I stood, immobilized, gripped in the clutches of incomprehensible fear.
My eyes had most certainly watched as a large aircraft plowed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, but my mind had yet to rationally compute the horror. I winced as flames, debris, glass, and black smoke erupted in a fireball of destruction. The shock wave assaulted the North Tower, but the windows remained intact. At least the one I was looking through. I felt another rumble under my feet, and I forced my legs to move.
I returned to my fallen co-worker. He moaned in pain. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“I’m Rick. I think it’s time we got outta here, what do you say?”
Jack nodded. He pulled up his pant leg, and I could see that his ankle had swollen considerably in just a short amount of time. He needed medical assistance. Probably some ice. At that moment, we had neither, so it was time to move. I knelt down and put his arm around my shoulders. I counted to three, and we stood up together. He wasn’t able to put much weight, if any, on the injured ankle. I wondered how we would ever make it out of the building with non-working elevators and seventy-five floors of stairs between us and the outside. I pushed the thoughts away and focused on the present.
We slowly made our way out of the office and into the main hallway. It was nearly impossible to see anything due to the smoke, but I realized rather quickly that we were all alone. It was the same type of eerie quiet that follows a blizzard, except we didn’t have a sheet of sparkling white snow laid out before us. I’m not sure if it was just plain, raw fear, or some kind of instinct, but something urged me forward with increased intensity.
As we moved toward the stairs, I tried to carry as much of Jack’s weight as I possibly could. Sitting behind a desk all day wasn’t exactly a great fitness plan, so I was extremely out of shape. I knew most of my power was coming from adrenaline. If that ran out, we would both be in serious trouble.
We burst through the door and into the stairwell. The smoke was worse than in the offices. We both immediately started to choke and cough. I leaned Jack up against the wall and ripped off one of my long sleeves. “Keep this over your nose and mouth,” I instructed. I grabbed Jack, and we started down the stairs. I heard someone yelling, but couldn’t tell if it was coming from above us, or from somewhere down below.
After maneuvering down three flights of stairs, I had to stop. We sat on the landing, and I bent over, gasping for breath.
“You need to leave me here.”
I looked over at Jack. He removed the shirt sleeve covering his face, and forced a smile. Tears etched two thin lines through the dirt and ash on his face. I coughed some more, and then shook my head. “No way. We’re doing this together.”
“We will never make it out of here with you having to carry me down seventy more flights of stairs. Just go.”
“You have kids, Jack?”
He nodded as fresh tears spilled from his eyelashes. “Yes. Two.”
“I do too,” I replied. “They aren’t going to lose their fathers today. Let’s go.”
Despite his protest, I picked Jack up, and we continued down. After counting another five floors, my body just physically couldn’t take it anymore. Jack had stopped talking altogether. His head lolled back and forth as if he were on the brink of unconsciousness. My throat burned with the kind of pain I could only imagine would result after swallowing razor blades. I realized that for the majority of our trek, I had kept my eyes closed. Each time I bumped into a wall, I knew it was time to turn.
I carefully laid Jack’s head down on the cement floor and made sure the makeshift bandanna across his face was secure. I leaned back and finally allowed myself to cry. I had desperately fought to hang on to hope, but sitting there in the darkness with a burning throat and stinging eyes, I knew the end was near. Occasionally, the floor beneath our feet would rumble, and I would hold my breath. I had no idea what had happened to the building. Had an airplane hit ours as well? A bomb? Did the outside world have any idea what was happening here?
I pulled my cell phone out and took a deep breath. I had never thought about the words I would say to my loved ones if I knew I was going to die. I don’t believe anyone could ever be prepared for that kind of conversation. Pivotal moments in my children’s lives flashed through my mind, and I wasn’t present for any of them. Graduation, college, marriage. How would my death affect them in the coming years? Losing a father is not something that just goes away with time. It never did after I lost mine.
I pressed the speed dial button for home. I would try there first. Andrea didn’t always hear her cell phone ring if she was helping Megan with something. After three rings, a tiny voice answered, and my body shook with uncontrollable sobs.
With every ounce of strength I had left, I regained control and croaked out a greeting. “Hey, Sweetie. This is Daddy.”
“Daddy? Hi, Daddy.”
The excitement that rang in her voice, after hearing it was me, shattered my heart into pieces. “I-I’m at work, Honey. Can you get Mommy on the phone?”
“Daddy? I’m crayon in book.”
I clenched my teeth so tightly together that my temples throbbed in pain. “You and Mommy coloring?”
“Yes. Coming home now?”
God, give me the strength to do this. I hadn’t prayed in a long time. “Daddy can’t come home right now. Soon though.”
There was a shuffling noise, and I could hear Andrea’s voice talking to Megan. Then she spoke into the phone with concern. “Rick? Is that you?”
“Hey, Babe. Yeah, it’s me.”
“What’s going on? What’s wrong?”
“Turn on the TV. It’s got to be on there by now.” Jack moaned, and I leaned over to look at him. He moved his head back and forth, but his eyes remained shut.
“Oh, God, Rick. Are you still at work? Are you still in the building? Please tell me you were all evacuated.”
“What exactly are they saying?” I asked. “What happened?”
“You don’t know? Two planes have flown into both towers of the World Trade Center. There’s smoke pouring out of the upper levels. It’s total chaos. Firefighters and police are everywhere. Are you down on the street? Where are you?”
“I’m-” I paused. Should I tell the truth, or be evasive with my answers? “I’m still in the building, but we are getting out. Slowly.”
At first, I only heard static on the line. Then Andrea began to sob.
“Shhh, it’s okay. I’m sure they have people coming in to get us out. Everything’s going to be alright.” I fought back the urge to vomit as I tried to console my wife. I doubted anyone was coming to rescue us. Even if they did, there was no possible way they could evacuate a building of that size before the flames engulfed it entirely. The images of people falling toward the ground chilled my blood. I didn’t know how much more smoke I could inhale before passing out. Jack might be dead, I wasn’t sure. It was over. It was time to accept it.
Somehow, I had to be strong for Andrea. “Listen, Babe. You there?”
“Yes. I love you so much.”
“I love you too. Listen, I’m sure the firefighters are on their way up. But-”
She cut me off. “No, don’t say that. You can’t say that.” Her voice trailed off into more sobbing.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. I could barely feel the inside of my mouth. “If they don’t make it in time.” Choked up, I paused. I took a deep breath, and winced in pain. I didn’t realize I was lying on my back until I opened my eyes and saw a cloudy ceiling. The smoke had become unbearable. I wasn’t typically a claustrophobic person by nature, but it felt as if I was inside a tiny box, with barely any room to breathe. I knew the smoke was probably filling my lungs, and it wouldn’t be long before I suffocated with no air. “Andrea?”
“I’m here. Baby, I’m here. Just keep talking to me. Stay awake. They’re on their way to get you. Just hold on.”
“Andrea, I love you so much. More than you will ever know. Tell Matthew that so proud of him and the awesome grades he’s in school. Tell you-”
My head twirled in a sea of nausea. I could hear myself talking, not making much sense, but I couldn’t control my words. It felt like an out of body experience. I focused all of my concentration on Andrea’s voice. “Tell Megan I think she’s a princess. Her smile tell her I’m sorry.” The building shuddered, and I waited for the final death blow. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just knew it would be devastating.
Andrea’s voice slowly faded into the distance as I began to drift. For the first time since my morning had been completely turned upside down, I felt peace. My throat no longer burned, and I could open my eyes and see clearly. In contrast to the smoke-filled stairwell, the room was brightly lit. A warmth enveloped me from head to toe, and I sighed in relief. This wouldn’t end as badly as I had imagined.
I frowned when I heard the sharp bark of static.
My eyes snapped open. Bits of a conversation filled my ears.
“We have two.”
There was commotion all around me as I laid there in pain and confusion. A face materialized into view right above me. A man spoke, but I couldn’t hear the words. I could see the worry in his eyes, but he smiled. On his head, he wore a helmet with the number 213 and the initials FDNY above that. I tried to speak, but couldn’t. I surrendered to the blackness.
I awoke in the hospital surrounded by my family. I was alive. I had sustained permanent damage to one lung due to smoke inhalation, but other than that, I was fine. Well, physically speaking. I found out later that Jack and I had actually made it down to the fifty ninth floor of the building instead of only a few levels like I had originally thought.
Don’t take anything for granted. Your family, friends, job. While trapped in that building, I realized that life is nothing but a brief journey that passes by way too quickly. Hold your family tight, take chances, and don’t ever think there’s something you can’t do. Nothing is impossible. Oh, and Jack? He’s fine too. The shirt sleeve I wrapped around his face protected him from any damage to his lungs. Our families are headed out of town next weekend together. It’s time for some fresh air.
Note from the author:
While this story is fiction, constructed from the depths of my imagination, we all know how incredibly horrific 9/11 was. I can’t imagine what it was like for someone like Rick, trapped high up in one of the towers, not knowing if he would ever see the light of day again. I’ve tried to illustrate those feelings in my story, but I’m sure they aren’t even close to what a person might have endured. The respect I have for our police force and firefighters can’t be explained in mere words. The brave men and women who sacrificed their lives for others are the true heroes of this world.
We will never forget. 9/11/2001
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