Of all the stories concerning the attack on America September 11, 2001, I’m always drawn to stories of firefighters. 343 firefighters died in the World Trade Center towers 10 years ago; many after charging up 110 flights of stairs. 60 police and 8 paramedics died, as well.
Cary Sheih was working in the towers on a project for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. I have excerpted his story from TruthorFiction.com.
“At 8:48am on Tuesday morning… As I was finishing off my usual peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I heard a loud explosion, which was immediately followed by tremendous building sways and vibrations. As I was thrown out of my chair, I immediately thought that this was an earthquake… I thought that it was abnormal since there are no earthquakes in NYC, especially of this magnitude. …
“As I picked myself up and ran to the emergency staircase located in the core of the huge building, I saw through the east facing windows debris and fireballs falling from the top of the building. The building had stabilized by the time I reached the stairwell, and evacuation had commenced quickly but calmly. Not knowing the gravity of what was happening above us, people had started pouring into the stairwell from the hallways of the different floors. I saw a coworker from my floor (72nd), and we held and consoled each other. …
“A few moments passed and people began to receive messages over their pagers that a 767 had accidentally hit our building. There was no mention of a terrorist attack, and at no time was there any panic. Mobile phones were completely out in the core of the building due to its immenseness and the large distance from the core of the building to the exterior where signals were usually stronger. …
“Sometime around the 30th or 40th floor, we passed the first firefighters coming up the stairs. They reassured people that we were safe and that we would all get out fine. By this point, they were already absolutely breathless, but still pushing upward, slowly and unyieldingly, one step at a time.
“I could only imagine how tired they were, carrying their axes, hoses and heavy outfits and climbing up all those stairs. Young men started offering the firemen to carry up their gear for a few flights, but they all refused – EACH and EVERY ONE of them. As I relive this moment over and over in my mind, I can’t help but think that these courageous firemen already knew in their minds that they would not make it out of the building alive and that they did not want to endanger any more civilians and prevent one less person from making it to safety on the ground. …
“Around the 20th or 15th floor, the emergency crew began diverting the people in our stairwell to a different stairwell. …
“At this moment for the first time since the initial explosion, a sense of panic began to grip me. Only floor 7, then 6. A few more to go and I would be free… I was a few floors from the ground, floor 4, then all of a sudden, a loud boom, and the building began to shake unbearably again. People started falling down the stairwell as smoke started to rise from the bottom. The emergency lights flickered and then went out. The building was still shaking, and I could hear the steel buckling.
“Rescuers below us shouted for us to go back up the stairs. At this moment, I was choking and shaking tremendously. I managed to climb back up to the 6th or 7th floor and opened the door to that floor. The water [from broken pipes] had already risen to my ankles, and the floor was completely dark. A fireman led us with his flashlights to another staircase by the voices of another fireman who was guiding him through the darkness. We finally made it across that floor to the other stairwell where we were greeted by the other fireman and told to hold. The look on that fireman’s face said it all. He said something under his lips to our fireman indicating the severity of the situation.
“With the image of the firemen communicating to each other and hindsight, I believe that the fireman had whispered to the other one that Building Two had collapsed.
“After a few minutes of huddling by the stairwell on the 6th floor, we were given the green light to run for our lives. I made it down six flights with a few other people and came out onto the mezzanine level of our building. I don’t know what I was expecting to see when I got out of the stairwell, but I was not ready for this apocalyptic scene. It was completely covered in white dust and smoke. My initial reaction was that I couldn’t believe that one plane, albeit a 767, 80 floors above our head caused all this damage on the ground floor – inside. I covered my head and ran towards the huge opening in the north side of the building through which we were being evacuated.
“As I approached this threshold, the firemen yelled to us to get over to the wall of the building quickly. Debris was still raining from all sides of the building. We could see the other firefighters who were outside standing underneath the cantilevered parts of the black immigration building (4 and/or 5 WTC). At their cue, we ran from our building to the outside world and back underneath the immigration building. I was completely disoriented, coughing, and looking at the strange new landscape at the WTC plaza – burning trees, wreckage, fireballs and dust, nothing short of a nuclear winter.
“I climbed over huge pieces of steel wreckage and made my way through to the sky bridge leading to 7 WTC (building 3 to collapse). From there, I descended the escalators down to the street level onto Vesey Street and trotted to safety onto Church Street.
“I immediately looked back and saw the charred remains of the upper floors of my building. Smoke filled the sky, and I began to have this eerie feeling that WTC 2 was not there. I couldn’t be sure because of all the smoke that was billowing from my building blowing eastward. As I was trying to find WTC 2, I saw the unthinkable happen in front
of my eyes. WTC 1 began to disintegrate from where it was burning. I turned around and ran. I later learned that another 767 had hit WTC 2 around the floors where I sit in my building.
“I later learned that WTC 2 had collapsed when we were still inside my building on the fourth floor when it began to shake for a second time. I later learned that I had been spared from the sight of people falling from the higher floors. I am grateful to be alive and uninjured and to be able to share this life-changing experience with you. And, I am so grateful for the courage of the firemen and policemen who gave up their lives to help us down [from] the burning tower.”
Thank God we have heroes like fireman, police, paramedics and others who instinctively act in critical situations. They represent the highest level of selfless devotion.