This is from the book Tower Stories that I participated in.
It's long, but it's pretty much the whole story.
Tom was in his office, Suite 8901 on the 89th Floor of Tower 1, when the plane impacted two stories above his head.
Before beginning his interview, Tom noted how he had put a lot of distance between himself and most of the people he knows since September 11th.
I’ve been keeping to myself, spending a lot of time with my wife, Kim. We’ve been married three years in May. We met in high school, we’ve been together for over thirteen years, I’ve been an emotional wreck. Not so much in breaking down and crying a lot. More like sudden mood changes.
* * *
I had gotten [into work] early that day. The day before, we had made a major presentation to a banking client. We do a lot of internal work for banks. We had recently taken on the project of communicating the services available to employees after the merger of two financial institutions. There was going to be a lot of treasury services available to one that were not available previously. We were putting together a campaign to educate them on [these] new services.
We had the meetings on Monday and that solidified us being involved in the project. The [client] was interested in quick turn-around so the designs needed to be approved by the following Thursday. On the 10th [of September], I was at the office until about 9 at night. The following morning, I got into the office at about 7:30, still working on the design although normally I would [arrive at] 8:30 or quarter to nine.
I had just completed the designs and the head copywriter and I were discussing [them] at my computer. We talked about the direction I had taken the design as opposed to what I had done for [the client] in the past. There were five people in the office that early in the morning: myself, the receptionist, the copywriter, a production artist, and a woman in client services.
My computer monitor was in the window well, facing north. In fact, if I craned my neck about a millimeter to the right, I could see the Empire State Building off in the distance.
* * *
Now the order of all this [occurred to me] later. For weeks after [the plane hit] I was replaying the first thirty to sixty seconds over and over again in my head, trying to make order of it.
First, I heard the engine. It was incredibly loud. There were a couple of times when I was in the office late at night and I could hear thunderstorms, I could see the lightning hitting the water. It was that kind of boom. Then the glass in my office started to vibrate like ripples in water.
At this point, Lynn, the copywriter, was in the doorway to my office, heading out. I was sitting at my desk. At the point of impact, I was getting up out of my chair to ask her to come look at the designs again. I was turning to get her when we were hit. I was thrown about three feet and hit the wall nearly horizontal. Lynn was thrown a good five feet or so out my door into the main design department. The entire office erupted into flames and total darkness.
All the power went out like flipping off a light. Everything except for a good three and half foot path to the door was on fire. I was in that path and so was Lynn. Interestingly enough, Evan, Frances, and Sabrina were all in that same straight line. We actually found out later after talking about it that everything around us burned.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the World Trade Center, but it would really move a lot. On a windy day, ceiling tiles would fall, it was fairly normal. From my office, I could hear the creaking of the building on a windy day. When we were hit, all of the ceiling tiles dropped on us. We had just had a lot of construction done on the office to put up walls, including the wall to my office. One of the inter-office walls fell down.
* * *
I stood up, totally stunned. Lynn got up off the ground and yelled, “Thomas, what are you doing? Get up and run!” She ran out toward the front door.
The carpeting in the office was that gross kind of indoor-outdoor industrial carpet. If you scraped your feet on it, it would make this sort of Vrooooooof! noise that would go right through me. My foot slipped on a piece of the ceiling tile and I realized the glass from my windows had blown into the office. That’s when I turned and looked out the window.
The columns in the wall had stayed. I was stunned at how blue the sky was. I turned back toward where Lynn had run deeper into the office and that’s when I noticed the conference room wall had a very interesting pattern of fire running down it. Later I found out that it was jet fuel.
* * *
It was strangely silent. There was just the constant high-pitched whoop whoop whoop of the fire alarm. Now we had done a number of fire drills and they’d always had announcements over the intercom system. Nothing [now], though.
It was as if time started to move very slowly. I didn’t run, I didn’t hurry. I just strolled out of the office, absorbing my surroundings. I got to the front of our office’s design department and I caught up with Evan. He was as stunned as I was. We walked toward the front reception area and the back wall behind the receptionist’s desk was on fire. Sabrina, the receptionist, was okay. She [had been] standing in that same straight line [that had kept all of us safe]. The front doors had blown into the office, collapsed, and were on fire. Across the hall from our office was a ladies room. The wall was gone and you could see toilets. We were walking on tiles and glass.
Lynn had run through the front door and out into the hallway. We decided to follow Lynn’s path. We got about six feet out, I looked over to my right and couldn’t see a thing because of the black smoke. The entire east side of the building was obscured and there was no air to breathe.
Evan and Sabrina were with me, Lynn was in front of me. I thought to myself, “I don’t know where Frances is.” So I decided to turn back into the office. At this point, the fire consumed most of the area but there was a little spot on the door where there was no fire.
I could hear Frances from the copy room right next to the receptionist area. The filing cabinets in the copy room had all gone down on top of one another. Frances is tiny. She stands maybe 4’11’’. Somehow she had managed to wiggle in between all the cabinets which were full of reams of paper and office supplies. They had fallen in front of a door leading to the hallway. She was pulling on the door handles, screaming to get out. She didn’t realize that the reason she couldn’t open the door was because the filing cabinet had fallen against it.
The cabinet was [heavy] but I threw it aside as if it weighed nothing. Pure adrenaline. Evan and Sabrina followed me, raising the rest of the cabinets and debris in front of the door. When we opened that door and got out, we turned the corner to go toward the elevators. We could hear Lynn’s voice yelling to us, “Follow me, follow me!” We started running toward her.
* * *
From third grade I remembered that we would have more air if we crawled. I yelled, “Everybody drop! Crawl to her!” We crawled Kosmo Services, the office which shared a wall with mine. I swear to you, that office looked like nothing had happened even though it was directly under where the plane had flown in. Their power was still on, their phones still worked. Some of the ceiling tiles had fallen and the books were jumbled around a little [from the shelves], but it looked as if nothing had happened. I didn’t understand it at all.
There were about five people in there including Walter, who I believe was the owner of Kosmo Services. Lynn and Walter went out into the hall to see if they could find anybody. They found an elderly gentleman who was yelling, “Somebody please help me!” I don’t know his name. I would see him in the elevator everyday but, like a lot of people who worked for companies on the floor, I never talked to them. Not even a ‘hello’ or ‘how you doing?’ They were just the people in the elevator.
There was nothing wrong with this man. He was just scared and in the dark out in the hall, so they brought him inside. Lynn and Walter also discovered that all the doors to the stairwells were locked. Don’t know why. I’ve heard that the doors lock automatically [during an emergency] as a mechanical function and I’ve also heard that the doors were kept locked intentionally to keep people from going into the stairwell to smoke. Each office was apparently equipped with keys but we didn’t know that at the time. The keys to the stairwell were in the receptionist’s desk, which was on fire. I don’t know if either of these stories are true, just that the doors were locked.
* * *
We had air in the office and after Lynn and Walter came back, we closed the door to try to keep the air clean. It had taken us maybe fifteen minutes to get out of our office. I was still in a daze.
This is interesting: in my office, there was a radiator by the window. Just below my office window was a small kidney shaped park you could see if you climbed up on the radiator. There were always people sitting in the park and as Lynn would say “enjoying their lives while we were way up here working.” She would often say something to the effect of being jealous of those people… So one day I said jokingly, as a comfort to her, that they looked like they were having fun down there, but in fact they were all miserable people with miserable lives. This became a running joke between us. In the Kosmo office, the first thing I did—I guess out of habit—was step up onto the radiator, put my head against the glass, and look out at the “miserable people.” I wasn’t thinking that my own windows had just blown out. Occasionally, flaming pieces of the building would fall and hit the glass that I was pressing my face against. Walter said, “Hey, you know? I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
I said, “Okay,” and climbed down.
People started making phone calls. I called my wife, who works at Rockefeller Center, but she was still at the gym—she goes there on the mornings when I go [to work] early. I left a message on her voice mail, trying my best to sound even-keeled. I said, “Ah, the building’s exploded. Turn the TV on, we’re probably on the news.”
Somebody had the great idea to turn on a radio. Simultaneously, Lynn was on the phone talking to a friend who was watching TV. [We learned that] a plane had struck the building. WNEW [radio station] was, in my opinion, making light of the situation. They were watching replays of the impact on TV, doing a play-by-play as if it were a sporting event. I decided that, since we were all freaking out, I would get up and change the station.
That’s when the second plane hit. The building shook, and I was nearly knocked off my feet again.
* * *
We sat on the floor of Kosmo Services. I called my mom, but she wasn’t home; I called my wife’s machine again and left progressively nervous messages. There were actually four messages [I learned later]—the fourth message was a hang-up and I believe it was time-stamped at 9:14 am.
I hung up [on that call] because two of the guys from Operations opened the office door. [I learned later] this was Frank DiMartini and Pablo Ortiz. They were dressed in regular clothes but had hard hats and flashlights. They had opened the stairwell and one of them told us, “Wait, and then follow me.” But none of us waited. We saw that the stairwell was open and went for it.
We started down the empty stairs. There was nobody on them, it was eerie. There was just the eleven of us, five from my office, five from Kosmo and the elderly guy. We were told later that people on our floor were killed, but I really don’t know. I only saw the eleven of us.
* * *
Somebody ran down to 82 and said that the stairwell was blocked. We had to cut across the building. We went onto the 82nd floor and had to walk over to another stairwell [to continue our descent]. The floor was completely devastated. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. The burning smell . . . I’ll still occasionally catch a whiff of it for no apparent reason. Something tangy and pungent, similar to burning rubber. The floor was covered with piles of debris, collapsed plaster walls and big chunks of metal.
Somebody with us got the idea to light our way through to the next stairwell by turning their cell phone on and off. The little green light would come on in the black smoke and [the phone’s owner] would wave it through the air around objects so that we could see where they were and crawl through them. Fire surrounded us everywhere, but you still couldn’t see anything.
It was extremely hot. The sprinklers were on—they had turned on for our floor, as well. We were drenched. The fire emergency strobes would flash but you still couldn’t see through the obscurity of debris and smoke.
When we got to the next stairwell, we started down again. Now we saw people. Occasionally, we would pass somebody going down but we pretty much kept to the course. We were tired and scared and determined.
* * *
We got to the 78th floor Sky Lobby. A Sky Lobby was a sort of dock that increased office space without having to put in more elevators. There were elevator banks [at the base of each Tower] that would go direct to the Sky Lobbies on 78 or 44. From there, you would take a local elevator to the floor you worked on. At 78, we encountered a landing of sorts, a long hallway that allowed us to keep going without actually going out onto the floor. At the end of this hallway were two doors, side by side. Two guys were standing in front of them, yelling at each other.
The one door said “EXIT” on it with a sign pointing down. One man was saying to follow that sign, but the other man yelled, “No. I’ve done this before. This other door goes to the bottom. If you take the stairs with the EXIT sign, you’ll have to cross the building again.”
“I’m following the sign, I’m following the sign!” said the one guy.
“You do whatever you want, I’m going this way.” They were angry. I didn’t recognize either of them.
I was in the front of our group at this point. We had lost the people from Kosmo. There was just the five from our office and the elderly gentleman. I said, “I’m following this guy if he says the door goes to the ground.” Not the guy who followed the sign, but the guy who said, ‘I’ve done this before’.
* * *
The stairwell was flooded at times. Water was rushing down the stairs from the sprinklers or broken pipes. At some points it was so heavy that you had to hold on tight to the railing
In the stairs you would see a pair of shoes, a tie, an abandoned briefcase. As if someone had said, “Screw this. I don’t need a tie anymore.”
We encountered a lot more people around floor 50. We would see small groups here and there, but there were crowds of people on 50. People would yell their floor number out as they went down to let people know who was [evacuating]. Not once did we hear anyone higher than our floor.
People were stopping and drinking Cokes, soft drinks and water from jugs. We didn’t stop. We helped people; there was a couple of elderly women who were having trouble getting down the stairs at one point where the water was serious. We helped them get past that area. We weren’t abandoning people. We weren’t allowing how tired we were to affect what our mission was: to get the five of us the hell out of there.
We saw the first fireman on the 30th floor. He had his full gear on and a hose over his shoulder. I couldn’t believe that he had any energy to walk up the steps. He looked exhausted, ready to drop. He took his helmet off, someone poured water in it and he put the helmet back on [his head] with the water still in it. It was devastatingly hot.
There was no panic in the stairs, people weren’t pushing. They were friendly and calm. [My group] talked a lot about it afterwards. We all thought that, when we had gotten to the stairs, we were safe. We would get out. The fire was behind us. It was just a matter of keep walking, keep walking. We still didn’t know at that point what kind of devastation had taken place.
We had been walking two at a time, but we experienced a back-up around the 50th floor. Occasionally, someone would be heading up the stairs and you had to make room for them, a fireman, a building manager, an occasional EMT. By the 30th floor we were down to just the one side [of the stairwell], you could only [proceed] one person at a time in single file. The line was moving slow and the water was moving fast. You had to hold onto brackets that held the banister to the wall..
* * *
At about the 3rd floor there was a woman sitting in a chair in the stairwell doorway with two firemen by her side. She was in hysterics, saying she couldn’t go anymore, she absolutely could not walk anymore. They were saying to her, “Please. You have to keep walking. You only have three floors to go . . .”
Two regular office guys were carrying a person in a wheelchair [via] a board slung between the wheels.
A door opened out onto the Plaza Level,. Technically, this was floor 2, the courtyard between the two [Towers]. There were really two ground levels, this Plaza Level and the [true] ground level at the bottom of the escalators. The huge glass windows of the plaza were still standing. There was a line of police officers that went all the way back. They were saying to us, “Don’t look out the window, just keep walking.”
At this point, the five of us were separated; the two young ladies had gotten ahead of us in the stairwell and I was still with Lynn and Evan. A guy from behind me walked past me and started through the plaza. He was bald and had a massive head wound that stretched all the way over [his skull] from temple to temple. It was pouring blood onto his white dress shirt. A cop from the row yelled out to him, “Hey, buddy are you okay?” and ran forward from the line.
The [bald] guy says, [in a heavy, matter-of-fact New York accent]: “Yeah. I’ve had better days.”
The cops started yelling, “If you have the energy, run! If you can, run!”
Lynn took off running down toward the escalator.
Time stopped dead for me, just as it had immediately after the impact of the plane. I was still walking, but I was completely hypnotized by what I saw through the windows in the plaza outside the building.
* * *
The Sphere was smashed. It had a dent in it and a piece of the building on top of it. A large chunk of the building façade was right outside the window, blazing fire.
There was this devastatingly loud thumping. At the time, I thought it was more pieces of the building falling, it didn’t register. But there were piles of unrecognizable body parts [on the ground]. I now can only assume now they were jumpers.
Somehow I kept walking and got to the escalator leading down to the Concourse Level. The escalator was stopped and filled with water about knee-deep at the bottom. All the glass leading out of the Concourse was broken. All of the revolving doors. Broken. The floor was covered in beads of glass. The line of police officers was staggered, directing traffic past the PATH station, around a corner by the A Train to another escalator up to the plaza level. We exited outside to the Trade Center campus. I think we were on Church Street, just Lynn, Evan, and myself.
There were police officers yelling, “Don’t look up, just keep walking.” Which is, of course, exactly when I decided to look up. I hadn’t even though of it until they said not to. That’s when I saw we were standing directly in front of Building 2. I was looking straight up at a gaping hole with fire coming out of it, the same thing you’ve probably seen on the news. We decided to walk across the street.
In front of an iron gate surrounding a church, Lynn said, “Whatever you guys do, don’t leave me. I don’t have any money or identification. I left my purse upstairs.” She was fairly calm, but nervous. We all were. Then I heard the sound of the building starting to fall.
It was a creaking. Almost like when you have an upstairs neighbor and they’re walking around; sort of like that, but really, really loud. And then thunder. I turned around and saw the building coming down. We were a block away. The three of us ran in different directions.
* * *
I ran straight up Dey Street and passed a 4/5/6 station. I turned to go in there, thinking I would be okay underground. In that split second of indecision—whether to go down or try to find a building or get under a car—the cloud engulfed me. It came from the north, south, east, west. It came from above; every possible direction. I was standing in the middle of the street. There was nowhere to go.
The debris cloud hit me like a sledgehammer from all directions so I didn’t fall over. Total blackness. No air at all. Then something hit me on the head.
I pulled my shirt up over my head. I couldn’t see anyway, so what did it matter? I thought to myself, “I can’t believe that after 89 flights of stairs , I’m dying right here in the street.” I was so tired. My knees hurt. Anytime I stopped moving, my legs would shake. I wanted to just sit down and let it happen.
But just a couple of days before, I had made a promise to my wife that I would never leave her alone. How could I do that to her? I said to myself, “I love my wife. I’m gonna keep walking.”
I remembered that there was a building right in front of me before the cloud came down. I started toward it but walked straight into a parked car. I felt my way around it, kicking with my foot for the curb. Got up over the curb and onto the sidewalk. I was walking like Frankenstein with my shirt over my head and my hands out in front of me.
I walked into somebody who grabbed my hands and said, “Go this way.” And then they let go and were gone.
I walked toward the left and into the rough stone wall of a building. I thought, “Okay, I’ll just keep walking to the left and maybe I’ll get to a door.” I kept going and came to a corner. So I figured I’d turn the corner and follow the line of the building—eventually there had to be a door.
Boom. I walked right into a revolving door and into the building.
* * *
I was standing in the lobby of this building. I pulled my head out from inside my shirt and saw what must have been a thousand screaming people.
There was a fireman on his hands and knees in his bunker gear throwing up blood all over the floor. He looked up at me and his eyes were blood red; he looked at me like I was nuts. He handed me a Gatorade, still on his hands and knees. I’m confused. I don’t know what’s going on. I can’t believe I’m alive. He goes, “Just fucking drink it.”
I had so much soot and ash in my mouth and nose. I took a swig, weird shit going through my head. A stranger hands me a drink after throwing up, I’m worried about germs. I decided to wash my mouth out with it rather than drink. I spat it out on the floor.
I noticed then that I was covered with ash an inch thick. I had gotten so wet from being in the building that everything stuck to me. A guy walked up to me saying, “Hey, are you okay? Are you okay?” He was totally clean. I handed him the Gatorade.
A policeman got on a bullhorn and said, “If there’s anyone with any disability or asthma, follow my hand.” And though there’s a thousand people in the lobby, I see this hand poke up. I think, “I don’t have a disability or asthma but I’m gonna follow the hand.”
I worked my way through the crowd. People saw me and made a path. The mob split down the middle. I went through a back door and into an Au Bon Pain. There were maybe ten police officers in there trying to figure out what to do next.
* * *
In retrospect, I have no idea where I was. I don’t know the location of that building, for instance. I haven’t wanted to go downtown at all, but after seeing that special on CBS, I want to see the street again. I want to know where I was. I wonder how far away I got.
When I was running from that building, I felt like Carl Lewis. That’s the fastest I’ve ever run in my life. I have no idea how far I got.
In the Au Bon Pain, there was a case of Poland Spring water bottles and I took one of them along with a handful of napkins. I wiped all the debris out of my eyes and face. At this point, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I had no idea whether the people I was with had lived or died. Evan—I’ve known him since freshman year in college, we were roommates together. Lynn? She’s been such a special friend to me at my job, like a confidante. I thought, “How could they have survived?” I’m sitting there in the Au Bon Pain with my bottle of water and starting panic. I started to hyperventilate.
A police officer sat down next to me and she took my hand. “It’s okay,” she said. “Just let it out. You’re experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome.”
I thought, “Post? I think I still am in the trauma.”
But she was nice enough to calm me down. Another officer on a bullhorn said, “We’re evacuating this building. An officer will tell you at the door to walk right or left. Follow that direction.”
I got to the door and the guy said to walk to the right, so I did. I started down the street through calf-deep piles of sand colored building debris. Everything was weirdly quiet, almost as if my brain had taken in so much information that it had shut down. Even when the building was falling, there had been so much sound that it was if there was no sound at all. Like white noise. A drone.
I’m walking down the street, not knowing where to go, thinking that everybody I was with had died. I barely knew who I was, I was dizzy and disoriented, my speech is slurred. I’d been hit twice on the head, once in the office and once on the street. I had caught the wall of my office on my right temple and whatever had hit me in the street had caught my left temple. I’d been sucker-punched twice. All I wanted to do was get uptown and find my wife. I knew where she worked and I said, “Even if I have to walk, I’ll get there eventually.”
I started walking.
* * *
Someone in the street yelled, “Hey, these buses are going uptown.”
There were three MTA buses waiting and the first two were jam-packed with people. The third bus looked newer, almost like one you would travel long distances on. There was nobody on this bus, so I got in line—I was maybe the third person. “If you’re going uptown, that’s where I’m going.”
I ride the bus every morning to work from New Jersey. As was my usual practice, I walked to the back of the bus and sat down. I was numb, thinking nothing. People were filing onto the bus, some were dirty and some were normal looking. A guy sits down in the seat in front of me, slumps down, sits up again, and then starts pounding on the glass window of the bus. He’s yelling nonsense at the top of his lungs.
“This guy’s lost it,” I think.
He’s down in his seat again and I notice in the reflection of the window glass that it was Evan.
He had thought it was me out on the street—a guy had walked past with a similar moustache and build. Evan had been pounding the window to get my attention.
I got up, sat down next to him, and said, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. After all of this.”
We hugged each other and I said, “Listen. For the rest of the day, we stick together.”
The bus headed uptown. As we were making the turn off Park Row, Building One fell. We heard it and the bus was completely consumed in the cloud. After it settled, we kept driving. We got to the UN and the street was blocked by security, the bus couldn’t go north anymore. As it made the turn to go cross-town, I looked at Evan and said, “Let’s get out and walk to Rockefeller.”
When we got to my wife’s building, there was a security guard who said, “Who you looking for?”
“Well, they evacuated the building.”
I felt like, now what? Where could she possibly be? The City is huge. I asked somebody on the bus if I could borrow their cell phone, but it wasn’t working. Another guy on the bus was giving us an in-depth description of a number of people whom he had seen jump. I’m standing there, completely at a loss, I barely know who I am. I say to myself, “I’d better get to a hospital. I should really have someone take a look at me.”
* * *
Evan hadn’t been out in the dust cloud long. He had gotten pulled into a building. He had been running and a door to some building had opened and someone had grabbed him and pulled him in.
Lynn didn’t get very far. The impact threw her into the gate of the church we had been standing by and people trampled her, ran right over her. The whole left side of her body was a giant bruise, but somehow she managed to survive. She covered her face and crawled into the lobby of a building where she tied her shoe and left. Then she walked all the way across the Williamsburg Bridge.
From Rockefeller, we decided to walk west, I don’t know why. We got to the Double Tree Hotel and I thought they might let us use the phones. The people there looked at us as if we were nuts. In midtown, we were the only people covered in soot. We were space aliens who had been quickly thrust uptown by the bus; people walking from downtown wouldn’t show up for another hour or so.
The receptionist behind the desk at the Double Tree looked at me and said, “You’re dirty.”
Uh huh. “Okay. I was just in the World Trade Center and I need to use your phone.”
She just kept looking at me.
“I need. To use. Your phone.”
She turns the phone around and I decide to call my wife’s mother in New Jersey, figuring that, if anyone knows where my wife is, she would. I’ve dialed this number thousands of times. But I had to dial it four or five times to get it right. I finally got through and [my mother-in-law] knew where to find my wife.
She had been evacuated from her building and didn’t know where to go. One of her co-workers had shown up to work late and had no idea what was going on, just that her building was emptying out. This co-worker had a cousin who worked in a building close by and they went there. Kim thought that if she went to another office, she would have multiple phone lines [at her disposal]. I called at about noon and twenty minutes or so later, she met me at the Double Tree Hotel.
We started to find a way home.
Thomas was tattooed during Healing Ink NY by artist Mike Rubendall at the Rivington Hotel overlooking the Freedom Tower on July 12th, 2017