Vanadia

NYC Stories

Stephen O. Noble

September 11, 2001

On Tuesday, September 11th, I arrived on the PATH train directly beneath the World Trade Center, nothing appeared amiss as we stepped out.  When I rode the escalator to the next level, gray smoke hung in the air.  A blue fire alarm light was flashing in the distance.  I did not like the diesel-like odor and assumed that I was breathing something harmful.  The time was 8:55; seven minutes after the first plane hit the North Tower.

Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my sighing
Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God
For to you I pray.
In the morning, O Lord, You hear my voice;
In the morning, I lay my requests before You in expectation

Assuming that I was witnessing a PATH station fire, I quickly moved to get on the long escalator that would take me to the shopping mall that is underneath World Trade Center complex.  I was starting to feel nervous because there seemed to be a lot of police around. As I was riding the long escalator, I heard panic-stricken shouts beneath me and looked to see a stampede heading in my direction.  Now I was scared, because I assumed that someone had opened fire with a gun.  The police at the top of the escalator and the police beneath me immediately began to yell at all of us:  CALM DOWN!  WALK!  EVERYTHING IS ALL RIGHT!  The police beneath me moved right into the middle of the stampeding frenzy and everyone stopped running.  I was very shaken.  What was going on?  When I arrived at the Mall level the police kept yelling out orders:  KEEP MOVING!  YOU MUST EXIT THE MALL!  DON’T STOP! (My one thought, “I don’t want to be part of a headline-making catastrophe, I just want to get to work.”)  I was more than happy to head to nearest exit, which coincidentally faces my building, One Liberty Plaza.  As I did, I looked down the Mall hallway that led to both towers and it was filled with thick white smoke.  The Trade Center is on fire, I thought, I hope that it is not serious.  As I was heading up the escalator to exit to the street, I saw Rick Klepper walking up the stairs next to me.  He told me that a commuter plane had accidentally hit the World Trade Center.  He looked unconcerned.  As I exited the Mall, I saw office papers and chunks of wallboard everywhere.  The papers were blackened by fire around the edges.  I felt relief.  Now I finally knew and could see what was going on.  I was facing the south side of the North Tower (the opposite side of the gaping hole) and could only see fire on two floors.  It’s a good thing that it was only a small commuter plane I thought; the people above it will be able to get out.  I headed toward One Liberty Plaza where my office is on the 32nd floor.  The street level farmer’s market was hastily packing and closing up their tents.  The time was 8:59 am.

You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with You the wicked cannot dwell
The arrogant cannot stand cannot stand in Your presence;
You hate all who do wrong.

I made my way past many people who were standing and staring up at the North Tower.  I could not bring myself to join them, man-made disasters are ugly and I was not interested in watching it one minute longer than I had to.  I entered One Liberty Plaza and went straight to the elevators that would take me to the 32nd floor.  One opened and I got on with several others.  When it stopped at the 28th floor, I heard the fire alarm going off and I blurted out, “We are going down, now!”  The person closest to elevator buttons pushed the first floor button.  The doors closed and we headed straight down.  I exited the elevator and walked into the lobby where people were calmly watching the North Tower.  There were no signs of an evacuation of One Liberty Plaza.  I made up my mind that I was going home and that I would work from there.  Then I remembered that I had nothing to work on in my laptop case.  It would be a lost day unless I quickly went to my office and grabbed a bunch of files.  So I got back on the elevator with several others.  It stopped at 28 and one person got off.  It stopped at 30 and another got off.  It was almost at 32 and the elevator stopped dead.  The time was 9:05; the second plane had just hit the South Tower; we heard and felt nothing.  Now I was afraid again, why did I get back on the elevator?  A woman began to panic. We told her that we were fine; we will find a way out.  One man managed to open the elevator doors and we could see that we were about five feet below the 32nd floor.  The doors at the 32nd floor were locked and would not budge.  A security guard was on the elevator with us and we began to ask him to use his walkie-talkie.  He finally did and there was no response.  I thought that I should pray out loud and then decided against it, as I was concerned that it would be perceived as grandstanding.  I prayed silently (“please help us get out of here, Lord”) and then found the alarm button and set it off.  I looked at the ceiling for a trap door to climb through.  We tried again to open the doors that led to the 32nd floor.  A voice came on the elevator intercom.  I answered it and explained that there were seven of us trapped.  We were told to wait a minute.  Then the voice came back on and told us to make sure that the doors were closed.  The elevator started again and went to the 36th floor and the doors opened.  We were told to use the stairs to exit the building.  Once again, I felt relief.  The time was 9:12 am.

You destroy those who tell lies;
bloodthirsty and deceitful men the Lord abhors.

As we headed down the stairs, the woman on the elevator who panicked tried the door that opened into the 32nd floor; it was locked.  She tried again at the 31st floor and the door opened.  She started to go in and a security guard blocked her way and told her to keep going down the stairs.  She loudly argued with him and then we all chimed in and told her to come with us down the stairs.  She reluctantly listened to us. When I reached the sixth floor, my pager went off.  I stopped to read the message: “8584911”.  It was Beth using our agreed signal, i.e., I was to call her at home ASAP.  I waited until I reached the ground floor.  Security guards were forcing everyone to leave the building through the Broadway exit that was the furthest one away from the World Trade Center.  As I left the building, I was told that a second commuter plane had hit the South Tower and that it was no accident.  This was a terrorist attack.  The mood in the air was fear and there was now a lot more debris everywhere (papers with burned edges, chunks of wallboard and pieces of concrete).  I exited One Liberty Plaza and dialed my wife on my cell phone.  It did not connect; after two minutes, it went to redial.  I stopped the redial and tried again.  Same thing.  One more time I stopped the redial and tried again.  Same thing.  I started to yell at Beth in my mind, “if you’re going to page me with 911 because you have heard what is going on, then stop talking to your friends so that I can get through.”  Little did I know that the cell phone network was overloaded with calls and that no one was getting through.  Feeling very tense, I could not wait for the cell phone anymore and so I stopped the redial for the last time.  I crossed Broadway and began to head north to look for a payphone.  I knew that Beth would be very worried.  I wanted to reassure her that I was okay.  I found a payphone on Broadway near the intersection with Maiden Lane.  I joined the line of four waiting to use it.  I had a clear view of the burning towers and for some reason blocked out the thick black smoke pouring out of them.  All I saw were yellow fires on two or three floors at the most.  I could not see the gaping hole in either tower as I was looking at the east face.  One could feel the raw hatred that motivated these attacks.  It hung in the air like a putrid stench.  I wanted more than anything to see fires that were localized and controllable so that the people trapped above them would have a way of escape.  Then I said it out loud, “We need to pray for those people trapped in the upper floors that they get out safely”.  I heard two people behind me say ‘you’re right, we need to pray”.  Today, New Yorkers were willing to admit they needed His help.  As I stared at the North Tower, I saw a chunk of glass break off above the 90th floor and flutter to the ground like a broken leaf.  I saw it land and heard it shatter loudly in the complex where some people were standing.  As far as I could tell it missed everyone.  The person at the front of the payphone line said that the phone was not working.  That was enough for me.  I could not stand there anymore and watch the fires.  Even though I had mentally blocked out the black smoke, I knew that people were trapped above and were most likely inhaling toxic fumes.  I felt as if I was watching people suffer and die.  So I left the payphone and walked to the Maiden Heaven deli on Maiden Lane, about 1000 feet away from the South Tower.  The time was 9:35 am.

But I, by Your great mercy, will come into Your great house;
In reverence will I bow down toward Your holy temple.
Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies -
Make straight Your way before me

I entered the deli and went downstairs looking for a bathroom.  There was no bathroom in the basement, but there was a payphone with a line that was only two deep.  Finally, I reached the front of the line and dialed the number.  David answered.  He shouted, he yelled.  I could not talk.  He was so glad to hear my voice.  He told Beth who got on the phone and then started crying.  We talked like we had been separated from each other for an eternity.  I was so happy to relieve their fears.  I told Beth that it was going to take me a long time to get home and that she should not worry if she did not hear from me for a while.  I told her that there was something wrong with my cell phone and that available payphones were hard to find.  She told me that she loved me and it was okay with her.  She understood that it would be hard to get home.  I hung up the phone and found the bathroom upstairs.  I felt relief in every possible way.  The time was 9:55 am.

Not a word from their mouth can be trusted;
Their heart is filled with destruction.
Their throat is an open grave;
With their tongue they speak deceit
Declare them guilty, O God!
Let their intrigues be their downfall.
Banish them for their many sins,
For they have rebelled against you.

I bought an apple, a bottle of water and a brownie.  It had been 3 ½ hours since I had breakfast and I was feeling drained from the adrenaline rushes I felt in the PATH station and on the elevator.  I decided that I needed to eat the apple for energy so I sat down in a window seat to eat it.  I was only 1000’ away from the South Tower.  I was on my third bite when I heard a KABOOM, followed immediately by screeching metal and an earth-shaking rumble.  I heard the most hideous screaming as the rumble increased and came toward us.  Everything was shaking.  I ran away from the window overwhelmed with terror.  All I could think was “I should have been gone a long time ago. This is it.” I expected to die and I was afraid that it would hurt.  I desperately looked for something to dive under because it sounded as if the whole lower end of Manhattan was being destroyed.  It was the sound of thousands of people dying at once and I felt despair.  I wanted to stay alive because Beth, David, Paul and Ali need me.  Outside the deli window, everything went black. Two people ran into the deli so covered with concrete dust that they looked like they had fallen into a vat of yellow flour.  You could not tell at first that one of them was a black man.  Next to me, a man started yelling “SHUT THE DOOR!”  I joined him as I was afraid that behind the black cloud was a fireball (I could not bring myself to think the word “nuclear”).  A deli employee shut the front door and ran to join us at the back.  The air in the deli was filled with yellow dust.  I was still alive.  It felt as if the angel of death had passed over us. The concrete dust man said that the building collapsed.  I did not believe him.  I thought that terrorists had hidden a bomb on the “commuter” planes.  We all went into the basement and started breathing through handkerchiefs.  The concrete dust woman sat at a table in the basement and wailed inconsolably.  She sat and shook for an hour.  The owner brought her water.  I sat across from her and prayed out loud.  There were about a dozen of us.  We had no idea what was happening or what to do next.  We knew that we were safe for the time being in the deli.  I got on line to use the payphone line and called home.  Beth answered this time, “thank God” she said over and over.  After I told her that I was still in the deli, she said that she would never tease me again about making sure that everyone was well fed while we were on a family trip.  She was thrilled that I had food and water.  It was hard to end the phone call; I was so glad to be alive and talking to and praying with Beth (who I love more than life itself).  Others were waiting to use the phone and so we ended our conversation.

But let all who take refuge in You be glad;
Let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
That those who love Your name may rejoice in You.
For surely, O Lord, you bless the righteous;
You surround them with Your favor as with a shield.

The concrete dust woman had used up her water and I bought her another bottle. I asked the deli owner what he thought we should do.  He said that we should stay there until we were sure it was safe.  Then he told me that he too was a born-again Christian and that he heard me praying.  We went upstairs and saw that it was still black outside.  The owner found a radio and brought it downstairs to plug it in.  I heard another low boom like the first and blurted out “Here we go again!”.  It too grew and grew and grew, but it was farther away.  I was afraid again but not for my life.  Then we heard on the radio that both Towers had collapsed and that a plane had smashed into the Pentagon.  Then there was a report that a plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. I could not feel fear at this time.  All I knew was that I was alive.  All I could think about was getting home to my family.  I paced the floor like a caged animal, I could not sit still. The phone rang.  I answered it.  It was a very upset grandmother looking for Maria.  I found Maria and told her that the phone was for her.  I tried to talk to a man wearing a Mets hat, but he had no interest in conversation.  The concrete dust man wanted to leave.  The shop owner did not want to open the front door so he showed him a way out of the shop from the basement.  I went back upstairs with the owner and saw that it was a little less black outside.  A glass door to our right that was always locked had cracked glass, evidently broken by someone’s pounding to escape the collapse.  The time was 11:00 am.

We went back downstairs.  Maria announced that her grandmother had pestered the Brooklyn fire department and that they were sending a truck to rescue us.  The concrete dust women did not want to wait anymore.  She said that she was going to walk to her house in Brooklyn.  The shop owner let her out the back way.  When he came back, I asked him if he saw any looting and he said no.  I was very concerned that looting would start and that the Maiden Heaven deli would no longer be safe.  I was prepared to spend the night if necessary.  At 11:45, people started walking upstairs to look out the shop window.  It was no longer black.  A yellowish haze hung in the air.  At 12 noon, people started leaving Maiden Heaven through the back way.  I called Beth to let her know that I was leaving the shop and that I would try to keep her informed as much as possible.  She prayed for me to have a safe trip home.  When I got off the phone, I was alone.  I felt panic, but then I calmed myself and grabbed my computer bag.  At that, two of the deli workers came back into the basement and I felt relief.  I then left the shop through the basement exit.  I came out on Maiden Lane just 10 feet east of the main entrance.  Maiden Lane itself was covered with 3” inches of yellowish concrete dust as well as office papers and magazines.  I knew that these papers and magazines most likely belonged to people who were now dead, but I could not dwell on that. I had to get home.  I looked down the street toward the former Twin Towers, now a hellish sight.  A jagged remnant of the steel exterior leaned drunkenly to the north.  The entire sight was backlit by a yellowish-white fire that created a black halo in the smoke.  I could not find a single thought that put such a scene in a context.  Thousands of people lay dead inside that black halo.  I pushed that thought out of my mind so that I could focus on getting home.  I was well aware of what the rescue professionals have said over and over again.  At such a scene, they want the uninjured like myself to get out of their way and to keep myself uninjured so that they have one less victim.  I was going to do my part and leave Manhattan.  I headed down Maiden Lane away from the World Trade Center and I saw four grinning teenagers headed toward me.  Here it is, I thought.  I am about to get mugged.  But they kept walking right past me.  And then I saw behind them, a police officer armed with a huge shotgun.  Cool, I thought, they have declared martial law.  I walked up to the officer and said “thank you for protecting me” at which he pointed the shotgun at me.  I instinctively put my arms up and said that I meant no harm, then I saw printed on the shoulder of his uniform “The Federal Reserve Bank of New York”.  At that, I realized that he was not guarding me, but the Bank itself from terrorists.  I wandered the streets which were covered with two inches of dust.  A rescue vehicle sped by and left behind it a blinding choking dust storm.  I had to carry my rolling case.  I started toward the ferry that picked up at the World Financial Center but thick black smoke lay between me and that dock.  I was still breathing through my handkerchief.  I went up to every police officer I saw and asked if the ferries were running.  Finally, I found the answer I was looking for.  A police officer said that the ferries were running at the bottom of Wall Street to Brooklyn and New Jersey.  I went straight for that ferry.  As I got further away from the World Trade Center, the dust got thinner and thinner until it was hardly noticeable.  I got on the line for the Hoboken ferry.  Everyone was polite and orderly.  No pushing and shoving today.  The line was a long one and I was a little concerned that I would have to wait for the next one.  However, the operators were squeezing on as many as they could fit and were not charging any fare.  I made it on and went straight to the upper deck to sit in the warm sun. It was a perfectly beautiful day.  When the ferry rounded the tip of Manhattan and headed toward Hoboken, all conversation stopped and everyone stared at the smoking hole where the Twin Towers once stood.  Thick black and white smoke blanketed all buildings to the southeast.

We arrived in Hoboken and were herded to a small fire truck equipped with a spray nozzle.  I knew that they were concerned about asbestos dust.  The spray was so effective that I was soaked through in two seconds.  My briefcase was included as it too contained dust.  Then we went through a line of EMTs that were checking us for shock.  My pulse was 62.  We were asked repeatedly if we had any problems, so I finally raised my hand.  “What is it?” asked the closest EMT with real concern in her face.  “I have to go to the bathroom,” I said and I heard people around me laughing.  The EMT smiled and pointed to a bar across the street and said that I could go in there.  After the trip to the bar, I found my way through all of the police lines into the Hoboken terminal.  I boarded the 1:47 for Hackettstown.  I settled into my seat and called Beth.  After that call ended, I felt very tired and wanted to sleep, when I noticed that everyone was leaving the train.  I followed them.  We were being herded to a spot in the railyard away from the train.  I was told that the reason for the evacuation was a bomb scare.  I looked around and saw a shed to hide behind in case a bomb really did go off.  Then I said out loud, “I have had enough bombs for one day.  I really think that I have satisfied my minimum daily requirement of bombs.”  Nobody laughed, but I felt better.

After 30 minutes we were told to exit the railyard into the adjacent street.  I then had to circumnavigate all over again the police lines around the terminal.  When I got back in, the train was still there but the sign no longer said 1:47 to Hackettstown.  I boarded and saw Ratana from my office and I sat down next to her.  We shared stories.  She was at 14th Street when first Tower collapsed.  When I tried to describe what it was like to be in fear of one’s life and she tried to correct my thinking.  I dropped it immediately and realized that I had experienced something that few would understand.  The train left at 3:30 and Beth and David were waiting for me at Dover when I arrived at 5:30.  Beth gave me the choice of where we would go next.  I chose to go to our church and participate in a prayer service.  I wanted to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and pray for those who lost loved ones.

© 2001 All Rights Reserved. Stephen O. Noble

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