Submitted by Brendan Chellis
Why did the worst day of our lives start out so nice? Weather-wise, September 11th was beautiful. It was one of those days that you picture them having all the time in California. There literally was not a cloud in the sky. The weather man was promising a high of around 80 degrees.
That day happened to be a “suit day”. One day a week I used to wear a suit. Since we are allowed to dress down at Empire, I needed an excuse to get my nice clothes out of the closet so they wouldn’t get all dusty. And there’s no better way to tell if you’re getting fat than by wearing a suit on a regular basis. They don’t lie. So one day a week I would wear a suit. Now when it was warm, I wouldn’t really wear a full suit. Everything but the jacket. I really wish I wore a pair of sneakers that day.
I walked down to the subway at about 8:00. As usual I walked along the waterfront. This isn’t necessary on Roosevelt Island. One can just as easily walk down Main St in the middle of the island. However the view of the city would be blocked most of the way down. Or one can be really lazy and take the bus for all of 2 minutes. But I really like to take advantage of where I live. So when I walked to the subway, I would walk along the river. The view of the Manhattan skyline is awesome. You get the Empire State Building, the Queensboro Bridge, the UN…and the World Trade Center. Little did I know that this would be the last time I would see it from Roosevelt Island.
I got on the 6th Ave. Shuttle that runs from the island. I took that to W. 4th St. where I then switched trains. From W. 4th St., I had my choice. I could take the A, C or E trains. The preferred train was the E because it brought you closest to the mall underneath the World Trade Center. But if the A or C came first, I would take one of those. They dropped you closer to Chambers St. and added about 2 minutes of walking.
Almost 90% of the time, the E-train would come first. However, that morning nothing came for about 5 minutes. That may not seem like much time but on a New York subway platform, it can mean the difference between being relatively alone or sharing the platform with a couple thousand people. Finally an A train came. Little did I know that train and the otherwise annoying delay saved my life. I was one of the last people to cram into the door. I was probably viewed as one of those jerks that squeezes on when there’s no room. But that morning I didn’t care. (Do jerks ever care?)
I got off at Chambers St. and began the long walk to One World Trade Center. I walked through the underground mall just like I would do any other day. Between the mall and the lobby of Tower One, there was a bank of about 15 glass revolving doors. They were each separated by concrete columns that were the base of the columns that went all the way up the side of the building. The last thing I remember before the world changed forever was that I was thinking how empty the mall was. I was about 50 feet from the revolving doors when all of a sudden the lights went out for a second and came back on. I quickly glanced over at a cop in front of Banana Republic who looked up and reacted the same way I did. It’s not something you see every day but probably nothing to be alarmed about.
What I saw next happened so quickly I barely had time to react. I noticed that the lobby of Tower One almost instantly filled up with a rolling brown cloud from floor to ceiling. I stopped walking when all of a sudden – BOOM – the entire lobby exploded. The revolving doors in front of me just vaporized. Amazingly nothing hit me. There was a second of silence as everyone started to comprehend what happened. And then the all the running and screaming started. I have never run so fast in my life. Working in that building we had always known that if terrorists ever came back to the World Trade Center, they were going to finish what they started. So even though I was running away, I was convinced I wasn’t going to make it out of the mall alive. As everybody started to run, a lady next to me fell down. I stopped to help her but she got up on her own. So I continued to run.
I reached a point where I had to make a choice. The mall formed a “T”. I could make a left and go up an escalator to the street. But I knew in the panic people were probably getting trampled there. I could make a right and go up another set of stairs about 300 yards away. But if there was a larger explosion coming or we were breathing something chemical or biological in all the smoke, I could die before I made it there. So I ran straight ahead into the N/R subway station. I never slowed down as I was doing all this thinking. At the last second, I saw a guy running at top speed in my direction from my left. It was too late for either one of us to stop. We smacked into each other really hard, bounced off, never said a word and kept running in our separate directions. I couldn’t understand why he was running from that direction.
I was about to run down the stairs to the Uptown platform (where I knew I could get out to the street) when I ran into a crowd of people coming up the stairs. They were just frozen with terror in their eyes. Not once did I ever turn around to see what they were looking at behind me. But I knew it was bad. I yelled to all of them, “The lobby to One World Trade Center just exploded! Turn around! Get the hell out of here now!”
Somebody asked me “Was it a bomb?”
I told them “I don’t know. Just get out of here!”
Some people didn’t even hesitate and turned and ran. Other people just stood there in disbelief. I yelled at them again “Turn around! Run!”
I got to the bottom of the stairs where there was an underpass to go to the Uptown platform. There were more people down there asking me “What’s going on?”
I told them the situation too and told them to turn around and run. Somehow I appeared like the expert of the situation because some lady pointed to a flight of stairs to our right and asked me “Does this go up to the street?”
I don’t know what the hell I was thinking because I said “Yeah, I think so.” I started running up the stairs and everybody followed me. I won’t tell you the expletive I screamed when I got to the top of the stairs and realized that this was no exit. At the top of those stairs I had a choice, the Downtown subway platform or the mall. I think everyone lost faith in me because they actually started heading back into the mall. By this time smoke was starting to pour into the station. There was no way I was going back into that mall there, but I knew there was another exit down at the south end of the platform. So I pulled out my Metro Card, swiped it at the turnstile and got onto the platform. Only one person followed me. That was the lady that had asked me if the stairs went to the street.
We ran down to the exit at the south end of the platform. The only way out was to go back into the mall but it was right by stairs to the street. So we ran into the mall, up the stairs and out on to the street.
I really didn’t know what to expect when I got outside. When I did, the sky was black. There were burning pieces of paper, soot and debris coming down all over. I continued to run until I got across the street to a little park at the southeast corner of the World Trade Center complex. And then I looked up at the horror. At the top of Tower One were four or five floors completely engulfed in flames. Pieces of the building were falling off. There were more sirens than I had ever heard in my entire life.
I was totally out of breath and shaking uncontrollably. I had never come so close to getting killed in my life. Just then I felt my cell phone vibrating like I had a message. I took it out of my pocket and could barely hold it in my hand. It was even more difficult to dial because of the shaking. There was a message from my brother Geoff saying he heard on the radio that a small plane had hit the building. It’s amazing that they got the story on the radio that quick. But it was obvious that it wasn’t too accurate yet because his message did not reflect what I was seeing unfold before my eyes. From his description I was standing there thinking “Oh my God, he doesn’t even realize how serious this is.”
So I tried to call him back. No luck. I tried my mother and then my father and then Geoff . Again no luck. I kept calling them over and over and over again but could not get any of the calls to go through. Finally I lucked out. The phone was ringing at my father’s and then it went into voice-mail. Since he has the same voice-mail service I have, I knew it meant that he was on the phone probably trying to call me. So I left him a message. I don’t even remember what I said but I remember explaining how the lobby exploded just as I was about to go through the doors, telling him that I didn’t know when I would be able to talk to him again and asking him to spread the word that I was alive and OK.
As I hung up the phone, I heard people screaming around me. They were pointing up at the building and crying. I asked a guy next to me what was going on. I could see the fire raging at somewhere around the 90th floor of Tower One and pieces of the building continuing to fall. And this guy pointed up, “Look, those are people.” It was absolutely horrible. Some people appeared to still be alive and conscious as they were jumping. Others just fell lifelessly. One guy was in a suit and his body was falling parallel to the ground with his tie pointing straight up in the air. These were just regular people like you and me who went to work one day. And they died a horrible death because of it.
I really wanted to get in touch with my mother to tell her I was OK. But it was pretty obvious that the cell phone network was down. I remembered that my brother Gerald worked a block away but I couldn’t remember his number. I decided I would go to his building and see if I could find him. Then I could call my mother on his phone.
As I turned to walk away I heard a sound I will never be able to get out of my head. I could hear the sound of jet engines. It’s nothing you would normally think twice about as it’s just another loud sound you hear in New York. But not that loud and not in Lower Manhattan. The engines were screaming like they were being pushed to full throttle. I turned to look up at Tower Two and watched as the second jet plowed into the building about halfway up. A tremendous fireball shot out the side of the building as we instantly got hit with an intense blast of heat down on the street. The thought going through my head was “So this is what it’s like to die.” Pieces of the building and the jet were coming down everywhere. Everyone standing in the crowd that a moment ago was almost shoulder to shoulder had now turned screaming and running for their lives. As I turned and ran towards Broadway I was just waiting for something to hit me in the back.
As I ran, I saw to my right that people were getting trampled when all of a sudden the person in front of me fell down. The rush of the crowd immediately pushed me down on top of him. And everyone behind fell down on both of us. I tried desperately to get up but there were too many people on top of me. All I could think of was that I was going to die there either being trampled or crushed by falling debris. But somehow I got out of the pile and ran across Broadway. Cars were driving through red lights but we weren’t stopping either. I would rather take my chances getting hit by a car then getting crushed by a chunk of concrete from 80 stories up.
I ran across Broadway and made a left on a small side street to hide behind a building. I couldn’t believe I was still alive. When it was clear that nothing else was coming down, I got out and walked down the street east. Who knew whether there were any more jets coming. It was then I decided to get out of Lower Manhattan. As I was walking, some guy must have seen me all out of breath and covered with soot. He asked me what happened. It was pretty clear that many people just a few blocks away had no idea. I told him about the lobby and seeing the jet hit Tower Two. He said “You should call your family.”
I told him “I’ve been trying. My cell phone isn’t working.”
He said “Why don’t you come into my building. You can use a phone there.”
The people in the lobby of the building were nice enough to let me use the phone at the reception desk. I called my mother. I told her my story quickly and said I was getting the hell out of Lower Manhattan. When I hung up, I noticed that everyone in the lobby was listening to me. I thanked the security guards and went on my way.
By the time I got to Water St. on the East Side, the streets were packed. It seemed as if every building had emptied out and nobody knew what to do or where to go. As I walked along, I overheard a group of strangers talking to each other trying to figure out what was going on. I heard one of them say “I heard a plane hit one of the towers.”
I corrected him and said “A plane hit both towers.”
One woman asked “One plane flew into both towers?”
I said “No. Two planes. One into each tower.”
She asked “How do you know this?”
I told her “I was there. I was just about to walk into Tower One when the lobby exploded. I was standing across the street from Tower Two when another jet hit that one. It’s really bad.”
I really didn’t want to stick around and chat. I was determined to get away from any tall buildings. It was at that point that I realized I was extremely thirsty. I mean the most thirsty I had ever been in my life. I decided to make a pit stop over at South St. Seaport to get some water. There weren’t any tall buildings that close to it so I figured I was relatively safe. As I walked in I noticed the bars were already open. People were there getting drunk. The temptation was overwhelming. I stayed in control and got a bottle of water. Then I started to walk uptown again.
As I was walking through the streets above the Seaport, I noticed that anybody with a car parked had the doors open with 1010 WINS playing loud enough for everyone to hear. There were crowds around each car. I couldn’t believe what I heard. They were commercial jets that flew into the towers. When I saw the plane hit Tower Two, I really thought it was something like a Lear jet. Looking back later I realized that those towers were so big, it made any jet look small in comparison. Plus I had never seen a jumbo jet fly that fast. But to think that there were actually innocent passengers on those planes was just too horrible to comprehend.
I got back over to Water St. and continued walking north. When I got to the Brooklyn Bridge, there was a woman standing out in the street directing traffic. People were still driving through red lights everywhere but at least this lady was trying to get things back in control. I then realized that she was an off-duty cop. I was about to cross the street in front of an entrance ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge when she yelled over to me and the other pedestrians to stop. I figured it was probably a good idea and did just that. But the crowd around me continued. So I wasn’t going to stand there like an idiot and watch them. I crossed too. And she yelled at the crowd “I told you to stop!” Nobody listened. It was getting crazy. I later heard some guy behind me mention to his friend that the crowd stopped when she motioned for her gun.
When I crossed the street again just north of the Brooklyn Bridge, I noticed that there was a clear view of both towers. I decided to stop and watch with the crowd that had gathered there. Not only were we watching history, but I wanted to watch the fire department put the fires out. Those were my buildings and I would have stood there all day at that point to watch them put them out.
Tower One was still engulfed. It looked like 4 or 5 floors were burning at a time and the fire just continued to move up the building. Tower Two only looked like there were maybe one or two floors burning. And it really looked like they were making progress in putting it out. From the northeast corner of that tower, it looked like there was fire literally “pouring” out of the building. Almost as if somebody was welding. My friend Patrick days later explained to me that it was probably molten steel from the support beams.
I started talking to this guy next to me. I was the only person in that crowd who was anywhere near the World Trade Center when everything happened. I started to tell him my story. I never got a chance to finish. I was talking to him when all of a sudden his jaw dropped. I turned to look as Tower Two started to lean toward the east. And then the whole thing went straight down. We were about five blocks away but the noise was deafening. When the building hit the ground, it was the loudest, most horrible sound I had ever heard in my life. We were standing there literally watching thousands of people die in front of our eyes.
The crowd screamed. A woman next to me fell to the ground and curled up in a ball crying. Her friends tried to pick her up but she wouldn’t move. This was a horror worse than anybody could have imagined. I really thought I was watching the beginning of the end of the world. The World Trade Center had stood at that spot since I was a little kid. And like everyone else, I was convinced those towers would stand there long after I was gone. I was wrong. I turned away and started crying. But all of a sudden shock kicked in and shut off all emotion. It was like a switch went off and a voice said “You have to survive and this isn’t helping.”
Then I saw the dust cloud about 30 stories tall squeezing down every street in Lower Manhattan. I was thinking that anybody in the path of that thing was probably going to suffocate. And then I saw it come around the corner at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge and start heading towards us. It was time to run again.
I went running towards the East River but when I saw that giant cloud of ash and debris coming towards us, I knew there was no way to outrun it. So I stopped. We were probably spared the brunt of it because of the wind direction. But you still couldn’t see more than a couple of feet. And God knows what the hell we were breathing. As the cloud enveloped us, there was a horrible silence. All that dust seemed to muffle every sound except for the closest people nearby. Sometimes it seemed like the only sound you could hear was people crying.
At this point I was really in shock. I had seen more horrible things in an hour than the vast majority of people in the world would ever see in their lifetimes. The world as we knew it was over. And I just couldn’t feel anything anymore.
I walked uptown along the service road of the FDR. There were just people everywhere. I didn’t even look up as I walked. I was just in a daze and I couldn’t even think. I was all alone and for all I knew, I might not even make it to the end of the day. For all I knew, all my co-workers were dead. I had no way of getting in touch with anyone. I just wanted to crawl into a cave and die. But dying wasn’t an option so I kept going.
I continued to walk and walk and walk without paying much attention to where I was. All of a sudden I heard somebody say “Hey, when are those servers coming back up?” And I looked up and saw my friend John smiling with about 10 of my co-workers waiting for a pay phone. I almost knocked these guys over when I ran into them. It was truly the happiest moment of my life. Words can’t describe what it was like to see a group of familiar faces after going through all that horror. I was no longer alone. I was in a group of friends and we were going to get through this together.
We continued to walk along the FDR Drive. We could have walked into the streets in the center of Manhattan but there were just more targets there. So we figured we should stay on the outskirts along the FDR Drive as long as possible. We finally got to somewhere in the 20’s and decided to walk in. It seemed like the entire city was either in a car or on foot. I don’t know why anybody bothered to drive. Besides the emergency lanes that were set up, nothing was moving. The sidewalks were packed but at least people could move there.
Once we got to Midtown, we all started to separate. I stayed with John and another co-worker, Kathy. They each had to get to Grand Central which was on my way so I figured I would walk them there. I told them that if the trains weren’t running, they could come up and stay at my apartment. It was at that point that Kathy remembered her sister lived on 36th St. We decided to head over there to at least take a rest and figure out what we were going to do.
We had no idea what to expect at this point. How much were our lives about to change? Was there going to be a run on the banks? Empty supermarket shelves? Martial law, etc.? As silly as it sounds now, these really seemed like real possibilities.
We were in luck as Kathy’s sister and her boyfriend were home. We got to rest our feet and watch TV. We found out that Tower One had collapsed shortly after Tower Two. (I remembered that we had heard rumbling earlier on the FDR Drive and had no idea what it was.) And at that time it really hit home hard what had happened. We were watching Channel 2 and all along at the bottom of the screen it said “World Trade Center Attacked and Destroyed”. I couldn’t believe the words I was reading. I mean we weren’t a military target. We weren’t in an aircraft carrier or anything like that. We were in an office building filled with innocent people. Why did we deserve this?
After sitting at Kathy’s sisters for a while, I decided to press on. I wanted to make it home no matter what it took. I knew that the subway wasn’t running and the Roosevelt Island Tram probably wasn’t running either. So I knew that I was probably going to have to walk the whole way home. But I didn’t care. I had to get there. Kathy’s sister and her boyfriend offered to let me sleep on their couch if I couldn’t make it home. That was really nice because I had never met these people before in my life. I thanked them and told them I might take them up on the offer.
When I got to the Tram, of course it was closed. But I looked across Second Ave. and saw that they had opened the lower level of the Queensboro Bridge to pedestrian traffic. To get to Roosevelt Island, I was going to have to go to Queens. So I joined the crowd on the bridge. At this point, I really started to feel the blisters on my feet. They were hurting so bad, I was limping. I didn’t care. My goal was to make it home. As we walked across the bridge, every few minutes you could hear a fighter jet overhead. The sky was completely empty except for them. When I looked to my right toward Lower Manhattan, giant white plumes of smoke were blowing over Brooklyn. The World Trade Center was gone and in it’s place was a giant fire and death at an unimaginable scale.
And as I saw the mass of refugees crossing the bridge and the destruction in the background, I just couldn’t believe what I was looking at. This was something we had seen in newspapers and on TV our entire lives going on in other countries around the world. People escaping from war, misery. And today September 11, 2001, the invisible shield which protected us from all the evil things that went on in other places around the globe was gone. War had come to New York City. And nobody even saw it coming.
After a long, arduous journey of 7 hours, I made it home. My feet were bleeding as the blisters that were there were rubbed off. I never thought my apartment would look this good. As I began to return all the phone calls I got, I realized what a lucky person I was. Twice today, I thought I was dead. But I made it. And all of my closest friends at Empire had lived. And nothing else mattered more than that.
I came to find out in later days that we lost 11 people at Empire and my cousin Chris who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. And to this day, I cannot figure out how the deaths of these innocent people made sense to some idiot on the other side of the earth who never met them before. They were just numbers. It’s all incomprehensible how evil people can be in the name of their God. But once again the United States is faced with an attack by fanatics. And just like in earlier wars, we are going to do what we have to do to defend ourselves. But with the rose-colored glasses we wore in the 90’s, who ever thought that we would be involved in something like this again?