This website does readability filtering of other pages. All styles, scripts, forms and ads are stripped. If you want your website excluded or have other feedback, use this form.

A NATION CHALLENGED: THE TRADE CENTER; The Evacuation That Kept a Horrible Toll From Climbing Higher - The New York Times

Skip to contentSkip to site index New York
Log In Today’s Paper
New York|A NATION CHALLENGED: THE TRADE CENTER; The Evacuation That Kept a Horrible Toll From Climbing Higher


Supported by


A NATION CHALLENGED: THE TRADE CENTER; The Evacuation That Kept a Horrible Toll From Climbing Higher

By Dean E. Murphy and Clifford J. Levy

  • Sept. 21, 2001
See the article in its original context from
September 21, 2001, Section B, Page 10Buy Reprints View on timesmachine TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers.

When two airplanes struck the towers of the World Trade Center 15 minutes apart on Sept. 11, there was virtually no hope for hundreds of people on the 30 or so floors immediately consumed by flames or cut off from escape routes.

But over the next 60 to 90 minutes, with glass and twisted metal falling from the sky and people struggling simply to understand what was happening, the fate of people on scores of other floors was at stake in a pair of buildings whose previous experience with an emergency evacuation had been judged as seriously flawed.

Now, 10 days after the assault and with the benefit of reconstructing a partial sequence of events through interviews with rescuers and evacuees, a sizable truth is emerging and sinking in: though some 6,000 are still missing, with most presumed dead, thousands more were evacuated safely before both of the buildings collapsed, the authorities say.

For some, escape came through planning; for others, by virtue of improvisation. Luck certainly played a role for some, and confusion just as clearly doomed others. But throughout, calm prevailed for most.

By most measures, then, the exodus -- through lit stairwells and in orderly, often courteous fashion -- was a vast improvement over the chaotic flight from the two buildings following the terrorist bombing in 1993, fire officials and witnesses said.

''I dodged the bullet twice,'' said Michael Lyons, a stock trader for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter on the 60th floor of the south tower, who was also at his desk in 1993 when a bomb exploded under the trade center. Mr. Lyons was coming down the elevator when the first plane struck the neighboring tower.

''I keep saying it, and I firmly believe it: If we didn't have the bombing eight years ago, I think people would have been more lax about it,'' he said. ''There were warning systems and sirens and an evacuation plan. There is no doubt about it, we absolutely learned a lot from 1993.''

Michael G. Cherkasky, president of Kroll Inc., a security consultant for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Larry Silverstein, the developer who took control of the center in July, agreed.

''We have looked at it objectively -- the stairways were burned, there just weren't opportunities to escape for certain people -- and then we looked at who we think could have gotten out and, overwhelmingly, those people got out,'' Mr. Cherkasky said.

There was, undeniably, regret over decisions that produced deadly consequences.

An announcement over the public address system in 2 World Trade Center, the second tower to be struck, some time after the first plane attack said the danger had been confined to the other tower. That sent some people back to their desks. Others continued to move downstairs, but did so in a more relaxed way, waiting for elevators instead of tackling the stairs and taking the time to turn off computers, gather purses and briefcases, or use the bathroom.

Fifteen minutes after the attack on the north tower, the second plane hit the south tower. The south tower collapsed less than an hour later.

''I know for a fact that announcement killed at least four people in my company,'' said Steve Miller, who worked on the 80th floor at Mizuho Capital Markets. ''They were the senior Japanese management. When the announcement came on, they went back up. The rest of us kept going down.''

Robert Eisenhardt, a system administrator at Aon Consulting, a division of the Aon Corporation, said some of the 200 missing Aon employees were undoubtedly those who chose to take the elevators after hearing that the building was safe.

''We yelled as much as we could, 'Time to go!' and then went down,'' said Mr. Eisenhardt, who was a member of the company's fire emergency team. ''There were those who stayed behind to guide the others out. They stood by the elevators to help get people on.''

Roselyn Braud, who was working in the subterranean operations control center in the south tower, said she tried to urge people who called from the elevators to use the stairs instead.

''We told them to use the stairway, don't go in the elevator,'' she said. ''Get to the nearest exit out. When our tower got hit, we were still talking on the phones with people.''

A former Port Authority official said it was standard procedure under a protocol with the Fire Department to first evacuate only those people who were immediately in danger or near the danger.

Mr. Silverstein, the developer, said it was not known who made the public address announcement in the south tower, but a security guard at the center said it was the function of the fire command officers in the building's main lobby.

Mr. Cherkasky said that with debris falling from the north tower, and firefighters, police and medical personnel arriving at the center, there was a good argument for keeping people put in the south tower.

''At this particular stage, while some who were watching could have said, 'It's a terrorist attack,' it certainly didn't cross anybody's mind that there would be another plane,'' he said. ''When we are trying to reconstruct the assessment, we think that the assessment, from the facts that were known, was right. Obviously, tragically, a completely unforeseeable event occurred.''

But as the unforeseeable unfolded, interviews with dozens of survivors indicate, much that was remarkable took place: a blind man made it 78 floors down to safety, even crossing through ankle-deep water at the end; one Aon employee who was on the 101st floor of the south tower ignored the announcement and made it to the street before the building became the first to fall; order was so strictly enforced on stairwells that anyone who tried to cut the line was reprimanded; Morgan Stanley, with 3,500 workers at the center, including many on several floors of the south tower, lost just a handful of people; and people even made it out of the north tower after its twin had collapsed.

In 1993, the stairwells were dark, ventilation was poor and people spent hours trapped in elevators or trying to get down the stairs. Later, a new fire alarm system was installed, battery-powered lights were mounted in the stairwells and glow-in-the-dark paint was even used on the stairwell walls.

Determining with any precision how many people made it out of the two buildings is difficult because Port Authority officials say that even now it is not known how many people -- workers, visitors, deliverymen -- were inside when the first plane struck at 8:48 a.m.

The Port Authority estimated that as many as 30,000 people could be in the two towers at the height of a typical workday.

But Sept. 11 was one of the first days of school for many children whose parents took them to school before going to work. It was also Primary Day, and some workers undoubtedly stopped to vote on their way to work. Workers in the buildings said the morning rush on a typical day occurred between 8:30 and 9 a.m., but might have been delayed that morning.

On the other hand, thousands of people visited the buildings every day, and some had already arrived that morning. About 100 people were eating breakfast at the World Trade Center Club on the 107th floor of the north tower. Six customers had also arrived for a sales demonstration at the 78th-floor suite of Quantum ATL, which makes backup tapes of corporate data, in the same building.

When American Airlines Flight 11 struck about 20 floors above them, David Frank and Michael Hingson, salesmen for Quantum ATL, felt the building lurch violently.

There was smoke in the hallways and unthinkable confusion. Mr. Frank, a salesman visiting from Los Angeles, joined Mr. Hingson and the customers and headed for the stairs. The door was blocked, but a building official with a towel covering his mouth and nose quickly pried it open.

Mr. Hingson, who is blind, followed his guide dog, Roselle. After about 40 flights down, the route became congested and nerves began to fray. Mr. Hingson found it hard to breathe because of the jet fumes. His dog was exhausted. Sounds of crying echoed in the stairwell. But there was no panic. People shared bottles of water, and when the first firefighters passed, the crowd cheered.

''The people in the stairwell were incredibly gracious and civil,'' Mr. Frank said.

The evacuation of Mr. Frank and Mr. Hingson, while unique in some details, was typical of many accounts in both towers. For the most part, people followed the directions of security officers and other building officials. They policed one another in the stairwells, preventing pushing and offering comfort, if only in words, to those who had the greatest difficulty.

Driving the hundreds of escapes was a complex set of factors, some emotional, some circumstantial and some the result of lessons learned from 1993.

At Mizuho Bank, preparations for a disaster like that on Sept. 11 were so thorough that employees had emergency escape packs -- with flashlights, masks and glow sticks -- strapped to their office chairs. The company held regular fire drills and Mr. Miller, a computer specialist for one of the bank's divisions, Mizuho Capital Markets, said company officials were running through the offices of the south tower within a minute of the strike at the north tower.

''They were saying, 'It is a bomb! Get out!' '' Mr. Miller said. ''We have people who were in the building in 1993, so there is an undercurrent, an awareness of what this could be like. This time, nobody wanted to be trapped at the top.''

But even the best-laid plans required improvisation. Mr. Miller said that when he reached the 55th floor or so, congestion in the stairwell was so great that the line had ground to a halt. At that point, he stepped out of the stairwell into some offices and heard the announcement saying it was safe to return to work.

Mr. Miller said he saw his Japanese bosses turn back upstairs. Several co-workers considered doing the same, he said, but quickly changed their minds. As for himself, Mr. Miller said he was consumed with getting out of the building, especially after he heard some people near the window begin screaming that people were falling from the north tower.

''I was thinking that there is a real difference of opinion here about what my eyes are seeing and what the announcement was saying,'' he said.

Mr. Miller asked a maintenance worker to direct him to another staircase, and by 9:25 a.m., he had made it out of the building. Judging by the jam in the first staircase, Mr. Miller said he was haunted by the question of how many people might not have made it to the lobby.

Morgan Stanley had a fire plan, but Sean J. Pierce, who worked on the 73rd floor of the south tower, said routine fire drills were often not taken seriously, and until a few months ago, he did not even know where to find the stairway door.

Mr. Pierce found the door during a recent dry run, when there was a small fire in the basement and the office was evacuated.

''There is a staircase, and it's kind of hidden,'' he said. ''There was not even a knob on that door. It looked like a wall. It was a like a secret hallway. It looked like one of those things like in an old cartoon, when you push a book and the wall opens.''

Like many of those from the south tower who survived, Mr. Pierce ignored the announcement about returning to work. He described the descent as uneventful.

''When you turn on the news, you see all that mass hysteria,'' he said. ''It was 100 percent the exact opposite end of the spectrum. People were very slowly going down the stairs, very lackadaisical. Still drinking their coffee.''

For others, getting out alive or being trapped had nothing to do with fire drills or grandiose plans. Survival came down to luck and location.

On the 86th floor of the north tower, Louis G. Lesce, a consultant, was preparing to teach a career development course to some Port Authority employees. He was reviewing his notes in a large conference room when the first plane struck his building. Six people were there with him.

''I asked someone there, 'Can you tell me the evacuation process?' and he just looked at me,'' Mr. Lesce said. ''He had no clue.''

When Mr. Lesce opened the door, black smoke poured in. He and the others smashed windows to get some fresh air, and after calling his wife on the telephone, Mr. Lesce decided to stay put, along with the others.

''We were waiting for the smoke to clear, not knowing what the hell to do,'' he said. ''And then someone came to the door and said, 'Come on out and follow us.' ''

The procession to the stairwell and downstairs went without a glitch.

''Those people, I think they were security officers, were fabulous,'' he said. ''They were glued to the ground. None of them tried to go ahead of us. They looked at you and watched you go. They said, 'Single file and no talking.' It reminded me of grammar school.''

On the same floor, James Gartenberg, a real estate broker with the Julien Studley firm, was frantically making phone calls, eventually reaching a reporter at The New York Times. ''The fire door is blocked,'' he said in one of several conversations. ''It either closed from the force of the explosion or as a fire precaution. The elevators are completely blown out.''

Patricia Puma, who was working in the same office, said: ''The wall in the ladies' room started to crack -- it looked like an earthquake. The noise and debris falling outside the building are frightening.

''It looked like the explosion came up through the elevator,'' said Ms. Puma, 33, of Staten Island. ''It looks like the firewall came down and I believe the stairs are on the other side of it.''

Mr. Gartenberg said he and Ms. Puma considered climbing across the debris to reach the stairs, but ''more debris fell, so we backed off.''

As he hung up for the last time, Mr. Gartenberg asked that his location be given to rescuers. ''I'm not the easiest guy to reach,'' he said. ''We need air.''

About a half-hour later, the building collapsed. The whereabouts of Mr. Gartenberg and Ms. Puma are unknown.

We are continually improving the quality of our text archives. Please send feedback, error reports, and suggestions to [email protected] A version of this article appears in print on , Section B, Page 10 of the National edition with the headline: A NATION CHALLENGED: THE TRADE CENTER; The Evacuation That Kept a Horrible Toll From Climbing Higher. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe