I Was In The North Tower When The First Plane Hit On 9/11 — Here's How I Survived

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ground zero 9/11

One fine Tuesday morning, I woke up really tired from my facilities manager job and was tempted to play hookey from work.

I went anyway.

I followed my morning routine to the letter: rode a Jersey City bus to the PATH train station and headed for Manhattan. I got myself some breakfast before going upstairs, the usual ham and cheese croissant and French Vanilla cappuccino, light and sweet.

I got in an empty elevator at 1 World Trade Center and pushed the button for the 15th floor. Just before the door closed an attractive woman got on and pressed 14.

We smiled at each other and then immediately avoided eye contact, honoring the Elevator Etiquette Act of 1937 — no speaking to strangers on elevators allowed.

She got off on 14. The doors closed and the elevator began ascending toward 15. And that's when it happened. 

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How I survived 9/11

An explosive wind hit the elevator shaft. The elevator was swinging from side to side. I remember thinking, "That's weird — the elevator’s not bumping up against anything. The walls must be moving too - THAT'S NOT GOOD!"

Everything inside me screamed, "GET ME OFF THIS ELEVATOR!"

The elevator doors eventually opened on 15. When I stepped out, I saw that all 6 elevator doors were moving from the wind blowing through their shafts.

At that point, I had some serious concerns. Concerns like, "What the heck was going on?" and "How the $#@% am I supposed to clean up the dust from the sheetrock in the middle of the office?"

It seemed like I was the first one in the office, so I went to look around for anyone else who was already there. I couldn't find anyone, anywhere. I was wondering what to do when I heard footsteps in a nearby staircase. 

I went into a staircase on the 15th floor of the North Tower on September 11th, 2001 at about 8:50 am. And that's where I found everyone

The descent: escaping One World Trade Center

The staircase was jam-packed and no one was moving; there were just 3 staircases servicing the entire 110 story building.

Of course, the builders couldn't have imagined what happened that day was even possible.

I still hadn't eaten my croissant and cappuccino, so when I was instructed to go into the nearest re-entry floor, I sat on someone's desk and had my breakfast.

As I was finishing, someone shouted, "Everything is OK - a plane hit the building."

We thought Cessna, not 747.

A few minutes later, another crash occurred and we knew it was time to get out.

It took everyone in that office another 30 minutes before we actually got to the street.

On our way down, we moved out of the way of the firemen passing us on the way up. The staircases were only wide enough for 2 side-by-side lanes. 

I remember wondering how they were supposed to get down later. They were already exhausted from hauling their equipment and they were only on the 8th or 9th floor at that point. I was definitely worried about them but totally inspired at the same time.

When I got to the lobby, the place was a twisted wreck. Glass revolving doors were wrenched away from the lobby in such a way that they couldn’t be moved. But since the glass was removed by the crash, you could walk right through the panels where the doors used to be.

All the marble on the walls had been shaken off upon impact; all you could see was cinder blocks where the marble was once attached. Fire sprinklers gave the crowd an unwelcome shower.

I remember thinking that the lobby was going to take at least six weeks to clean up. 

After finally getting outside, I began approaching Broadway and John Street. That’s when I saw...

The fires.

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While the Twin Towers burned

Until then, I didn't know the true impact of what had just happened. But then suddenly I did. 

Fires blanketed 10 flights or more and emitted a tremendous amount of thick black smoke. I knew the firemen couldn't get to them because they were too high up. And there's no "Cherry Picker" or hydrants with enough water pressure to put out fires 80 stories high. 

I walked away trying to hide my tears. I knew that people were dead. In a fire of that magnitude that early in the morning, whoever was up there wouldn't have had a chance.

As I walked uptown on Broadway past City Hall, I marveled at the clarity of the sky. It was a picture-perfect day — not a cloud to be seen.

Other than the obvious, it was a beautiful day. What came to mind at that point was this: What did the United States do to piss off someone so badly that whoever did this felt like they had to do it to even the score?

I also wondered if the people and leaders of this nation could ever be self-aware enough to examine the day's events without immediate and blind retaliation, never knowing the dynamic of action and reaction. Force and Counterforce.

OF course, no one knew who was behind it at this point, but I sure was wondering as I stood in the shadow of the smoking buildings.

The aftermath of 9/11

I needed a place to go because all mass transit had screeched to a halt and I lived in New Jersey. So, I went to 75 Varick Street near Canal Street to visit friends who worked there. 

As we were talking someone mentioned that it looked like one of the Towers wasn't there anymore.

That was not possible! They must be mistaken.

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I walked along Canal Street 5 blocks to the Westside Highway. I looked south and sure enough, there was only one building left. I was completely devastated.

I walked back to Varick Street and noticed a hollow look on people's faces that wasn't there just a moment before. Something told me to turn and look back.

The second tower was gone. 

How could that be? I'd only walked for maybe 3 minutes!

Around noon, the police evacuated the entire area below 14th Street. I walked up Broadway toward a supervisor's home in Midtown. It was at least an hour's walk but since no mass transit was running and no taxis were available, I had no choice but to go on foot.

As I approached Astor Place near 8th Street, another question ran across my mind. Napoleon Hill (The author of 'Think and Grow Rich') said that "Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit." But what was the benefit of this disaster?

I got my answer in about 15 minutes.

I walked past Beth Israel Hospital on 16th Street and 1st Avenue and saw a line circling the entire block to 17th Street and 2nd Avenue.

This whole mass of people who'd spontaneously formed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks was lined up to donate blood.

Despite the ugliness that just happened moments ago, people are fundamentally loving. Our first instinct is to help, to save, to make a difference and to care.

It was an amazing sight to see. No one had asked for it. If they did ask people to give blood, it certainly wasn’t within the first two hours of the collapse. People were just doing it because they wanted to help.

9/11 heroes are everywhere

I believe the benefit of the Twin Towers disaster is that it brought humanity closer together. We can't deny our interconnectedness. We're all in this boat together.

Our economies, our environments, our health and well-being, our communication, our technology, our lifestyles all combine in such a way that the differences between us are shrinking even as our diversity becomes richer and more beautiful.

As our diversity flourishes and our similarities become more and more evident, people will begin to see themselves in others. It's already happening. 

Yes, I survived 9/11, but it's not just for that reason that I firmly believe that in one hundred years, people will be walking around experiencing love at first sight. They'll understand they're seeing another person as beautiful as themselves.

That's because love was there the whole time. You don't have to survive a major tragedy to see it. 

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Tony Vear is a relationship coach, specializing in personal development and business coaching. He strives to leave people better than he finds them by making relationships as simple as driving. Contact Tony for a free 15-minute consultation if you’re feeling bitter.