Saturday, September 11, 2010

9/11 survivor interview and memories

2011 update: Click here for pictures Steve took inside the World Trade Center during the attack.

 Steve and I have been friends since college.  Morgan Stanley’s San Francisco office hired him.  As a new hire, they sent him to the World Trade Center for training.  I distinctly remember dropping him off at the airport and wishing that he has a great time in New York City.  It was September 2001.
I gave Steve the difficult task of sharing his memories of that day.  He first gives a vivid retelling of his fateful trip. He then answers my questions, which in retrospect seem pedantic and mechanical (I mean my questions were pedantic and mechanical, not his answers).  This is what he has to say.
Steve’s Trip
Around May of 2001, I began working for an investment banking firm called Morgan Stanley.  At the time, all of their new hires were sent to New York for a 3-week training program inside of their headquarters in World Trade Center 2.  I was pretty excited about it because I have never been to New York before and I had a lot planned.  I arrived at JFK airport in New York on Saturday, September 8th. As soon as I checked into my hotel, the Shelburne Murray Hill, I took the subway to Yankee Stadium and watched the Yankees and Red Sox play.  Afterward, I met up with my friend Veronica, who was working as a fashion designer at the time and living near Central Park, and went to dinner at a sushi restaurant.  We had a great dinner and then sang several karaoke songs after that. I had spent my Sunday walking around Manhattan by myself and exploring.  
We were to be holding our training sessions on the 61st floor of Tower 2, the South Tower.  Our start time was 7:30 a.m., which made it 4:30 a.m. California time and I was not looking forward to it.  There were three of us there from the San Francisco branch-Tom H., Chris R., and myself.  We met at 6:45 a.m. in front of our hotel to catch a charter bus that took us to the World Trade Center. 
I was amazed at how tall the Towers were, you had to crane your neck all the way back see the top.  When we entered, we took photos and were issued ID cards to gain access to the building.  We took the elevator up to the 61st floor and were taken aback by the view up there.  We were looking down on the surrounding buildings.  The Towers were 110 stories tall and my intention was to go to the top. There was a restaurant in the North Tower called Windows on the World and i wanted to eat a meal there, all the way up top.  While talking to each other, my coworkers and I became acutely aware of the World Trade Center bombing that occurred in 1993.  We joked around that we had to “be careful”.  
At lunch, I walked over to Wall Street a couple of blocks away and walked around.  I grabbed a slice of pizza and had my shoes shined, thinking that I was a bigshot.  I went over to the New York Stock Exchange, but the line to get in was long and the security there was very tight.  After a long day of lectures, it was time to call it a day, I cannot remember if it was 5 or 6 p.m.  I decided to hang out in lower Manhattan instead of going back to my hotel, so I began wandering around.  The humid weather soon turned to rain, so I went to a store and bought an umbrella, hoping to stay dry.  After walking around and taking pictures for a while, the rain began to fall heavily.  
I had heard that Little Italy was in the area, so I wanted to go there and eat at an Italian restaurant, thinking that I may see a mobster or two like in the movies.  I couldn’t find Little Italy and I was soaked to the skin at this point.  The rain was coming down at an angle, wetting me from the side, making my umbrella pretty useless.  I took the subway to Grand Central Station, back to my hotel.  I took a hot shower and spent the night watching TV with my roommate Mike, who was from our L.A. branch.  We watched “Band of Brothers” and I was amazed at how realistic it looked.  We then watched “American Beauty”.  We finally fell asleep around 2 a.m.

I awoke the next morning at 6:30 am and rousted my roommate. We ran around frantically for 15 minutes getting ready and made it out in time to catch our bus to the World Trade Center.  I thought that I may have gotten sick from being soaked by the rain the night before, but I was fine. I sat behind Tom and he gave me the sports section of the New York Times to read.  I was too tired so I just put it into my satchel.  When we arrived at the Towers, I went to a food cart and bought a poppy seed bagel, my favorite, with cream cheese. I didn’t have a chance to eat it so I took it up with me. 
It was 7:30 in the morning and I was very tired and sleepy. Unfortunately, I was sitting in the front row and had nowhere to hide. I put a rubber band on my left hand and kept snapping it to stay awake.  An hour passed and we finally took our first break of the morning around 8:30 a.m.  We dropped our Business Plans, that we slaved over for months, into a box as we filed out of the room.  We were drinking coffee and eating snacks while looking out of the huge windows of the building.  We could see the Statue of Liberty and the ant-like cars and people below.  
Suddenly, papers started flying by, outside of the windows.  We crowded up to the windows and saw fiery debris everywhere on the buildings next to us.  I thought that a garbage truck must have blown up or something, but then realized that the papers were up where we were at and coming from around the Tower. I thought out loud “A bomb must have gone off”, at which the manager standing next to me and I both looked at each other and I probably had the same surprised look that he did. We immediately started going around the room telling people we should leave. I went to my seat and grabbed my satchel.  While everyone was leaving, I went to a room that had multiple phones and tried to call a coworker, Steve D., in the San Francisco branch to tell him what had happened. It was still too early and no one was there.  When I came out, a guy that worked in the building told me to evacuate. I headed to the nearest stairwell, and as I entered, it was full of people walking down the steps.  
Everyone was pretty calm at the time, and I remember that there was coffee spilled on the floor and everyone was going “Careful, spilled coffee” as they stepped over it. I walked down from the 61st floor to the 45th when a man’s voice came up on the intercom in the stairwell.  He said “Everybody be calm, a plane hit the first World Trade Center, the second Tower is secure, you can all go back to your offices”.  “What?”, we all looked at each other in surprise and the guy behind me said “Yeah, I heard that a small plane hit the building”.  The woman in front of me said “That’s bullshit! I’m getting out of here!”.  Somehow I was the dividing point and the people in front of me went down and the people behind me started going back up. I didn’t know whether to stay or to go, so I decided to stay where I was at and went back into the building.  
I walked around for a couple of minutes and then remembered that the 44th floor was a transfer level for the elevators.  Since the Towers are so tall, you have to get to certain floors that are transfer levels to get to other floors. I decided to go down to the 44th.  As I opened the door to the stairwell, I set off an alarm and I looked around, feeling embarrassed by it.  Other people on the floor were spooked by the alarm and headed down the stairwell to get out. I went down and into the 44th floor. To my left was the side of the building about 15 feet away. There were two escalators in between, one going up and one going down to the 43rd floor.  In front of me was a large, flatscreen TV with the Bloomberg news on. To my right extended a long row of huge elevators with people walking around. I stood there watching the TV and reading the closed captioning at the bottom.  Sure enough, I read that a plane had hit the North Tower.  I actually felt a sense of relief because I thought that it was a small plane that had accidentally hit the building.  It wasn’t anything intentional.  I thought that was bad for the poor guy in the plane but that it wasn’t as serious as we thought.  After a few seconds, a loud “BOOM” ripped through the building from behind.  
My first thought was “A bomb! Fuck, they got me!”.  I felt the building jump from the impact and as I turned around to my right I could see things flying across the room.  I thought “It looks just like a movie!”.  When I finally finished turning around and looked behind, the building was violently shaking, the lights were flashing on and off, people were falling down, and the walls were cracking. I thought “Fuck, I’m dead”.  The building kept shaking so hard that I thought that is was going to collapse. I braced myself and waited for the building to come down and crush me.   I had accepted the fact that I was going to die.  I had no epiphanies, my life didn’t flash before me, I just stood there and waited.  
After a few seconds, the shaking stopped and I then thought “I gotta get out of here!”. I spun around again and saw that both escalators were twisted up from all of the shaking.  I ran down, somehow without tripping, and I saw three people dressed in white running towards me and then veering off to my right.  Someone mentioned afterward that they must have been guardian angels, but I found out that there was a cafeteria on that floor and they probably worked there.  As I ran after them, I heard them praying in Spanish and I thought “what a great idea!”, so I started praying also. We opened the door to the stairwell and this time it was packed with people panicking, running to get out.  I started running down with them, praying through several flights of stairs. It didn’t matter how old or fat someone was, everyone was running down quickly.  There were square signs in the stairwell with the number of the floor on them.  I saw 43, 42, 41, 40, 39, 38, and I just kept thinking “Damn, when am I getting out of here?!”.  When I reached the mid twenties, I was already exhausted and sweating, walking with everyone else.  
There was smoke in the stairwell, so I reached into my bag to grab my handkerchief and I accidentally grabbed my camera. It was my first time in New York and I had my camera and 3 rolls of film.  I immediately started taking pictures at this point.  We kept walking down and came across people, who I assume worked for the Port Authority, who were standing around and guiding us out. They were telling us which way to go.  Around the 7th floor is when I saw firemen coming up the stairwell.  I told a couple of them “Thanks guys!”.  We were led all the way to the bottom floor, where the subway and the shops were at.  It appeared that all of the World Trade Center buildings were connected by this underground network.  We were all walking en masse when I turned to the guy next to me and said “Oh man, we made it”. Then I thought “We’re UNDERNEATH the building!”. I started to walk faster.  We finally reached steps that went back up to the first floor and I realized that we were now in World Trade Center 5.  I paused at the base of the steps and kneeled down to take a break.  A man walked up to me and asked me if I was okay. I said “Yes”, and then stood up and walked up the steps.  As we walked out of one of the entrances to World Trade Center 5, I could see debris strewn about the area.  
A man wearing a white dress shirt stood outside facing us and he kept saying “Don’t look up! Don’t look up!”.  Naturally, I turned around and looked up.  I then saw one of the most horrific sites ever, the North and South Towers on fire.  I raised my camera, took a picture, then turned around and ran across the street.  As I was running across the street, a cameraman stood there recording me.  I felt like a refugee fleeing a bombed out village that you see in war movies.  As soon as I reached the other side of the street, I took another picture of the people streaming out of the building.  Somehow, luckily, I saw Tom coming across and we came together.  We both looked up at our burning building and I said, “how are we going to work tomorrow?”.  Tom said “We’ll probably just do it in the hotel instead”. “Okay” I replied.  
Shock was already setting in. We started taking more pictures at this time of the Towers and of ourselves in front of the Towers.  Cars nearby had their doors open and the radio news blared out about attacks happening everywhere across the country.  A gal wearing a black sport coat, I assume she was from the Port Authority also, came up to us and said “You know, it’s not a good idea to be hanging around”. Tom and I looked up, at each other, and immediately agreed.  At this point, more and more people kept coming up and milling around.  Some of them were crying and others just stared, wide-eyed, with their hands on their mouths.  
We started walking up Broadway and soon found ourselves in front of a Federal Building. We immediately crossed the street to the other side.  We continued walking up Broadway passing hundreds of people.  Emergency vehicles sped by us, with their lights flashing and their sirens wailing.  I’ll remember the sound of those sirens forever.  We felt hungry, and decided to go into a store to do some shopping. After a few minutes of filling our baskets, we thought “what the hell are we doing?”. We dropped the baskets and just bought water.  We continued walking and came across a woman crying hysterically. We walked up to her and hugged her.  People just walked by and looked at us.  We continued up Broadway and took pictures of the burning Towers and their dark plumes of smoke.  I was hungry and I turned to Tom and said “I left my bagel up in the building”.  I was really looking forward to eating it. 
We had walked about six blocks when we heard a loud rumble from behind.  Everyone turned around and we watched as a cloud of smoke rose up in the distance, covering buildings.  In a panic, we all turned around and started running away.  Things were a bit of a blur at this point while we were running.  After a block or so, Tom and I slowed down to catch our breath and we came upon a liquor store.  We went inside, grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels, and immediately opened it up and started drinking.  We walked up to the cashier, gave him money, and walked out with our bottle.  We were badly shaken up and needed something to calm ourselves. Tom had a brother living in New York, so we set out for his apartment.  After awhile, we eventually arrived there and the first thing Tom’s brother did was give him a big hug and say that he thought we were dead.  It was weird hearing someone say that.  We stood around talking, drinking Jack Daniels from a glass now. I noticed my hand shaking while I drank. I couldn’t sit down at all, I still felt adrenaline pumping through my body and I felt like I could jump out the window if I had to.  While watching the TV, we finally saw what caused the loud rumble and smoke cloud:  the two Towers collapsing.  
I couldn’t believe my eyes as I watched the television replay the collapse over and over.  It was just too difficult to believe that these icons of the New York skyline were now gone.  I thought about the firemen I had seen going up the stairs and thought that they were surely dead.  Most of the phones around a large radius of the Towers were no longer working and I was relieved to find that Tom’s brother had a working phone.  I called home and my father answered.  I spoke to him in Spanish and told him what had happened, but he didn’t seem to comprehend what was going on and he just told me to be careful.  After a couple of hours, Tom and I headed back to our hotel.  When we arrived, we passed by the hotel bar and a group of guys we were working with rushed upon us.  My roommate, Mike, gave me a big hug and said “I thought you guys died!”.  We had arrived long after everyone else, so it was a reasonable assumption.  I went up to my hotel room and sat on my bed.  Then I took a hot shower and sat on my bed again.  My mind was racing and I didn’t know what to do.  
Q: What is your most vivid memory of that day?
A: The whole day was very vivid. The most vivid memory would be the explosion I heard when the plane hit the Tower. 
Q: How is the War on Terror going?  On the one hand, we have not had a major attack on American soil since 9/11.  On the other hand, we’ve spent hundreds of billions on two wars and homeland security and lost thousands of soldiers’ lives.
A: It’s hard to tell how the War on Terror is going because it is all very secretive.  We have not had a major attack on American soil since 9/11, but I do believe it will happen again.  
Q: What would you say to those hijackers?
A: I don’t know what I would say to the hijackers, I never thought about that.  A guy who has convinced himself to die for his cause would be very hard to persuade otherwise.  I would probably say, look man, this will be ugly for everyone involved. For Americans and for your religion.  If you do this, you would be setting off a powder keg of global unrest and the deaths of thousands of people.  If you have a message, there must be a better way to communicate it. 
Q: If you could do it again, would you have gone to New York in September 2001?
A: Would I have gone to New York knowing that there was going to be a terrorist attack? No.  Not at all. My life was turned upside down for a while and I carry painful memories with me.  If I didn’t know, then yes.  I had a good time there for a couple of days.  
Q: Any annoying reactions from people when they learn that you survived the attack?
A: Most people are genuinely shocked to hear that I survived the attack. Some have cried.  What bothered me before was how hard some people tried to connect themselves to the attack.  Like “I was in New York a month before”. Or “My aunt knows a guy who was almost there that day”.  If someone realized just how painful it was to actually be there and survive, or worse, to die, then they wouldn’t be trying so hard to be a part of it.  Family members of those who died are grief-stricken.  Survivors live with pain and guilt.  My friends and family are genuinely affected.  
Q: How do you feel about American politicians (no matter what side they are on) using 9/11 to advance their own agendas?
A: George W. Bush made me sick.  He evoked 9/11 repeatedly to advance his own agenda.  For a while I was scared more of my government than of another terrorist attack.  Talking about 9/11 in a legitimate fashion is fine, but it was used too many times in a way that disrespected those that were involved. Using 9/11 to advance your political agenda is cheap.
Q: At what point that day did you realize it was a terrorist attack?
A: I realized it was a terrorist attack as soon as the second plane hit the building I was in, Tower 2. In that instant I knew that it was not a coincidence. I thought that a bomb went off in my building, I wouldn’t have thought of a second plane being used.    
Q: How would you describe 9/11 to your grandchild?
A: Talking about 9/11 with my family is very difficult.  I rarely ever do it.  It’s kind of like those combat veterans that come home from battle and never talk about it.  You’ve seen and experienced things that you would rather not share, especially if it could hurt or affect a loved one.  My nieces and nephews are getting older now, an age where they can now understand what had happened.  They realize their uncle survived one of the biggest events in U.S. history and they’ll have questions.  I take a risk in giving them answers that will make them scared or sad.  If I was to describe to them, or my grandchildren about 9/11, I would probably just tell them the story of what happened to me.  
Q: What do you miss most about pre-9/11 America?
A: What I miss most about pre 9/11 America is freedom.  It seems like we have less of it today.  We are being spied on and our own liberties are being threatened.  9/11 has left Americans feeling vulnerable and with a decreased feeling of safety.  This leaves us susceptible to political shenanigans.  
Q: How has surviving the attack changed you?
A: Surviving the attack made me a different person.  I was not the same guy for about 3 years.  I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and saw a therapist for a few years.  I feel much better now, but will always carry this event with me.  I’m leery of tall buildings and bridges now because my sense of safety was shattered.  I am a more serious person now and think that surviving this gave me some sort of wisdom.  I feel like it is a cross for me to bear, to talk to others and to give them inspiration while suffering in the inside.  I was giving presentations for a while for a friend of mine who is a LA Sheriff Deputy.  Though it wasn’t easy talking about my experience, it had a truly positive effect on all those in attendance.  I didn’t mind re-living the event in my mind and in front of others because it is therapy for them also.  


MattC said...

Thank you for posting this interview. I believe all Americans can identify exactly where they were and what they were doing during this time. You friend is right, no one can ever really place themselves in his shoes (except other survivors and relatives of the deceased) and I can only imagine the amount of stress this horrifc event placed on your friend.

Deputy Z said...

I have known Steve for a better part of my life, since the 4th grade. I appreciate and admire his courage to share his life and memories with us. Thank you brother and as always, I am thinking of you.

Unknown said...

What an interesting and terrifying read. I was moved by the memories of the second plane crash, the shaking of the building and feeling like you were going to die, as I couldn't help but remembering my own experience during the Chilean earthquake of 2010.

Thanks for sharing this interview with the world.

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing this truly amazing story and what you went through. You have touched my heart like none other.