As usual, I was running late. I'd missed the 8:30 a.m. shuttle to Washington and was rushing to catch the 9:30. At about 8:45, I heard a thunderous explosion. I looked out the window of my 27th-floor hotel room and saw enormous shards of concrete, streaming, screaming to the ground from the World Trade Center. Flames and smoke spewed from the building. I instantly thought it was a terrorist attack.
I heard another explosion. Then I began to run for my life. I sprinted down 27 flights of stairs, in an eerily quiet stairwell, my heart pounding. The lobby teemed with people, some injured, some seeking shelter, others, like me, preparing to flee. Hotel workers dutifully passed out orange juice and bottles of water. Dana Wanamaker, 45, was in the lobby, her blouse blood-splattered, a bandage above her eye. "I saw somebody's hand and foot," she said. "There was flesh in the street."
My hotel was just three blocks from the World Trade Center, and the view of the orange-red flames shooting from the building was vivid and haunting. As I left the hotel, police ordered everyone to head south toward Battery Park so that rescue squads could reach the scene. Fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances filled the streets, their sirens piercing the air. Strangers comforted each other.
"I will not leave." Some stopped to watch the Trade Center burn. It was sickening. I knew that the people in there could never get out, and I couldn't see any way firefighters could reach the blaze. Police pleaded with one woman in her parked Jeep to leave the area. "There are people in there I know," she said. "There are people in there I love. I will not leave. My heart is in that building."
Others who had escaped mutely watched the rescue efforts. James Cutler, 31, said he was in a ground-level restaurant in the towers. "It was like three consecutive booms—boom, boom, boom." He thought it was a kitchen fire. Then the restaurant doors blew open. Soon the room was engulfed in smoke and ash. "And the ceiling fell in." Suddenly, the damage became apparent, and the human tragedy. "I'm a Gulf War veteran, and I've never seen anything like this," Cutler said. "It was total mayhem."
As we talked at the intersection of West Street and Battery Place, one of the towers collapsed. All hell broke loose. The air filled with thick smoke and ash. Emergency crews screamed at us to leave. There was a new sense of danger and panic. People rushed to get to the tip of Manhattan. Some people screamed for people to run. Others appealed for calm.
I decided to remain calm and run. But the smoke was moving so fast I could barely breathe or see. I thought we were going to choke to death. Everyone was drenched in soot and smoke. People covered their faces with their shirts or anything they could find to keep from inhaling ash and smoke.
I knew we could run only so far until we would have nowhere to go but the Hudson River. I was enveloped in a cloud of smoke and ash. We reached a restaurant, American Park at the Battery. People were banging on the glass doors, but they were locked. We were trapped. And the smoke kept coming. It was a typically eclectic New York crowd. There were people with babies and pets, stockbrokers in suits. All covered in soot. The straps of my sandals broke as I ran, so I ditched them and went barefoot.
Desperation. People screamed to be let in the restaurant. One man told everyone to step back and he smashed the glass with a hammer. I helped push the glass out, and people poured into the restaurant. Eventually, the manager opened the doors and let people in. He was contrite, and like all of us, didn't really know what to do. It must have been the only restaurant for blocks without a TV, so we didn't really know what was going on.
Minutes later, another part of the Trade Center collapsed, and more people ran toward Battery Park. About an hour later, a New York Waterway ferry began shuttling those of us in the restaurant across the Hudson to Jersey City. Police said we had to leave. There was no way to go back into the city.