September 11th 2001
An explosion of sound blasted through the building. It lurched violently to one side. Two people in the express elevator with me gripped the handrail as we continued our ascent. One was a twenty-something woman wearing tan pants, a white blouse, and an embroidered red scarf. I’d seen her many times having lunch at The Odeon on West Broadway where I worked. The other, a man, was tall and broad-shouldered. He looked about sixty, handsome, with a shock of white hair. I had never seen him before but by the looks of his tailored suit I assumed he was someone of importance.
“What the Hell just happened?” the man questioned.
“I don’t know!” I replied.
“Was it a bomb?” the woman asked, her voice high with fear.
A second explosion rocked the elevator followed by severe, earthquake-like shaking. The woman screamed. The elevator shuddered and jolted to a stop. We crouched low and braced against the floor. A cloud of smoke engulfed us.
“We’ve gotta get out of here!” the woman cried and coughed.
She fumbled with her purse and retrieved her cell phone. Instinct told me to act. I hopped to my feet and looked around in exasperation.
“I can’t get a signal!” the woman stated. “There’s no phone signal!”
“C’mon!” I hollered to the businessman, coughed, and wedged my fingertips in the thin space between the elevator doors. “Help me open these!”
The businessman stood and grabbed at the other side. We pulled; heaved; coughed. My muscles swelled. Slowly, the doors pried apart to face a wall of sheetrock stamped with the identification: 102nd floor.
“Oh God!” the young woman sobbed, and started coughing. “It’s blocked!”
I looked down the shaft. Several floors below was all fire.
Panic hit. I kicked at the sheetrock; slammed the heel of my foot with all my might. Over and over. It didn’t make a dent.
“We’re never gonna bust through this!” I stated. Ideas jumped into my brain. “We’re gonna have to dig out!” I turned to the businessman. “You got anything sharp?”
“Dig out!” the young woman cried. “We can’t possibly!”
I coughed. The businessman’s eyes were huge O’s of fear.
“All I have is my car keys,” he said.
“Give them to me!”
Smoke thickened. The young woman tried to use her cell phone again. A series of coughs overtook her.
“Get some cloth!” I stated, and pulled off my white Perry Ellis button down shirt. “Spit into the fabric and then wrap it around your mouth. It’ll help you breath!”
The businessman removed his shirt. The young woman used her scarf.
Driven by panic, I gouged the keys into the sheetrock. My hands moved fast but made little progress. The businessman climbed up on the handrail and tried to push out the ceiling. He hammered with his palms to no avail. The panels were made of steel and screwed in tight.
Heat intensified. Smoke stung my eyes and scratched my throat, smothering my ability to think clearly. Sweat ran down my forehead and soaked my T-shirt. I puffed and wheezed, poking and jabbing with the keys until my arms and shoulders ached. Pieces of sheetrock chipped off. Two of the keys bent. My fingers cramped. Breathing came in lung-pinching, hot gasps. My eyes went unfocused. Faintness swept over; light headed and winded.
I thought about dropping the keys, closing my eyes, and giving up.
Suddenly, the key poked through to the other side. The hole was no larger than what a worm bores, but it was enough. Fresh air drooled in.
“I’ve done it!” I stated.
I put my lips to the hole and breathed oxygen that was free of ash and smoke, but tasted of fuel. We took turns gulping fast breaths. Then I quickly sawed and made the opening about the diameter of a quarter.
Infused with energy, the businessman and I started kicking at the hole, kicking for our lives. Chunks of sheetrock broke off. And then bigger chunks. Finally, his foot punched out a huge, chair-size opening. A drafty inrush propelled the smoke in the elevator to the ceiling.
“We’re free!” the young woman gushed, nearly overcome with emotion.
“Go clear the way ahead!” I said to the businessman. “I’ll kick the hole big enough for me.”
He nodded, squat down, and wiggled through the space, then knocked out a thin sheet of drywall on the other side and disappeared. The young woman crawled out next. I kicked at the sheetrock until I could fit my large frame and then squeezed through both holes, emerging through the wall and into a deserted conference area. Except for the lack of activity and the strong odors of combustion and gasoline, everything appeared strangely ordinary: desks, computers, cluttered stacks of paper, a copy machine in the corner.
The young woman’s hands trembled as she attempted to dial her cell phone again.
I stepped toward the window.
Below us, flames rolled upward in massive orange turrets as thick, black smoke gushed into the sky. My eye caught a flaming object free-falling to the ground. And then another flaming object jumped from a broken window. And then another. My mind reeled with horror as I realized they were people leaping from the building.
I whipped out my cell phone and tried for a signal. Amazingly, one bar came up.
“We’ve got phones!” I announced.
Shaking and reeling, I pressed Amber’s number. She answered on the second ring.
“Amber!” I said. “Are you alright? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine!” she replied, her voice cracking as it often did when she was nervous. “We’re all fine! Where are you? I was so worried about you!”
“I’m on the 102nd floor.” I swallowed hard, trying to keep the adrenaline staccato and tension from my voice.
“What are you doing there?”
“It’s a long story. I stopped on ninety-seven to surprise Rick at Cantor Fitgerald. But he’s late, so I—”
“Someone said the lower floors are on fire!” She cut me off. “Did you feel the building shake? What happened? All I can see out the windows is smoke.”
My mind battled to recapture its sanity and jerk my senses back to some semblance of normalcy.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Maybe a gas explosion. Maybe a bomb.”
“Oh, dear God!”
“I’m certain the fire and police departments are on their way,” I assured her. “They’ll have the situation under control soon enough. What’s important is that we’re all safe. How are you feeling? How’s the baby?”
“I’m okay. The baby’s kicking a bit, but I’m good. No nausea so far.”
“How about everyone else?”
“They’re fine. We’re all fine up here.”
“I’m heading to the stairs now,” I said. “I’ll see you in a few.”
“No, don’t come up! Someone said Emergency Services wants everyone to stay where they are. They don’t want people clogging the stairwells in a panic. The safest thing for us to do is to wait for the fire department to get here.”
“I don’t care what Emergency Services said!”
“Nathan, no! You’ll only worry me. Stay where you are until the building is safe. Please! I’ll see you at home when this is over. Don’t worry, it’s totally normal up here. I’ll be fine.”
I gripped my phone, frazzled with indecision.
“Guess I should have picked a different place for breakfast?” I said, trying to lighten the situation. “I’m sorry. This was supposed to be such a special day.”
“Like any of this is your fault,” she replied, trying her best to sound uplifted. “We’ll celebrate next week. Someplace street level. We… then— ”
The signal cut.
I looked over at the young woman. She was putting down her cell phone.
“My mom told me the city is sending every fire precinct in Manhattan over here,” the young woman said, her voice shaking. “My mom said I should stay put until they get the situation under control. That the whole middle of the building is on fire.”
We all looked at each other. Stony silence ensued.
“I think we should get out of here,” I said, after a few moments.
“I think we should stay,” the businessman countered. His face was still pale but he looked immensely relieved to be out of the elevator. He wiped sweat from his forehead and smoothed his hair. “It’s what they want us to do. It’s safer.”
“I don’t feel safer,” I said. “The fire’s only a few floors below. Fire burns up. If they can’t get this out quickly it’s going to burn its way here.”
“I doubt that,” he replied. “The building has fire retardant systems. Sprinklers and such. For all we know the fire may be out.” He crossed his arms. “I’m staying.”
“We don’t know what’s going on down there!” I stated. “The systems may be knocked out! It could be total chaos!”
The young woman shifted uneasily.
“I’m staying!” the businessman affirmed. “You can do whatever you want.”
“I… I agree,” the young woman said, her mind in an obvious state of uncertainty. “I… I think we should stay.”
I looked at them both and thought perhaps that I was the one making a mistake. Surely, the building was equipped to contain this type of emergency. Surely, the New York Fire Department, the best in the world, could quickly remedy this situation. We were out of the elevator and safe. Why put myself in more danger by trying to evacuate? But something deep inside me said to get Amber and our families and get out. This was no ordinary accident. I sensed something extraordinarily horrible had happened.
“I’m leaving!” I affirmed, and started toward the emergency stairwell. “I’m not going to sit around here and hope to be rescued.”
“Wait!” the young woman called, her voice quavering. She looked about in alarm and then nervously licked her lips. “I… I changed my mind. I’m coming with you. I don’t want to stay here! I want to get out of this building!”
I nodded, and turned to the businessman. “How about it?”
“I’ll take my chances,” the businessman concluded.
The businessman sat down in a leather executive chair, leaned back, and rested his hands across his lap as if none of this was really happening.
“Okay then,” I replied. “Take care of yourself.”
“You too.” He paused, and looked at me in an ethereal, brotherly way. “Thanks for that quick thinking back there. You really came through.”
I nodded, and forced a thin smile, then turned to the young woman. “Ready?”
We headed past a maze of identical cubicles toward the emergency stairwell located in the core of the building. I pushed open the thick steel door and held it for the young woman. Phosphorescent lights glowed feebly in the tunnel-like stairwell. The door closed with the solid, echoing click of engaging metal.
“I’ll see you on the street,” I said, and turned to head up the steps.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“To get my fiancé.”
“You’re leaving me?”
“I have to!”
A small pod of people looking annoyed came trudging down the upper flights and passed us on the landing.
“Don’t bother heading to the roof if that’s what you’re thinking?” said an older, overweight woman wearing a blue dress. “A piece of concrete fell from the ceiling on 105 and is blocking the stairwell. There’s no way around it. Guess we’ll be getting our exercise today.”
My heart sank as the group continued their descent.
“Come on,” the young woman urged, and pulled at my shirt sleeve. “You heard her! You can’t go up!”
I thought about Amber trapped, and hoped and prayed that she’d be okay (in the back of my mind I knew she would) and then reluctantly turned around and started down the stairs.
A floor lower, we encountered more people, a few dozen, walking, not hurrying. Some were even joking about the situation. Others were noticeably angry about the hassles of the lost workday.
As we descended another floor even more people poured into the stairwell. It got crowded. Heads and shoulders stirred and jostled for space; a rustling tide toward the freedom of the first floor. Temperature and the biting odor of gasoline increased.
The line nearly stopped because someone ahead needed assistance, but the atmosphere remained relatively calm and orderly. The young woman turned to me. She gathered herself, making a visible effort to keep her emotions under control. I met her anxious gaze with a reassuring grin.
“I’m sorry I freaked out back there in the elevator,” she said, and cleared her throat. “I was just so scared.”
“We all were,” I replied. “But we’re safe now.”
I pressed my hand against her stiff shoulder in understanding. Her shoulder loosened a little.
“In an hour we’ll be on the street getting a cup of coffee and waiting for the all clear,” I added.
“I hope so.” She smiled fleetingly. “By the way, my name’s Lea. Lea Kramer.”
“Nathan Cruz,” I said. “I’ve seen you at The Odeon on West Broadway. I work there.”
“That’s where I recognize you,” she said. “I thought I knew you from somewhere.”
“Today’s my day off. I was supposed to meet my family and my fiancé’s family for breakfast to celebrate our recent engage—”
A huge explosion shook the stairwell. Steel shrieked, concrete cracked and shattered. Dust and smoke encased us. Emergency lights shut off pitching the stairwell into total darkness. People screamed in horror.
The crowd broke into a panic and started to run, stampeding down and over each other. Lea grabbed hold of my arm as we held our positions with our backs pressed against the wall until the crush of people passed and the chaos subsided.
A few moments later, the emergency lights flicked back on. A flight below, I saw an older man sprawled on the stairwell in obvious distress. I raced down three steps at a time to reach him. Lea followed.
“Are you okay?” I asked the man.
“I… I… can’t… can’t breathe.” His eyes bulged from a face the color of ripe apples. “I… I… can’t…”
He gasped fervently.
“Lay back!” I said, feeling a helpless panic. “Help is coming! It won’t be…”
The man lost consciousness.
The building trembled and groaned. A large piece of the stairwell came crashing down and smashed against the flight above us scattering large chunks. Sprinklers came on and rained lukewarm water.
“Let’s go!” Lea said, and her voice pitched with fear. “It’s not safe here!”
“You go,” I replied. “I’m gonna get this guy out of the stairwell and into an office.”
“That’s very brave,” she said. She looked down the stairs and her hand trembled as she wiped water droplets from her forehead. “I’ll help. But let’s do it quick.”
We both reached down, me at his head and she at his feet, and tried to lift him. It was like trying to lift a two hundred pound sack of sand. We strained against his wet, limp weight and barely got him off the floor when we had to put him down again.
Another chunk of the ceiling fell. Lights fluttered. Jets of steam whistled from burst pipes above us.
“Hurry!” Lea cried, and struggled again to lift the man’s legs. “It sounds like this whole building is going to collapse!”
I laid two fingers against the artery in the man’s neck.
“I don’t feel a pulse!” I said, and put my hand over his mouth. “He’s not breathing!”
Lea drew back and her hand went up to cover her lips.
“He’s dead?” she gasped through her fingers.
I nodded mutely.
“Oh God!” Her eyes filled with tears. “Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!”
She made the sign of a cross over her chest.
“We’ll tell emergency services he’s here,” I said. “Let’s go!”
A flight down, we passed two more people sprawled on a landing, dead, battered, and bloody, as if crushed by a giant fist. Revulsion rolled and knotted my stomach.
“Look how messed up they are,” Lea said, her eyes wide with horror. “What could have happened to them?”
“Maybe the ceiling fell. The residents of these floors must have put them out there for the firemen to find.”
A long, deep thundering sound shuddered the building. Fluorescents fell from the ceiling and shattered. Lea screamed. Sections of the above stairwell broke away and crashed onto the landing behind us.
Every fiber in me flashed into action. I grabbed Lea’s arm and took off down the steps as fast as I could, hopping over chunks of debris and passing more dead. Most looked in their twenties and thirties, badly charred or busted up, business suits and blouses torn and frayed.
An older, badly burned, heavy-set woman wearing the tattered remnants of a blue office dress, and in obvious shock, came barreling up the steps with her arms open wide, putting herself directly into our way so we couldn’t pass her.
“Go back!” she screamed and sobbed, puffing with exertion. She gesticulated madly. “You gotta go back! The floor below is all fire! Everyone’s dead! Every single one!”
The expression on her face looked absolutely horror-stricken. Her eyes, all black pupil, were wild and nearly jittering in their sockets.
“You’re injured!” I said. “We’ll help you. But we must go down!”
“Noooo!” Her scream projected into an anguished wail. “They’re all dead!”
Lea flashed me a look of desperation. A look that said we have to get out of here immediately. I moved to detour around the woman.
Another explosion shook the building and the stairwell groaned an unnatural, unearthly sound. Cracks slithered along the walls. Suddenly, fire blew through the floor below and a tremendous cloud of thick, black smoke whirled up. The hefty woman scuttled up the steps away from the pandemonium. The wall splintered and a large piece fell down. Sheets of drywall crumbled in a blaze of sparks. Pipes burst.
I found Lea’s hand, whisked her along with me up to the next landing, and barreled through the reinforced door onto the 94th floor. Heat slammed into us. I stood a moment fixated in shock and horror. Hot, gluey air burned my eyes and lungs. The entire floor was nearly gutted. Large pieces of blazing airplane wreckage littered the buckled interior. Concrete support columns were crumbled and broken. Steel beams were blistered and blackened. Light fixtures, speakers, and wire dangled from the fractured ceiling. Half the area was consumed by raging fire that careened out a massive hole in the side of the building causing a strong wind to blow and draw out the worst of the smoke.
Bodies lay sprawled on the floor and against the walls; severed heads, limbs, and torsos tossed over broken office furniture and chunks of construction material. Chopped up. Knocked out. Thrashing. Burned beyond recognition. Smoldering. Those few still alive cowered in the fire-free sections, screaming hysterically and crying, or crumpled on the floor in pain. Some sat trembling, in all-consuming shock, oblivious to their injuries and the devastation surrounding them.
“God help us,” Lea muttered, and coughed.
A young man whose abdomen was crushed under what looked like a piece of airplane fuselage was flailing his arms wildly and calling desperately for his mother. A woman burned over most of her body sat with her hands around her knees sobbing into raw fingers. A few yards away, I recognized a man who frequented the gym where I exercised. His name was Larry. He lay twisted on his back, legs awkwardly akimbo, motionless, and moaning.
A hand whacked my shoulder from behind. I spun around and faced a nude woman, hairless and burned over most of her body. My stomach nearly revolted.
“Billy?” she asked, her expression completely lost. “Billy, that you?” Her eyes shifted to a dead man sprawled a few feet away. She wobbled toward the body. “Billy…”
I stood immobile, slack-jawed and stunned, breathing the fiery air in shallow gasps to maintain my sanity.
“Let’s go!” Lea urged. “There’s no helping these people! We’ve gotta get out of here!”
I took off my shirt again, wrapped the sleeve around my mouth, and leaned beside Larry.
“Larry!” I said. “It’s Nathan Cruz!”
He squirmed at the sound of my voice and moved his arms feebly, his expression the embodiment of angst.
“Hurry, Nathan!” Lea cried. “The fire’s spreading!”
“Okay, Larry,” I said. “I’m going to lift you. Everything’s going to be okay.”
I reached down and noticed high heat radiating off the floor.
“Do you feel that?” I asked Lea. “There must be fire beneath us.”
Lea’s pupils contracted with fear.
The building vibrated with a loud creaking, crunching sound. It rippled and roiled as if built on a foundation of gelatin. Lea flashed me a look of utter and absolute terror. And then everything seemed to happen in slow motion.
A tremendous roar-rumble and the floor crumbled and sunk away beneath us. Everything blurred into smoke, fire, dust, and the crackle of electrical sparks. I was in the air, weightless and free falling, sailing through empty space; tumbling.
I landed hard. My breath knocked from my lungs.
Reality winked out.