From the Ashes (Part 2)


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.

“It’s Jack.”

“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.

“Hello?”

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-”

“Rick? Rick?”

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.”

“Alive?”

“Barely.”

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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From the Ashes (Part 1)


The morning started off in such a beautiful way. Had I known the horror that would follow, I would never have stepped foot outside my front door.

My wife, Andrea, and I have two children. One boy and one girl. Matthew is seven years old and has his mama’s eyes. Megan is three, and thankfully, she doesn’t look like me. She does have my dimple in her chin, but that’s where the similarities end. She is a mini version of the woman I married eight years ago. We had been waiting a week to hear from the doctor about a variety of tests they ran on Megan. The call finally came in that morning as we were sitting around the breakfast table.

With tears streaming down my face, I delivered the good news to Andrea. We bundled together in a small family group hug for several minutes. Whether or not the kids could fully understand what was taking place, Andrea and I were more than relieved that our little one would not have to undergo surgery. There were no handouts or instruction booklets attached to the children at birth. We’ve done the best we can, and believe that their long term damage, due to our inexperience, will be minimal. Taking Megan to the doctor had been one of the most terrifying moments in our lives as parents.

After a celebratory breakfast, I kissed the wife and kids goodbye and headed into work. My job is pretty boring, but it puts money in the bank and food on the table. Selling insurance isn’t glamorous by any means, but it allows me to provide for my family, and that’s what matters. My Dad taught me the value of hard work, and even now in my late thirties, I realize it doesn’t matter what the work is. If you perform to the best of your abilities, there are rewards. In this day and age, just having a job is a reward all in itself.

Traffic that day wasn’t as bad as a typical Tuesday. Most people think Mondays are the worst, but in the city, pretty much every day has its share of bad traffic. Some, who either didn’t own a vehicle or just wanted to enjoy the beautiful fall weather, plodded along the sidewalks. I had my window rolled down and could hear the usual sounds of activity that always infiltrated our chaotic streets. Continuous honking of impatient horns, the serpent-like hissing of buses starting and stopping, and the ever present shouting out for the attention of a cab driver.

Once inside the office, I greeted my co-workers and snagged a cup of steaming, hot coffee from the break room. It wasn’t Starbucks, but it would suffice. Once seated, I looked at the pictures on my desk and smiled. I had so much to be thankful for. So many people take the things they have in life for granted, myself included. I decided right then that our family would take a trip the following weekend. We needed to get out of the city and breathe in some fresh air. It had been too long.

I glanced at my desk calendar and frowned. On September 10th, the day before, I had jotted down a reminder to myself to call my Uncle who was celebrating a birthday. I had completely forgotten to call him. I picked up the phone, and then changed my mind. It wasn’t even nine yet. He might be sleeping in.

I heard, or rather felt, the first explosion around 8:45. It was one of those moments where you wait several seconds before reacting just to make sure you hadn’t imagined anything. As I stepped outside my office and saw the fear on everyone’s face, I knew something had indeed happened. The building shuddered, and someone across the room screamed. I ran back into my office and stood by the nearest window. From my vantage point on the 75th floor of the North Tower, I could look down and see the expanse of New York City below.

I walked around my desk and snatched up the phone. I dialed home and waited. After several moments of complete silence, a busy signal assaulted my ear. The call didn’t even go through. I pulled the cell phone from my pocket and held down the 2 button, which was speed dial for Andrea.

“Come on, Darling. Pick up. Please pick up.”

After five rings, the call went to voicemail. I pressed End and then dialed our home number. No answer there either. She must still be on her way home from taking Matthew to school. He hated riding the bus.

A co-worker, Phillip, burst into my office. “Rick! Let’s go. We need to evacuate the building.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know. Sounded like a bomb went off. There’s already smoke in the hallways, and the elevators are not working. We have to take the stairs. ”

I returned the cell phone to my pocket and followed him out. The main office was already clear of people who wasted no time in running for the exits. Smoke had already started to penetrate the air, and my eyes began to burn. We rushed into the hallway where we found small groups of people standing around, unsure of what to do. Phillip sprang into action and began to direct people towards the stairs. Several stood there crying. Some had cell phones out trying to make calls. It was an eerie scene.

I started to follow everyone else when I heard someone call out from an office I had just passed by. I stopped and looked. Through the gathering smoke, I noticed a man sitting on the floor. I rushed over to him. “What are you doing? We have to go!”

“I twisted my ankle and can’t walk. I think it’s broken.”

Movement flashed in the corner of my eye, and I turned toward a window. At first, I though it was building debris falling from the upper floors. I slowly walked across the office so I could get a better look. Once I realized what was happening, my flesh crawled in horror. Debris was indeed falling, but something else was hurtling toward the ground as well. Bodies. Before my stunned mind could comprehend what my eyes were witnessing, a plane appeared from around the building. My mouth opened in a silent scream as the aircraft slammed into the South tower.

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