Eric’s Experience at the World Trade Center in
New York City on Tuesday, September 11, 2001
The start of the day
I left home early this day because I was scheduled to appear at an arbitration at 125 Broad Street in Manhattan (offices of the NASD). I took the 7:13 a.m. train, then took the ferry from Hoboken to the World Financial Center. I picked up coffee and a bagel, and walked to the World Trade Center and then up the elevator to the 85th floor. I was in the office at about 8:15. My office faces west, and is one office over from the northwest corner of the building.
I needed to arrive earlier than usual to complete my preparations for the arbitration. My assistant, Tara A., was already in the office completing some work on the exhibits that I needed to defend the case. For the next 30 minutes, we were busy getting everything finalized and ready to go. At about 8:40 I put the files into two boxes and began packing my briefcase. I was planning to meet Michael J. and Hayden S., my clients, at the base of 1 WTC at 9:00 a.m. I was just about done packing my briefcase when for maybe one second I heard an extremely bizarre sound and than a very loud thud. It felt as if the building had been punched on the north side and it lurched toward the south. I did not fall, but I did get jolted and had to keep my balance. Clearly, something bad had happened.
The escape from the 85th floor
I immediately walked over to where Tara sits, about 25 feet away. One of the secretaries was frantic and someone tried to calm her down. Someone else opened a nearby door to see what was happening in the hallway. There was some white-ish smoke starting to develop. I called 911, but it was busy. I tried to make a call (home), but it went busy before I completed dialing. I told Tara to get her wallet and get out.
I returned to my office, and got my jacket, my wallet, my keys and my cell phone. I took a final look, noticed my laptop, the machine that I take everywhere I go and which stores virtually my entire business, and thought to myself “I’ll be back in a few days; I can do without it till then.”
My area of the office was empty (it was still early) and I walked back to where Tara sits and noticed that everyone was gone. Mild freak-out. There was no one there and I thought Oh God, I am all alone, I will be the guy who has to throw a chair through the window. I ran around to the other side of the office, where I did see other people making their escape. I walked out through the file room, and climbed over many files that had fallen to the floor. It appeared that everyone on the floor was on the move, though there was concern about one person. (It turns out that two people from the firm where I had my office are missing. I presume they were either in the elevator or outside the building when the debris started to fall.)
From the hall, we headed to the first stairwell, which took us down to the 78th floor, where one of the sky lobbies is. Many people were congregating near the elevators, and the situation was somewhat confused. At this point, there was very little information.
People started descending the stairwells. From top to bottom, the people that I saw and heard, both ahead of me and behind, remained calm, patient, and courteous at all times. It was truly heart-warming. Traveling down 85 flights was extremely slow; I later calculated that it took approximately 45 minutes. No one on the stairs had any inkling of what was to follow. I heard from someone who had been on the 91st floor that a plane had hit the building. My assumption was that it was an out-of-control plane being used by a traffic reporter. However, while still on the steps, we learned from a man with a cell phone that a plane had hit the other tower. So all of a sudden we knew that it had to be terrorism. Then I heard it was an American plane, but the country of origin of the plane seemed irrelevant, but then we heard it was an American Airlines plane, and then I became a little more nervous as I realized it was likely a real jet that could cause some serious damage. Yikes.
So we continued the long walk down. From time to time, the injured were carried down (they were bloody) and the people calmly stepped aside to let them pass. The stairwell was not that wide; perhaps two people could walk down at a time. The tone on the stairwell was not what you would expect (of course, none of us knew what to expect). I described to someone from my floor the scene from the movie Almost Famous, where the plane is going down and the passengers shout out their deepest secrets (“I always loved your wife!”; “I’m gay!”) only to have to live with those revelations when the plane righted its course. The feeling was “well at least nothing that bad is going to happen to us … Right?” I also chatted with a lawyer from a floor in the mid-50’s. He mentioned that he was a tax lawyer and was supposed to give a speech later that day. I told him he could practice it on me; I wasn’t going anywhere.
Walking down was excruciatingly slow, just because of the number of people ahead of us, and the number of people moving onto the stairwell at every floor. Again, people remained calm and patient throughout, and no one tried to maneuver ahead of the others. The tax lawyer said this was much better than the last time (the 1993 bombing), when the stairs were filled with smoke and the lights were out. For me, the lights always remained on and smoke was never a serious problem. At each floor, I felt the door to see if it was hot (it never was), and checked to see if the door was locked (most were unlocked). A few times I opened the door to see what I could see; when I saw smoke I quickly closed the door and tried to move a little faster. There were many times when we just stopped. For minutes on end, we stayed in the same place, getting nervous but never freaking out. There were a few people who suffered panic attacks. They were put on the floor and someone tried to get them oxygen.
Somewhere around the mid-40s, we saw firemen going up. These men looked like they were doing the hardest thing they had ever done in their lives. They had already climbed 40 flights of stairs with a full load of equipment, and they had a long way to go. They were sweating and panting, yet marching on. I didn’t realize it at the time, but someone later said to me that these men looked like they had the fear of death in their eyes. They were going up to save lives, put out a fire, do their jobs. These poor men, I am sure, all perished when the building collapsed. God rest their souls. They are true, true heroes.
We progressed further down the steps, always moving slowly. When we got to the 20’s, there was water on the steps, cascading down. This slowed us down, but we were always able to march on. The water and some broken pipes were scary, as it drove home that there was a fire not too far away. I met up with Tara at this point and with the secretary who was screaming when the initial crash occurred. I tried to calm them down, and told them that we were safe and that we would soon be out of here. We still had no idea what was to follow.
There were times when I felt like a passenger on the sinking Titanic. During those times when we had to wait on the steps, or move at an exceedingly slow pace, you knew you had to get out, but there was no way to avoid the impending disaster except to keep moving and hope for the best. Everyone seemed to understand that rushing and pushing would only make matters worse, so thank god people kept their cool. A few at a time, we made it to the lifeboats and got out to safety. Or so we thought.
Finally, we get to the bottom of the stairwell. There were people at the bottom — dozens of them — guiding people and telling them where to go. I noticed fireman and policeman and regular looking people who had badges on their shirts. I could not tell who they were. I noticed WTC security personnel, including one very friendly guy who normally checked ID cards as you entered the elevator area. I can only imagine what happened to all of them. I assume to help us avoid various dangers, we were guided in a somewhat circuitous route. Up an escalator (that I think was working), then a short while later down an escalator (not working). We walked through the underground “Mall” which is the retail area of the WTC. The lights in the corridor were dark, though store lights were on. It seemed like nighttime and the building was closed. The sprinklers, however, were going full blast so it was pouring with the force of a summer rainstorm. It struck me as so odd, as I could look to my side and see all the store windows that looked just fine (Gap, Banana Republic, Citibank) but here I was getting soaked.
We continued through the Mall; Tara stopped to empty the water from her shoe. We were guided up and out of the building onto the WTC Plaza, which is a huge open space where people have lunch, see concerts in the summer, and do plenty of other things. Finally, daylight. I thought this was the end of the ordeal.
Devastation, more devastation, and a run for your life
The WTC Plaza must be the size of several city blocks. When I saw it, I was shocked: the Plaza was filled with so much debris (and this was before the buildings collapsed), that I became confused. How could this possibly be the Plaza? What could have happened to change the entire look of the landscape? It was horrifying, and I was only then starting to realize the extent of the calamity.
The dozens of safety personnel (uniformed and un-uniformed) at this point formed a human path for us to walk through. I noted the number of people and was so impressed that a system to help people was set up quickly and put into action. They told us to keep moving, to move quickly, and “don’t look up.” That struck me as odd, even biblical. My first thought was that we should not look because what we would see was too horrifying. Well, I couldn’t help myself, and after a few steps I looked up. It never occurred to me that debris was falling and that I was leading with my face. Well, what I saw was the eastern side of the Tower with the top part of the building in flames. It didn’t look good, but again, no one had any idea of what was to follow. I kept walking as directed.
I have often thought of the people who formed that path to guide us to safety. There was probably a comparable group over at the other building, which collapsed first. Those safety personnel must have taken grave casualties and I think that scores must have died in that heroic effort to help and save people.
I walked out of the building with Tara, and at this point, we were being told to continue walking east, toward Broadway. However, Tara was concerned about her cousin who worked in the other tower, and she wanted to go look for her. I told her to be careful and that I would call her later that day. She went to look for her cousin. Again, we had no idea of what was about to happen.
I lost track of time during all of this, but have since determined that it took about 45-50 minutes to get out of the building. We left our office on the 85th floor at about 8:50, and were in the stairwell when the other building was attacked. I was about two blocks away from the WTC, somewhere near Broadway and Vesey Street, when I heard this unbelievably loud noise in the sky. I looked up and saw a helicopter and wondered how that helicopter could make such a loud noise. My body was facing west (in the direction of the WTC), and when I brought my gaze down from the sky to the street, I saw the worst thing I had ever seen in my life.
The roar from the crowd told me to “RUN! RUN!” It was the scene we have all seen on TV dozens of times – that horrible cloud of smoke racing up the street, headed right in my direction. What the hell? The scene was straight out of a bad Japanese movie, as everyone on the streets of New York turned and started to run. I was sure that anyone stuck in that cloud would suffocate, and I worried about Tara. I ran and I ran, looking over my shoulder as the cloud of smoke got closer. I thought I was going to have to run all the way to the East River and jump in. I kept on running and did not stop until either I could not run anymore or I figured the cloud had dissipated enough so that it would not choke me to death. The air was smoky as I continued walking to the east, particles were in the air and in your eyes, but livable. It was a terrifying scene, but I was still walking.
I knew I had to get word to my family that I was okay. At this point I was full of ash and dirt, possibly still wet or maybe just completely rumpled. Cell phones were not working, so I just walked into a street level office and asked to use the phone. No problem. I called Robin in New Jersey but could not get through. I was able to reach my mother in Forest Hills, and could hardly believe it when I uttered the words “I’m alive.” I told her to call Robin, and that I had to keep going.
I don’t know exactly where I was when I made that call, but it was over by the lower east side or near Chinatown. People on the street were listening to the radio and standing around. I asked one guy what was going on, and then looked up to see a partially obstructed view of one of the Twin Towers burning from the top 10-20 floors. Since I could not see both buildings because my view was blocked, I was hoping that it was not my office tower and my office that were burning. So I asked if he knew which building we were looking at, and he told me that the South Tower, 2 WTC, had collapsed. I was terrified by that new information and started screaming, finally realizing just how bad things were, and how close I was to this horrific event. The god-awful sound that I thought was coming from a helicopter actually was the sound of the collapse of 2 WTC. Standing on the street, a complete mess, probably in shock, I watched as the North Tower, 1 WTC where I had my office, collapsed in front of my eyes. I dropped to the ground and started to cry. It was awful.
After a few minutes, I got up and knew I had to get out of there. Together with hundreds of other people, I started walking north and east. When I was unable to get through to Robin on my cell phone or on the cell phone I borrowed from a woman on the street, I stopped into another office in Chinatown to use the phone. I asked if I could use the phone, and the woman in the office said “Sure. 25 cents.” I suppose wonders will never cease. I gave her a dollar and said it would be a long distance call. I still could not get through to NJ, so I called my mother again. She was unable to reach Robin, and I told her to do whatever she had to do to contact her. She later told me that she got through only after calling the emergency operator. Robin heard I was okay around 10:45.
So I walked away from the disaster, in a daze. I knew I wanted to walk north, but realized after awhile I was going east. Eventually I wound up on Avenue D and 2nd Street. I saw a bus and got on. The whole scene was bizarre. There were hundreds of people moving through the streets, and the bus filled quickly. After awhile, the driver stopped collecting fares, and just told people to get on the bus. He wanted to get moving. I decided to head toward my friend Noah’s apartment on West 23rd Street. His office was just down the hall from mine, but he usually gets to work around 9:30 so I figured he was probably home. I was able to reach Robin while on the bus, and she got Noah’s address for me. I got off the bus at 14th and Seventh Avenue. The air was clear, though there were an enormous number of people just walking north. Refugees on the move, or so it seemed.
I was lucky; Noah and his fiancée Ana were home and safe. I stayed with them for about two hours. We watched TV and I drank water. Our offices were gone, our futures were uncertain. But we were alive. The real horror was what lay at the bottom of those two big buildings downtown. We watched as the other buildings burned and as fears spread that yet other buildings would fall. The TV coverage reminded me of reports from Vietnam, crossed with Oswald being shot, crossed with mass bedlam. And it was happening right then, and we were right there. It was unfathomable.
Home to New Jersey and a warm embrace
By sheer coincidence, my neighbor Lisa got word via email from Robin that I was in an apartment up the street from where she was. She came up to Noah and Ana’s apartment with three of her colleagues. We left together when we heard the ferry to New Jersey was operating. It took awhile, but we walked to 23rd Street and the Hudson River, found the ferry, waited on a long but very orderly line, boarded the ferry, and crossed the river. I could not take my eyes off the cloud of smoke billowing from where my office used to me. People were shuttled from the ferry terminal in Weehawken on all kinds of buses; I was on the top deck of a double-decker Gray Line sightseeing bus. That was weird. The man next to me told me how lucky he was that his meeting at the WTC scheduled for this day had been moved a week earlier to another location. I told him my office was completely destroyed. I knew I was the lucky one. The bus to the train, the train to Glen Rock, the short drive home.
I got out of my car, walked up the walk as Robin came out of the house. We hugged and we cried. I was home, and I was alive.
I can hardly write another word. A few days later, I realized that the book I had been reading, a short biography of Bruce Springsteen that I picked up a few weeks earlier at a discount book store on vacation, was entitled “It Ain’t No Sin To Be Glad You’re Alive.” Ain’t that the truth. I have heard from people near and dear and from strangers of stories of near-misses, and almost made-it-outs. I shudder at the thought and I cry for the dead, and I reflect upon the fact that I could have died six different ways that day. The terrifying thought for me is just how close I was to leaving my family. The enormity of the sadness is too much. I only know that we have to get back to normal, though normal will never be the same.
Eric S. Hutner
Glen Rock, New Jersey
September 22, 2001