Topic: Warning Signs
The building swayed. But it always did to weather the harbor winds. A slight percussion just before was what broke my concentration. In early to finish something due in the afternoon, I was on a roll. The piece was flowing; it was working. I went back to it. Bustle and noise sounded in the hallway. Settle down people; get to your desks I thought. Louder noise and more bustle, then a guy yelled.
“Get out! Get out now! Everybody get out of the building!”
My office, on the 64th floor, was on the inside away from windows. I ran to the door. Across the hall, a coworker stood in his doorway. We looked at each other puzzled, heard more yelling. Quickly, we turned back into our offices. I tried to save my work. The computer wouldn’t respond. Damn! Then hoping auto-save worked, I tried to shut down. No response. I gave up, grabbed my briefcase and ran towards the stairwell. As I approached it, a piece of paper floated down the hallway towards me.
When I opened the door, the stairwell was full of people. I’ve never liked crowds. I hesitated briefly. There was no other choice. I joined the line moving down the stairs.
My cell phone didn’t work. No one’s phone did. After we’d descended for a while, a phone rang. Then a guy shouted out. “My girlfriend called from mid-town. Someone flew an airplane into the North Tower.” Had to be some under-the-influence crazy who lost control of a small plane, I thought. We kept moving down the stairs in a fairly orderly fashion. There was nervous banter and laughter but everyone seemed calm. As we passed one landing, a guy who got his coffee the same time I did every day was vomiting his morning cup in the corner. I never saw him again.
I looked to see how far I’d come as I reached the 37th floor landing.
Boom doesn’t really encompass it. Every organ in my body thumped. The noise lasted moments but reverberated in my ears long after. The lights went out. We whipped back and forth, bounced up and down with the building in total darkness. Relieved I was on the landing, I rode the wave. The railing rose and fell away from my hand over and over.
Don’t ask me how long before the lights came back on and the building stopped swaying.
When they did, we looked at each other knowing we were in trouble. Our pace down the stairs picked up considerably. A guy ran past me on the stairwell pushing people out of the way.
“Don’t run” I called. “Fuck you,” he yelled and kept going.
I’m a native San Franciscan. Those childhood earthquake drills sprang into my head. Out loud I said, “Walk quickly, calmly and quietly. Stay calm. Exit the building.” I repeated it until it echoed up and down the stairwell.
Don’t ask me how long it took to get out.
At the lobby, we were sent to an exit in front of the building. A security guard I had an ongoing mild flirtation with stood at the door. “Get out and keep going. Don’t stop,” he said, his face ashen. The next time I saw him, The Times had posted his picture as one of the dead.
I stepped outside, looked up and saw the top of the building in flames. Stunned, I just stood there. A fireman, a little panic in his voice, told me to move. “We have no idea what’s going to happen.”
I knew that. Get away from the building. Coworkers gathered at the subway station across the street. “You can’t stay here,” I said when I saw them. “It’s not safe. No way we’re going back in there.” They just shook their heads at me, shocked.
I left for the PATH station. It was closed. So was the next one. How was I going to get home? I started to panic. Then, I spotted one of my coworkers who also lived on the Jersey side.
“Come with me,” she said. “I know where we can go.” Thank God!
We walked up Broadway with thousands of other people. Fire engines, police cars and ambulance sirens wailing sped in the opposite direction. Another coworker stood dazed on a corner. We brought her with us taking turns, arms around her shoulders, leading her along. Finally, we arrived at a vendor’s office in Soho.
Don’t ask me who it was or where it was.
Everyone was so relieved to see us. There were hugs and tears all around. Someone said, “We were so worried. Your building just collapsed. It just fell.”
I couldn’t comprehend what she was saying. It couldn’t be. How could it fall so fast? How long ago did this all start?
They took us to a window with a view of lower Manhattan. The South Tower was gone. There was space in the sky where it once stood. We stood shocked, disbelief on our faces. At that moment, I just wanted to be home. I wanted my husband to hold me, comfort me, console me. I had no idea that disintegrated building was to be the metaphor for my life.