9/11 — Coming Down the Stairwell


I stepped off the elevator on the 71st floor of 1 World Trade Center only seconds before the first airplane hit.   There was one person, a young man, still on the elevator when the doors closed.

The airplane jolted the building in such a sharp fashion that I lost my balance.  I recall having the thought it was pointless to react to the lurch in the building because if the building went over, I was dead anyway.

Only a few feet from the elevator, I was standing near a stairwell entrance, which was situated next to the entrance to my department.  A consultant I knew ran out of the department entrance, dashed to the stairwell door, and opened it hastily.  As he did so, I asked him what he was doing, and he said he had been here in ’93 and was getting the hell out.   Still stunned, I just followed him through the door without saying a word.

As we were the first into the stairwell, we were able to scurry down about 5 flights before the crush of people came in.   The trip down the stairwell from that point on was like a crowded highway that backs up to a slow go and an occasional stop, now and then.  Most of the time, the two rows of people were orderly, but when the lines slowed to a stop, panic set in, and a few people started to yell, but when the lines started up again, they would quiet down, until the next time.

Despite the fumes in the stairwell, enough to make people tear, I think most people were unaware of what had actually happened, and thought instead an accident had occurred – a plane had accidentally flown into the building.  But when we got to around the 20s, three quarters of the way down, there was suddenly talk of a second plane!  We discovered this not because we sensed anything from the second plane’s impact on 2 WTC, but because people had cell phones and the message got through to them.   And so suddenly it was a lot scarier because two planes meant this was no accident.  We were under attack.

Two fire fighters passed us by.  Both were heavily loaded with gear, and were having a hard time with the gear going up all those stairs.  When we got to around the 10th floor, I looked through an open door, and there were many firefighters on this one floor as a kind of staging area, I guess.  The water retardant system had been activated because there was a lot of water on that floor and on the stairwell steps from that point to the bottom.

When we got to the bottom of the stairwell, which ended at an inconspicuous door on the plaza or mezzanine level, there were a number of people guiding us to the down escalator and under the plaza in a complex route that brought us to the up escalator or staircase and out the door next to the bookstore facing Church Street.    This route made a lot of sense as it protected people from falling debris from both towers.  I would be curious to know who – what person – came up with this strategy?  The strategy clearly saved a lot of lives, and demonstrated cool thinking in a desperate situation.  Whoever came up with the strategy deserves recognition for it, yet I have never heard who that person was.

Of course, one cannot say enough about the people who stayed behind, at grave danger to themselves in the underbelly of the complex, to guide the rest of us in our escape, like a human chain, to safety.  They were in grave danger to themselves, indeed, because they were still there when 2 WTC came down upon them.

When I came outside, there was a policeman telling people don’t look up and hurry and don’t stop.  And of course one had an immediate urge to look up, if nothing else to finally really see what in God’s name was going on.  When I did, what I saw was a solid band of red fire high up on 2 WTC, with smoke streaming out the top of this red wall of fire.

My immediate gut reaction was that the fire was too intense for the building to withstand it.  This was no barn fire that was mostly black smoke with occasional specks of red here and there, but a virtual wall of red fire.  So I just wanted to bolt and get away because I instinctively thought the building was doomed — it would come down.

There was a large crowd across Church Street on the same block as St. Paul’s Chapel, and I remember dodging around these people to make my way through this crowd as they pressed forward to get a better view.  These same people were in the bulls-eye when 2 WTC came down, all for the sake of a better view.

I made it to just before City Hall on Park Row before 2 WTC came down.  I remember there was a kind of collective groan from the people around me, so I turned around to see, only to watch 2 WTC collapse, and then a huge cloud of soot burst out from between the buildings in the foreground.

Very scared, I made it all the way to an obscure side street just below Washington Square when 1 WTC came down.    Moments after it came down, I had the strangest feeling of exultation – actually leaping in the air.   Completely involuntary, this exultation, I realized later, was a kind of visceral relief and gladness at having survived, of still being alive.    I had no control over it.  It just swept over me.

I went back to the WTC site recently to step off the distance.  I wanted to know how close a call it was.   How much time had elapsed from when I was still trapped inside the complex to where I stood when 2 WTC came down?  A brisk walk took just four and a half minutes.  But for those four and a half minutes, the photography ebook listed below would never have seen the light of day.

Manhattan, A Photographer’s Journey by Henry Barnard

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