Monday 26 September 2011

Survivors of the Twin Towers: Their stories

I think all of us have had events in our lives that were fascinating to experience and equally fascinating to those whom we told about those events but I think none of those events are as fascinating as those told by the survivors of the destruction of the twin towers in the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001. Before I tell you their stories, I will briefly give you some information about those towers and their destruction.

The original World Trade Center was a complex in Lower Manhattan with seven buildings featuring the landmark twin towers. The windows of the Top of the World Restaurant were located on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower while the Top of the World Observation Deck was located on the 107th floor of the South Tower. On the 106th floor of the South Tower was an indoor promenade deck in which tourists could sit along the perimeter of the building and gaze outwards towards the horizon. The first time I was at the top of the South Tower was in the 1980s and the second time was when I took my wife and two daughters to the top of the South Tower in the 1990s.

When the first plane smashed though the north façade of the North Tower at 8:45 a.m., as much as 38,000 litres (10,039 gallons) of aviation fuel saturated the floors between the 93rd and 99th floors. When the second plane smashed through the west façade of the South Tower at 9:03 a.m., the same amount of aviation fuel saturated the floors between the 77th and 85th floors.

As the fires burned, the structural steel on the breached floors and above would have softened and warped because of the intense heat. Fireproofed steel is only rated to resist 1,500 to 1,600° F. As the structures warped and weakened at the top of each tower, the frame, along with concrete slabs, furniture, file cabinets and other materials, became an enormous, consolidated weight that eventually crushed the lower portions of the frames on each floor below it.

The 1,362-ft-tall South Tower, which was hit at about the 60th floor, fell down much as one would cut down a tree. But the 1,368-ft-tall north tower similarly hit at the 90th floor, telescoped and collapsed vertically, rather than falling over. Each floor pancaked on the one below it. Once the steel frame on one floor had melted, it collapsed downwards, inflicting massive forces on the already-weakened floor below. From then on, the collapse became inevitable, as each new falling floor added to the downward forces. Further down the building, even steel at normal temperatures gave way under the enormous weight—an estimated 100,000 tones of steel along with 4 inches of concrete slabs on each of the 40,000-square-foot floors adding to the weight of the furniture and file cabinets.

The design of the World Trade Center saved thousands of lives by standing for well over an hour after the planes crashed into its twin towers. Tens of thousands of lives had been saved by the structural integrity of the buildings. Even though the buildings had a lot of their structure taken out, they remained intact for more than an hour, allowing thousands to escape. It was the fires in the two buildings that finally brought about their destruction. Unfortunately, those people who were above the fires couldn’t escape as the fires were too hot for them to pass through them to reach the stairways leading to the outside of the buildings. Unfortunately, many of the employees in the South Tower were given bad advice by security personnel to remain where they were when the North Tower was struck first. When the South Tower finally collapsed, almost all of them that remained in the lower floors of that building were killed.

And now, I will tell you about the incredible events that the survivors went through in their escape from death.


Lynn Simpson (89th floor)

As the ceiling began to fall on Lynn, the lights went out and the sprinklers came on. She fought her way to a side office. On the way down the stairs, she saw abandoned briefcases, money, shoes and clothing. She reached the ground but was severely burned.

Fred Eichler (83rd floor)

When the plane was closing in on the tower, Fred could actually see the inside of the plane’s cockpit and then the plane’s underside as it reared upwards and jerked right a split second before it smashed into the tower ten floors above him. He and his colleagues took shelter in a conference room. Later they saw a beam of light through the smoke. It was a fireman who had come to rescue them. The firemen had reached them and guided them safely down the stairs and out of the building. When they finally reached the outside of the building, emergency officials told them to run from the building as fast as they could. It’s a good thing that they did. The building collapsed four minutes later.

Chris Hardej (82nd floor)

After the impact, he scurried to the stairs but as he later said, the stairs were full of people and climbing down the stairs was like “Take a number and wait your turn.” He and the others finally reached the underground concourse that connected the two towers. But no sooner had they reached the concourse, when the South Tower collapsed and a wall of debris blasted through the concourse, almost pulverizing Chris and his three colleagues. They survived by eventually following distant voices through the darkness and escaping through a street-level exit.

Sujo John (81st floor)

After the plane smashed into the tower, Sujo blindly descended the stairs, all the time fearing for his pregnant wife who worked on the 71st floor of the South Tower. He reached the street level just as the South Tower collapsed. He was covered with dust and surrounded by a metre of debris. Unharmed, he ran down the street and called his wife on his cell phone. As it turned out; his wife was safe. She didn’t go to work that day.

Harry Waizer (elevator at the 78th floor)

He was riding the elevator up to his office on the 104th floor when the plane struck thereby sending the elevator downward in freefall. On the way down, he was severely burned by the fireball that followed him down. The elevator stopped at the 78th floor and from then on he climbed down the stairs. He later said that people calmly walked down the stairs with no comprehension as to what had just happened. I should point out that it was that calmness that saved their lives. If they had panicked, they would have stumbled over one another and others would have fallen over them and eventually the stairwell would be blocked with human beings wedged together. If that had happened, no one above them would have escaped going down those stairs. Harry and the others finally reached the street level. He was so badly burned, he had to be put in a medically induced coma until the next month while his body staved of infection and pneumonia as he slowly rehabilitated.

Michael Higson (78th floor)

He didn’t see the plane heading towards the tower as he is blind. However, he knew that something terrible had happened. He grabbed the harness of his guide dog and headed towards the stairs. When he reached the 50th floor, the South Tower was struck by the second plane. By the time they were in the subway tunnel in the concourse, the South Tower collapsed. He and his dog and the others with him survived.

Pasquale Buzzelli (64th floor)

After the plane hit his tower, Pasquale headed towards stairwell B which was free of smoke. But as he and others reached the 22nd floor, the stairs began to heave and the walls of the staircase shook as the tower was collapsing around them. The walls first buckled and then caved in on him. He was knocked unconscious and when he awoke, he was on top of rubble. Firemen rescued him before he would be burned alive. Being in the stairwell which was in the centre of the building was obviously a safe place to be as it was strongly built and the floors falling down on one another wouldn’t crush anyone in the stairwell like it did to those immediately under the floors above them.

Genelle Guzman McMillian (64th floor)

She was one of the persons who were with Buzzelli when the tower collapsed while they were on the 22nd floor. She was buried beneath the rubble with her legs pinned beneath the staircase. Later a rescuer named Paul held her hand while attempts were made to rescue her. Other rescuers were finally able to free her. She was the last surviving victim that was pulled from the rubble. She had been in the rubble for 27 hours. Unfortunately, Paul was never found.

Tom Canavan (47th floor)

He and a colleague had managed to reach the revolving doors of the building’s lobby that led them to the underground shopping concourse. Then the South Tower collapsed, trapping him beneath a large slab of concrete. He managed to crawl from under the slab and wiggle his way through the debris in complete darkness. Twenty-five minutes later, he emerged from the rubble. A few minutes later, the North Tower collapsed.

Arturo Griffith (between floors 10 and 20)

He was operating a freight operator from the second level of the basement to the 49th floor when the plane struck his building. The elevator cables were severed and plummeted down to the 15th floor when the emergency brakes stopped the elevator. The imploding elevator door crushed his right knee. He was later rescued from the basement.

William Jimeno (in bus terminal)

He was a rookie police officer working at the Port Authority Bus Terminal when he saw the shadow of the plane above him just before it hit the North Tower. Later while in the concourse, the rubble from the collapsing South Tower buried him. Then the North Tower collapsed, making it even harder for him to extricate himself from the rubble. He was rescued 13 hours after the towers collapsed.

Lauren Manning (lobby)

She arrived at the foot of the North Tower just after the plane hit the building. Had she arrived at the building on time, she would have been on the 105th floor when the plane struck. While she waited for an elevator while standing in the lobby, the elevator door suddenly opened and a fireball shot out of the elevator and burned 80% of her body. She was hospitalized for months. She and Harry Waizer were the only two employees out of 660 employees of Canton Fritzgerald that were in that building that survived.


Janice Brooks (84th floor)

She was sitting in her office on the 84th floor when she heard a loud thud. She looked out of her window and saw hundreds of people fleeing from the North Tower. She was on the phone with her boss in England and he told her to leave the building immediately. When she reached the 72nd floor, she heard an announcement over the PA system that everyone should return to their offices. She was on her way up the stairs when the plane struck the South Tower. Coming through a fire door was a woman screaming. Half of her arm had been torn off. The group she was with headed back down the stairs and escaped from the building. Soon after the plane hit the South Tower, the plane’s fuel turned the floor she worked at into an inferno.

Brian Clark (84th floor)

When the plane struck his building, the floor he was on was filled with debris and dust. He led a group of his fellow employees to one of the stairwells. While they were on the 81st floor, they began pushing sideways through the cracked drywall and managed to rescue Stanley Praimnath who was trapped in the debris. It turned out that he was the only person on the floor that survived the crash. Meanwhile others in his group chose to walk back up the stairs. They were never seen again. Brian and Stanley reached the street and as they looked up at the burning building, it suddenly began its downward collapse. Both men survived.

Mary Jos (78th floor)

She was in the 78th sky lobby of the South Tower when the tower was hit. She was knocked to the floor and was unconscious. When she regained consciousness, she realized that her back was on fire. She rolled on the floor to put out the fire and was rolling into bodies of those who were killed. She had also lost a third of the flesh on her left upper arm. She crawled to the stairwell and began descending the stairs. On the 77th floor, a man helped her and the two of them reached the street. She was one of only 18 people who were above the point of impact that survived.

Judy Wein (78th floor)

While she was in her office, she saw the fireball burst from the North Tower. She ignored the PA announcement to remain in their offices. Suddenly, the plane hit the South Tower which knocked her to the ground and partially injured her. She and others were assisted by Welles Crowther, a volunteer firefighter and eventually they reached the street. They later watched their building collapse to the ground. Crowther who had gone back up the building to save others was killed but not before he saved dozens of lives. His body wasn’t found until March 2002.

Bob Shelton (56th floor)

He was making his way down the stairs when the plane hit his tower. He could hear the building making cracking noises. He said that it sounded like having a bunch of spaghetti in your hand when you break it in half just before you put it into the pot. He managed to get to the street safely.

Jack Alvo (73rd floor)

When the first plane hit the North Tower, he left his office and headed down the stairs. When he reached the 53rd floor, he looked out one of the windows facing the North Tower and saw people jumping out of that tower. He picked up a nearby phone and called his wife, mother and father. Then the second plane hit the South Tower. He heard glass crashing around him and felt the building shake. He went back into the stairwell and climbed down it and managed to escape the building before it collapsed.

Michael Otten (44th floor)

After hearing the announcement that the South Tower was secure (this was before the plane hit it) he headed back to his office on the 80th floor. He was in the elevator when the plane hit his building. The elevator doors wouldn’t close and he saw the walls of the elevator caving inwards. He got out of the elevator and climbed down the stairs and reached the street before the tower collapsed.

Michael Seeling (25th and 26th floors)

His office was on the 25th floor but he was on the 26th floor when the North Tower was hit. He and the others watched in horror as they saw bodies plummeting down to the street. He headed down his building and managed to be outside when the South Tower was hit.

Lauren Smith (lobby)

She worked on the 89th floor and ignored the call to remain on the floor she was working on. She took an elevator down but by the time it reached the 10th floor, the plane smashed into her building. The elevator then went into a freefall and stopped near the bottom of the shaft. Men inside the elevator cab pried open the doors and she squeezed through the narrow opening and jumped to the ground but stumbled backwards and fell into the elevator shaft. She was pulled out by nearby firemen. She suffered five broken ribs and a punctured lung however, she escaped the building before it collapsed.

Well, there you have the stories of incredible escapes. Of course, there have been many other incredible escapes throughout history but I think my readers will agree with me that what these folks went through were experiences that were extremely remarkable and ones they will never, ever forget.

I have had some very near death experiences in my life but nothing I ever experience has been anything like what these survivors underwent. Many people have escaped from burning buildings and crumbling buildings in the past but none of those buildings were as high as the twin towers. Obviously, the odds were against those survivors in those two buildings but common sense and bravery on their part made it possible for them to survive what has to be one of the world’s worst disasters.

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