Read an Excerpt
In the North TowerCopyright 2002 by Dean E. Murphy
We saw the World Trade Center in flames--big gaping hole all the way on the top of it. We could see people jumping from the top of the building.
A Prayer to Die Quickly and Painlessly
Teresa Veliz was the facilities manager for Clearforest, a software development company that had offices on the 47th floor of the North Tower. Because she had two narrow escapes on September 11--one on an elevator and one on an escalator--she worries that she cheated death. She has been unable to return to work, and only conquered her frequent anxiety attacks by going back to Lower Manhattan and retracing her steps of that morning. There with her mother at her side, she cried until she could cry no more. "I won't lie to you," she says. "That day turned my life upside down."
I can still hear that horrible noise in my ears. "Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!" It was the sound of my elevator hitting the walls as it dropped from just above the 47th floor. The further down it fell, the fainter the bangs became--and the more terrified I felt. I had just stepped off that elevator, maybe nine or ten seconds earlier, leaving a handful of people continuing up to higher floors. I got off, turned the corner and opened the door to the ladies' room. I said good morning to a lady sitting at the mirror when the whole building shook. I thought it was an earthquake. Then I heard those banging noises on the other side of the wall. It sounded like someone had cut the elevator cables. It just fell and fell and fell.
I began to cry. "Oh, my God, I just got off that elevator!" Isaid. "That could have been me." I prayed that those other people had gotten off on the 48th floor before the elevator dropped. But I didn't have much time to be upset because the building shook again, this time even more violently. The lady at the mirror grabbed me from behind and held on for dear life. She was sobbing and screaming. I didn't even know her name. She worked for a bank on the same floor. We would pass from time to time in the hallway or in the ladies' room and exchange pleasantries. But I was all she had right then. I had to be strong for her.
"We have to leave," I told her.
"No! No! We can't go out there," she screamed.
"I have to go and see who is in my office," I said. "But I'll take you to your office first. I promise I won't leave you alone. Don't worry, everything's going to be all right."
I dropped my things on the bench in the bathroom--my handbag and the morning supply of bagels and muffins. I opened the door and there was a puff of dust so I turned back and got some tissue to cover our noses. I then walked the lady down the hall toward her office, my mind in rapid-replay mode. I was retracing my steps, the ones that got me off the elevator with only a few seconds to spare. I had stopped at Bon Ami to get the muffins. I remember the line was long. I was very impatient. I never had to wait so long before and I wanted to be at work on time. Then I went to American Cafe for the kosher bagels. Some people in my office only eat kosher. I had to wait there too. Finally, I waved some money in the air and slapped it down on the counter. "I can't wait," I announced and I rushed out the door with the bagels. When I entered the lobby of 1 World Trade Center, I pulled out my ID and swiped it through the security reader. I could see the elevator was there, the doors still open. Oh, great, I thought. The elevator is going to leave without me. But for whatever reason, it didn't. I ran and got in. It wasn't crowded. "Today is my lucky day after all," I thought as the doors closed and we headed up directly to the 44th floor, where I switched to a waiting local elevator for the final three stories up.
I felt okay leaving the lady at the bank. There were about 50 or so people there, so she had plenty of company and would be taken care of. I didn't worry much more about her. But I was worried about my own office colleagues. I felt it was one of my responsibilities, making sure everybody was okay. It came with the job title. I was chief caretaker, ordering supplies, buying breakfast--and taking control in an emergency. I am strong when I have to be for other people. It wouldn't be until much later in the morning that I let down and allowed myself to feel all the pain and anxiety that was rushing through my own mind and body.
"Katherine! Katherine!" I began screaming as I opened the door to my company's offices. But Katherine, I later learned, was still in the lobby waiting for an elevator when the plane hit. She had turned around and left the building safely.
Then I heard the voice of another colleague, Karin. "No, T, it is only me," she said, using my nickname. It was still before nine, it was Election Day and quite a few people had morning meetings away from the office, so Karin was alone, except for an electrician who had been working in the hallway. She was so scared that she was hiding under a table. "What do we do?" she asked.
"We evacuate," I said.
I told Karin to gather up her things, that I would be back in a minute. I had to run back to the ladies' room and get my purse. I didn't want to leave without my ID. The electrician tried to talk me out of it, saying it was dangerous to go back there. But I felt okay about it because I had just been there. When I got back from the ladies' room, Karin was in her office talking to her mother on the telephone. Her back was to the window. I was looking at her when something fell behind her outside. Was it a body? A piece of the building? The airplane? I wasn't sure, but I knew things shouldn't be falling like that. "Please hurry up!" I said to Karin, not saying anything about the object outside. I knew that would have sent her into a panic.
I quickly looked around the office for anything we might need to take if this turned out to be a big fire. My CD player was on my desk with my collection of CDs. Guns N' Roses. George Michael. A bunch of movie soundtracks. They can be replaced, I thought. Then I saw a laptop. It belonged to the director of finance who was visiting from Israel. I knew it had all of the company's important financial information. I stood there and spoke to it. "I hope you will be here tomorrow," I told it. "I can't take you. I can't be weighed down. I am sorry." We closed all of the doors to the inside offices, put some paper towels over our noses and hurried out.
We took staircase B. It was slow moving but orderly. Clearly, my survival instinct kicked in. I was as cool as a cucumber. I also had a bit of mother hen in me. I was very protective of Karin. We are about the same age, early thirties, and about the same height, but I am heavier and stronger. She wears a size 2, I wear a 14. And I tend to take charge in situations like this. At one point, when the flow of injured people in the staircase started to get to Karin, I shielded her. "It's okay, Karin," I said. "Just turn your head." We saw the lady from the bathroom upstairs. She was having a bad panic attack. She was crying hysterically. One of the emergency workers was escorting her down the left side of the stairs, which was reserved as a passing lane for the injured. We also stepped to the right when a blind man and his dog wanted to get by.
As I looked up behind me and down ahead of me, I heard people getting upset about the slow pace. "Why are we stopping?" they were saying. I said to myself, It's okay. Let them speak. So long as no one reacts and pushes their way down. At some of the slowest moments, I got impatient too, even looking enviously at the injured people who had priority to go ahead of us. Sometimes it would be like an ambulance racing down a busy street, when some cars pull behind it and take advantage of the open road. Only this time the cars were anxious people in the line. I told Karin not to worry, that I would get her out one way or the other. I would fight for us if I had to. I began devising a plan in my head. Karin would have a heart condition. She would pass out. I would tell everyone that we had to get by. But by the 18th floor, a fireman announced that it was clear sailing the rest of the way. No more stopping. And he was right. The pace picked up considerably and I never had to resort to the theatrics. I said thank-you to that fireman. I don't know if he heard me, but I was glad I said it.
At one point, we had to move to the right to let one of the many burn victims pass. She didn't know it, but this woman was an incredible source of strength for me. Her back was badly burnt, and so were her face, neck and ears. But she wasn't crying or screaming in pain. She might have been in shock, but even so, she walked with an amazing sense of dignity. Her chin was up, her shoulders back and eyes straight ahead. Don't lose it, T. Don't lose it, T, I said in a pep talk to myself after she went by. Later, I worried that I had let down a fireman, but it seems he gave me an impossible assignment. He had opened the door, I think it was at the 33rd floor, and looked right at me. "You," he said. "Tell No. 5 that the doorman is here." Smoke was coming off the floor into the stairwell and someone yelled, "Close the door!" The fireman was gone. Everyone around me started to repeat the instructions, like schoolchildren trying to memorize the words to a song. "Tell No. 5 that the doorman is here. Tell No. 5 that the doorman is here. Tell No. 5 that the doorman is here." But there was no No. 5. I carefully noted the numbers on the helmets of the guys coming up. Some had no numbers, at least not ones that I could see. The firemen with numbers were 23, 39 and 6. So the message never got relayed. I hope it wasn't important.
We finally reached the bottom, dumping out on to the concourse level. The sprinklers were on, so it had gotten pretty wet. We went through the turnstile and were directed toward the shopping mall. The place was empty except for security officers and police positioned every so often to give us directions. Turn left. Go straight. Turn. Straight. When we got the escalator near the Warner Bros. Store, the gentleman posted there shouted, "Pick up the pace!" That made me nervous. We started to move faster, though we didn't run. We got on the escalator, and as I looked to the top, I could see sunlight through the glass doors. I am free! I am free! That was all that came to mind. I am free! I am free!
We were halfway up when the escalator stopped abruptly and the lights went out. I waited and listened for some sort of instructions. BOOM! The glass doors at the top of the escalator shattered. I thought it was a bomb. But then a huge wind, with the force of a hurricane, swept across us. I don't know what happened to the people standing in front of us, but I think they were blown away. Something hit me in the head and I felt my body being pushed backward so hard that I was about to break in half. It took all of my strength to fight the wind. I started yelling, "Get down! Get down!" I grabbed Karin and crouched over her, pinning her to the stairs with my leg. I had her head in my stomach. I was so afraid that she was going to blow away. "I got you! I got you! You're okay," I shouted at her. It felt like people were stoning me. Hit. Hit. Hit. Hit. Hit. I was getting pounded all over with metal and glass and other flying objects. Then the whole building started to tremble. I feared the ceiling was going to come down on us or that the escalators would be ripped apart and we would fall into some hole and be swallowed up deep inside the Earth.
I accepted death. My luck had run out. I was meant to die earlier on that elevator. "God, I can't run any more," I said. "I guess this is it." I was at peace with it but I made one last request. "I just ask one thing," I prayed. "Please do it quick. This stuff is really hurting now." I was afraid how I was going to go. The thought of being flattened like a pancake was very scary. I closed my eyes really tight and waited. But by some miracle, the wind stopped. There was no more shaking. The air felt heavy but I was not being pelted anymore. Everything was completely silent.
I opened my eyes, and there was nothing but darkness. "Dear God," I said. "I am blind." I felt around. Karin was there. She was fine except for some bleeding on her arm. My face was stinging and my neck and back ached, but I could move. "Hello! Hello!" I started to shout. "Somebody help us. Please tell us what to do." I wasn't blind. I could see a little light. It was someone with a flashlight. "Follow the flashlight," an instruction from nowhere came. "Follow the flashlight." I grabbed Karin's hand, when a lady on the stairs behind me said, "Please help me." I turned and grabbed her with my other hand and yelled, "No matter what happens, don't let go of my hand! Do you understand?" She said yes and so we started up the escalator stairs. As we felt our away along, there were shoes and sandals everywhere. I can only guess that the people in them had run away or had been blown away.