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Inside the towers, they scrambled for their lives

The Survivors

By Paul Vallely

Thursday, 13 September 2001

Carrie Kennedy was sitting at her computer, reading her morning mail. It was 8.45am and the start of another working day.

Carrie Kennedy was sitting at her computer, reading her morning mail. It was 8.45am and the start of another working day. But she was looking forward to her birthday. She will be 29 on Saturday. With the sky a fine blue and the sunlight glinting off the Hudson River and streaming though the windows her office, it was a day when it felt good to be alive. Suddenly, silently, the building began to shake. And then the terrible noise came.

Yesterday, the survivors of the devastating collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre began to tell their stories. The horror was in the detail but most particularly in the peculiar juxtaposition of the mundanity of everyday life and the unprecedented trauma which was to change everything.

"I was just sitting at my desk going through my e-mail, when the building started to shake," said the young economist. Then she heard the shattering sound made when the first plane hit the building somewhere above her desk in the Commodity Futures Trading Commission on the 37th floor of New York's tallest building. The noise actually followed the movement," Ms Kennedy said.

The lights went out. She and several co-workers made their way down emergency staircases to the gloomy concourse that connected the towers at ground level. "It was dark, about an inch of water on the floor and sprinklers were going off. People were covered with thick soot," she said.

It was only when, once outside, she realised the full awfulness of the situation. She turned to see a body fall from the tower she had just escaped.

Higher up the building, the realisation came sooner. Boris Ozersky, 47, a computer networks analyst, was on the 70th floor when he felt the explosion rock the building. He raced down 70 flights of stairs. It took him nearly an hour.

On the 103rd floor, Joseph Shea paused to ring his wife Nancy. "I heard from him after it happened," said the mother of four. "He said a plane hit the building." She has not heard from him since.

Some of those on the floors between Mr Ozersky and Mr Shea were lucky.

Others were not. Donald Burns, 34, had been in a meeting on the 82nd floor when the call to evacuate came. On the way down, he met four severely burned people on the stairwell. "I tried to help them but they didn't want anyone to touch them. The fire had melted their skin. Their clothes were tattered," he said.

Those working in the other of the twin towers had a little more time. Clyde Ebanks, vice president of an insurance company was at a meeting on the 103rd floor of the 110-storey South Tower when his boss said, "Look at that." He turned and saw a plane go by and hit the other tower. It was 8.58am.

Mr Ebanks and his colleagues began the long race down the stairs. When they reached the 70th floor, they felt the building shake as the second plane hit the second tower.

Below him, on the 47th floor, Peter Dicerbo was at his desk in the offices of the First Union National Bank. And then, he said, "I just heard the building rock. It knocked me on the floor. It sounded like a big roar, then the building started swaying, that's what really scared me." Even so, the evacuation began without panic as Mr Dicerbo led 44 co-workers down the 47 flights of emergency stairs. Even as they fled, workers paused to count heads, making sure their deskmates were there.

Joan Feldman, an employee of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, also in the second tower, told a similar story. After the first plane hit the other building, things were orderly. Many of the 50,000 who worked in the complex were not yet in their offices. Officials estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 were in the buildings when the first plane crashed. Many fled, rushing down dozens of flights of stairs before the second jet hit and the towers collapsed.

Ms Feldman walked down from 88th floor to 78th, then took an elevator down from there. "We had just gotten out the door when the second plane hit," she said. "There were a lot of police in the lobby level and they were directing people out. I was with a co-worker who was not able to move very quickly. I ran into the street and pushed her under a car because there was falling debris." Mr Dicerbo and 44 colleagues emerged about the same time. His clothes were torn and his co-workers were dazed and coughing.

Those who worked higher in the building had a more harrowing experience.

Richard Cruz was getting off the elevator on the 92nd floor of the second tower when the first plane hit the tower opposite him. "There was mass hysteria, people were screaming," said Mr Cruz, 32. "I heard a lady's voice saying 'Go back! Go back! There's been an explosion!' I smelled smoke and I saw a lot of paper flying like confetti." Mr Cruz rushed to the stairwell along with other panicked co-workers from Aon Risk Services, an insurance brokerage company, where he started work a month before.

At the 63rd floor, he decided to try to look out a window of one of the offices. "One side of building one was engulfed in flames. People were yelling 'Oh my God! They're jumping, they're jumping out the window.' I looked down and I saw a lot of debris, and I saw blood spots. I saw the horror. That's when it hit me and I thought to myself 'I have to get out of here'." As Mr Cruz rejoined the heavy stream of people on the stairs, the second plane hit. This time, it was his tower. "The whole building moved and it was swaying back and forth. I heard a muffled boom and I thought everything was just going to collapse. People were rushing and merging together and going crazy," he said.

Lolita Jackson, a Morgan Stanley Investment Management employee, began her descent from almost as high up the 110-storey building. She and 15 other people were in a business meeting on the 70th floor when the first plane crashed. "We couldn't see the plane coming toward us but we saw fire, smoke and papers – office papers – so obviously there was a hole in the building," said the 34-year-old. "When we saw that, we saw fire actually shooting out of the building." Ms Jackson and the others dashed down 11 flights of stairs. On the 59th floor, they were told to take elevators to a lobby on the 44th floor. It was when they reached it that the second plane hit the opposite side of the building. "The building swayed probably about two feet," she said. "I thought at that point it was going to topple over. That was the moment I was probably the most scared." But by this time the rescue workers had arrived. On the 44th floor, they met her and began to escort her down a safe staircase. She could hardly believe what was happening. She had been in the World Trade Centre in 1993 when it was first bombed by terrorists. She had never thought such a thing could happen again. "I'd always tell my friends that my disaster chit has already been used up," she said.

Higher up, the second explosion took a more immediate toll. Shirley Bates, who worked on the 88th floor of One World Trade Centre. "Everything came like a tornado," she said. "People started running." A woman near her caught some of the direct blast of the explosion. Her arms and hair caught fire.

The explosion in the second building came just as Jennifer Brickhouse, 34, from Union, New Jersey, escaped from the first tower. "The minute I got out of the building, the second building blew up," she said. She had been going up an escalatorwhen she heard an enormous boom.

"All this stuff started falling and all this smoke was coming through," she said. "People were screaming, falling, and jumping out of the windows from high in the sky." Up in the command centre on the 23rd floor, two men felt the building rock with the second explosion. Housing Authority worker Barry Jennings, 46, had reported there after the initial blast. So had Michael Hess, the city's corporation counsel. After the second plane hit they scrambled downstairs to the lobby, or what was left of it. "I looked around, the lobby was gone. It looked like hell," Mr Jennings said.

Around the same time Richard Cruz reached the ground floor. Dust and smoke had now darkened the air. Amid the debris that littered the ground, Cruz saw a burnt torso. As he turned away, he caught the eye of a co-worker.

They exchanged shaky smiles and she said, "We're very lucky, aren't we?" Cruz could only nod in agreement. "It's still surreal in my head," he said. "The reality of it hasn't hit me. Even though the World Trade Centre has fallen and all these people are possibly dead. I'm just so lucky, I'm just so lucky."

Not long after, Kenton Beerman emerged into daylight from the gloom of a stairwell. By eerie coincidence, he walked straight into the arms of his brother Jason who had rushed toward the twin towers complex as soon as he heard news of the attacks. "I don't know how he found me," said Kenton. "He just hugged me and said, 'I'm so glad you're alive'." Mr Beerman described to his brother the scene on the 53rd floor, where workers stopped to take count of colleagues before heading for the street far below.

On the way down the stairs, those fleeing comforted each other and many used mobile phones to call home. A woman who reached her husband passed word that a plane had hit the building. "We saw firefighters coming up the stairwell," Mr Beerman, 24, said. "We felt kind of reassured." But many of the firefighters were not to make it out. For just then the first of the towers collapsed.

Boris Ozersky had, at this point, just completed his long marathon down 70 flights of stairs and reached the outside. There he was trying to calm a hysterical women when the building began to implode. "I just got blown somewhere, and then it was total darkness," he said. "We tried to get away, but I was blown to the ground. And I was trying to help this woman, but I couldn't find her in the darkness." After the dust cleared, he found the panic-stricken woman and took her to a restaurant being used by rescue workers as a medical centre.

But then another unthinkable thing happened on this most unthinkable of days; the second tower collapsed in on itself, folding like a concertina.

"Everyone was screaming, crying, running – cops, people, firefighters, everyone," said Mike Smith, a fire marshal from Queens, some time afterwards as he began the protracted task – which stretched through the night - of searching for survivors in the grey dust-soaked rubble.

It was a forlorn task. There were some people alive. The emergency services were receiving phone calls from people trapped inside the remains of the 110-storey twin towers. Trapped callers were dialling the 911 emergency number and were trying to describe to police where they were buried.

One man caught under the rubble used his phone to reach family in Pennsylvania with a plea for help. "She received a call from him saying he was still trapped under the World Trade Centre. He gave specific directions and said he was there along with two New York City sergeants," said Brian Jones, an emergency telephone coordinator in Allegheny County.

Local hospitals, waiting for an influx of urgent cases, waited in vain. Meanwhile those who had survived told – and retold – their stories and told themselves they were the lucky ones. But already the guilt of the survivor was setting in.

A bizarre and tragic twist of fate

A survivor managed to flee the World Trade Centre seconds before his building was struck by a Boeing 767, only to be informed that his sister and niece had perished on board the aircraft.

In one of the most extraordinary and tragic twists of the day, Ronnie Clifford had come "within an inch" of his life before making his way
to safety.

His brother John, from Cork, who spoke to Ronnie after his escape, said: "He went through the front door on the ground floor and a lady was about three seconds in front of him. She was hit by a terrific fireball. She subsequently died.

"He phoned to say he made it, he was OK, traumatised, that he was within an inch of his life. He said that unfortunately, while he was OK, he had a feeling that his sister ­ my sister ­ had left Logan Airport to go to Los Angeles with her daughter at around 7.30 in the morning.

"So we were then concerned that she may have been on either of the two flights that crashed into the towers, and then that was confirmed."

A friend of Mrs McCourt, who lived in Connecticut and had gone to Boston to fly to LA for a few days' holiday, was also killed.

Mr Clifford said that his sister's husband was absolutely devastated. Juliana was their only child. She was a "beautiful" girl, Mr Clifford said, and he described his sister as "full of life".

Mr Clifford had run for his life after the adjacent North Tower was struck by the first aircraft. Seconds after his escape, the South Tower was struck by the Boeing 767 carrying Mrs McCourt and her daughter. All 56 passengers aboard the plane died.

"He said he saw sights he would never see again. Very sad. Very evil, but he's safe," John Clifford said.

Dan Gledhill

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