Tuesday, September 8, 2009
The following is the story of my good friend Thane Thompson. We served together in the 82d Airborne Division, then later on the same team in Okinawa; 1st Bn, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne). I lost touch with Thane after he got out. Then years later, one night in Stuttgart, an email from Thane popped up on the us.army.gov service, and this is the story he shared with me. - S.L.
TWIN TOWERS 9-11-01 Part 1.
I never felt like I had enemies but that changed on September 11, 2001. I was on a coffee break from training at Morgan Stanley's offices on the 61st floor of Tower 2 of the World Trade Center. The morning was beautiful, sunny, and crystal clear as I looked out the window toward the Statue of Liberty. The view was grand and I was happy to be in Manhattan again. “Yep, things were looking good.”
I heard a muffled sound like distant thunder but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I leaned close to the window to look down to the street, but didn’t see anything. From above, office paper came floating down like a ticker tape parade. "What the hell" I thought and wondered if someone had pitched out a basket of paper from an open window. That couldn’t be because all the windows design not to open. When I saw the burning stuffing like material falling pass the window I knew something was seriously wrong.
The fire alarm went off and people started heading towards the stairwells. I walked by my desk, shoulder my book bag, and headed for the emergency exit. I wondered if it was a gas explosion or a bomb. "What would explain the failing paper and burning debris?" Maybe there was a gas explosion in the kitchen restaurant at the top of the tower? Maybe terrorist bombed the restaurant or some other office in the tower? I talked with fellow workers as we walked downward and learned an aircraft had crashed into Tower 1. “Was it as a helicopter or a small plane" I asked? I thought a corporate helicopter might have crashed while landing on a heliport on the roof maybe. Or, maybe a small private pilot crashed while making a sightseeing pass? Possibly the pilot had a heart attack and swerved into the building.
“No, it was a big commercial airliner” said the financial trader who heard the initial report on his desk TV. That was no accident then, probably a terrorist attack. A commercial flight has so many safeguards and the weather is perfect. I began to wonder how the terrorist did it. I doubted the pilot would fly a plane into a building even with a gun to his head. The hijacker must have taken control of the plane.
The fire alarm was blaring in the confined space of the emergency stairwell as thousands of people walked down the wide stairwell. I had only come down ten floors when the woman in front of me started having trouble with each step. She was heavy, middle aged and clearly out of shape. “No way was she going to make down 50 floors”, I thought. She stumbled and I caught her elbow. The guy next to me and I slipped our arms under hers and we continued downward hardly breaking step. I introduced myself to Carlos and Diane as we walked down. Our three wide descent was made possible by the very wide stairwells. Four people could easy walk abreast in wide stairwell. We passed two men on a landing watching the people stream by. One man stood while the other sat in a wheelchair. I thought they might be waiting for somebody to help carry the man in the wheelchair but I continued on downward with Diane.
People seemed calm and chatty in the stairwell. They moved slowly, almost leisurely. They reminded me of kids at the high school fire drill. The building was bombed before and big city crime is in the news all the time. However it works everybody was keeping cool and that was good. Still, people weren’t moving with a sense of urgency and that was bad.
The loud fire alarm abruptly stopped and a Port Authority voice came over the loudspeaker. The message was something like “…the incident is confined to Tower 1 and it is safe to return to work.” At the next landing, a few people left the stairwell and I assumed they went to the elevators and went back to work. I was going to get out of the building with most everybody else. I’d assess the situation and call back to my office. I was not going back to work until I was sure of the situation.
We three were at the 20th floor and still descending. An awful explosion roared above. The building shuddered and lights flickered. Everybody flinched, went still, and listened. I listened to gauge the threat. “Was the danger coming closer or receding?” The sound and shaking dissipated. People started moving again. I wondered “what the f*ck was that?” A second explosion in the first tower, I thought. “Jesus, that was loud,” - much louder than the initial impact on Tower 1. Maybe that was the aircraft’s fuel tanks? Could the fuel tanks survive the initial impact? That had to have been a huge explosion in Tower 1 for us to feel that in Tower 2. The thought didn’t occur to me that it could have been a second airplane.
“EXCUSE ME, PARDON ME, LET ME THROUGH” a man shouted as he ran down the crowed stairwell, dodging people to the left and right. He must have seen something terrible to endanger everybody like that. At least he wasn’t shoving people out of the way... yet. The pace was still slow even after the recent explosion. I wanted to move faster too. Diane’s leg muscles were starting to give out, exhausted from forty flights of stairs. Her legs would buckle a bit with each step downward. Carlos and I were supporting more and more of her weight with each step. Still I wanted to move faster. With my Army voice I said “come on people, let move with a purpose now”.
An older man in back of me said “Just take it easy folks.” And to me he said “calm down big guy”. I didn’t feel un-calm, but the guy was right. Any faster and people, Diane included, would be stumbling. A panic would ensue especially if we slowed any more or stopped while people tried to regained their footing.
"Slow is smooth and smooth is fast," is what they say in the Special Forces. Nevertheless, some people were racing down the stairwell. “GET OUT OF MY AWAY” yelled another man as he hurried downward, jostling people to either side as he went. We were getting close to ground level. Against the downward stream of people hiked a small group of four firemen heading up the stairwell. They were heavily loaded with gear. Helmets, heavy jackets and pants, oxygen masks with backpack bottles and fire tools were a heavy load, their gear must have weighed over 50 pounds.
“They're in for quite a hike” as I thought of the 70 plus floors upward to where the explosion would have damaged this building. I saw heavy anxiety in a young firefighter’s eyes as he looked up the stairwell but he continued to march. Port Authority safety people were performing traffic control duties for the streaming masses. Diane, Carlos and I continued past the ground level into the underground mall. We moved horizontally. Our turns were guided by Port Authority personnel in uniforms. The mall was vacant except for the one way trail of people snaking through. Soon, we went up a flight of stairs and were outside.
Outside was a scene of chaos. Office furniture, papers, broken glass was all over the sidewalk and the sound of the emergency filled the air. Carlos and I continued to help Diane away from the building. We walked past a pool of congealed blood which must have been where a body had hit the sidewalk and had been removed. We crossed the street filled with ambulances, fire trucks and police cars. Diane said she wanted to rest once we made it to the sidewalk across from the World Trade Center. I knew we were still too close and had to get farther away. In my Army voice, I said firmly “No, we have get out of the kill zone and behind cover.”
We passed a cemetery and continued for another four blocks to a park where Carlos and I, sat Diane on a park bench. She thanked us, pulled out her cell phone and said she going to call her mother. I gave Carlos a hand shake and told him I was going back to help. He looked at me like I was nuts and we parted company.
To Be Continued . . .