Just My Luck – Chapter 6 – Part 3
When I exited the elevator I walked across the Sky Lobby as usual to the alcove where the elevators that served 102 could be accessed. I pressed the button to summon an elevator and waited for its arrival.
Then someone in the Sky Lobby screamed.
Don’t Let Me Need Help Up Here
Fortunately for me, the only windows in the WTC Tower 2 Sky Lobby on 78 faced south, overlooking the Statue of Liberty, Governor’s Island, and the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge. This was also the magnificent view I enjoyed from my office. But it was also the view that more than once inspired me to pray in a whisper, “Please God, don’t ever let me need help up here.”
Returning to the lobby to investigate I immediately saw what caused the scream. All manner of papers, debris, burning embers, smoke and ash were flying past the lobby windows from right to left and I smelled gas. It was impossible to tell where it was all coming from. Obviously, the source had to be one of the towers – nothing else in the vicinity was that high in the sky. I speculated that there may have been a gas explosion of some sort; I didn’t know that I was smelling aviation fuel. All I knew was there had to be a gaping hole in one of the towers and whatever was on fire was burning pretty badly.
I quickly reasoned that the best place to find out what was happening was not here, 78 floors up, but on the ground. Just then an elevator from some of the floors above arrived in the alcove across from where I was standing next to the windows. The moment its doors opened its passengers bolted out in panic and dashed across the lobby to board the express elevator that had just arrived behind me moments before.
Having been in the insurance and risk management business for some 23 years at the time, I knew that elevators are a dangerous place in a fire. But I also knew that the main reason they are dangerous is that many elevator call buttons are heat activated. The body temperature of one’s finger summons the elevator to his floor. So in a fire, the heat is likely to deliver the occupants of an elevator directly to the flames. I also knew, however, that the elevator behind me was an express elevator with doors that opened only on the ground floor and on the 78th floor. Since my ride up didn’t pass through fire, there was little danger that this express elevator would do anything but deliver me to a safe place on the ground.
And so it did.
Despite my logical reasoning, I overlooked one other crucial danger of an elevator in a fire, a hazard horribly borne out later that morning. Elevator shafts in buildings are essentially chimneys with box cars, tracks, pulleys, and motors. They are prone to updrafts, so in a fire situation they are dangerous air shafts that can carry not just smoke, but flames as well. So in a fire, an elevator can bring you to the fire, or it can bring the fire to you. My subway lawyer buddy from Cantor Fitzgerald was in the an express elevator of Tower 1 when the first plane crashed into the tower. The resulting torrent of flame sought places of least resistance and blew through the elevator doors in the sky lobby and sped down the elevator shaft. I don’t know if the elevator doors helped shield them or if they were unable to contain the firestorm in the shaft, but Jerry was caught by the flames and severely burned. His elevator made it to the 78th floor sky lobby from which, despite his condition, he took the stairs down to the ground. When he reached the hospital he was given a 5% chance of survival. I learned of this weeks later from Ellen, my other subway buddy. She had prudently left her office on 102 after learning of the fire next door and survived with no physical injuries. I lost track of Ellen and Jerry not long after 9/11, but I was joyfully relieved to learn in a September 2008 article in the New York Times that Jerry not only survived his ordeal, but returned to work at Cantor Fitzgerald about two-and-a-half years later.
When I got off the elevator on the ground floor, I looked to my left. Just a few minutes before, I’d gazed at Liberty Street and marveled at the beautiful day. Now a big chunk of metal the size of a large delivery van was burning in the middle of the street. A coating of white ash had already covered everything and pieces of metal, flaming embers and other debris were dropping from the sky.
I asked one of the security folks still stationed by the turnstiles what had happened. He didn’t know. That was a bad sign.
More elevators arrived from above with more people looking for a way to get out of the building safely. Liberty Street, raining shrapnel, was out of the question. I thought perhaps the exits from Tower 1 might be safer so I headed in that direction.
As soon as I exited the revolving door into the concourse connecting the towers, I knew Tower 1 was not an option. Unlike our lobby, smoke was pouring out behind the folks running urgently from Tower 1. Everyone was headed for the Southeast corner of the concourse, so I joined the growing crowd.
I saw one of my Aon colleagues, Nancy (not her real name) and made my way to her to ask if she knew what had happened.
“Oh yeah, I saw it,” she said. “God, I’ll never forget it. I was looking out my window while talking on the phone and I saw an airplane crash right into Tower 1. It was awful. One moment all was calm and then the plane hit and big ball of flame was coming right at me.”
“Are you hurt?”
“No. I felt the heat for a few moments but then the flames withdrew.”
“Any idea how big the plane was?’
“It wasn’t a little private plane if that’s what you mean. I think it might have been a cargo jet.”
My mind called up the memory of a story about an Army Air Corps light bomber that crashed into the Empire State Building back in the 1940s. A few people were killed or injured, but the building withstood it well. That plane was considered relatively small by today’s standard and the accident happened in a heavy fog. This one here must have been a horrible mechanical malfunction or the pilot might have had heart attack or something. It was in broad daylight.
In any event, I don’t know of anyone at that point who thought this was anything other than a terrible accident. The possibility that this could be a deliberate attack certainly never entered my mind.
The Marsh Floors
Outside Nancy and I wished each other well and parted ways. I walked towards Church Street where I turned and joined the throng of upturned heads watching flames burn in the gaping hole in Tower 1.
Days later I saw a startling photograph of a man up there, standing 95 stories high on a promontory made of broken steel where the corner of the building had been. He just stood there looking out in no particular direction as if from the bow of a large ship. I can’t guess how he got there, but with the fires burning behind and below him, he was unquestionably doomed. I tried to imagine what was going through his mind as he stood in this unthinkable place and time. I realized that he probably began his day much as I did, wake, shower, put on a suit and tie, commute to work, ride the elevator. He might have gotten a cup of coffee and read his e-mail before his routine ended. Suddenly he had to make an inescapable choice about how he would die. I shuddered as I tried mentally to put myself in his place. Trapped between two unthinkable options. What was he praying? My imagination wouldn’t go there. I simply could not imagine being in his place. No one could have been more alone. God bless his soul.
When I saw Tower 1 ablaze, it was obvious that the floors that the plane smashed into included those Marsh & McLennan had recently leased. They had moved most of the folks in their claims, loss control, IT, and other support groups there to alleviate some of the crowding in Marsh’s mid-town headquarters at 1166 Avenue of the Americas (a.k.a. 6th Ave.). No one on those floors when the plane hit could have survived. I hoped that they didn’t have time to realize fear or pain. One moment they were there and the next they were not. I knew that many, including me, would suffer the deaths of some very good people, I just didn’t know who or how many.
Standing on Church Street, I closed my eyes to silently pray for the departed and their surviving families and friends. When I opened my eyes again a man ran past me holding a bloody handkerchief to his head above his right ear.
That awoke me to the fact that, though not as dangerously numerous as on Liberty Street, pieces of metal, shards of glass, and bits of all manner of things were falling around me. I needed to put some buildings between me and the stuff falling from the tower so, dragging my little wheeled suitcase behind me, I turned and started towards Broadway.
An Unwanted Momento
I’d taken only a couple steps before I heard a loud, ‘whoosh’ building quickly from the south before a huge explosion went off behind my shoulder and above. It sounded like incoming heavy artillery being poured into a city.
I’m grateful that I didn’t see the second plane hit Tower 2. My nightmares of that day were bad enough without that image. Though I was spared that vision, the explosion above was literally deafening. The audiologist who tested me weeks later told me that due to my close proximity to it, the blast basically blew out my upper decibel hearing. This immediately left me with a high-pitched ringing in both ears that will never leave. I hear it now, as I am typing these words, and now months later as I am editing these pages. It will only cease when I die (I hope).
The ringing often interferes with my ability to make out what people say to me. It’s embarrassing to keep asking people to repeat themselves. Too often I ask my wife, “What was that they said?” I feel like an old man who should be holding a hearing trumpet to his ear. Doris is patient with me though; she knows why I need to ask.
From the outset I’ve been determined not to let this ringing distraction get the best of me. It’s always there, but fortunately much of the time I’m hardly aware of it. It’s never “gone;” the moment I think about it the phantom sound is right there. But somehow my brain has learned how to tune out the sound if and when I am focused on other things. When I am aware of it, however, it resembles a lower-volume version of the scream of a smoke alarm.
It’s somewhat existential really. If I ‘put it out of my mind’ so to speak while reading a book, listening to music, watching TV, driving the car, or playing with my grandchild, was it there? Again, it’s somewhat akin to the proverbial tree falling in a forest. But to say that I can ignore the sound implies that ignoring is a process by which I can willfully turn it off. That I cannot do.
(to be continued)
©2016 James Ash