“I feel as though I am a ghost.”
By Lolita Jackson
I have survived two terrorist attacks on my workplace without a scratch.
As I write this, less than a week after the destruction of the World Trade Center, I realize how lucky I am to be alive. The first time this happened, when terrorist bombs exploded in the basement of the building in 1993, I was young and still felt somewhat immortal. I was fearless going down the darkened stairwells and viscerally felt that if I simply walked down the stairs I would be fine. We were out of the building for one month, but were able to reoccupy it mostly without incident.
This was an entirely different matter.
I arrived at work at 8:20 on September 11 in order to attend an 8:30 staff meeting on the 70th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. During the meeting, each person was stating what they were currently working on, and I was waiting for my turn and absentmindedly staring out of the window when I heard the first crash and saw papers, debris, and flames shooting out of the other building. I and the people who were also in the meeting—many of whom were also veterans of the 1993 bombing—immediately got up, grabbed our purses and other belongings, and made our way to the middle of the floor. People were not panicking because most of us felt that a plane hit the first tower by accident. Once we had done a headcount, we began immediately descending the stairs.
As we were going down the stairs we were told to take the elevators from 59 to 44. The 44th floor is a skylobby, and there were several hundred people there when we arrived. I was on that floor when the second plane hit my building. The building swayed about two feet, then righted itself. (The building does—did—that normally, even in a windstorm, though obviously not as severely.)
Once everyone stopped screaming and had picked up their shoes—many people were knocked out of them by the impact—we calmly began descending the stairs. Yes, people were crying, but my group was apparently in no imminent danger, so we just moved down as quickly as possible. I even made a few jokes on the way to lighten the mood: I told the group to begin counting down floors as though it were New Year’s Eve—which we actually did.
During the first incident in 1993, it was much more frightening to descend the stairs, since the smoke was billowing up and the stairs were pitch black. It took almost three hours to get down that time. This time, the first plane hit at 8:48, I exited the building at 9:25, and my building collapsed at 10:00. If I had not left immediately, I likely would have perished. Ironically, the first terrorist attempt to destroy the building in 1993—which made us know that the important thing was to get out as quickly as possible—saved many, many lives.
I actually was able to catch one of the last subways before they shut down the system, so I was at home by 10:45. It was when I was on the crosstown bus after exiting the subway that I heard that the towers had fallen. People were discussing the attack and how they felt about it, and one of my fellow passengers shouted out, “The other one just fell!” I said, “What do you mean, other one?” She then told me that both towers had fallen within the past half hour.
That is when it hit me: everyone who was helping us to get out was dead. Hundreds of policemen and firemen. My secondary reaction was for the people in the towers who were told that everything was OK and to go back up to their offices, or who were elderly or severely overweight and could not exit quickly. My last reaction is one of personal loss. I worked in the World Trade Center for 10 years and spent far more time there than anywhere else, so I feel like someone has blown up my sense of identity. I am forever changed.
In my firm, out of 3,500 employees only 10 didn’t make it out. Unfortunately, I knew two of them. One refused to leave when we were told to evacuate, stating that the Trade Center complex was composed of the strongest buildings in the world. The other was one of my closest colleagues at work. We were both on 59 together when he decided to find an empty office to call his wife. I kept going and went down the elevator. He got in an elevator about five minutes later, at exactly the time of the second plane’s impact. It is believed that the elevator cables snapped. Split-second decisions determined whether you lived or died.
I cannot believe I have escaped this horror twice without a scratch. God has left me here for a purpose, to complete the work I have started, and that is a humbling idea to contemplate. After endlessly watching the television replay of the second plane crash into my building and seeing the building fall only 50 minutes later, I feel as though I am a ghost. Looking at that horrific footage, I realize that I should have died. I am experiencing the feeling that I was somehow almost protected from physical harm—that had any circumstances been different, such as my tower getting hit first, or had I not evacuated immediately, I wouldn’t be here right now. There is a Bruce Willis movie, Indestructible, in which he is the only survivor of a horrific train accident. I feel like his character.
I have many friends who witnessed firsthand the desperate people jumping to their deaths, and that searing memory is one they will never forget. I simply cannot fathom having to make the choice of burning to death or jumping almost 100 floors. I am scarred, New York is traumatized, and the world is in mourning with us.
Lolita Jackson EAS’89 is an assistant vice president with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. in New York. She extends her thanks to “all the members of the Penn family—classmates and other alums, administrators and staff—who sent me their kind thoughts and wishes” and offers this advice: “Enjoy your friends, loved ones, and your life in general. Do not wait to have memories, memories are created now.”
“The only thing I can do is sit here and type it out.”
By Beth Scanlon
At West 4th Street this morning, they announced that our train would be delayed because of a fire at the World Trade Center. The E would be running over the F line. People groaned. I figured it was just a fire on the tracks, which happens all the time, and kept reading my book. Came out of the subway at about 9:20 a.m., late as usual, and there were huge gatherings of people across the street, some with cameras. I thought maybe they were shooting a movie. Did I want to be a New York gaper? But there were so many people, I decided to cross. I looked south, in the direction everyone else was looking. I saw the World Trade Center with black smoke billowing out and it took a minute to realize there was a gaping hole in the North Tower. And then I noticed just behind it the second tower had a huge hole lower down. I leaned in and listened as some guy explained that terrorists had hijacked two planes and suicide-bombed the towers. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I tried to call my dad on my cell phone to let him know I was OK. I tried calling Alex and Jeff to make sure they were OK. I racked my brain trying to think if I knew anyone who worked down there. I was trying to imagine what it must have been like when the World Trade Center was bombed years ago. Before I lived in New York. And how when I took classes there I always thought the tight security was kind of ridiculous. That no one would ever do that again. Who expected planes? I watched for a few minutes, and then I walked uptown toward work.
I stumbled to the building and heard some guy talking on his cell phone about how he wasn’t in the WTC, how he had just gotten out before it happened. Upstairs, the girls already had the radio playing. They told me to call my dad. I was in a sleepwalk. Were there people on the planes that were hijacked? How many floors were taken out? How many people had already died? I reassured my father over the phone and checked my e-mail. Maureen wanted to know if I was OK, so I called her and told her I was all right. She was upset, she was watching it on the news. I told her I saw it with my own eyes. I told her I’d call her back.
We were panicked in the office. Was another attack going to happen? My father informed me that they bombed the heliport at the Pentagon. This was far-reaching and insane. We weren’t sure what to do with ourselves, sitting in this office on 17th Street. We heard that the South Tower had collapsed. I was in disbelief. I had to go outside and see it with my own eyes. We decided to all go out together. So we migrated to Sixth Avenue, and as we walked down 17th, my ears perked up. I heard a plane flying overhead. I asked, “Is that a plane?” We all looked at each other in terror and then at the sky. Why were there still planes in the sky? How is it that in a moment, a sound that we never even register in this busy, loud city, a sound that is peaceful and reminds me of summer days outside, had suddenly become a sign of danger?
On Sixth Avenue, thousands lined the sidewalk, strangers talking to strangers, telling what they saw. The other tower was still billowing with smoke and I could see the red flames licking the side of the building. Laura and Aimee decided to go back in, they didn’t feel safe outside. I needed to stay outside. As every siren passed, I wanted to be a nurse again. I wanted to jump into an ambulance and help people. Leah said she wanted to go back in. She said she didn’t feel safe. She was afraid riots would begin. I was afraid for the Arabs in the city. Like the one standing next to us who worked at the parking lot on the corner. Will people be afraid of every Arab they see?
People in business attire and chef uniforms were walking up Sixth Avenue from downtown. Their faces were tear-stained; some were sobbing. People were lining up at the pay phones to try and call their loved ones and tell them they were OK. Cell-phone service suddenly no longer existed. Leah was tugging at me, “Let’s go.” I looked south one more time and as I turned my head from the towers, a roar came over the crowd, a loud gasp, and I looked up to see the second tower crumbling. It just fell. The glass from the windows flew out and sparkled in the sun. How could something so ugly, death and destruction, also strike me as so beautiful? I was disgusted by my own emotions. I had just seen a building cease to exist. In an instant it was there and the next moment, it was no longer. It was like every piece of footage I have ever seen in the movies. It was obscured by smoke and when it cleared there was nothing,
A group of Hasidic Jews had gathered behind us on the sidewalk. One cried, “They destroyed the most beautiful building in New York,” in a garbled sob. They hugged and retreated from the sidewalk. During the collapse, Leah grabbed my hand and clamped it so tight, she was yelling, “I want to go, I need to get out of here,” and I couldn’t move, couldn’t be tugged by her strong pull. Leah went back, and I just stood there.
There were sirens everywhere, people were huddling around service elevators to listen to the radio, to hear the next update. I stumbled down the sidewalk, consciously amazed that my legs were still working. Back at the office, I talked to my dad again and he asked me how close we were to the WTC. I assured him we were at least 30 blocks away. He told me how they couldn’t call into New York, the lines were all busy. He was choked up, and I still cannot begin to have feelings about what happened. I am not scared, I am not sad, I am nothing.
I reached my mother at school. She was crying hysterically on the phone, thanking God I was alive, and telling me to be careful, that this is war, to go home. But we can’t go home. Manhattan has been completely shut down, there are no subways, no cars, no trains. I called my brother, and he described what is going on on TV. How they are showing the remains of the buildings, and I cannot see it, we have only the radio and it is enough. They are describing the ash falling on the people in southern Manhattan. They are describing the mayhem in Washington. The other plane that went down in Pennsylvania. Is it related? All airports have been shut down and flights are being diverted to Canada. We have turned the radio down to talk on the phone, and I fell out of touch with the world. Laura is working through this whole thing and Aimee is arranging to walk home over one of the bridges. The only thing I can do is sit here and type it out as I experience it. Clinically document the events of this morning. I am chilled and feel sick to my stomach. There are reports that people are migrating on foot over every bridge, getting off the island, and we’re all trying to figure out how we’re getting home, if we’re going home.
Beth Scanlon C’99 lives in Brooklyn and is a publicist at Carol Fass Publicity in Manhattan. You can e-mail her at <email@example.com>.
“I was dumbstruck by the enormity of what I was seeing.”
By Barry Miles Belgorod
Tuesday, September 11, 2001, seemed like a normal morning, seeing patients in my ophthalmology office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. As long as I live, I will never forget my secretary informing me that an airplane had struck one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
That moment had an exceptional impact on me, as my four- and six-year-old sons and I had been studying skyscrapers for the past several months. It had become their passion. They were so proud of our Twin Towers. They would share their elation on the occasional clear Sunday evening when we could see them atop the Manhattan skyline as we drove home from the country. We had studied the incident in 1945 when a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building on a foggy Saturday morning, killing 13. I had an instant sense of déjà vu.
I saw the second plane hit on the television set in the lobby of my office building, and my heart sank as any doubts about this being a terrorist attack went up in the smoke I was watching. My thoughts turned to those victims in and above the crash sites and to those who might have perished inside the airplanes. I wanted to help, to do anything to relieve the suffering, but both of my hospitals, Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat and New York-Presbyterian, as well as St. Vincent’s downtown, where I also volunteered, all had enough physicians and nurses waiting. I was referred to a triage center at Chelsea Piers where medical volunteers could go to see if they were needed.
One of my residents, Dr. Charles Mango, from New York-Presbyterian, had managed to get near the disaster site, and from him I learned that ocular foreign bodies and irritations were one of the two most common injuries (respiratory problems being the other). Most of what he was able to do on-site was ocular irrigation, as there was no slit-lamp biomicroscope available.
I now knew what needed to be done. I had to get a slit lamp downtown to treat the rescuers and victims with eye problems on-site. I called the assistant administrator at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, Craig Ugoretz, who found the one slit lamp that was not bolted to a floor-mounted stand. When I arrived at the hospital the next day, the slit lamp was in the lobby waiting for me at the security desk. In the hospital pharmacy, I met a police surgeon, Dr. Richard Leinhardt, who offered to take me downtown.
The FDR Drive was closed to all but emergency vehicles. We passed through multiple roadblocks and checkpoints, some manned by the NYPD, some by state troopers, and some by military personnel. My beloved city had been transformed into an armed camp. In the otherwise cloudless blue sky, a huge gray pillar of smoke rose from lower Manhattan, pushed toward Brooklyn by the wind.
On our way, it was suggested we stop at One Police Plaza to treat the eyes of injured police officers. Many officers had eye injuries that had not responded to irrigation the day before. They just ignored their injuries and kept working. I was given a conference room down the hall from the Command and Control Center to set up as an eye-treatment facility. After a few minutes, there was a long line of police officers with inflamed eyes at the door. They were often so debris-laden that their uniforms appeared more khaki than blue from the concrete dust and ash. On the first day alone, I had the honor of caring for the eyes of probably more than 100 of these heroes. I eventually lost count. Each one just wanted to be treated expeditiously so that they could immediately return to “ground zero.”
When the Towers collapsed, there were enormous quantities of pulverized concrete, wisps of fiberglass, and asbestos dust (the buildings may not have been absolutely asbestos free) and splinters of probable window glass. Many of the injured had chemical keratoconjunctivitis from the toxic effects of the debris and acrid smoke from the fires that raged in the rubble. There were many eyelid foreign bodies.
Having a slit lamp made all the difference in treating these patients definitively. Large foreign bodies were easily removed with cotton-tipped applicators and irrigation. Small foreign bodies such as embedded glass chips often had to be removed with forceps. Fiberglass embedded in the tarsal conjunctiva created papillary conjunctivitis and the classic ultra-fine “ice-skating track” corneal abrasions, often without any apparent foreign bodies to be seen. Under high magnification and viewed tangentially, one could usually see the offending fiberglass. It was tricky to remove the ultra-fine fiberglass splinters, even with jewelers’ forceps. It was like trying to remove a straight pin with a monkey wrench.
During the night, after the steady flow of injured officers slowed to a trickle and stopped, I went home for a few hours to check on my family, clean up, and get a nap to prepare for the next day. There were few people outside on the streets. Although it was late by then, one is accustomed to seeing some people on the streets of New York at any hour. The wind direction had shifted. Smoke from the disaster site was now blowing north, up the avenues, to the Upper East Side. It was like walking in an acrid fog.
The boys were sleeping soundly in my bed, waiting for Daddy to come home. I looked out my bedroom window. The wind must have changed direction again, as now it was the distant horizon that was blanketed by smoke. The sky above, however, was so paradoxically clear that one could see entire constellations that had been absent from the New York skies for as long as I could remember. It all looked too serene considering what was going on downtown.
It wasn’t until the second day, during a break, that I opened the blinds to discover that my improvised emergency room at One Police Plaza faced out over the devastation.
On the evening of September 20 I got a closer look, when I was escorted to the site by Sergeant Giuzio of the Office of the Chief of Police. He had been off-duty when the call went out that an airplane had hit Tower 1 and had raced to the scene. He had been there when the Twin Towers collapsed. From our parking space on the West Side Highway, we could see the still-billowing smoke illuminated by the floodlights at the site. The fires were still burning on Day Nine.
We walked through several checkpoints to an NYPD staging area, where I was outfitted with yellow boots, a rain poncho—it was raining by then—and hard hat, and a respirator to filter out smoke, asbestos, and other particles. Without the familiar landmarks of the Twin Towers, I was completely disoriented. As we got closer, the floodlights gradually got brighter and activity increased. Armies of construction workers moved purposefully in every direction. Flatbed trucks and dump trucks were being turned around 180 degrees with seeming ease by their drivers. I could see cranes in the distance that were over 10 stories tall pulling and picking at piles of rubble and construction vehicles equipped with pincers the size of a small car, which I was told could cut through a steel girder like scissors through paper.
We were standing adjacent to “ground zero,” on West Street between Building 6 and the World Financial Center. Large chunks of stone façade had been torn away from the upper floors of the north building of the Financial Center. A multi-story mass of steel girders from one of the Towers had fallen on the glass archway that connects the two buildings of the World Financial Center.
The façade of Building 6 was largely gone. The remains of Tower 1 were a few vertical strips of façade and an enormous pile of rubble, being worked upon by construction workers. The scale of the devastation made them look like ants on an anthill. Despite being dwarfed by the rubble, they were clearly making progress. Fire engines pumped water on wreckage smoking from fires yet burning deep within. I was dumbstruck by the enormity of what I was seeing.
We passed buildings that looked as if they had been spray-painted gray. The only windows you could see into were the ones that had been broken by flying debris. After emerging from under scaffolding, we reached the remains of the 72-story Building 7 on Vesey Street, now a 10-story pile of rubble being peeled away by cranes from the top and bulldozers from the bottom. Fires were still burning inside the rubble, but it had been evacuated in time.
At Vesey and Church streets, there was an emergency medical tent staffed by paramedics from Boston. We were invited in to listen to President Bush’s address to Congress. Fire fighters and other rescue workers filtered in to join us. All present were silent. The President’s spectacularly worded message was all the more potent, being received at the prime site of this unconscionable attack on America. It was an honor to share this moment with heroic Americans attempting to extract some good from such enormous evil.
After the address, we walked on. As we approached Liberty Street, we saw a large group of rescue workers gathered under a gasoline-powered floodlight. All were looking anxiously over the edge of a precipice created when a several-story piece of Tower façade curled into a cylinder and impaled itself into the ground during one of the collapses. I could clearly see a filing cabinet—it looked incredibly intact—inside the twisted subterranean wreckage. As a paramedic set up IV bags and other supplies at the edge, I was told that one worker thought he had seen a pipe move spontaneously. All had one thought: Might there still be someone alive inside? Dogs were taken down into the pit to sniff for survivors. The rescuers waited. I said a silent prayer. The expectation was palpable, but our hopes for another survivor didn’t materialize. The crowd dispersed.
I asked the sergeant when he was to finish his day’s tour of duty. He said, “Two hours ago.” I thanked him for taking four hours out of his day to take me there. I removed my protective gear and went home to kiss my sons in their sleep. What kind of world have I brought them into? How can they still have childhoods filled with innocence and security? We will only know in retrospect. I hope and pray that I will never have to serve my fellow Americans in another such man-made disaster ever again. I want to believe that the civilized world has learned a dreadful lesson from this tragedy, and that the world community will never permit it to be repeated.
Barry Miles Belgorod M’77 is an ophthalmologist in New York.