Editor’s Note: This account was originally shared on the political message board “RightNation.Us” on September 11, 2003. It details the firsthand experience of “Tilly” — who miraculously lived through that harrowing day. “Tilly” was kind enough to let me share this on FTRRadio.com (on “Gillespie” which I co-hosted or possibly my own show, “Q With a View”) several years ago. I am excerpting it here but highly encourage you to read the entire account. I return to read it every year. And it always delivers a gut punch. This year, I made a point to take my time with it; to stop and visualize the directions and the landmarks she described so vividly. Still seems like yesterday. And another lifetime ago. “Tilly’s” story, in her own words:
September 11, 2001: I started my daily commute routine from my apartment at 76th and Lexington in Manhattan’s Upper East Side to my World Trade Center (WTC) Tower 2 office. Getting to the 77th Street/Lexington Avenue subway station around my usual 7:40 a.m., I found that the downtown local was running late, but I was happy to see my three buddies on the train. They had the same commute as I did (they worked in WTC 1), and they were often feeling the morning effects of a previous night’s socializing; I enjoyed teasing them on the way to work about what a long day it was going to be. We had gotten into a conversation about college football one morning, and we had made plans to meet up that weekend with various friends to watch the kickoff of a new season. I bid them “later,” after we made plans to meet up after work that day at the Sphere fountain in the WTC plaza for the commute home.
I got my daily cup of coffee at the Church Street Starbucks. Whenever the weather was as pretty as that day, I always walked across the Plaza level entering WTC 2 (the “South Tower”) on the north mezzanine level entrance, and headed down one flight of escalators to the main lobby level. I took one of the three elevator banks in the lobby (each serving floors 3-43, 44-77, and 78-110 respectively). I took the second set, and then transferred to internal elevators to get to my office; the morning’s delays caused me to arrive in my 59th floor office (in the center of the South Tower’s west side), at 8:43 a.m. instead of my usual 8:30 a.m (I glanced at my desk clock). I set my backpack down and with coffee in hand started towards my boss’s office nearby. My co-worker and friend Karen, who was in early that morning (she usually got in at 9 a.m., but we commuted together that morning), had just turned on the morning radio news.
At that moment, a horrific boom resounded throughout the office, so loud that it reminded me of a supersonic jet screaming right next to the window, only 10 times louder. The building shook so severely that I had to grab the desk to keep my footing! Instantly, I spun around and ran into my boss’ office to look out the window facing west into New Jersey. Stepping up on the air conditioning vent that ran along the floor’s perimeter, I pressed my face and body against the window (in hindsight this was not the smartest move, but it gave me a perspective on how severe the situation was). I saw monumental amounts of debris blowing by and raining down everywhere: chunks of burning metal, papers, desks – and bodies.
I could not believe what I was seeing.
It took me exactly 17 minutes to get down 59 flights of stairs because eventually it turned out to be the time difference between the two planes hitting each tower. I exited the emergency stairwell into the 1st floor lobby center elevator vestibule servicing floors 3 thought 43 about eight seconds before the second hijacked plane went through my Tower 2. I didn’t think of it until later, but now as I recall, at this point I lost track of Karen.
What followed was unlike anything I have ever experienced, or could imagine experiencing; the only thing that comes close is the movie Die Hard. When that plane blew through upstairs the repercussions only took about 25 seconds, but it all seemed in slow motion to me, as if I was watching myself on a movie screen. All of the oxygen was sucked out of the building and my lungs (like being in a vacuum). I felt doomed because the turnstile exiting the elevator bank would not unlock for me to get out and run for the revolving doors leading out of the lobby and into the mall under the plaza level. I could not have known at that panic-filled moment, but that locked-up turnstile would save my life. Instead I’m thinking, “This is where I will die,” because I can hear an explosion roaring downward inside the building. Yet somehow I looked over to see that the end turnstile wraps around a support beam forming about a two-square-foot space, but there is only about six inches to squeeze through between the end of the turnstile and wall beam. Something inside me told me to get in there. I’m about 100 pounds soaking wet, so I pressed myself through and balled up facing the support beam with the steel barrier wrapped around my back giving me a little protected cubby hole.
This is when the explosion came.
It progressed down the building, breaking the windows as it went; the entire building was groaning, an unnatural, unearthly sound, much like a can squeezing, or cracking uncooked spaghetti. By the time it reached the lobby, the marble veneer was cracking and falling off the walls; the chandeliers shattered on the floors along with the plaster ceiling, and the force imploded in at about 50 mph, pulling metal, balled safety glass, and other material with it. The pipes were bursting over my head and dense materials were flying around me as if they were being pureed in a blender. In the next instant came a horrible noise and a flash of extreme heat and light blown directly over my head. I concluded later in the day that this was from the huge airplane fireball sent down the 78-110 elevator shaft that exploded out into the lobby, and blew around the walls and curled into the center vestibule where I was taking cover. The third and last explosion occurred when a huge chunk of burning wreckage fell to Liberty Street, which runs parallel along the south side of the South Tower, and crashed through the building into the lobby behind me, bringing metal, glass, marble and revolving doors with it. There had been four security men and some fleeing WTC workers behind me near those revolving doors; I realized that they were all taken out by either a huge chunk of the building exploding outwards or the tail end of the plane falling to the street. I now know that there were nine of us in the lobby that day when the plane hit, two NYPD officers on the 44-77 elevator side, and two others coming out of emergency stairwells on the 78-110 elevator side. The two officers and I were the only ones who made it out alive.
As the debris and dust settled, water started to rain down, and black smoke began to roll through with the strong smell of jet fuel in what was left of a once beautiful lobby. I jumped up, wedging myself out of my cubbyhole, and tried to crawl under the turnstiles and out for the revolving doors leading to the mall. I was covered in dust, glass, water and a variety of other stuff, trying to get to one of the 10 revolving doors in front of me with every bit of calm I could muster. It was not easy. I looked back at two bodies, then forward to notice a ladder perched in front of one revolving door. Used to reach flowers in planters above the doors, it was a startling sight, completely undisturbed, along with the flowers and planters, in an otherwise chaotic, collapsing, rubble-filled lobby. After crawling to the revolving doors leading into the underground mall, I went about 14 feet further and came to a NYFD firefighter at the mall doors, who was pulling the door from the mall side. I couldn’t move those doors because of all the debris in the footwell and their weight, nor did I think fast enough to crawl through the openings where the glass had been. He reached his hand in and pulled me through the door by my jacket shoulder, and asked if I was okay. I thought to myself, “Thank God the cavalry is here, everything is going to be okay, if anyone can fix this the Fire Department can.” Of course I didn’t know the full scope of the situation at that moment and I don’t think they did either.
Now in the mall, I looked straight ahead at the Chase cash bank, where there were some 100 people cowering; screaming, some hysterically started to run out of the bank and down the hall, as now the mall was rapidly filling up with thick black smoke. I was hanging onto this firefighter for dear life, while telling him, “You cannot go in there – that place is exploding down around our heads!” He looked at me and in the calmest manner said, “Honey it’s going to be okay, its my job. You just get out of here.” He asked me if I new where the Borders book store was and I said yes, so he said, “Go there and get out as fast as you can”. By this time he had a whole battalion behind him and they went in towards the lobby. I started for the Borders at top speed, while hearing secondary explosions going off above my head, almost like an .08 gage gun or larger. All this made me want to hit the floor and all I could think was, “What in God’s name is happening up there?”
I found myself next to a man who is taking out a cigarette, all the time while we both were running. I was thinking, “I could sure use one of those right now!” He tried to light it with very shaky hands at a dead run, when a Port Authority security guard (directing people to safety) said in a very Brooklyn-ish accent, “Hey buddy this is a no smoking zone! You can’t light that down here!” The man looked back at the guard, aghast, and I’m sure I had the same look on my face! The man said, “You have to be f-ing kidding me! This place is burning down around us, we are all going to die, and by God I am going to have my last cigarette before I go!” I managed at least one laugh that morning, as it was funny as hell, and I wished I could have stopped to get a cigarette from him myself. But the mood quickly turned serious again, as I came upon two portly grandmothers in their late 60’s or early 70’s; they’re holding onto each other, crying, unable to keep up with the mass exodus. The explosions above our heads on the plaza were scaring them and they kept stopping. I grabbed one of their hands and told them to hold on and keep up. Dragging them behind me, I told them to worry about any resulting medical problems later – for now we had to get out of there! I thought to myself, “If I can just get out, we can get to a hospital if someone starts to stroke out.”
I finally made it next to Borders Bookstore in the other end of the mall. This was in WTC Building 5 at the northeast corner of the WTC complex facing Church Street, directly across from the Millennium Hotel. People were actually waiting in line for the escalator to go up the one level from the mall to the plaza, despite an immediately adjoining staircase that was about 15 feet wide and with only 20 steps! I couldn’t believe it! I screamed at everyone in line saying, “People, this is very serious! Go up the f-ing stairs, move your asses, and get the hell out of here!” I was met with a few blank stares, but quite a few actually listened and followed me up the stairs. As I came out onto the street, dragging the two women behind me after going up the steps and through a revolving door, I was met with the most unbelievable scene I think I will witness in my life.
It was like being in a strange dream. Off to my right, all the way out onto Church Street and for about four blocks going south, was plane and building debris. It was everywhere, and the plaza was covered; I soon realized I was standing in about eight inches of it. There were monumental amounts of paper and ash floating everywhere like some bizarre storm, and the body parts – I could see body parts at every turn, some of which were just melted into the ground as they were blown out of the building, or jumped from the fire. I stepped over about three or four charred bodies and tried to make my way to the street while maintaining what was left of my composure. I got the two women to the east side of Church Street and told them to go east until they came to the South Street Seaport (on the lower East Side) as I knew that there they could get a ferry to Staten Island. Meanwhile, I had to try to get to my apartment to get my dog and try to get off the island of Manhattan.
At this juncture I was frantic because, finally having time to think, this is when I realized I had lost Karen, and the chance of me finding her seemed to me to be nil. Yet unbelievably, after I headed east on Fulton Street, I can only say now it was by God’s grace, I see Karen sitting on the steps of an office building across from the street from a church graveyard, crying! I grabbed her and said, “We have to get out of here. I know this is real bad but we can have the nervous breakdown when we get to my apartment and get a stiff drink”. If you were in my shoes you would understand why I was thinking about a bourbon and cigarette quite a bit that day as we made our dash for the Upper East Side. As we started toward Broadway I looked back at the WTC and I now saw for the first time the situation was graver than anything I could have ever imagined. I was thinking to myself how lucky we are to have gotten this far. The top of both towers was engulfed in thick black smoke reaching up into the sky as far as I could see. There was a massive, black gaping hole in the north side of the WTC 1 around the 94th floor to 104th floor, and a massive section missing, wrapping around the east and north sides of WTC 2 at about the 80th to 90th floors. We were just 20 floors below where that fire was burning, and I thank God we moved when we did. We still heard the secondary explosions consistently so I continued to look back at the WTC and noticed that people were jumping out of both towers from above the fire lines! It was then that I started getting sick to my stomach because I now knew what those noises were as I ran through the mall.
They were the sounds of the people jumping out of the towers hitting the plaza floor above me.
After the phone call, I returned to Karen, where, on the deli TV, we watched the coverage, like everyone else in the world by now- only I’m two blocks east! At this moment the NYPD came in and told everyone to evacuate because there are three more hijacked planes in the air which have yet to be accounted for, plus it was believed that there were bombs planted all throughout the city, set to go off every 30 minutes. Running out of the deli with Karen, I noticed that we were standing right next to the Federal Gold Reserve. “Not a good place to be,” I decided, because I know if I was a terrorist that would be on my top ten, so we headed north, at least now in the direction of my apartment. We reached the Brooklyn Bridge and City Hall, which is only two blocks north of WTC complex, and I looked back now with a clear view of the towers. What I was seeing is the most horrific thing I think I could ever witness – not just one thing, but the whole picture: fires you realize that no one, regardless of how well trained they were or what equipment they may have available, can extinguish! And the people! They’re still jumping and they just kept coming… it was a sign of how terrible things were up there that they were choosing to leap from 80 plus stories as opposed to burning to death. It was simply one of my worst nightmares and I could no longer watch… At this moment I had a terrible fear – not that the buildings would ever come down, because that was just not a possibility in my mind – but rather that the subway system below me was a prime target for a bombing campaign. It just made sense to me. You have everyone on the ground in a panic and you blow up the streets beneath their feet. I start to think, “Okay, that is when the bodies are really going to pile up and we are not going to be in that count- we have to move!” Grabbing Karen, we headed past City Hall, and I turned and looked back to see the towers again – I never thought it would be for the last time…
We ran through the courthouse district (just north of City Hall) and took a right (going further east) trying to get away from the subway system underneath us, but somehow as we headed north, we weaved back east over it again. At this point, we made what I’m sure seems to be a strange decision – we had to get Karen a pair of tennis shoes because she was in high heels (I was fortunate to have on my lucky cowboy boots that I wore during my commutes). We stopped at a Levi’s store and bought her shoes; then I called home to Mississippi again. Believe it or not, I had to first wait on some moron discussing casual dinner plans with his wife; I let him have it because I was at the end of my rope. I got my little brother, who was drinking a bourbon and chain smoking, while waiting to hear from me (it was before 9 a.m. where he was in Mississippi). He was frantic. I told him that I was north of the building and have somehow managed to escape without so much as a scratch. He told me, “I am trying to find someone to get you off the island or come get you. Please call me as soon as you get to your apartment!” Karen called her husband to let him know she was out and we were revitalized with the new shoes in place. By this time Karen’s phone was not working and mine had been left on my desk along with my palm pilot and my digital camera. I still wish I had thought quickly enough to grab that camera to have a pictorial of that day through my eyes, but getting out alive was just a bit higher up on the agenda. We came out of the store into the middle of the street and not two seconds later we heard screams coming from seemingly everywhere. I looked up but I couldn’t see the towers because a building is blocking my sight line. Karen is looking down the avenue we are on and she says, “What is that?”
There was a black cloud rolling toward us and it is seemingly eating everything in front of it; people are trying to outrun it but they are just disappearing behind the wall of ash; we can hear glass breaking and debris flying as it rapidly mushroomed toward us. We started to run north as fast as we can, hysterically fleeing this ash tornado! We cut off on a side street, going east for about two blocks, at a full run while I was thinking, “The subways are blowing up!” (It just never occurred to me that those buildings would come down!). Cutting around a corner, we stopped and looked down the street to see the cloud going up the avenue, black as night, dissipating into the side street where we had just been standing (we managed to stay out of the thick of it somehow; although we were still covered in dust, we could at least breathe!). Still holding my composure, I remembered that I had a Discman in my backpack. I pulled it out and turned it to WINS, a primary news station. I heard the newscaster say, “Oh my God, this cannot be happening! Oh my God this is just unbelievable!” I say “What tell us what is happening!” He said, “Number 2 WTC has just fallen to the ground!” This is when the big alligator tears stared to roll down my cheeks and Karen is looking at me, shaking me by the shoulders seeing the fear cross my face screaming, “What in hell happened?” When I told her that our office building has just fallen to the ground, she could not believe it and was still shaking me, saying, “That cannot be! Those buildings cannot come down!” I thought quickly and told Karen, “If Number 2 has fallen then Number 1 is going to go too!” It seemed like the newscaster read my mind as he said, “Get out! Run north! The Number 1 Tower is going to come down!” The streets were unbelievable, full of people moving north. The only vehicles were emergency and officials going south or city buses trying to carry passengers north, as the subway had been shut down. People were stopped on the side of the streets with their car doors open and the radios on, with strangers gathered around them trying to hear any news they could of what was happening. Civilians were directing traffic for emergency vehicles to get through the crowds and intersection. We both stopped and talk to some guys running cable for Con-Edison power company; they told us about 20 of their fellow employees in the basement levels whom they had as yet to hear from. No one said anything but I think we all knew that it was not looking good for anyone below City Hall, much less the basement.
Please read the rest of Tilly’s story here.