At Ground Zero, 'It Was Like You Imagine Hell'

The lucky ones emerged as a parade of ash-covered refugees, with torn clothes and terrified faces.

By SHARE

NEW YORK — First, the horrific noise. Then the flames, the smoke and ash darkening the morning sky. A second crash. Then the debris, the bodies tumbling from the buildings as people tried to get out any way they could. And then, unbelievably, the buildings folding upon themselves, twin towers no more.

The lucky ones emerged as a parade of ash-covered refugees, with torn clothes, broken shoes, and smoky, terrified faces.

Earthquake? Robert Mansfield was in his office on the 82nd floor when the first plane hit. "I thought it was an earthquake at first," he says. "The whole building just rocked." An official with the New York Port Authority, Mansfield raced with colleagues for the nearest emergency exit; they found a locked door. "We thought we were trapped." They retraced their steps, only to discover a fire had broken out in their offices.

They doused the fire, found another exit, then climbed down 82 stories, meeting hundreds of others in the dark, silent stairwells. Entering the lobby, they heard the second plane crash into the tower next door. "We hit the ground," Mansfield recalls. "There was debris flying everywhere, and it was pitch black. I heard a lot of screams, but I couldn't see anything." With the help of firefighters, he made it to the street, a figure of ghostly white. His suit pants were coated in gray ash, his dress shirt balled up in his hand—it had been his mask.

Icksoo Choo clambered down 78 flights of Tower One's emergency-exit stairwell. It was pitch dark. He remembers being amazed by the discipline of those fleeing for their lives. The director of Hyundai Securities, Choo was with about 30 others when they reached the first floor. But the way was blocked. Suddenly they heard a huge roar—the second crash. "I was on the first floor, trapped, in total darkness," he says. "I thought, 'I'm going to die!' "

Finally, after an agonizing 20 minutes, a firefighter hacked an exit through a window with his ax. Covered in soot and ash, Choo was on the street, dazed by the smoke, the debris, the screams. "You couldn't see anything. It was like you imagine hell." Even after walking six blocks north, standing in the sunlight, he sensed no joy and not much relief. His staff, he thought, what had happened to them? "I thought, 'Thank God I'm alive,' " he says. "But I don't feel much. I'm responsible for all these people." He clutched his briefcase, his grip knuckle-white.

Trapped. Alfred Wong was working as an analyst in training at J.P. Morgan on Wall Street when he got orders to evacuate the building. He was trying to walk home south to Battery Park City when the first tower collapsed, and he saw people screaming and running toward him amid billows of smoke. "Then the smoke cloud swallowed us all," he says. "We could barely breathe. I had ashes in my mouth." Amid the chaos, police herded him and hundreds of others into the Brooklyn Tunnel. The 20-minute walk in darkness and lingering smoke was nightmarish. "I keep imagining the ceiling collapsing on us."

For many watching from the streets below, the most haunting sight was of the trapped in their final moments of terror. "There was one thing I'll never forget. There was a guy... passing around binoculars," says Mark Chemtob, a financial adviser with American Express whose office is one block away from the World Trade Center. "When I looked through the glasses, I could see people waving from the windows on top of where the plane crashed. They were pretty much naked, waving their shirts, trying to get help."

Richard Velez, an off-duty emergency medical technician, was in his truck across the street from the towers to drop his wife off at work when the plane crashed. "I saw someone fall off the top floor . . . he was just tumbling down out of control," Velez recalled. "People were just coming out of the building as the flames were heading up. It was an unbelievable sight. They looked like debris, but you could tell the hands and feet."

David Oriente was headed to work on his first day as a help-desk technician at Morgan Stanley, high up in the World Trade Center. He stepped off a PATH train from New Jersey in the mall below the towers as the first plane crashed. "The ceiling collapsed right in front of me," he says. "People were coming out, sliced up all over, crying, bleeding. People didn't know which way to go."