This essay, published on September 5, 2006, is exclusive to Notablog. Comments welcome (post here).
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[REMEMBERING THE WORLD TRADE CENTER: 2001; 2002; 2003; 2004; 2005; 2006; 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012]
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Towers, from the Staten Island Ferry, May 12, 2001
Photo by Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Back on September 12, 2001, in the hours after the greatest tragedy to ever befall my hometown, I wrote:
The only near-fatality of an extended family member of which I am aware is my sister-in-law's cousin. He was on the 89th floor of the first tower that was struck; that strike apparently occurred on the 96th floor, but the devastation quickly spread to the floors above and below. He was able to get all of his workers to safety, except for two who were killed. He is now in [the] hospital, recovering from smoke and ash inhalation, but we expect a full recovery.
In the confusion that marked those hours, not all the facts that I reported were completely accurate. And that brief paragraph most certainly did not tell the whole story.
It has been five years since I wrote those words. Today, I am honored to add the testimony of my sister-in-law's Cousin Scott* to my annual tribute page, "Remembering the World Trade Center."
From Brooklyn to the Top of the World
Scott was born in Brooklyn and grew up in the Bath Beach-Bensonhurst section of the borough, a predominantly Italian neighborhood in those years. He moved several times throughout the city and eventually relocated to New Jersey. But wherever he went, he took with him the values of his youth, especially a deep respect and appreciation for family and hard work.
Having pursued several ventures in insurance, Scott settled into the financial service business. He worked very hard to make a success of himself. He often logged a hundred hours or more of work per week and rarely took any vacation time. By 1998, one of his ventures had become a real economic force within a larger, growing organization. A merger with another business brought his agency to the number 1 spot in three of the top five categories within the giant public company.
Part of his success was measured by his firm's world-class address. The merger gave his business the opportunity to occupy a total of 14,000 noncontiguous square feet of office space at 1 World Trade Center. Ironically, because of the 1993 WTC parking garage bombing, the Twin Towers still had many good real estate deals available to prospective businesses. Scott's business opened there in 1998. He was especially impressed with the heightened security in the lobby of the building; at that time, nobody anticipated that the buildings would be struck by commercial airplanes. So Scott felt secure in his offices, located on the 89th floor of the North Tower.
On Monday, September 10, 2001, Scott and his business associates were celebrating the fact that they'd accomplished many of their annual objectives within the first 9 months of the year. He was looking forward to taking his first vacation in over 3 years. He and his associates enjoyed a glass of wine at one of their favorite area restaurants, toasting to the promise of tomorrow.
September 11, 2001
Tomorrow was here.
On Tuesday morning, September 11th, Scott anticipated getting to work around 7 o'clock to meet with his management team. But there was an inordinate amount of backed-up traffic on the roads that morning. At one point, he recalls, he was ready to turn back home to Jersey. Somehow, though, he got to work, a little later than he'd hoped. He made his usual stop in the lobby to get some coffee. Taking the elevator up to the 89th floor, he arrived in his office by 8:25 am.
Ordinarily, there would have been about 50 people in Scott's work group. But because it was so early in the day, only 13 of the 50 were present on the floor. And on this day, an assistant was there, a woman who would come in on a monthly basis to help Scott; she had gotten to the office about a half hour before he'd arrived. The two of them sat down to coordinate a few work-related issues. Scott picked up the phone to chat with an associate from another office.
And then, the building rocked violently.
It was 8:46 am.
He suddenly felt as if he'd been on one of the swinging cars of the famous Coney Island Wonder Wheel, one of the world's largest Ferris Wheels that he'd remembered so vividly from his Brooklyn youth. There are two types of passenger cars on that Wonder Wheel: those that are stationary and those that swing on internal tracks. As the giant wheel reaches a certain height, the swinging cars fly from its center to the outer rims. A person feels as if they are going to go right off the track, into the air, crashing into the street below. "Except when you're in the building," Scott says, "you know you're not on a ride. And that was one of the feelings that hasn't left me and that hasn't left some of the other people: the fact that you were helpless and the building was going over. And you're looking down at the window and you're just holding on, and you just don't know if it's going to stop. ... You think that the building is going to crack in half and that you're going to go tumbling down. ... So many thoughts went through your mind at that particular point."
But then the building stops bending.
It doesn't topple.
It snaps back.
"And you have no idea what has happened. You don't know if it's been an earthquake or an explosion." But Scott remembered being in an earthquake once; this was no earthquake. Steel beams had gone flying past the windows. Some beams fell through ceilings, smashing floors, desks, office equipment. And there was this tremendous explosion that looked as if it had come from the South Tower.
He couldn't imagine how any such explosion could have occurred so high in the tower. How could anyone get a bomb into the upper floors of these secure buildings?
It didn't take long for Scott to realize that the explosion had taken place in the North Tower. He would not know for sure what had caused that explosion until he was safely out of the building. He would not know that a plane had crashed deliberately into the northeast side of the North Tower only 3 floors above his office, creating an impact hole from the 92nd through the 98th floors. Working on the 89th floor, he was only a few feet below a space from which no human beings could survive.
Almost instantaneously, the building's internal sirens began to blare. Throughout the entire ordeal, those sirens continued to pierce the air, shattering the nerves of those who remained in the buildings. Within moments, Scott and his associates were on the phone, trying to figure out exactly what was happening. They tried office phones and cell phones; finally, his assistant opened a connection to building security. Security told them: "We are aware of the situation." They offered no description of what that "situation" was. But the bewildered workers were told to stay in their offices because "help was on the way."
Four of the thirteen people in Scott's office were his managers; under Scott's direction, all of them became of a single mind on this issue: Don't wait for help. Get out of this space now.
Scott directed the staff to move out; they opened the door toward the back of the office, which led to another hallway and a service elevator, but there was too much black smoke.
While the front door was initially jammed, three people were able to get it open. Scott and his colleagues moved toward the only accessible fire exit, but it was totally compromised; the door jam held the door closed "like a steel vise." They moved into another office across the hall in an attempt to locate additional people and alternate escape routes; they kept the doors closed behind them as smoke continued to billow into the hallways.
But they were all trapped.
The hallway had become "black as the night without a moon." There were no more floors to walk on; those that led to the elevators were eaten away by flames, and those leading to other staircases had simply disappeared.
Twenty-five minutes had passed since the North Tower had been struck; by this point, the South Tower had also been attacked, but Scott and his staff were totally unaware of anything outside their darkening world. Their existence in the North Tower was like "being in a cocoon." While they never gave up, Scott thought to himself: "If we're going to die here, I just hope that the smoke kills us before the flames." Many of his coworkers began making cell phone calls to their loved ones ... to say goodbye.
Scott thought that they might use a fire extinguisher as a battering ram to blow open the fire exit door. But as luck would have it, the 88th floor directly below them had been occupied by the Port Authority; PA workers had been trapped too but they had possession of an axe and a crowbar and were able to force open their own jammed doors. The PA workers had the foresight to know that those on the 89th floor were still looking for a way out. They acted heroically to spring the jammed doors on the floor above them; Scott and his colleagues remain eternally grateful to those Port Authority workers. "Unfortunately," Scott says, "one of these brave heroes later perished as he continued to help others."
Scott and his 11 coworkers made their way out the fire exit; two other employees, who were in another area of the business's vast office space, would later perish in the collapsing tower. And there were still people on the 85th, 86th, 87th, and 89th floors who, for whatever reason, chose to stay in their offices, and who were never heard from again.
Escaping out the fire exit, they all made a left turn down the staircase. A right turn would have delivered them into the blazing fires that were consuming the elevator shafts. As they moved out the exit, they grabbed coffee filters and rags and soaked them in water, using these to shield their mouths and noses from smoke and heat.
Water is one thing that could be found in abundance. As they walked down the staircase, water from one of the sprinkler systems was cascading down from the top of the building. The water was a foot deep in spots on the stairwell. Some of them worried that they might be electrocuted, but looking to the right and seeing smoke and flames, they knew that they had no choice but to continue their descent.
By the time Scott and his colleagues got to the 77th floor, the staircase was gone. Two exit doors were there, but both were locked. Their fear of being trapped was short-lived, however; not a minute or two later, as they banged furiously on the door, a fire marshal sprang open one of the jammed doors. They proceeded down another hallway toward yet another staircase.
Reaching the 70th floor, they came into contact with firefighters who were on their way up to the floors above them. Scott still remembers the faces of these men. One firefighter, probably around 45 years old, was carrying a heavy hose and other equipment over his shoulders, the sweat dripping profusely down his cheeks. Scott remembers that the firefighter's face appeared as if it had been in the sun a long time. The firefighters wondered who might still be trapped above them; as Scott and his colleagues continued their descent, these firefighters were all moving in the opposite direction. It gave Scott a growing "sense of confidence" that "everything was clear below." These men had total disregard for their own well-being, Scott thought; they made a heroic commitment and never abandoned it. They saved Scott's life and the lives of countless others.
By the time Scott reached the 40s, the building began to rock violently yet again. "You had to hold onto the banisters to keep from falling," he remembered.
The lights went out.
The smoke started to build.
For sure, they all thought, the building was coming down.
But it was not the North Tower that was collapsing; what Scott and his coworkers were feeling were the effects of the collapsing South Tower. "It was as though we were in a tomb, with no contact with the outside world."
The lights eventually came back on, but the smoke continued to seep into the protected staircase as they continued their descent. The staircases were no longer wide enough; as the firefighters were going up or carrying people down on stretchers, those who were descending had to step to the side.
They reached the 9th floor. But they were barred from descending any further. The debris and smoke that had engulfed lower Manhattan from the South Tower collapse had made it impossible for people to navigate their way out of the building. But Scott was determined: "We didn't come down 80 floors to die here," he exclaimed. A moment later, one firefighter had apparently gotten a mayday call. Word was getting out that the South Tower had collapsed and that the North Tower would most likely follow.
"Alright, you guys," the firefighter screamed, "you have to get out of here right now. Get going!"
The smoke was unbearable: thick, black, heavy. "You couldn't breathe the air for fear you would die," he recalled. They all ran down the stairs, feeling their way, "using the banisters as a seeing-eye dog," until they reached the 3rd floor. Now, the smoke was beginning to lighten up a bit.
Arriving on the 1st floor, they suddenly had no idea where they were. They were so used to the glorious glass and gleaming marble of the WTC promenade. "Now it was in shambles, replaced by concrete, broken glass, that awful gray dust and debris."
EMS officials stopped them from exiting the building because the tower was shedding debris. And people. People were jumping from the higher floors. When, finally, Scott and his coworkers were allowed to run for their lives, exiting onto West Street, some were stepping on the carcasses and body parts that had paved the obliterated streets of the plaza.
Making a right turn onto West Street, Scott was separated from the rest of his staff. At the next block, he made another right turn. He hadn't yet absorbed the epic scale of the catastrophe. And so he turned and looked back toward 1 World Trade Center, the only surviving twin of the towers. "I'm looking at the building," he recalls. "And as I'm looking back ... people jumping from the 100th or 110th floors, using their coats as parachutes, doing anything to escape the horrific flames of what had become a 'Towering Inferno.' It's another one of those memories that never goes away."
But then, the North Tower began to collapse. Scott had only been out of the building for about 5 or 6 minutes before its horrific implosion. Within moments, he was engulfed by another wave of debris.
He was alone now. Separated from his coworkers. He needed to find some kind of safe haven.
He remembered one of his clients, who worked on Varrick Street. He had no cell phone in his possession; he'd left it in his car, which was now under the rubble of the WTC.
So he just kept moving. Moving toward Varrick Street. Walking past police barriers to see this client, to find some kind of security, some kind of respite.
Covered from head to toe with the residue of what was once a symbol of the Manhattan skyline, he finally got to Varrick Street.
But he summoned the strength to board the elevator and took it up to the 8th floor. And, meeting up with his client, it wasn't until this moment that he had learned that the WTC had been attacked by commercial jets.
Eventually, Scott made his way crosstown to meet his fiancÚ, but he couldn't find the strength to go up to the 25th floor of yet another Manhattan office tower, where she had been staying. So he sat on a fire hydrant, waiting for her. By the time she arrived on the street, so overwhelmed was Scott with breathing problems that they flagged a police car and went together directly to the hospital.
After being treated for smoke inhalation, he was released. He could think of nothing else but getting out of Manhattan. Every sound on every street was cause for jitters. Every manhole cover became another potential terrorist target; he was consumed by "a feeling of total insecurity." And the one security blanket he had, the protective wet rag he had used while descending the smoky stairwells of the WTC, was now gone.
He and his fiancÚ got a lift to west 38th street, where they took a ferry to Hoboken. While on the ferry to Hoboken, he could barely look back at the island of Manhattan. In place of the Twin Towers, there was only the smoke and the flames.
When they had disembarked from the ferry, security demanded that anybody within five blocks of the disaster had to submit to decontamination. It was 11 pm. It was late summer, but it now felt as if there were an early autumn chill in the air. Like others, who were dressed in business attire encrusted with gray ash, Scott had to be hosed down as he walked through decontamination tents so that he would not carry toxins into the public transportation system. By the time he reached the last tent, he was thoroughly soaked. He put on a dry T-shirt and other clothes that had been provided. And he went home.
For a day or two thereafter, upset and frightened, Scott worked diligently from his home, keeping in close contact with his coworkers, some of whom he believed might have been suicidal. The parent company for which Scott worked contacted managers and requested a Manhattan meeting on Thursday of that week to be held at a temporary midtown location. "You gotta be kidding me," he told them. "That's not happening. I'm not coming." While he understood the corporate position, he felt that these people were totally insensitive to the human tragedy that was unfolding amongst his coworkers in the aftermath. But he attended the conference by phone.
During this conference call, it was decided that the parent company would host a grief counseling meeting on Monday, September 17th. Scott worked the phones all weekend, encouraging his people to attend, to share their fears and heartaches with one another. This had been a very closely knit group prior to the attack.
In the weeks and months that followed, he attended several memorials. Of the two coworkers who perished on 9/11, the body of one was never found. A few body parts from the other coworker were eventually identified some 3 1/2 months later.
Scott thought that many of the surviving employees should have gone on disability; he believed that many could have benefited from counseling before trying to reintegrate with the workforce. So many employees were so profoundly affected that they felt psychologically crippled.
Not surprisingly, as a survivor of 9/11, Scott seemed to have a better handle on his own therapeutic needs and on the needs of others than the professional grief-counselors whom the business employed. He spent most of his time listening to his coworkers, trying to help them through a period of intense post-traumatic stress, encouraging them to seek professional counseling. His ability to be a good listener helped many people through the grieving process, just as it helped him.
In ad hoc groups and individual meetings, the grief began to surface fully. Scott remembers one coworker who was born in Iran. "He felt, as a Muslim, that he was responsible. And he started to apologize and broke down. And there was another person who was a Muslim, and he broke down." He took the first man in his arms, held him, and kissed him on the cheek. "They were great people and they had nothing to do with this whole damn thing."
The effects of 9/11 were devastating on Scott's organization. Scott felt that the parent company had exhibited a callous attitude toward those who were grieving. In the first year following the attack, some in the company were asking bluntly: "When are you people going to get over this?"
It was clear to Scott that the parent company never really understood the impact that this had on the people in his firm and had abandoned so many of its committed workers. In fact, no one was ever reimbursed one nickel for any personal property lost. And while Scott was asked to attend several meetings so that the parent company could substantiate its claim against the property and casualty insurer, he received no compensation for the many thousands of dollars he had personally invested in furniture, equipment, and programs.
With time, many personal relationships fundamentally changed. Some people had romantic affairs. Some were married. Others got divorced. Still others contemplated suicide. And many who continued to work found it impossible to function in a social environment.
But Scott survived.
His survival is a testament not only to the value of hard work, but to his commitment to overcoming adversity, enabling him to rise from the ashes of that fateful day.
* The name "Scott" is used here to protect the privacy of my sister-in-law's cousin.
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