The Day the Twin Towers Collapsed Survivors Tell Their Stories

THE events of September 11, 2001, in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania will be indelibly impressed on the minds of millions, if not billions, of the world’s inhabitants. Where were you when you saw or heard the news of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York and on the Pentagon in Washington?
That incredibly swift destruction of so much property and, far more important, of so many lives has given mankind reason to pause and reflect.
What have we learned about our priorities and our choices in life? How did those tragic events bring to the fore some of the better qualities of our humanity—self-sacrifice, compassion, endurance, and unselfishness? This article and the one following will try to answer the latter question.
Survivors Tell Their Stories
Immediately following the disaster in New York, the subway system closed down, and multitudes of people exited lower Manhattan on foot—many of them crossing the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. They could clearly see the office and factory buildings of the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some refugees from the disaster soon headed toward those buildings.
Alisha (at right), the daughter of a Witness, was among the first to arrive. She was covered with dust and ash. She explained: “While I was on the train heading to work, I could see smoke coming from the World Trade Center. When I arrived at the disaster area, there was glass on the ground everywhere, and I could feel the heat. People were running in every direction, while the police were trying to evacuate the area. It looked like a war zone.
“I ran into a nearby building for shelter. Then I heard the explosion as the second plane hit the south tower. The scene was indescribable, with black smoke everywhere. We were told to move out of the danger zone. I was put on a ferry crossing the East River to Brooklyn. When I got to the other side, I looked up and saw a large sign, ‘WATCHTOWER.’ The headquarters of my mother’s religion! I immediately made my way to the office building. I knew that I could not be in better hands. I was able to get cleaned up and then call my parents.”
Wendell (at right) was a doorman at the Marriott Hotel located between the two towers. He explained: “I was on duty in the lobby when the first explosion occurred. I saw debris falling all around. I looked across the street, and there was a man in flames lying on the ground. I tore off my jacket and shirt and ran over to try to put out the flames. Another passerby joined in to help. All the clothes burned off the man except for his socks and shoes. Then the firemen came and took him to get medical help.
“Shortly after that, Bryant Gumbel of CBS TV news called on the phone to get an eyewitness account of what was happening. My family in the Virgin Islands heard it on their TV and, as a result, knew that I was alive.”
Donald, a hefty six-foot-five-inch [195 cm] employee at the World Financial Center, was on the 31st floor of his building, looking straight across at the Twin Towers and the Marriott Hotel. He said: “I was dumbstruck and horrified by what I saw. People were falling and jumping out of the north tower windows. I became hysterical and ran out of my building as fast as I could.”
Another experience was that of a mother in her 60’s and her two daughters in their 40’s. Ruth and her sister Joni were staying with their mother, Janice, at a hotel near the Twin Towers. Ruth, a registered nurse, tells the story: “I was in the shower. My mother and sister suddenly shouted for me to get out of the shower. We were on the 16th floor, and they could see debris falling past the window. My mother actually saw a man’s body fly over a nearby roof as if he had been ejected from somewhere.
“I dressed quickly, and we started down the stairs. There was a lot of screaming. We exited onto the street. We heard explosions and saw sparks of fire. We were ordered to rush south to Battery Park, where the Staten Island Ferry is located. On the way, we lost contact with Mother, who has chronic asthma. How would she survive in all this smoke, ash, and dust? We spent half an hour looking for her but without success. However, we were not too worried at first because she is very capable and self-possessed.
“Eventually, we were directed to walk to the Brooklyn Bridge and cross to the other side. Imagine our relief as we got to the Brooklyn side of the bridge and saw the huge sign ‘WATCHTOWER’! We knew we were safe.
“We were given a welcome and accommodations. We were also supplied with clothes, since we had nothing. But where was Mother? We spent all night vainly trying to trace her at hospitals. About half past eleven the next morning, we received a message. Mother was downstairs in the lobby! What had happened to her?”
Janice, the mother, continues the account: “When we rushed out of the hotel, I was concerned about an elderly friend, who had been unable to leave with us. I wanted to return and carry her out myself. But it was too dangerous. In the commotion I got separated from my daughters. However, I was not too concerned, as they are levelheaded and Ruth is a qualified nurse.
“Everywhere I looked, people needed help—especially children and babies. I helped as many as I could. I went to the triage area, where the victims were being sorted and treated according to the severity of their injuries. I helped out by washing the hands and faces of the policemen and firemen, who were caked with soot and dust. I stayed until about three in the morning. Then I took the last ferry to Staten Island. I thought that perhaps my daughters had sought refuge over there. But I didn’t find them.
“In the morning I tried to get the first ferry back to Manhattan, but I couldn’t get on because I was not an emergency worker. Then I saw one of the policemen whom I had helped. I called out: ‘John! I need to get back to Manhattan.’ He replied: ‘Just come with me.’
“When I arrived in Manhattan, I headed back to the Marriott Hotel. Perhaps there was still a chance to help my elderly friend. No way! The hotel was in ruins. The downtown area was dead—no life in it anywhere. Only haggard policemen and firemen, with tragedy written all over their faces.
“I wended my way over to the Brooklyn Bridge. As I neared the far end, I could see a familiar sign, ‘WATCHTOWER.’ Perhaps I would find my daughters there. Sure enough, they came down to the lobby to greet me. What hugs and tears we shared!
“Amazingly, I did not have a single asthma attack, in spite of all the smoke, dust, and ash. I kept praying, for I wanted to be useful, not a burden.”
“There’s Nowhere to Land!”
Rachel, a woman in her early 20’s, told an Awake! writer: “I was walking down my block in lower Manhattan when I heard the noise of a plane overhead. It was so loud that it made me look up. I couldn’t believe it—there was this huge jetliner obviously on a descending path. I wondered why it was flying so low and so fast. There’s nowhere to land! Maybe the pilot had lost control. Then I heard a woman screaming, ‘That plane just hit the building!’ A huge fireball burst out of the north tower. I saw a giant black hole in the tower.
“It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It didn’t seem real. I just stood there with my mouth open. Within a short time, the second tower was hit by another plane, and eventually both towers collapsed. I became hysterical. It was more than I could take!”
“If I Have to Swim, I’ll Swim”
Denise, aged 16, had just arrived at her school next to the American Stock Exchange, which is located three blocks south of the World Trade Center. “It was just after 9:00 a.m. I knew that something had happened, but I didn’t know what. I was on the 11th floor of the school, attending history class. All the students looked petrified. The teacher still wanted us to take a test. We wanted to get out and go home.
“Then the building shook as the second plane impacted the south tower. But we still did not know what had happened. Suddenly I heard on the teacher’s walkie-talkie: ‘Two planes have hit the Twin Towers!’ I thought to myself, ‘It is not logical to stay put. This is terrorism, and the Stock Exchange will be next.’ So we got out.
“We raced down to Battery Park. I turned around to look at what was happening. I could see that the south tower was going to collapse. Then I thought that there would be a domino effect, with all the high buildings collapsing. I was struggling to breathe, as my nose and throat were clogged with ash and dust. I raced for the East River, thinking, ‘If I have to swim, I’ll swim.’ As I fled, I prayed to Jehovah to save me.
“Eventually, I was put on a ferry to New Jersey. It took more than five hours for my mother to find me, but at least I was safe!”
“Is This My Last Day of Life?”
Joshua, aged 28, from Princeton, New Jersey, was teaching a class on the 40th floor of the north tower. He recalls: “All of a sudden, it felt like a bomb had exploded. There were tremors, and then I thought, ‘No, it was an earthquake.’ I looked outside, and it was unbelievable—smoke and debris were swirling around the building. I said to the class, ‘Everybody, drop your stuff. Let’s go!’
“We headed down the stairs, which were filling up with smoke, and water was coming out of the sprinklers. But there was no panic. I kept praying that we had chosen the right stairwell so that we wouldn’t come face-to-face with the fire.
“As I was running down the stairs, I thought, ‘Is this my last day of life?’ I kept praying to Jehovah, and I felt a strange feeling of peace. I have never experienced that kind of inner peace. I will never forget that moment.
“When we finally came out of the building, the police were moving everyone along. I looked up at the towers and saw that both buildings had been sliced open. It was surreal.
“Then I heard an eerie sound—an uncanny silence as if thousands of people were holding their breath. It seemed as if New York stood still. This was followed by screaming. The south tower was collapsing on itself! A tidal wave of smoke, ash, and dust was hurtling toward us. It was like special effects out of a movie. But this was real. As the cloud caught up with us, we could hardly breathe.
“I made it to the Manhattan Bridge, where I turned and saw the north tower with its huge TV antenna go crashing down. As I crossed the bridge, I just kept praying that I would reach Bethel, the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I have never been so happy to see that place in my whole life. And there on the factory wall was the big sign that thousands can see each day, ‘Read God’s Word the Holy Bible Daily’! I thought, ‘I’m almost there. Just keep going.’
“As I reflect on those events, they have impressed on me that I really need to have my priorities right—that first things in life should be first.”
“I Saw People Jumping off the Tower”
Jessica, aged 22, saw the events when she got out of a downtown subway station. “I looked up and saw ash, debris, and all kinds of pieces of metal coming down. People were waiting to use pay phones and were getting more and more hysterical because of the delays. I prayed for calmness. Then another explosion. Steel and glass were falling out of the sky. I heard shouts, ‘It was another plane!’
“I looked up, and it was horrible to see—people jumping from the upper floors where the smoke and flames were billowing out. I can still see it before my eyes—a man together with a woman. They were holding onto a window for a while. Then they had to let go, and they fell and fell and fell. The sight was unbearable.
“Eventually, I got to the Brooklyn Bridge, where I took off my uncomfortable shoes and ran to the Brooklyn side of the river. I walked into the Watchtower office building, where I was immediately helped to calm down.
“That night, at home, I read in Awake! of August 22, 2001, the series ‘Coping With Post-traumatic Stress.’ How badly I needed that information!”
The enormity of the disaster moved people to help in whatever way they could. The following article explains that part of the story.

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