The following is an account written by my good friend Thane Thompsen, five years ago. This account is being read today in the Boston Public School System. I have included the entire three-part account here in one post. Thane's story is an incredible story. If I could, I would carve it in stone on the walls at Ground Zero in New York. We must never forget 9-11 . . .S.L.
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 . . .
TWIN TOWERS 9-11, First Hand Account . . . Continued . . .
This is part 2 of this true story - my good friend who survived this ordeal is Major Thane J. Thompson of the United States Army; 82nd Airborne, Ranger, Special Forces, Green Beret Medic, University of San Francisco graduate, commissioned officer in 1995. Thane worked with Andersen Consulting while serving in the reserves. He created two companies: DataHouse and See3eye, and was with Morgan Stanley until the invasion of Iraq, where he served in the first wave. Thane has since completed a second tour in Iraq and continues on active duty. You can find him at Fort Bragg, where all the good hoo-ah's hang out . . . and yes I am proud to count him amongst my acquaintances. I'll let Thane take if from here . . .
- Sean Linnane
Most people were fleeing the scene, some stunned people stood gawking, public service vehicles coming and going with lights and sirens: chaos. In Army talk, I was moving towards the action. I was looking for emergency medical personnel and equipment, a triage point or casualty collection point. I was in the Army 9 years ago as a Special Forces medic; even though I was out of practice, I thought I could do something to help with what must be many casualties. I could bandage someone, hold an IV bag or carry a stretcher. I saw a cop and asked where the Fire Department was setting up the triage point. He said they are setting up a control and triage point near West and Vesey Street.
I wasn’t familiar with the street names in Lower Manhattan so I asked “which direction is that?” The cop pointed straight towards the Towers. He indicated that the triage point was on the other side of the WTC complex. I would have to walk around the tower complex. I was unfamiliar with the streets in this part of Manhattan but knew I was on the east side of the towers. I decided to skirt south around the complex keeping the towers to right side as a landmark.
I paused on the sidewalk and looked at the towers. This was the first time I saw the damage: I was stunned.
How did one plane inflict the deep gashes in both buildings? Had it been a single plane? What was the second explosion that shook my building? Maybe the plane passed through Tower 1 and hit Tower 2? If so, why didn’t we feel the impact until we were on the 20th floor?
I couldn’t put it together: there was a second explosion, so why was the biggest hole on Tower 2 facing away from Tower 1? The mechanics of it were a puzzle. I said to myself, Heck, I got to get moving.
I walked through a narrow alleyway on the south side of the towers. It seemed strange that no one was in the alley. Near the end of the alley, sitting on the sidewalk was a large aircraft landing gear with four big tires, strange and out of place in the vacant alleyway. Obviously knocked off the aircraft when it hit the tower, it must have flown through the tower and over the buildings to land in the alley.
Coming out of the alley, I saw an emergency worker wearing a reflective vest. He had a beard, wore a Jewish yamulka and carried a radio. I asked about triage point location. He pointed to the north, said he heading that way, and motioned for me to follow. We were on West Street walking north when a voice came over his radio. The voice was shouting urgently in a Hebrew. We stopped and he looked up. I followed his gaze and saw people falling from Tower 2. He turned toward me and with a sorry look he said simply, “People are jumping.”
I looked closely at the gash and broken windows that bellowed dark smoke from Tower 2. I could see people sticking their heads out of several openings. I imagined them gasping for air against the smoke and trying to escape the heat from burning jet fuel.
It was horrible; there was no escape. Two people popped out of the gash and fell. I watched a single man fall all the way to the ground. He didn’t flail or kick or wave his arms. He just fell with arms out all the way down. The absence of movement made his fall seem calm.
After the man hit the ground the rescue worker and I started moving again in silence.
Moving north up West Street the man began talking in Hebrew over the radio. He was some kind of volunteer citizen’s emergency service member. He pointed to the command post in the mouth of an underground garage, I thanked him, and he continued north.
This was a command post not a triage point and I saw no paramedics. About eight fire chiefs in white shirts stood around a situation table with folded down legs facing the WTC. At the center of the table was a hand drawn map of the complex. There were eight or ten radios fastened around the edge of the table. Dismounted rescue squads waited for orders behind the situation table.
In the mouth of the underground parking garage, the squads had taken off their heavy gear while waiting for orders. Several rows of helmets, respirators, and fire axes lay on the driveway going down into the garage. The radios around the situation table probably corresponded to different rescue squads and notes on squad employment were kept on the map.
I walked up to a nearby chief and said “I was trained as an Army Medic and would like to help.” He told me to standby with the rescue squads and he’d hook me up with the paramedics when they showed up in a few minutes.
I stepped back and looked at the towers again. This command post was directly across from the towers. We were really close, too close. I had to tip my head way back to look up at the towers. With this movement, I really took in the situation.
Listening to the chiefs talking I was surprised to learn that there were two planes that hit the buildings, not one as I imagined. This realization started a palpable spiral of fear; a sort of paranoia set in: This was a coordinated attack. Such an attack would be an operation involving multiple terrorist teams. BASTARDS!
My mind began to spin with anxiety as I began to expect more attacks. Were they using this as a warm up? What’s next? I looked around for big trucks parked nearby. Will whoever planned this heap on more punishment and exploit their success?
My thoughts became irrational as I considered the possibilities. Maybe the planes were delivery mechanisms of biological or chemical weapons. The WTC was bombed before, maybe there were truck bombs coming as well. Terrorists might sucker in firemen and medical personnel, and then deliver another blow. How many hits are coming? What am I doing here?
Realizing my thoughts were getting panicky, I consciously got a grip on myself. I talked myself down by affirming my role and commitment. If more attacks come I’ll just do the best I can. I’m here to help.
I saw a ring of dust puff out all way around the middle of Tower 2 followed by a crumbling sound. A shout went up amongst the fireman and a man yelled “IT'S COMING DOWN!”
The middle of Tower 2 buckled as the next floor collapsed and a terrible rumble began to grow. We were very close to base of the tower and the visual effect of this collapsing mass was terrifying. Looking up we saw 110 stories of steel and concrete coming down on top of us. A RUN FOR YOUR LIVES jolt rippled through the men and a quick look to the right and left confirmed that the best shelter was the underground garage behind us.
We burst into a sprint for our lives. We ran down the ramp towards the garage. I was wearing my fancy Wall Street clothes with smooth soled wing tip shoes and could not have been wearing worse clothing for running for my life. A couple guys in front of me were still looking at the collapsing building and my Army voice was on: “DON’T LOOK BACK, JUST RUN!”
Some guy in a suit with a starched white shirt tripped went down, falling on firefighting equipment scattered on the ramp. I was hopping over oxygen tanks and fire axes; I tripped and fell on some gear. The guy in the suit was slow getting up. He was on his knees looking back at the falling tower. The noise was fierce and growing, and his face was white with fear. Dumb ass! I thought, He shouldn’t be looking back. “DON’T LOOK BACK, JUST RUN!”
The roar of the collapsing building grew and grew into a fearsome sound of pending death chasing us all. I scrambled to my feet. Don’t look back, get up and run. Run for all your worth! I thought.
I ran as fast and as hard as I could into the garage as far back as I could go while being chased by the ever increasing roar of the collapsing Tower. Thick dust rushed in and quickly filled the garage.
We were alive, but trapped underground . . . buried under 110 stories of concrete, for all we knew . . .
. . . so this is it, I thought, This is how it happens. This is how I’m going to die . . .
To Be Continued . . .
TWIN TOWERS 9-11: A First Hand Account - Conclusion
This is the final part of Thane Thompson's 9-11 saga - if you've been following, you'll know his credentials and the twists of fate that led him to be in the South Tower on that terrible morning in September 2001. I am forever grateful that my friend survived. Many, sadly, did not. Here's Thane's first hand account. . .
BURIED UNDER 110 STORIES OF CONCRETE
. . . so this is it. . . I thought, . . . this is how it happens. This is how I’m going to die . . .
NO! I’ve got to get out of here! The thick dust made it hard to breath and I assumed it was toxic. What does this dust have in it? Asbestos? Dioxin? I remembered seeing microscopic pictures of asbestos where the crystalline structure looked like a Christmas Tree of razor blades; now I feared the thick dust and moved away into a storage area with construction and cleaning supplies that was farther back in the garage. The air there was still clean and dust hadn’t gotten there yet.
I rummaged around and found some clean rags, made a makeshift mask by tying a rag around my head covering my nose and mouth. Some of fireman had respirators on. They were searching the garage with flashlights. Their lights played back and forth inside the dust cloud searching for an exit.
Eventually, a shout went out amongst the fireman: an exit had been found! The news was relayed among the people in the garage. We followed their lights through the dark thick dust to a wall, then followed the edge of the wall toward rapidly dimming flashlights.
Outside was like being in heavy fog, visibility was no more than 6 feet. The air thick with dust had everyone without a mask was gagging. The rag around my nose and mouth gave me a feeling of protection. Thick dust covered the ground like snow; I followed foot prints.
Keeping a hand on the building to my left, I made my way around the base to the corner and continued for a half block. The dust cloud was so thick that stepping out of the cloud into the bright morning sunlight was dramatic, from a thick foggy dust cloud to bright clear sunshine.
I was at the side of the building that I had just come out of. Immediately to my left against a building was an ad hoc aid station. Several office chairs surrounded by medical supplies were laid out on the sidewalk. A woman dressed as a nurse was arranging materials and giving directions to a helper. I walked up to the nurse, “I was trained as an Army Medic and would like to help.”
She welcomed the help. I asked people as they stepped out of the cloud if they needed help.
A man emerged from dust cloud panting and in respiratory distress. He looked as though he had been spray painted with think gray paint. His eyes were watered as he tried to clear the dust. I set the guy down and washed the dust from his eyes. He panted and said “They hit us, they hit us in Washington DC too.”
This was not a total surprise to me; I had feared follow on attacks. Now I knew what was next. The man was in good condition except for the dust and I told him to walk toward the bay. None of the people who stepped from the cloud were injured aside from dust in their eyes. The thought occurred to me that there were probably many people still in the cloud injured on the street. I waited a few minutes and no more people emerged from the cloud. I looked around and the nurse and the helper were gone; I don’t know where they went.
About 50 meters away I saw three ambulances arrive and begin to setup a triage point on the corner. Our little ad hoc triage station needed to link up with the main effort. From the nurses kit I gathered some supplies. I took an aid kit, an O2 tank, a backboard and went over to join up with an ambulance crew. I walked up to the three paramedics who were talking at the back of the ambulance. I explained once again, “I was trained as an Army Medic and I'd like to help.”
The medic said, “Sure.” He gave quick instructions on how he wanted to setup the gurneys and supplies and how he wanted to work the triage point.
A muffled crunch echoed down the streets. I looked up to the remaining tower and saw an arc of dust shooting out of the two closest sides of Tower 1. The building buckled in the middle and the upper section tipped towards us. “HOLY SHIT!” The building was falling towards us like a tree!
We were only a block away and the 110 story building would easily reach us, it would wipe out the surrounding blocks if it continued to topple like that. The panicky RUN FOR YOUR LIVES feeling surged through me again. The medics ran to get in the trucks and I tossed the medical gear into the back of the ambulance and jumped in. The ambulance roared to life and we took off like the proverbial “Bat Out of Hell.”
The transmission jerked, tires squealed, and we were OUT OF THERE. Rapidly moving away from the crashing building and growing thunder, the doors to the ambulance were still open and we swayed from side to side as we swerved between people running on the street. I held on tight as equipment fell out of the back of the ambulance.
We raced north and a thick cloud of dust chased us. The cloud boiled with debris. The buildings were like canyons and the cloud flowed through them like the Blob in the old horror movie, only faster. As the dark, thick cloud, rolled through the streets it engulfed people as they ran to escape. I was glad to be in the truck speeding away from the threat.
My mind flashed again to the high school science picture of asbestos razorblade-like crystals. The cloud probably contains dioxins and God knows what else, I thought. Fear stoked my imagination again with the possibility of chemical, biological and radiological additives that the terrorists could have added to their suicide planes. Anyone could make a dirty bomb. What evil had the terrorists added to mix of destruction?
The cloud was evil! As the ambulance sped down the street with the cloud in pursuit, I could only hold on and watch in horror as more people disappeared into it. The truck screeched to a stop, back doors banging loudly on the side of the ambulance as the driver shouted "EVERYBODY OUT!".
I looked around the back of the ambulance looking for some gear that might help if the menacing cloud consumed me. Grabbing the O2 tank, thinking it might help me breathe, I jumped from the ambulance into a dead end alley, then ran through a narrow pedestrian passage at the end of the alley as the cloud got closer.
The narrow passageway opened onto an elevated walkway above the bay. I turned east and ran. The bay was on the left side and a long five story building on the right. In the water to my left was a marina with sailboats moored to buoys. The walkway was filling with people as they poured out of the five story building. Everybody was walking east.
Let’s move it! I thought, Haven’t you seen the evil cloud coming for you? We passed a second double exit where even more people joined the flow. The new additions to the stream of people caused our progress to slow further. I walked with my left hand on the guard rail of the walkway. No sign of the cloud and the sunlight twinkled on the wavelets as the sailboats bobbed.
The crowd moved steadily along the walkway. A gasp rippled through the crowd, movement stopped, and people pointed up as the dust cloud bellowed over the five story building like a slow motion wave. The crowd froze tight, shoulder to shoulder at the sight of the cloud.
Fear of the dust cloud welled up in me; It’s here, the evil cloud will get us!
I rapidly considered my options for escape. With my left hand gripping the railing and the O2 tank in right hand I felt trapped by the crowd. I could wait with the crowd and if people started dropping from some unseen gas or agent, I could leap over the rail into the water, sink to the bottom, breath off the O2 tank and swim to the sailboats. I could escape via the river if necessary.
A feeling of relief passed through the crowd. I looked up to see the dark cloud had stopped its movement towards us. The cloud hung there like a frozen wave. With relief, the people began to move again. The walkway opened up onto a wide four lane road heading north along the piers on the west side of Manhattan.
After walking a short way, I saw many ambulances lined up and parked along the southbound side of the road. It was another triage operation; gurneys were out on the street and they were treating people. The lead ambulance had “Flatlands Volunteer Ambulance Corps” painted on the side. I approached a guy who looked like the lead paramedic and for the fourth time that day, I volunteered: “I was trained as a medic in the Army and I’d like to help.”
One of the paramedics gave me a reflective vest with the words Flatlands Volunteer Ambulance Corps written in magic marker. Despite my wingtip dress shoes, white shirt and wool trousers, I looked now looked little more like an emergency worker.
A man walked up with a huge reddened 'goose egg' on his head. He said he was running and debris hit him from above. We sat him on folding chair for treatment and started to package him according to protocols for head and cervical spine trauma. I held his head erect while the paramedics wrapped a c-spine collar around his neck. With the neck immobilized we laid him on a backboard and placed him on a gurney. Then we rolled him over to a gym on the corner that was being used as a casualty collection point.
Back with the ambulance crew, I learned that they were members of a volunteer ambulance agency from Brooklyn. I was surprised to hear that this was a volunteer organization as they are not common in my home state of California, at least not in urban areas. One of the Flatlands volunteers was wearing a yamulka and had the sidelocks of and Orthodox Jew.
Police and paramedic leads began shouting and pointing north. The order to withdraw to the north had come over the radio for fear of natural gas explosions. I clambered aboard the ambulance and rode north with the crew to Chelsea Pier.
At Chelsea Pier many ambulances were lining up in a very long line and our ambulance followed suit. The senior medic went into an ad hoc dispatch center within Chelsea Pier. I waited in the back of the ambulance with the crew. The lead paramedic returned with instructions: the plan was for ambulances dispatched from Chelsea Pier to move forward individually to pick up points closer to Ground Zero. Casualties would be taken to local hospitals or back to Chelsea Pier if the hospitals became overloaded. Chelsea Pier was being prepared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to serve as a field hospital in order to cope with high numbers of expected casualties.
We waited there at Chelsea Pier for dispatch but few dispatches were being made and it looked like it would be a long wait. The lead medic collected contact information from each of us. Telephone lines were jammed. One of the guys had a cell phone and placed a call to his wife. We all gave contact information to the man’s wife over the phone and she would be calling our loved ones. I gave my wife’s name and telephone number wondering if the circuits would be open for such a call.
The radio news of the attack was interrupted for a City wide speech by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He spoke well. The driver turned on the news radio as we waited for dispatch. None of the ambulances in the long line were dispatched. The casualty collection operations were not being used much. After what seemed like a long time, the lead paramedic announced that they were going reform their crew with fresh volunteers from Brooklyn.
I got the hint that I wouldn’t be needed, that I’d probably be in the way. I shook a couple of the guys hands and walked inside the building at Chelsea Pier.
Inside, FEMA was setting up a hasty MASH-like hospital with 30 emergency operating tables and 50 minor treatment stations all improvised out of folding banquet tables, a heap of medical supplies and staffed with volunteer doctors and paramedics. At the head of each make shift operating table was a bright construction lamp on a stand.
I walked up to the main reception desk and I explained what I could do. I was assigned to work the door and do preliminary screening. I received a class on the use of triage tags, “toe tags” as the Army would call them and waited for casualties.
I stayed at Chelsea Pier until 11pm the night of September 11th, but sadly, very few casualties ever came to us.
The unfortunates of 9-11 either died outright in the initial attacks, or they were crushed when the buildings collapsed. Either you were outside and lived, or you were inside and died; this was the grim reality of the Twin Towers.
I stayed until I realized that there were plenty of volunteers lined up to help and no casualties coming. Then I took the train uptown to my hotel. Needless to say, that night I didn’t sleep well at all.
Now I have enemies.
Nowadays Thane Thompson lives in California with his wife Sherry and his cat Petey.
Blog STORMBRINGER is dedicated to the heroes I served next to over twenty-five years - my buddy Thane stands tall amongst them . . . Thane, I am so glad you made it, Buddy.