Anything but laughter on the 31st floor

Anything but laughter on the 31st floor

On Sept. 11, 2001, I did the same thing I had done many mornings before: I reported for work on the 31st floor in the north tower of the World Trade Center, arriving there at 7:30 am, my customary early-bird time.

My company, Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield relocated its corporate headquarters to the World Trade Center about two and a half years earlier, occupying several floors, mine being the highest.

I was standing near the north end of the floor, talking with several co-workers, when I heard this tremendous boom. The building quaked and my body was jerked forward. I don’t remember hearing any alarms, but I didn’t need one to know that I needed to leave. Initially, I and the several co-workers made for the nearest stairway but halfway there, I ran back to get my briefcase and pulled out my wallet, thinking that once I got out I might need some money.

I could go back for my briefcase later, I thought. Little did I know that I would never see my briefcase again, although, by some miracle, some of its contents would later turn up.

I headed for the closest emergency stairway and encountered scores of people descending from the upper floors on a rather narrow staircase.

The descent seemed to take forever. After a floor or two, I decided to exit the stairwell and look for another.

I found one and joined the long queue of people trying to get out, realizing, of course, that I was no better off here than I was at the other staircase.

So down I went, floor after floor. It seemed like a lifetime. At one point near the end of the decent, word spread that everyone coming down must move to the right of the staircase so that firefighters coming up could pass by as they made their way up. We all complied, but this lengthened and slowed down our decent somewhat. Days later, I wondered about the fate of those men who labored to carry up gear that would have proven useless in such a disaster.

When I finally arrived on the ground floor, there was about half a foot of water to wade through. We still did not know what had happened.

By the time we arrived at the ground floor, the second plane had flown into the south tower and we were herded out of the water-soaked exit across the mezzanine. The scene was surreal as we ran across giant shards of glass that were all over the floor.

My group was ushered across a walkway heading towards West Street. It was only then that I looked to my left and gazed at the building I had just escaped from. To my horror, a person jumped from one of the higher floors facing West Street — a sight that will never leave my memory.

I then headed across the West Side Highway toward the World Financial Center, where triage units were already set up to tend to the injured.

In those days, I didn’t own a cellphone so I desperately needed to locate a pay phone and let my wife know I was OK. Once I found a phone and made my call, I proceeded to an area along the water where, to my horror, I saw both towers in flames. Paper and debris were blowing out with the gray smoke.

Something told me that I had better try to get out of Manhattan. The streets were a collection of human beings in disbelief and shock. I managed to make my way to Bowling Green and was able to get the 4 train — but only as far as Atlantic Avenue. All subway service had been shut down.

I had no choice but to walk, so I proceeded along Fourth Avenue towards Maimonides Medical Center, where my wife works. On the way, I met a young girl who was desperately trying to reach her mother who worked on one of the higher floors of the North Tower. I did not have the heart to tell her what I had witnessed and to this day wonder if her mother survived.

We walked together down Fourth Avenue, stopping to purchase face masks to protect ourselves from the dense smoke that was blowing across the river into Brooklyn. After a while, we parted ways and she boarded a bus. I finally reached the hospital and was reunited with my wife only to learn that the building I worked in had crumbled to the ground. How lucky I was to be alive, I thought.

In January, 2003, I received a letter from the Police Department, Property Clerk’s Office. Certain property identified with my name had been recovered from Ground Zero.

Was it possible that my briefcase survived the inferno? I went down to the Property Clerk’s Office with a mixture of anticipation and dread. I was directed to the claim area where I was left to sit and wait for nearly 30 minutes — increasing my anticipation even more.

Finally I was called to a window where I identified myself and was handed a sealed plastic bag containing photos of my children, health insurance identification cards, a Sears credit card, and some business cards. All of the items were originally housed in a separate wallet I had left behind in that briefcase.

The wallet itself was in pieces, its plastic left rippled and wavy from the intense heat. That’s when I realized that I was still intact. Now, 10 years later, I am grateful to have been one of the lucky survivors.