elevators, trapping everyone above that point, there was a sliver of hope for those in the South Tower. Stairwell A had been protected by the heavy machinery powering the elevators, and had remained passable, albeit dangerous and smoky in places. The problem was finding it.

Young recalled, “There was no sign. To feel your way around you have to walk through all the bodies, and we weren’t going to do that.” 

Fortunately, Young heard someone call out; she followed the voice, which turned out to belong to a young man wearing a red bandanna. He led her a little way down the stairs, then turned back to help others, gathering another group which included Wein, and sending them on their way down. This heroic young man would later be identified as 24 year old Welles Crowther. He didn’t make it out alive, but at least six people survived thanks to his actions.

Brooks, heading back up the tower, had just left the stairs when the plane hit. The door she had come through was blocked, and she was forced to find another path, encountering other survivors on the way.

“The first woman had blood all over her arm, which was cut, almost neatly, from her shoulder to her elbow, I remember seeing the bone, and her skin just flapping around…one of the guys took his t-shirt off and wrapped it around her arm, tying it in a knot under her arm pit, she also had a wounded foot, glass in her hair, and cuts on her face.   She was with a man who had cuts all over his arms.

One man had a cut across the back of his neck, and the back of his t-shirt was soaked with blood.  Another man had a blood-splattered shirt and had huge pieces of glass in his chest, which the others were pulling out… The last person to come through was another woman who had long dark hair.  She had cuts all over her face, and had one eye full of blood…this was the woman who was screaming…she was saying that she couldn’t see, and was waving her arms frantically in the air…someone gave her a bottle of water, she washed her face, and the blood in her eye was from a deep gash on her forehead, which had dribbled down.  When she shook her hair, glass showered everyone.”

By luck, they found their way to Stairwell A, and were able to make their way down.

Others would not be so fortunate. Melissa Doi, a financial manager, called 911 from the 83rd floor of the South Tower. Four minutes of her 24 minute call were released by courts during the later trial of Zacarias Moussaoui.

“Doi: Is it… Is it… Are they going to be able to get somebody up here?

911:  Well of course ma’am, we’re coming up to you.

Doi: Well, there’s no-one here yet, and the floor’s completely engulfed. We’re on the floor and we can’t breathe… And it’s very, very, very hot.

911: Ma’am listen, everybody’s coming, everybody knows, everybody knows what happened, okay… They have to take time to come up there, you know that. You gotta be very careful… … And it’s very hot there, but no fire, right?

Doi: I can’t see because it’s too high.

911: No, no, very hot, no fire for now, and no smoke, right? No smoke, right?


911: Ma’am, ma’am, you have to stay calm.

Doi: There’s smoke! I can’t breathe!…I think there’s fire because it’s very hot….It’s very hot, everywhere on the floor.

911: Okay, I know you don’t see it and all, but I’m, I’m… (stumbles over words) I’m gonna, I’m documenting everything you say, okay? And it’s very hot, you see no fire, but you see smoke, right?

Doi: It’s very hot, I see… I don’t see, I don’t see any air anymore!… All I see is smoke. I’m going to die, aren’t I?”

The 911 operator attempted to calm Doi as she panicked and screamed for help. In another part of the call, she asked the operator to get her mother on the line, but the operator didn’t have the ability to set up a three way call. Instead, she would pass on a message from Melissa: “Tell my mother that I love her and that she’s the best mom in the whole world.”

Doi was not the only one to try and make contact with outside help. On the street, somebody found a note amongst all the paper and debris drifting down from the smoking towers. It read “84th floor. West office. 12 people trapped.”

The note was passed to a security guard at the nearby Federal Reserve Bank just before the South Tower fell. It was kept safe there until it was handed over to the National September 11th Memorial & Museum. Ten years after the tragedy, DNA analysis of a bloodstained fingerprint on the note allowed the New York Medical Examiner’s office to trace the author; Randy Scott, who worked at EuroBrokers. This proved emotional for his family. 

Daughter Alexandra said, “Everyone hoped that it was right on impact. That he didn’t suffer. Because not only to know that he was trapped but what he was going through? And we knew the guys in his office too. And they had kids and they had families, and to think that they were terrified.”

Sean Rooney worked for Aon Corporation on the 98th floor. At 9:30, he called his wife, Beverly Eckert. 

“When I heard his voice on the phone, I was so happy. I said, ‘Sean, where are you?,’ thinking that he had made it out and that he was calling me from the street somewhere. He told me he was on the 105th floor.”

Rooney told her that he had initially tried going down, but had been beaten back by smoke and flames. Instead, and like countless others, he had tried to reach the roof, with hopes of a helicopter rescue. The roof doors were locked.

Roko Camaj was also on the 105th floor. When he called home, he told his wife that there were at least two hundred people there. Camaj, a window washer, actually had a key to the roof, but it was useless. It also required someone at a security post on the 22nd floor to press a button, and that post had been evacuated. Not that it mattered in the end. There were no helicopter rescues planned; the sheer ferocity of the fire and the volume of smoke made it impossible. 

Eckert would later recall the courage that her husband maintained in their conversation.

“There was a building in flames underneath him, but Sean didn’t even flinch. He stayed composed, just talking to me the way he always did. I will always be in awe of the way he faced death. Not an ounce of fear—not when the windows around him were getting too hot to touch; not when the smoke was making it hard to breathe… At one point, when I could tell it was getting harder for him to breathe, I asked if it hurt. He paused for a moment, and then said, ‘No.’ He loved me enough to lie.”

Firefighters were doing their best to reach those who were trapped. Chief Orio Palmer, of Battalion 7, and Fire Marshal Ronald P Bucca are thought to be the two who reached the highest point in the South Tower – making it into the impact zone. Tapes released later to the New York Times carried some of their last conversations. 

They revealed that Palmer had found an elevator that was still operational, and took it to the 40th or 41st floor before continuing up on foot. As he encountered survivors, he asked what floor they came from, directed them to the working elevator, and radioed back details. Based on the time stamps of the released transcripts, it only took him about half an hour to climb up to Floor 78 – the damaged sky lobby. There, he radioed back what he saw to the companies coming up behind him.

“Battalion Seven…Ladder 15, we’ve got two isolated pockets of fire. We should be able to knock it down with two lines. Radio… …radio that, 78th floor numerous 10-45 Code Ones.”

10-45 Code One meant a civilian fatality.

“I’m going to need two of your firefighters, Adam stairway, to knock down two fires. We have a house line stretched we could get some water on it, knock it down, ‘kay?

Lad.15: Alright ten-four, we’re coming up the stairs. We’re on 77 now in the B stair, I’ll be right to you

Lad.15 Roof: Fifteen Roof to 15. We’re on 71. We’re coming right up.”

The release of that information meant a lot to Monica Gabrielle, whose husband, Richard, had been in the group of Aon employees waiting for the elevators with Judith Wein. Wein had last seen him trapped by a block of marble that had blown off the lobby’s walls. Unable to move it, they had left him behind. Mrs Gabrielle said that she was comforted by ”The fact that Rich, still alive, was not alone — at least he knew there was help, and thought that they were getting out.” 

One of the most remarkable stories from the South Tower came from Stanley Praimnath, an executive at Fuji Bank whose office was on the 81st floor. After the first plane hit the North Tower, Praimnath and others from his office had gone down to the lobby, where a security guard told them that the building was secure, and they could go back to work. Since one of the young assistants was scared, Praimnath told her to take the rest of the day off work, but he went back to his desk. 

“The next thing I know I just happen to stand up and I’m holding on to the phone and something caught my attention. Little at first, grey in color, and every second it’s getting larger and larger. United Airlines 175 is eyeballing me, coming towards me. Eye level. Eye contact. As this plane is coming towards me, I can hear that revving sound that the engine is making. The plane starts to tilt. All I remember is saying ‘Lord I can’t do this, you take over’. The plane starts to tilt within the closest thousand yards, I scream and say ‘Lord, I can’t do this, you take this over’ and dove under my desk. That’s all I remember seeing.”

When he came out from under his desk, he found that it was the only one still intact.

“Everything else was shattered. It looked like a demolition crew came in and ripped the place apart. Every wall is flattened, all the windows were popped, and what you didn’t see on TV was the air pressure was so great it was sucking everything out. A large chunk of the plane was stuck in the office door twenty feet from where I am. I am surrounded by flames. It looks like someone took a giant bag of cement and threw it in the air and I can’t breathe. The floor hovering above me is going to collapse, I’m going to get crushed, I’m going to die. Or I am going to get electrocuted, all the cables that are hanging from the ceiling drop. I’m going to die.”

He managed to crawl to the other side of the building, but found one single sheetrock wall blocking his way. He banged on it, and called out for help.

His cries were heard by Brian Clark, executive vice-president of Euro Brokers, who occupied the 84th floor. As one of the office’s fire marshals, Clark had a whistle and a flashlight, and had guided seven others from his office down Stairwell A. Along with Ron DiFrancesco, he followed the sound of Praimnath’s cries. 

“In about a minute, Ron and I located his voice. He said, “Can you see my hand?” His hand was sticking out of the wall, or not the wall but this area where he was covered and blocked by some debris. He was waving his hand frantically, and my light picked up his hand. I said, “Okay, see you now.”

Although DiFrancesco was overcome by smoke and had to retreat, Clark was somehow still able to breathe; he cleared away as much debris as possible, before telling Praimnath that he would have to jump the rest.

“Well, he jumped once and fell back down. I said, “Come on, you’ve got to do this. It’s the only way out.” I reached in again, and Stanley jumped, and I got him by the collar or the shoulder or somewhere there. He said later that I just pulled him up like Superman. I don’t remember having this extraordinary strength, but he says it really did happen that way. I pulled him out and onto me, and we fell in a heap and embraced. It was an exciting moment, it really was.”

When they reached the stairs, DiFrancesco and Clark’s other colleagues were nowhere to be seen. Just before hearing Praimnath, they had been engaged in a debate with a man and woman who had come up the stairs. 

“We met two people that had come up from the 80th floor, a heavy-set woman and by comparison a rather frail male companion of hers, a workmate. She was saying from the landing below, “Stop, stop you’ve got to go up,” and she labored up to join us, moving very slowly; she was such a big woman. She said, “You’ve got to go up. You can’t go down. There is too much smoke and flames below.”

Clark saw the others go up with the woman, but didn’t know which way DiFrancesco had gone. He and Praimnath chose to go down. 

“The first five floors were difficult, because in certain areas dry wall had been blown off the wall and was lying propped up against the railing. We had to move it, shove it to the side. The sprinkler system had turned on and had started to do something, but it wasn’t doing its job as it should, so there was water sloshing down the stairways. It was dark.”

Richard Fern also met, possibly, the same couple. He had decided to leave the building when he saw people jumping from the North Tower, and had entered an elevator to go down to the 78th floor Sky Lobby just before the second plane hit his tower. Managing to escape the elevator car, he made it into Stairwell A where, despite the darkness, he ran down as fast as he could.

“I’m running and running, and all of a sudden there’s a man and a woman looking up at me saying, ‘You can’t pass.’ There was a wall down, and it was covering the staircase. I didn’t even acknowledge them or say anything; I just lifted the wall a foot or so, and it popped onto the handrail and stayed there, and I went underneath. I hope they followed me.”

DiFrancesco, it would turn out, had taken the couple’s advice and gone up. He got as far as the 91st floor, but his way up was then blocked by a locked door. He turned around again, and went down. Somewhere around the 79th or 80th floor, overwhelmed by smoke, he almost gave up, but was driven onwards by a voice, which he attributed to a force or spirit, and the desire to see his wife and kids again.

On the 68th floor, Clark and Praimnath met Jose Marrero, from the security department of Euro Brokers. He had gone down with others from the office, but then heard radio calls asking for help. The calls came from Dave Vera – one of the group who had started down with Clark but turned upwards instead.

“So Jose, hero that he was, was walking up, perspiring, carrying his walkie-talkie. He said, “Oh, I can hear Dave above. I’m gonna help.” I said, “Jose, Dave’s a big boy, he can get out. We’ve just come through hell to get here. Come on down with us.” “No, no, no,” he said. “I’ll be fine. I can help.” Then Jose kept marching up. Jose was about 35 years old and quite fit, but when I passed him he was understandably laboring to climb the stairs. But he kept going. I don’t know how high he got or what he found.”

Like far too many heroes that day, Marrero would not make it out of the tower.

At the 44th floor, Clark and Praimnath reached the other sky lobby, where they found a security guard tending to an injured man. The guard told them that he needed help; his phones didn’t work, so he couldn’t call for medical assistance. While he stayed with the injured man, Clark and Praimnath promised to send help as soon as they could.

On the 31st floor, they entered an office at random to use the phones. Each called their wives, to say they were okay, then Clark called 911.

“This was a disturbing thing at the time. I got ahold of them right away and told them about this fellow on the 44th floor that needed medical attention, but they put me on hold. They said, “You must tell your story to somebody higher up the chain” and clicked me off. I’d wait until somebody came on, I’d recite the story, and “Oh, just a minute. You must tell somebody else.” I mean, there was something clearly odd about what was going on there. They were answering the phone in a hurry, and I understand now they were completely overwhelmed at the time.”

Eventually, Clark insisted that he wouldn’t tell the story any more times; he had given the details, somebody had to act on them. He hung up, and they went back to the stairs. 

Meanwhile, Wein, Young and the others made it down the stairwell to the 40th floor.

“I walked down with another man. He actually had a severed arm, which we didn’t know about because he was wearing a suit. It kept his arm in. He was holding onto the lower part of his arm, but I didn’t think anything of that…

We’re walking down the stairs, and around 40, some rescue workers came in, and they said we should sit and rest. The two others went to sit on the stairs, and I went to sit down. I had my tush sticking out, getting ready to sit, and something inside me said, Don’t sit. It almost felt like somebody had an arm or a hand on my back, pushing me up. It was a weird feeling, just Don’t sit. I said, Look. If you guys are tired, you sit, but I can’t sit. Because I didn’t sit, they got up, and we walked. The rescue workers walked us through somebody’s office to an internal elevator which was working, and so we went from about 40 down to the lobby. I was told, later, that we were the last group of people to go down in that elevator.”

She was not the only one to report such an experience. Connie Labetti, an accountant from the 99th floor, recalled hearing the voices of her late father and uncle telling her that she was not going to die in the building, and to take it one step at a time.

“We got to the lobby and my coworker Jules and I had to rest for a moment because we were perspiring terribly. We had walked down 100 flights of steps. People were coming up to me, hugging me, and telling me, thank you, thank you, and hugging me as they walked by me, and I said to Jules, “What? Why? What are they doing that for?” She said, “Connie, you don’t know what you were saying? You were saying, we’re not going to die in this building. Just take it one step at a time.” I was repeating what my father and my uncle were telling me, and I didn’t even know it.”

Continuing down, seeing nobody, Clark and Praimnath eventually reached the plaza level.

“We came out and stared, awestruck. What we looked at was normally a flowing fountain, vendors with their wagons, business people coming to and from the building, tourists everywhere. It was a beautiful people place, yet this area, several acres I’m sure, was dead; it was a moonscape. It looked like it had been deserted for 100 years, and we had just discovered it.”

Jeannine Ali, a controller from Morgan Stanley, recalled reaching the lobby.

“They were directing people out, up through Borders and out toward Five World Trade. There was a fireman – he couldn’t have been more than 19 years old – with a hose on his shoulder. I remember looking at him and saying to him, “There is nothing you can do. Don’t go in there.” He said, “Lady, it’s my job. I have to do it.””

Labetti also remembered the scene as they finally exited the building.

“The debris, the blocks of concrete, the fires. I saw shoes and briefcases. We thought we were in a war zone. We all gasped. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing.”

Survivors reaching the bottom of the tower were directed through the basement level concourse in order to leave the World Trade Center complex through one of the other buildings. Debris and falling people made it too dangerous to exit through the plaza at the base of the tower. 

DiFrancesco also eventually reached the concourse. As he drew near to safety, he heard an ominous rumble. He looked back to see a fireball coming towards him, and ran. He would wake up three days later at St Vincent’s hospital, with burns to the majority of his body, a head laceration, and his contact lenses melted to his eyes. It would take years for him to recover, but he became known as the last survivor to leave the South Tower.

The moment of the South Tower’s collapse was captured graphically on a 911 call made by Kevin Cosgrove, an insurance executive and vice president of Aon Corporation. His office was located on the northwest corner of the 105th floor. Early in the call, he told the operator, “Lady, there’s two of us in this office. We’re not ready to die, but it’s getting bad.”

He was told to sit tight; they were getting to him.

“Doesn’t feel like it, man. I got young kids…

I know you got a lot in the building, but we are on the top. Smoke raises, too. We are on the floor. We’re in the window. I can barely breathe now. I can’t see.

9-11: Okay, just try to hang in there. I’m going to stay with you.

KC: You can say that, you’re in an air-conditioned building. What the hell happened?”

Avoiding the question, the operator instead reassured Cosgrove that they were trying to reach him, and told him to remain calm to conserve his oxygen.

“Tell God to blow the wind from the West. It’s really bad. It’s black. It’s arid. Does anyone else wanna chime in here? We’re young men. We’re not ready to die.”

The operator continued to try to reassure Cosgrove, and take details from him. 

“Name’s Cosgrove. I must have told you about a dozen times already. C.O.S.G.R.O.V.E. My wife thinks I’m alright. I called and said I was leaving the building and that I was fine and then — bang … Cherry. Doug Cherry. Doug Cherry’s next to me. 105. Whose office? John Ostaru’s office?… Right. That’s the office we’re in. There are three of us in here.

9-11: Ostaru. Hello?

KC: Hello. We’re looking in … We’re overlooking the Financial Center. Three of us. Two broken windows.”

A rumbling is heard, and Cosgrove cries out, “Oh God, Oh!” before being abruptly cut off.

Beverly Eckert was also still on the phone to her husband, Sean Rooney, somewhere on the same floor as Cosgrove.

“I suddenly heard this loud explosion through the phone. It reverberated for several seconds. We held our breath. I know we both realized what was about to happen. Then I heard a sharp crack, followed by the sound of an avalanche. I heard Sean gasp once as the floor fell out from underneath him. I called his name into the phone over and over. Then I just sat there huddled on the floor holding the phone to my heart.”

Dan Nigro, chief of operations for the FDNY, said, “No-one has heard a high-rise building collapse before, but as soon as I heard it, I knew what it was.”

Witnesses described a rumble, a rat-tat-tat-tat-tat, cracking, snapping, sound; like a thousand freight trains crashed, an incoming missile, an avalanche, a giant chandelier with all the glass breaking. It was deafeningly loud, and everyone in the vicinity immediately knew they had to run.

Lt Joseph Torrillo, director of fire education safety in the FDNY, would later remember:

“As I was running that air caught the back of my helmet, and I saw my helmet fly away. My helmet was flying faster and higher, and I could see it as I was running. It was like The Wizard of Oz. At that point, as the building came down lower and lower, the air pressure was so strong – they estimate almost like a tornado force – the air pressure lifted me off my feet and I was flying through the air.”

Tracy Donahoo, a transit officer with the NYPD, was also sent flying.

“I don’t know how far I went, I went flying – I could feel myself in the air. I landed on my knees and on my hand. It was dark. It was so black in there. You couldn’t see anything and I couldn’t breathe. I was choking.”

Many ran towards the water. James Filomeno was a firefighter on the FDNY’s Marine 1.

“We were docked near the pier. I was watching people running toward us like a herd of cattle. I watched debris coming down on them. People were jumping headfirst onto the deck and screaming. People were trying to hand me their kids: “Take my baby. I don’t want to stay here. Take the baby.” People fell in the water. It was horrible.”

Al Kim, vice president of operations for TransCare Ambulance, recalled:

“I was burning. I remember being really hot, like head to toe, like, This is bad, really bad – like hotter than a sauna or steam room. My shirt was gone. It was all ripped and burned. I lost all my nostril hair. I lost a part of my eyebrows and all my eyelashes were gone too.”

Although a lot of heavy debris fell – concrete, steel, and shards of glass – the fine dust which carried through the streets was its own danger.  Captain Sean Crowley of the NYPD described it as “taking a handful of flour and sticking it up your nose and in your mouth. That’s what breathing was like.”

Many survivors described digging the dust out of their mouths, because they couldn’t just spit it out. Others groped blindly through the streets until they could find water to wash out their eyes. Those who were inside, or who had managed to get inside, helped others, leading them to shelter and giving them water.

Once out of the building, Clark and Praimnath had made their way towards Trinity Church. 

“I would say that we’d been out of the building maybe five minutes when the building collapsed. It disappeared into its own dust. What I thought had happened at that instant was only the top third or quarter of the building down to the fire line had collapsed. It was a horrible feeling. I mean, our whole escape was horrible when it was happening, but you at least thought people had a chance—until that moment. Then I knew that certainly in the top quarter of the tower there was no chance. We just stared at it in awe, not realizing what was happening completely.

We stared, watching, with nobody running or anything initially. But then this great tsunami of dust came over the church. Everybody looked up, and, as in a disaster movie, everybody started running in fear of the debris and dust that might be in there. But I knew there was nothing solid that was going to harm me, that the building hadn’t fallen over. I knew that. But you didn’t want to breathe the junk that was in there, so we ran down Broadway to 42 Broadway. We went into that building as the dust and smoke was catching up to our backsides.”

It was only later, on a ferry to Jersey City, that Clark realised the towers were entirely gone.

Robert Small, who had escaped from Morgan Stanley on the 72nd floor, saw the collapse from the Brooklyn Bridge.

“It looked like a Fourth of July sparkler. It swayed to one side and fell within itself. Then it was gone. You can see the glitter from the metal and the glass as this big gray cloud formed.”

Everyone who saw it knew that they had just seen a lot of people die. One witness, Michael McAvoy in Brooklyn, recalled looking at his coworker and saying, “Holy shit, 20,000 people just died.”

Fortunately, thanks to the evacuation, that would turn out to be an overestimate. However, the devastation was intense. Falling debris had destroyed many of the emergency vehicles gathered around the scene; there were burning vehicles in the street, and injured, wounded people wandering lost, covered in dust and blood, unable to recognise the dust-covered streets.

Gedeon Naudet, a French filmmaker who was working with the Fire Department on a documentary, tried to get to the World Trade Center after the South Tower’s collapse. He knew that his brother, Jules, was somewhere at the site. 

“That’s when I felt the danger for the first time. It was all around you, I mean every single cell of your body was telling you, you shouldn’t be here. The scenery was radically different, I mean it was this white powder everywhere, just a few people here and there, and this kind of silence.”

As the cloud settled, silence was replaced by a chorus of shrill electronic beeps. These were the Personal Alert Safety Systems, or PASS alarms worn by the firefighters, each one a signal that the man wearing it had stopped moving.

Interviews later conducted by the New York Times indicated that the Fire Department had 46 companies or units operating in the South Tower and the Marriott Hotel at the time of the collapse; 25 of those had casualties, with 97 men dead in the tower, 34 in the hotel, and 78 whose location could not be specified. Many of those 78 were assigned to the South Tower, or thought to have been in the vicinity. 

599 civilians were known to have been killed in the South Tower; only 19 had escaped from at or above the impact zone. 

Later analysis by engineers would indicate that United 175 had been travelling at an estimated 537mph on impact; this is much faster than the 767 would normally travel at such a low altitude, and faster than American 11 when it hit the North Tower. This, combined with the lower level at which it hit, and the angle, which damaged corner supports, contributed to its quicker collapse. 

The call was immediately made for the firefighters still in the North Tower to evacuate, but  ongoing communications issues meant that not all of them would hear that order. Still, the collapse of Tower 2 would mean that some had a chance to escape before Tower 1 followed. 

There was little time for the surviving firefighters to think about their fallen comrades, or the civilians they couldn’t save. They knew immediately that the death toll would be grave, but also had to face the fact that there was nothing they could do for the fallen while the prospect of another collapse loomed 1,368 feet (417 m) above them. All they could do, at that moment, was retreat, regroup, and perhaps say a prayer or two.

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Sources, References and Further Reading

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