From the 59th floor of tower 1 to Chicago
Submitted by Laura Bartl
My mom said I should write this all down fresh, lest I forget some points, order of events, etc. As background, for those of you who do not know, I work for a technology consulting firm and a client of ours was located at WTC. The folks referred to below work for that client or other consulting firms. We were at WTC to prepare for a rollout begin within a few weeks. One person from the firm remains on the missing list.
Let me state a few things about what you will read in this account. First, there is nothing graphic, certainly nothing described that you haven’t seen a million times on the television already. Second, my companions and I are not heroes, just folks who, by the grace of God, survived this terrible ordeal. I have found that telling this story, letting people connect with someone who made it out somehow makes them feel a little better. It is difficult to comprehend the growing number of missing and our hearts are breaking to see the folks on the streets of New York desperately seeking loved ones. Finally, we did, on our journey, crack wise a time or ten. My advanced apologies if you are offended at the casualness of some of our comments. Surely the situation was dire, depressing and desperate. However, each stage of the journey was the focus of the moment and finding little things to laugh at was the alternative to feeling overwhelmed by the sheer force of events we were in the middle of. I hope you will understand.
As I start to write this it is now 12:02 am, actually September 12, about 17 hours after the first plane struck WTC tower 1, the North tower. That’s the building we were in.
September 11, 2001
World Trade Center, North Tower (Tower 1) We are on the 59th floor. Bridget and I have just gotten some breakfast and are sitting in conference room 59P, wondering where our setup has gone from the day before, long network cables and such. We went to Ken’s office to see if we could get longer cables than what we had come up with so far. We are standing in his office doorway when the building begins to sway and shake. Ken just looks at me and keeps saying “oh, my God,” over and over. Bridget and I stay in the doorway, my hand gripping her shoulder; I don’t want her to move out of the doorframe – “earthquake” – I think for a second, but then think we are too high for some reason, in New York. Later, I wonder what we might have seen if we’d been in the conference room at the time?
When the swaying stops Ken says “I have to get to my station” – he’s a floor monitor-type guy. Bridget and I head back to the conference room to grab our stuff. I look out the window and see papers, hundreds of papers, whirling in the air outside and call her attention to it. Flinging laptops, etc., into our bags we are in the stairwell in less than two minutes, passing Ken who is directing all to the stairs. We begin to descend 59 floors, the air is fairly clear; folks are calm, a few older, heavier set women have to stop, their legs are shaky – still, they are calm and will resume the trek. Early on a man is going up – “no, no one goes up!!” we say. “I need my stuff,” he says. “LEAVE IT!” we shout – easy for me to say, I have my stuff, leaving only a sweater behind. Later on, one man is stranded in a wheelchair, some men from the building are with him and they are calling for assistance on their walkie-talkies.
A few times we have to stop; firemen, many of them probably killed in the collapse, pass us going up, humping up dozens of flights of stairs with equipment. God bless them, their families. “Move to the right!” We do and pass the word up the stairs. The air is clearer as we go lower. Between what I saw out the window, the air getting cleaner and talk from folks in floors above us we know that whatever happened, happened above us.
There’s water on the stairs as we get lower; I worry about us all slipping and falling, creating a domino affect. But we move on safely, spirits are good, breathing is good. My pager is going off, my cell phone is getting messages but I can’t listen. I know it’s my mother, I know she’s worried. She’s one of the only people who knew exactly where I was going to be. Since I have a cell phone I don’t widely publicize my whereabouts. My husband is in St. Thomas and I’m praying that he won’t even hear about the incident until the first person he contacts will know that I’m okay. God will answer that prayer. We have to stop
occasionally; of all folks, it’s some burly dudes that start to freak out a little, another man tells them to chill and they do. We exit the stairs, directed to keep moving. A chunk of ceiling tile falls and hits me in the head. No damage, skull’s way too thick!
We’re walking through on the concourse level of WTC 1, the elevator signs are akimbo. “Don’t look out the window,” they say, so of course I do. There’s a burning chunk of something metal in the plaza. (I realize later it’s part of a plane, probably the second plane which struck WTC 2 while we were in the stairway. We didn’t notice in the stairs, maybe it was the time the lights flashed off for a second.) They send us down the escalators through the mall. There’s broken glass, the sprinkler systems are raining icky water down on us. I think of my husband, he installs sprinkler systems, I think “honey, your stinky water is spraying on me!” I pull out my umbrella; a man looks at me and we smile at the silliness of that. Finding little somethings to laugh at keeps us from freaking out. As we come up the escalator we are hurried out of the building by NYPD and PA officers – New York’s FINEST. We go out to cross Church Street – “keep moving, do not look up,” they say, so, again, of course, I look up. “I’ve just walked down 59 flights of stairs,” I say aloud, “I want to know what’s going on!” I turn and look and I am stunned at what I see. I can only see one tower, burning, and we do not know until later what has happened.
We make our way across and down the street. The Millennium Hilton, where Bridget and I are staying, is cordoned off, I don’t look up at it, just tuck away the thought in my mind that we aren’t going back in there.
Suddenly, among the thousands streaming out of both buildings now, Bridget sees Don, another person working on the rollout. He had been on the 57th floor. We hook up and head towards his hotel, the Club Quarters. It’s a fine irony, considering Bridget and I didn’t want to stay there because it’s so far from the WTC and sometimes we work very late. We get to the hotel and walk into the TV area. Now, for the first time, I see what has happened – planes slamming into WTC 1 and 2, the Pentagon. Obviously terrorism, I am instantly filled with rage, anger, just like everyone else. But I let it go, there’s still too much to do, to focus on. Anger, grief, those can come later. Now is about moving from moment to moment, focusing on the next task at hand. Right now that task is getting word out that we are okay.
We head up to Don’s room on the 21st floor. We can’t get a line out on the phone and the front desk tells us to try the pay phones on the second floor so we are heading there when, unknown to us, tower 2 collapses; I can feel the vibration of the shock wave come through the building as I am leaning up against the wall waiting for the elevator. Before we can get a line out, they come on the PA instructing everyone to the first floor. We get down there and see lots of “Pillsbury Doughboys” – folks caught in the debris from the collapse. The hotel folks help them out, wiping them off, giving them water, towels, etc. Eventually we get back up to the second floor and desperately try to reach someone in Chicago to let them know we are okay. It seems to take forever, maybe really just 30 minutes or so. Finally, we get through to the voicemail of Joy at my client. Bridget, Don and I leave numbers of folks to call. We are feeling better. I call Joy “the facilitator” – I know our messages are in good hands.
We go back up to Don’s room because the hotel folks tell us that the air is better in the rooms. We are watching the news when tower 1, our building, collapses. Watching out the window of this room on the 21st floor, about 8 blocks from ground zero, within 30 seconds the debris field hits, first white, then gray, then black, black for at least 30 seconds. We are all still anxious. Finally a text page comes into my pager. It’s from Phil, the boss-a-me on this project. It says “Glad to hear you are OK. We are contacting your family.” A great cheer for Phil goes up and the tension comes down another notch. Our families and friends will soon know we are okay.
After some time (during which we scout the vending machines for a few bags of snacks, the remainder of which is embedded in the bottom of my laptop bag attracting my dogs to the Chips-Ahoy scented plastic) the phone lines in the hotel rooms are working again. We make phone calls, I get in contact with my mom, husband, others. Don and Bridget do the same. Okay, now what? So far each moment since the first strike has been filled with doing the next thing. I am restless staying in the hotel. We scan our options. Not knowing Manhattan we’re trying to figure out just how far away things are. They look really far.
We debate staying. I’m concerned about the area becoming dangerous at night. Then the water is cut off because they need the water and pressure to fight the fires. So we decide to leave. Figuring out where to go is another story. All our options, my company’s NY office, a co-workers apartment, the clients other office, all are miles away and (we figure) accessible only by walking. Finally we decide to head to the clients other office at 53rd and 3rd Ave. Looking outside every surface is covered with half-inch to an inch of soot and papers, the air is still pretty thick with dust. We put wet towels on over our mouths to help with breathing. It’s about 3:00 pm.
A few blocks into our journey Bridget’s shoe breaks. We joke that had she known there was going to be a bombing she would have worn more sensible shoes. She has the sense to think of getting socks out of Don’s suitcase and wears those the rest of the trip. She quickly wins the “best dressed refugee” award of the trio. We walk through the debris, heading northwest to pick up Broadway for our trip uptown. We pass the site; it is difficult not to stop and stare but we must keep moving, not knowing the real time and distance of our journey nor the condition our world will be in as we venture north.
We had felt, back in the hotel, that all of Manhattan was in the same condition as our area and felt trapped by debris and dust and chaos. Once past the site though, a few blocks north, there is no debris, the air is clear and we drop our nose cloths. We walk on in the midst of a most amazing thing – no traffic in Manhattan. Now that’s bizarre. Way down on Broadway we find an open Duane Reade (local chain of drug stores) and buy some essentials, toiletries and the like. Yeah, we bought underwear. Hey, what are you laughing at?
We walk on and finally get a cab around 29th street or so. Many cabs had driven on, saying they were going home. That made me mad. My feet hurt, I was tired and I didn’t want to walk any more. Finally a cab picks us up. We mention how hard it has been to get a cab. He tells us that all the Arab and Arab-American cab drivers are going home because they are being assaulted, physically and verbally. I notice then that he is Asian. The cabbies that had not picked us up, I realize in retrospect, had at least looked as though they could be from the Middle East. I am sad and disappointed and angered and ashamed at the stupidity of some of my fellow Americans.
The cabbie drops us at 53rd and 3rd, it’s about 5:30 pm. They have food, people, finally a feeling somewhat of safety. I have myself a little cry. We check email, vmail. I find it amusing to see the emails within my company that say “Laura is heading to the BRCo. NY office” – I share a laugh with my Chicago officemates the next week “I have no idea where the NY office is!” We relax a little, decompress. They try to find us lodging for the night. All the hotels in the area are booked up by this time. One of the guys that works there, Tony, offers to put us up at his apartment not too far away. Migna goes on a search to find Bridget some shoes. I comment that I think red would do nicely. Of course, Migna comes through with red. And gray. And black. A whole bag of shoes. She’s great!
We leave the office building with Tony, Migna and Tom. Their favorite watering hole is still open so we go in there. Watching TV, President Bush comes on. I stare at the TV wanting to jump through the screen and get a big hug; George make the bad man go away. He assures me he will. When he begins to recite the 23rd Psalm I am overcome, put my head down and cry for a moment, then return to watching. I am comforted by his words, by the Word.
The six of us stay at Tony’s that night, the girls claim the bedroom and we stay up late into the night talking. We catch a few hours of sleep.
The next morning Tony has gone out early and picked up food – real food – omelets, hash browns, toast, coffee. Fabulous and very thoughtful. We hop on the phones and, after a while, track down a rental car. We watch TV while we wait to leave. Mayor Giuliani is doing a fantastic job. Later, we say goodbye to our friends and catch a cab over to the rental car place. We wait a while and get a one-way setup from the agency next to the one we had gotten a reservation at, hitting the road at about 3:00 pm. Talk about no traffic! We cruise up the FDR to the GW Bridge, head over into New Jersey. The traffic is thick heading back into Manhattan, dump trucks, busses, some cars, National Guard. Going under a bridge we look back to see a huge American Flag, beautiful, draped so that folks going into the city can see it. We really do have a great looking flag.
We stop at a mall in New Jersey to get some comfy clothes for the long drive. I have the worst hamburger of my life but the cheese fries are good and I really don’t care.
Believe it or not the drive home is the scariest part of our journey to me. Don and I switch off driving as Bridget is, by her own admission, not much of a driver. I’m pretty good on the flat lands of Illinois but the hills of Pennsylvania at sunset with the sun in my eyes is about all my nerves can take. After that I think Don ends up doing about two-thirds of the driving. I drive across Ohio! Nice and flat, just like Illinois.
We drop Don off at his house on the IL/IN border. His little dog comes running out of the house, such a cutie! His wife is, of course, glad to see him. Then I drop off Bridget in Cal City, her dad is so nice to get in his car and lead me back to the highway. Normally I’d find my way but it’s about 4:00 am and my brain is mush. I get to my mom’s house about 5:00 am and hug the fur off my dogs. It is good to be home. And alive.
The next day mom and I drop off the car at the rental place. I walk in and the lady behind the counter says “are you Laura?” It’s Kathy, a girl I went to high school with. God’s hand even in which rental agency we ended up with! She’s one of the first to hear the tale. I begin to realize that folks need to hear from people who have made it out, see them in person. It’s good for me too I’m sure.
I’m back at work now and will be traveling to San Francisco soon, on to LA to see my Dad, then to Kansas City the following week, following presidential orders to get back in the sky and get back to “normal.” I’m more uneasy with being away from home for any extended period of time right now than with flying or tall buildings. Others feel differently. All of it is understandable. You didn’t need to be in the WTC or New York to be affected by this, for the attack was on America.
In retrospect as I think about what the terrorists have done we can see how well planned it all was. But God’s plan is greater and never thwarted. Even God’s plan for me, on that day, looking back I see how clearly He moved us from place to place, hooking us up with Don, getting us out of harms way before the buildings collapsed, moving us uptown before the other buildings fell, finding us shelter for the night, getting us a rental car and seeing us home safely though we were exhausted from the journey, sparing Bridget and I the horrific sights that will haunt the dreams of others for some time to come.
The world, as we know it, is different than it was just a few short weeks ago. Our country is at war. Someone asked me how I feel about sending in ground troops. How should I feel? I have many friends, loved ones, folks I care about that could end up in the middle of this. I find the prospect daunting, sad. It’s been a long time since we had to fight a long hard tough battle.
And yet freedom has never been free. There has always been a price and that price is most often human blood. 2000 years ago it was the blood of Christ that bought us our freedom from sin and death. We must all seek the Lord’s guidance during these times and always. As humans we are used to feeling some sense of control over our lives. When chaos abounds it is difficult to feel safe, protected, feeling that we have lost control, that evil has won the day. But the simple fact of the matter is that we are not in control, nor is evil. God is in control. That does not mean that He condoned or made this evil, cowardly act occur. On the contrary. I cannot explain the ways of God, nor is any man qualified to question His authority for He is infinite and we are finite. But God is clear in His Word that He has a plan, a big one for the world and a small one for each of us. It occurs to me that those who survived did so because of the grace of God. But that applies to each of us every moment of every day. We continue here on this earth because of His grace, His will. We continue because He is not done with us. It is not our job to question His will, it is our job to seek and do His will.
After I got home, I was reading Psalm 23 when I looked over and started reading Psalm 25. I found it to be very fitting, very comforting and so, in parting, I share it with you.
A Psalm of David.
To You, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
O my God, I trust in You;
Let me not be ashamed;
Let not my enemies triumph over me.
Indeed, let no one who waits on You be ashamed;
Let those be ashamed who deal treacherously without cause.
Show me Your ways, O LORD;
Teach me Your paths.
Lead me in Your truth and teach me,
For You are the God of my salvation;
On You I wait all the day.
Remember, O LORD, Your tender mercies and Your lovingkindnesses,
For they are from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions;
According to Your mercy remember me,
For Your goodness' sake, O LORD.
Good and upright is the LORD;
Therefore He teaches sinners in the way.
The humble He guides in justice,
And the humble He teaches His way.
All the paths of the LORD are mercy and truth,
To such as keep His covenant and His testimonies.
For Your name's sake, O LORD,
Pardon my iniquity, for it is great.
Who is the man that fears the LORD?
Him shall He teach in the way He chooses.
He himself shall dwell in prosperity,
And his descendants shall inherit the earth.
The secret of the LORD is with those who fear Him,
And He will show them His covenant.
My eyes are ever toward the LORD,
For He shall pluck my feet out of the net.
Turn Yourself to me, and have mercy on me,
For I am desolate and afflicted.
The troubles of my heart have enlarged;
Bring me out of my distresses!
Look on my affliction and my pain,
And forgive all my sins.
Consider my enemies, for they are many;
And they hate me with cruel hatred.
Keep my soul, and deliver me;
Let me not be ashamed, for I put my trust in You.
Let integrity and uprightness preserve me,
For I wait for You.
Redeem Israel, O God,
Out of all their troubles!
Laura Bartl, 2001.