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Published September 10, 2021

From the moment that the first plane struck, at 8:46 on the morning of September the 11th, 2001, New York changed.

The busy streets of Manhattan came to a halt as everyone stopped to stare in shock. Even those who hadn’t seen the plane, or the fireball it caused, could immediately see that this was something terrible. There was a huge gash in the face of the North Tower, and thick black smoke spreading up into the pristine blue skies. 

Most were merely bystanders at that point, while firefighters, paramedics and police officers raced to the scene to help, but many would find themselves more deeply involved as the disaster evolved.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center offered hundreds of acres of office space in the heart of Manhattan; an estimated 50,000 people worked there on an average weekday, with thousands more passing through as visitors. 

They were over 400m (or 1,300 feet) tall, and easily seen throughout the city – a major landmark, and tourist destination.

William Jimeno was an officer for the Port Authority Police Department, or PAPD. He had considered taking the day off, since the weather was so nice, but had decided to save it, and was instead on duty at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. 

“A shadow came over 42nd and Eighth Avenue. It completely covered the street for a split second.”

It was the shadow of a Boeing 767; American Airlines Flight 11, controlled by hijackers. Moments later, it ploughed into the North Tower. A fireball blew out, and debris, including papers from the offices inside, flew out.

Brian Conley, a resident of Lower Manhattan, recalled, “It looked like a ticker-tape parade.”

As smoke billowed from the tower, almost everyone in the streets stopped to stare. Those who had seen the plane explained, in shocked tones, to those who hadn’t. And, even in those days before video smartphones were a thing, a lot of people recorded events on camcorders, or took still photographs. It was clearly an astonishing event which would be talked about for some time; human nature often drives us to record such things, however we can. Those recordings frequently carry a soundtrack of screams, sirens, vehicle horns, crying, and disbelieving chatter. Videographers frequently zoomed in and out, torn between the detail and the bigger picture, each as overwhelming as the other.

Amongst those filming that day were Michael Barbagallo and Anthony Mazza who worked at WPIX-TV. Like many other news professionals, they were tempted to go towards the disaster while others fled; as they approached the World Trade Center, their footage shows workers fleeing, many holding briefcases or other items over the heads to try to protect themselves. As they get closer, you hear Mazza warning his colleague that there’s stuff still falling.

“Let’s get out of here. Mike, we’re gonna get killed! Mike we’re gonna get killed! Mike! Mike!!”

Although the impact was high up in the tower, between floors 93 and 99, there were immediate casualties at ground level. Anthony Whitaker, the PAPD’s WTC commander, was in the ground level lobby of the North Tower at the time.

“I saw two people out of the corner of my left eye. They were on fire. They ran toward me, and then they ran right past me. They issued no sound. All their clothes were burnt off, and they were smoldering.”

Burning jet fuel had gone down the elevator shafts, and exploded in a fireball through the elevator doors, catching anyone who happened to be waiting to ascend.

Jennieann Maffeo and her colleague Wai Chung had been waiting for a bus outside the World Trade Center when the plane hit. Debris falling from far above them – it’s unclear whether it was from the building or from the plane – killed Chung. Maffeo was doused in burning jet fuel.

Ron Clifford was at the Marriott World Trade Center for a business meeting when he heard the explosion, and people started screaming and running. He saw Maffeo walking towards him; her arms so swollen she walked like the stereotypical Frankenstein’s Monster, her face unrecognisable, her hair gone and a hair barrette burned into her skin.

“I told her to sit down and I ran into the bathroom and looked around and found a plastic bag that I filled with water… “I doused her with the bag of water, then I screamed repeatedly for help. I stood up, kept my eyes on her and shouted for EMS support.”

When Jennieann spoke, calling on Jesus and the Sacred Heart of Mary, Clifford knew that she was a Catholic like him; he stayed with her, saying a Hail Mary and the Lord’s Prayer to comfort her, and noting down whatever details she could give him; her name, her latex allergy, instructions not to call her mother, who was too frail for such news.

While he was tending to her, there was another explosion. It was 9:03, and United Airlines Flight 175 had hit the South Tower. Unbeknownst to Clifford, he knew people on both flights; his sister and four year old niece on United 175, and a friend of theirs on American 11.

A waiter gave Clifford a tablecloth to cover Jennieann, and he helped her to her feet to get her out of the building. 

“I was screaming at the top of my lungs for people to get out of the way. They were so horrified when they saw her that they parted like the Red Sea.”

The scene outside the hotel horrified Clifford in turn.

“It was pure carnage… The noise, that’s what I remember most, the awful noise and panic… There is stuff I saw that I will have to deal with for the rest of my life.”

Clifford found a line of waiting ambulances, and gently helped Maffeo into one of them. She would undergo fourteen surgeries, and hang on for 41 days, before succumbing to her burns.

The deepest horror lay in the fact that it was not only debris that fell from the towers, but also people. Many of the onlookers, both near and far, saw them, and were horrified.

Barbagallo and Mazza reacted viscerally to the sight. Barbagallo, filming, cried out “Oh shit! That’s somebody falling! Oh my God, somebody just fell.”

Mazzo’s instant reaction is of disbelief: “You’re lying. You’re fucking lying.”

Obviously, it is hard to believe that somebody would jump from more than 90 floors up; however, many had little choice. With fires burning right behind them, and thick smoke choking away their air, it may have been a preferable ending for some. Some may have climbed out of the windows trying to find air to breathe, expecting rescue once the fire was out, only to slip. For others, it may have been a last desperate attempt to reach safety.

Cameraman Jack Talierci made his way to the plaza of the World Trade Center, where Muzak was still playing over an eerily desolate scene. An instrumental version of the BeeGees hit, “How Deep Is Your Love” played as he filmed a man apparently attempting to lower himself out of a window to the floor below – but slipping to his inevitable death. 

Tami Michaels, a reporter for KOMO radio in Seattle, and her husband Guy Rosbrook were staying in a hotel which overlooked the World Trade Center plaza. She called to report live while Rosbrook filmed. 

“…the World Trade Center was just hit by a plane, the debris was hitting our window, we are completely, we are exactly across the street from the WTC, I’m on the 35th floor and I can see the entire building, and, and I saw the debris, I saw the explosion, the debris, fiery debris was coming right down in front of our window I was afraid part of it was going to come into our actual hotel room. There are people trapped up there, this is just the most incredible thing in the world and it’s right in front of me at this moment…”

Although the camera caught several people clearly falling early in their footage (as released later by the NIST), it seems that neither of them were looking at the time. It’s only later that they realise. 

“That’s a person, Guy, there’s people falling out! That was a person!”

“Oh no there’s a person, Tami, oh my god!!”

They were able to film people falling all the way to the ground, landing in the plaza in front of – or sometimes, falling through – a stage that had been set up for a concert. At one point, Michaels comments, “When they hit the ground they’re not even describable any more as people.”
“No, they just, almost disintegrate,” replied Rosbrook.

Although witnessing the collapse of the towers would mean, essentially, seeing more people die, the sight of the jumpers was a much more immediate trauma, even for those who couldn’t see their final impact. Everyone watching could see the shape of a person meeting their end.

In one video taken that day, someone can be heard in the background saying, “Please, take your children home, don’t let them [watch this].” Parents throughout New York had this dilemma. At least, if you were elsewhere seeing the news on television, you could turn the screen off to protect them; if you lived in an apartment with a view of the World Trade Center, what could you do? Jim Huibregtse was a photographer who had a camcorder on hand because it was his son’s first day at school. While he filmed, CNN producer Rose Arce used his phone to call in live updates. 

“Terrified people trapped in the floors above, waved desperately toward us. Then they began to smash the windows and leap.

At first they fell like swans with purpose and grace, but then there were more frantic jumpers, flailing against the wind, clutching each other’s hands, their shoes tumbling into the crowds far below.

I think I remember Emma screaming something, and then some inner parent took hold of Jim, and he spoke. “Maybe they’re birds, honey,” he said calmly, and he ushered his children into the back of the apartment. And then we all shut up for the children.”

Just three blocks from the World Trade Center lay one of the city’s specialist schools – the High School for Leadership and Public Service (HSLPS). It was impossible to hide the events from the students there. 

English teacher Heather Ordover later recalled;

“We all heard the scream of the engines, like a bomb in a war movie – then the flash. The kids ran to my back window. I ran to my back window. We saw burning paper, smoke, falling debris. I ran back to the front of the room, yelling for the kids to sit down and write about what they’d just seen – anything to get them away from the windows.”

Student Keturah Bostick described how scared she was at that time.

“I knew I was going to die. It seemed like there was no hope in the world. I found some friends, we all prayed and told each other that we loved each other. Next I pulled out a paper and started to write a letter to my family members telling them how much I loved them.”

Principal Ada Dolch – while also worried about her sister, Wendy, who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald in the WTC – organised the evacuation of the school to Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan. The neighbouring High School of Economics and Finance did the same.

Student Tim Seto recalled, “There was all this debris on the ground – newspapers, ashes and burned stuff. The Towers looked like two smoldering cigarettes, pointed upward.” 

Meanwhile, emergency services were being called in from throughout the city, with NYPD Chief Esposito issuing an order for a Level 4 mobilization – the highest level of alert – even before the second impact. Hospitals throughout the area prepared for a deluge of casualties. The response would not only encompass the two towers, but also other buildings in the complex, such as the Marriott Hotel at number 3, which spanned the space between the towers, and WTC 7, a 48 storey building which stood to the north of the complex. All these buildings had to be evacuated. 

At 9:29, a full recall was issued by the Fire Department, calling all off-duty employees to work. Dan Potter, who worked with Ladder 10 close to the WTC, had been on Staten Island preparing for his lieutenant’s exam. His wife, Jean, worked on the 81st floor of the North Tower. He drove to Manhattan as fast as possible, using his FDNY badge to get in. He was convinced that his wife would be on the roof, awaiting a helicopter evacuation. 

He didn’t know that it had been established early on that helicopter evacuations would not be possible; the heat and smoke made it too dangerous.

Firefighter Jeff Johnson was sent into the Marriott Hotel.

“It is considered a 22-storey building. The gym was on 22. As we were searching the area, I happened to look into one particular area, and it was a spa. A Jacuzzi – a big one. In the Jacuzzi was part of the landing gear from the plane.”

Frank Razzano was one of the guests there. He recalled hearing the explosions as the planes hit, but was not at that point particularly concerned with his own safety.

“I opened the drapes, I looked out the window, and I saw fireballs falling into the street. Cars were on fire. I turned on the television. I saw on TV that they were reporting that two planes had hit the World Trade Center… My thought at that moment was, “The fire department would come down, they’d put out the fire and, while this is a tragic accident, that’d be that.” I turned on my heels, and I went into the bathroom. I took a shower, I shaved, and I got dressed.”

Getting to the scene held its own trauma for the responders. Bill Spade, a firefighter with Rescue 5, remembered,

“As I made my way up West Street – it’s only a short distance between there and the Trade Center – body parts were everywhere. I remember trying to go around them and I couldn’t. I said a little prayer. I said, “I’m going to run over them,” and I did.”

There were other, odder sights in the streets. NYPD inspector James Luongo recalled, “As I hit Vesey between Church and Broadway, the first thing that struck me was the amount of women’s shoes. I couldn’t understand it. Then I realised women had run out of their shoes – the high heels and what have you. There were women’s shoes all over.”

A worse sight was to follow.

“There were a bunch of people who came out of the building on Vesey Street. They were a little disoriented about which way to go. I started yelling to them to come to me. They were looking around. Finally, a woman heard my voice. She touched the people next to her, she pointed to… me… – and with that, debris came down and killed all of them. With all the things I saw that day, that, to me, was the worst because those people were so close, but yet they didn’t make it.”

Jimeno was amongst those called up by the PAPD to attend. A bus was commandeered to take them to the scene, and once there, they found Sergeant John McLoughlin looking for volunteers who knew how to use Scott Air-Packs, the breathing apparatus used by firefighters. As a recent graduate, Jimeno did, as did Dominick Pezzulo and Antonio Rodrigues. The four of them ran into the World Trade Center.

Jimeno would later recall,

“In the midst of all this chaos, all this disaster, inside that World Trade Center, there were people helping each other. I remember seeing a black gentleman with a white gentleman, carrying this blonde woman who had a severe cut on her leg. I remember thinking to myself, Will, if these normal civilians can be this brave, we as rescue workers, we need to be three steps above them, because they’re counting on us.”

The four PAPD officers were joined by another, Christopher Amoroso, even though he had already been injured above the eye by a piece of falling concrete

Although most thought that the fires would eventually be safely extinguished, some foresaw the coming tragedy. Melinda Murphy, a traffic reporter, was in a helicopter above the city.

“My photographer Chet had been a firefighter. He said, “The buildings are going to fall.” I remember being really mad, vehemently saying, “They are not, they are not going to fall down!” He said, “They are going to fall. They’re going to pancake down.””

Few, however, would have realised how soon that would happen. At 9:59, less than an hour after it had been hit, the South Tower collapsed.

Firefighter Dan Potter, having reached his firehouse and geared up, was just about to leave for the scene.

“As I was going out the front, there was a firefighter standing in the door. I don’t know who he was. I remember him standing there, looking up, and he saw the top of the tower twist. As I was going by, he clotheslined me – he sticks his arm out and it catches me. He goes, “Holy shit, here it comes!”

Jimeno, McLoughlin and the other PAPD officers were inside the World Trade Center, on the concourse between the two towers.

“Everything started shaking. I looked back toward the lobby, and I saw a fireball the size of my house coming. Sergeant McLoughlin yelled, “Run!” I said to myself, What did I get myself into?… I remembered we promised we would not leave each other. I saw Dominick run, he turned to the left, so I started to follow him. At that point, all I felt was my body go up in the air and get slammed.”

Razzano, in the Marriott hotel, had been packing to leave, thinking that he would not be allowed back in to get his important documents if he left without them.

“At that point the building shook, as if you were in an earthquake. I looked out the window, and what had been a bright sunny day suddenly turned pitch black. It was as if a curtain of concrete and steel had come falling down, like the curtain at a play. I could literally see it coming down, past the window – almost in slow motion – turning everything pitch black… It was as if the building was being hit by artillery fire. You could feel the building breaking up around you.”

Fortunately, Razzano’s room was close to the fire stairs, where he met firefighter Jeff Johnson, who sent him on downwards.

“When I got to the fourth-floor landing and began to walk down the stairs to where the third floor landing would be, it was blocked with rubble. I began trying to move rubble away and create an opening. I got enough rubble out of the way that I could squeeze through. On the third-floor landing were three men and the banquet manager of the hotel.”

Johnson, meanwhile, had found another firefighter, but knew more were missing in the hotel, including one of his crew. “We gave immediate Maydays on the radio that as a unit we were missing a member. Nobody was answering us. We did hear somebody calling out on the radio a Mayday. He was a fireman, and he didn’t know where he was. “I’m trapped, but I don’t know where I am.” That’s the most heart-wrenching scenario.”

Johnson was honest with Razzano about their situation.

“I.. recall him saying, “Look, nobody’s coming. Nobody is coming for us. Any of the firemen or rescue people who are tasked at getting people out of the building – they are dead. If they were in the street, they are dead. If they were in the buildings, they are dead. Nobody is coming to get us. We have to get out on our own.”

In the rubble beneath what had been the South Tower, Sergeant McLoughlin thought he had died.

“I lost all sense. I had no sight. I had no smell. I had no hearing. Everything was just silent.”

Jimeno lay nearby.

“There was a lot of dust. I looked up, and about 30 feet above me I could see light coming in – apparently there was a hole there. I started feeling a lot of pain on my left side. I could see a big thick wall of concrete on me… That’s when I heard Sergeant McLoughlin say, “Sound off! Where is everybody? Sound off!” Dominick Pezzulo was buried to my left in a push-up position. Dominick said, “Pezzulo!” I said, “Jimeno!” That’s all we heard. For the next two minutes, I would yell, “Chris!” for Christopher Amoroso. And “A-Rod!” which was Antonio Rodrigues’ nickname. “A-Rod! Chris! A-Rod! Chris!” That’s when Dominick said, “Willy, they’re in a better place.”

Although Jimeno was trapped beneath the concrete, and McLoughlin was stuck in a fetal position about fifteen feet away, Pezzulo was able to extricate himself. He suggested going out through the hole above them for help.

“Sergeant McLoughlin said, “No, if you leave, you’ll never find us. You need to get Jimeno out, and you and Jimeno get me out.” It went on for a couple minutes. We’re human beings – and here you’re presented with a situation where you can go out for help, go for freedom and come back, or you stay in, literally, a hellhole, with your team… Dominick had a real tough decision.”

Pezzulo decided to stay, and tried to free Jimeno.

Above, many of the survivors from the World Trade Center were disoriented, as described by Lila Speciner, a paralegal for the Port Authority who had escaped from the 88th floor of the North Tower.

“It looked almost like a snow globe, only it was flying papers and dust from the falling building. We still didn’t realise what had happened. We are soaking wet and I had debris in my hair, my ripped stockings, whatever. There were emergency people wandering around. “Are you hurt? Go here. If you’re not hurt, walk north. Go away from this building. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. Walk away.”

While the emergency services were obviously overwhelmed, ordinary New Yorkers stepped up to do what they could.

“As we got further and further away, there were some office buildings. People called us in and said, “Do you want to wash up? Our phones are working. Do you need to call family?” We got t-shirts from some company that had a picnic and had extra t-shirts. Everything we were wearing was soaking wet and dirty.”

Meanwhile, Potter had endured the pummeling of the dust cloud, which buckled the metal doors of the firehouse and blew out every window. Having regathered his senses, he realised that it was the South Tower which had fallen, meaning his wife – whose office was in the North Tower – might still be alive. However, he was aware that he still had to be a firefighter. He helped victims in the Deutsche Bank building, checked that the nursery there was empty, and was trying to work his way around to the command post and the North Tower when the next blow struck. It was 10:29.

“It sounded like a freight train, like rumbling thunder. We laid in front of Deutsche Bank because we figured you couldn’t outrun this field of stuff coming down. If it clocks you, you’re out – you’re done.”

Johnson, Razzano and the others were still inside the Marriott hotel when the second tower fell. Razzano recalled saying to himself, “This can’t be happening to me twice in one day. This is impossible.”

Once the air cleared, and they could breathe once more, Johnson found a way out; a small hole in the wall on the West Street side of the building.

“We took the drapes, and we put it out of the hole so that we could back out. I went last, the civilians went first. They put their butts and their legs out first and crawled out. The first guy went out, then the next guy went, and then Frank went, and then I backed out… They just left. I didn’t know who Frank was until a year later. I still don’t know the names of the other two. Those three guys disappeared, basically walked into the rubble.”

Miraculously, beneath the rubble, Jimeno and McLoughlin were still alive. 

“We heard another explosion, Boom! Same as the first one… It sounded like a humongous locomotive coming at us…I could hear Sergeant McLoughlin yelling. Dominick gets sat down like a rag doll with a piece of concrete that came through this little void. I was getting hit more. I was yelling. Just like the first collapse, it seemed to take forever, but it happened quick.”

Pezzulo was badly injured, but before he died he tried to raise his colleagues’ spirits with a little humour, asking McLoughlin if he could take a 3-8 – PAPD code for a break. 

“Sergeant McLoughlin, even though he was yelling, said, “Yeah, you can take 3-8.” Dominick said, “Willy, don’t forget I died trying to save you guys.” His last minutes, he struggled to take his firearm out of his holster. He pointed it up toward that hole in the rubble far over our heads… and fired his gun as a last-ditch effort for someone to hear us. Then, he slumped over and died.”

As people had begun to congregate on the lower tip of Manhattan before the first collapse, the Coast Guard had put a call out for all boats to render assistance. More than 130 Coast Guard and police vessels, fireboats, tugboats, ferries, yachts and sightseeing vessels responded, gathering at Battery Park and nearby piers to ferry survivors across the Hudson and East Rivers. That day, they achieved a maritime evacuation larger than that at Dunkirk, taking between 300 and 500 thousand people to safety. Rick Thornton, a ferry captain, described it as “like being the last lifeboat on the Titanic.”

Tom Sullivan, a firefighter on Marine 1, said:

“Mothers and nannies with infants in their arms were dropping their children down to us. At one point we had four or five of them wrapped in little blankets, and we put them in bunks down in the crew quarters. I put four babies in one bunk, like little peanuts lined up in a row.”

HSLPS teacher Heather Ordover recalled:

“In my book Jersey was currently a helluva lot safer than crossing any bridge to Brooklyn. We rounded up whoever wanted to go with us and muscled over to the boat. All we had to do was yell, “We’ve got students,” and the adults parted like the Red Sea.”

She also recalled that they all put on life vests which the ferrymen said they didn’t need.

“That may have been the funniest thing I heard all day. Try telling someone who is fleeing a crumbling building that they don’t need a life vest – what, like we’re having a good-luck day?”

Even at this early stage, there were already suspicions about who may have been responsible – and mistrust was rising. Bert Szostak, an equity broker, got on one of the many ferryboats.

“There were three passengers aboard of Arab descent who had backpacks, and people – average people, not police officers – demanded to know what was in them. The guys looked scared and opened their backpacks. Inside were just books.”

Frank Razzano had also made his way to Battery Park, and one of the boats out of Manhattan.

“As we were going across the river, I was looking back at the city, expecting to see the World Trade Center – expecting to see a tower with the top off. They weren’t there. I said to the guy driving the boat, “Where is the World Trade Center?” He said, “Buddy, they’re gone.” I said, “Look, I was there when the tops of the buildings came down, but where’s the rest of the building?” He said, “Buddy, it wasn’t the tops of the buildings. They collapsed down to the foundations.””

Meanwhile, the other route out of Manhattan was the Brooklyn Bridge, where hundreds crossed on foot, with public transport out of action.

Somi Roy, a resident of Lower Manhattan, compared it to a scene in the Charlton Heston movie, The Ten Commandments, with Heston leading people across the Sinai Desert.

“There was a stream of people walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. Endless. Downstairs was another stream of people, all covered in dust, all with briefcases half open, women with no shoes. They had to shut the FDR Drive, so it was eerily empty. The sound was different. Usually we have this constant roar in the background, of traffic. 

Eventually, the only people who remained in Manhattan were the emergency responders. As firefighters regrouped at their firehouses, Dan Potter was still searching for his wife, all but convinced she was dead. He checked their home, but the doorman hadn’t seen her. He sat on a bench, trying to collect his thoughts, where he was spotted by photographer Matt Moyer.

“It was a quiet scene amid a very chaotic situation. His body language spoke of deep loss. When he finally heard the click of my shutter he lifted his head, looked toward me, raised his hand and slowly shook his head indicating, no more photos.”

Eventually, since his keys were still at the firehouse, he forced the door to the apartment, and found the phone ringing. Soon, he got astonishing news; Jean was alive, and at the Chinatown firehouse.

She had evacuated the tower and wandered towards Chinatown, where a friendly resident had given her water, and use of a phone.

“In an emergency, Dan had always told me, go to a firehouse… The guy helping me took me to the Chinatown firehouse… I felt I had to make myself useful, so I started answering the phone. Can you imagine? This woman covered in dust – I was in a state of shock.”

The dust had barely settled before the search and rescue began; some emergency responders started work as soon as they could see, while others made only quick stops at their home, firehouse or a command post to assure colleagues and family that they were alive before responding to the call. Firefighter Tom Spinard went home the first night, but was more than ready to join the search.

“Came back to the firehouse the next day. I couldn’t wait to get back actually because I wanted to get down there. I figured, well we’re gonna have plenty of people to, that are gonna be trapped, for sure. We’re gonna get them out, we have to, we always do.”

Tony Benetatos was a “probie” – a rookie firefighter- who had initially been left to man the firehouse while the rest of the company responded. However, he had gone to the World Trade Center around the time of the second collapse, alongside a retired fire chief. He recalled the chaos in the immediate aftermath in the film 9/11, made by the Naudet brothers:

“We were going into the various surrounding buildings, trying to calm people down, directing people to go to the Brooklyn Bridge to get off the island. There’s people crying, people injured, the one that sticks out in my mind was a guy, his arm had gotten like severed here, and he was holding his right arm in his left as he was running and he was screaming, I need a medic, I got a bad bleed, and that kinda shocked me. We kept going. I checked all the rigs, there were rigs crushed, paramedic trucks covered with rubble, flipped, fires burning everywhere, huge fires. That whole day I just searched through rubble, lifting things up, checking underneath.”

It was not just New York’s emergency services that responded; many came from all over the country to help. 

One was former marine Dave Karnes, who was working as an accountant in Connecticut when he saw the news of the attack. He immediately left to get a marine haircut, put on his old uniform, and gather equipment. He stopped at a church to pray before driving down in his Porsche, with the top down so that he could be identified as a soldier and pass quickly through roadblocks. He got to the Trade Center site at around 5:30pm. Rescue workers had been ordered off “the pile”, but he and another Marine, identified only as Sgt. Thomas, found a way onto the site. For an hour, they searched, and yelled: “United States Marines. If you can hear us, yell or tap!”

We can only imagine the relief with which Jimeno and McLoughlin heard those words. By the time Karnes and Thomas found them, they had survived both collapses and been buried for nine hours. McLoughlin later recalled some of the tough moments that they had endured in that time.

“I think, what we went through, fire coming through the hole. Will could see it. It was coming in. It was burning his arm. And I think we both thought we’re going to burn to death where we laid.”

McLoughlin tried to use his radio to send out messages, even though communications were down. 

“I think when Will asked me to say he wanted his unborn daughter to named Olivia, I think that was the worst point. Because I think we kind of both accepted our death.”

Other rescuers were quickly brought to the scene, including Scott Strauss, an NYPD officer with the Emergency Service Unit.

“I look, and there’s this hole a little bit bigger than the size of a manhole. I dropped down in it, about six to eight feet. It was like a very, very tiny closet. Paddy McGee, an Emergency Service police officer with me, also jumped in the hole, as did this civilian, Chuck Sereika, a former paramedic.”

Sereika had actually let his paramedic license expire whilst dealing with depression and addiction; he hadn’t initially thought of responding to the World Trade Center attacks, until he heard a voicemail left by his sister.

“Maybe it’s in my character to help people, because I’ve done it for so long. But it wasn’t even a thought. The only reason I ended up there was because I didn’t want to let my sister down. The rest was just God.”

Further down in the hole, Jimeno was buried up to his neck; the body of his friend Dominick Pezzulo lay nearby. In the narrow space, the rescuers had to work without tools for hours.

“I had to reach for every rock I took off Jimeno. The smallest rock, I would hand to Scott Strauss, he would hand it to Paddy McGee. And he threw it in the elevator shaft. That went on for three hours.”

An account by Strauss is similar; presumably the men took turns to be at the front:

“I crawled in, and I had to crawl in on my side, and with my hands above my head. I was… literally using my hands to scratch away at the rubble. As I free up some debris I’m pushing it down along my chest to get it back out to Paddy and Chuck, and they took it and were throwing it down the elevator shaft, digging their way out.”

Jimeno said;

“I remember saying, “I have a partner, he’s here,” and they thought it was Dominick. Sergeant McLoughlin kept quiet back there.”

Strauss also recalled that moment:

“He’s like, “Hurry up! Hurry! You’ve got to get to him. He’s going to die if you don’t get to him.” I said, “Will, we got to do our job. We got to get you out, and then we’ll get him out.” We’re scratching away, scratching away, and then we hear Sergeant McLoughlin’s voice, and he goes, “Hey, how are you guys doing?” I’m like, “Who’s that?” Will’s like, “That’s my partner,” like, you idiots. What do you think I’ve been talking about?” So we’re like, “We thought he was your partner.” He said, “No. That’s Dominick. He’s dead.” I’m like, Oh my God! Now we have another rescue that we have to do.”

Jimeno was finally extracted from the debris, put into a Stokes basket and carried out of the hole.

“As they started pulling me out on the gurney, up this hole, I remember looking around, and I said, “Where is everything?” Because I could see the moon, and I could see smoke, but I couldn’t see the buildings. That’s when a firefighter said, “It’s all gone, kid.” That’s the first time I cried that evening.”

It was around midnight that Jimeno was rescued; the rescuers worked for several more hours before McLoughlin was brought out of the rubble around dawn.

This news brought a lot of hope to the rescue teams scouring the site. They were not finding many survivors. Firefighter Joe Casaliggi said:

“You have two 110-storey office buildings. You don’t find a desk, you don’t find a chair, you don’t find a telephone, a computer. The biggest piece of a telephone I found was half of the keypad… The building collapsed to dust. How are we supposed to find anybody in this, that there’s nothing left of the building?

The rescuers were frequently called off the pile because of fires and collapses. Benetatos recalled:

“We found a body, it was a girl. She was dead, she was definitely dead. All the clothes had been burned off her. She looked to be pregnant, some people thought she was just bloated but I don’t think so. She was encased in rubble. We had her halfway uncovered, getting the body bag ready and they told us to run. And we ran. So I never got to see if they got her out. It would have felt good getting, saying, alright at least I got one person out, one family’ll be able to have a decent funeral.”

However, there was still someone left alive. 

Genelle Guzman-McMillan had been working on the 64th floor of the North Tower when the attack began. She was still in the stairwell, on the 13th floor, when she paused to take off her high heels. That was when the tower collapsed. She lay with her legs beneath a steel beam and her head between concrete pillars for hours before the miracle she prayed for finally came – on four paws. Trakr, a German Shepherd from Canada, was one of the many rescue dogs deployed to the World Trade Center site, and he had finally caught her scent. His handler, James Symington, and a colleague, Joe Hall, had driven down to help after seeing the news. They found Guzman-McMillan early in the morning of the 12th; by the time she was brought out, she had been trapped for 27 hours. She was the last survivor found in the rubble.

However, Symington would later be suspended without pay for his brave acts; he had gone without permission, and while on medical leave. Trakr also suffered for his bravery; he collapsed from chemical and smoke inhalation, burns and exhaustion, and had to be treated with IV fluids. He did, however, recover, and lived to the age of 14. He was even cloned, and the resulting puppies were sent for rescue dog training, although there seems to be no news of them since.

The fear of new collapses was far from unfounded. Not only was the massive pile of debris unstable, but so were several of the surrounding buildings.  The collapse of the Twin Towers had also destroyed the nearby St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, the Marriott Hotel at 3 WTC, and the US Customs building at 6 WTC. Numbers 4 and 5 WTC were extensively damaged, and both later had to be demolished.

World Trade Center 7, which was 47 storeys tall, had been burning for almost seven hours when it collapsed at 5:20pm on the 11th. The fires began with the collapse of Tower 1, 370 feet to the south, igniting on at least ten floors. With no firefighters available to tackle them, and with the sprinkler systems failing on several floors, the fires on those floors were soon out of control.

As with the twin towers, the heat from the fires caused the steel beams to expand, until a critical connection was lost, and Floor 13 collapsed. The other floors soon followed, with the facade falling last. 

The collapse of WTC 7 damaged the neighbouring Fiterman Hall, to the extent that it eventually had to be demolished and rebuilt. The Verizon building, also next to WTC 7, suffered extensive damage to its east facade, but that was successfully restored.

There were fires at 130 Cedar Street, and at 90 West Street, which also suffered impact damage from the collapses. Impact damage also affected the Deutsche Bank Building and Three World Financial Center (also known as 200 Vesey St). Due to that damage, plus water damage and resulting mold, the Deutsche Bank Building also had to be demolished. One Liberty Plaza had suffered damage, with many of its windows shattered.

The following day, away from the ongoing search at the World Trade Center site, the atmosphere in much of New York was quiet, reflective, and patriotic. Local resident Mookie Kayam said:

“On September 12th, the next day, I went to Washington Square Park. I saw people just forming this huge circle around the fountain. Nobody had decided to do that. People were just holding hands, speechless, saying nothing. You knew what happened and you acknowledged it.

Another resident, Harry Lapham, went to the river that day;

“…where the most incredible thing out of this tragedy happened. It was Point Thank You, right on the Hudson River, and it was there that a whole bunch of people assembled to cheer on the rescue workers and the firemen and the cops and everyone else who were traveling back and forth between Ground Zero and Chelsea Piers, which was their base of operations. I’d say the feeling was very patriotic that evening, but more so of New Yorkers coming together.”

The city was wounded; and while, over time, it would heal, there would always be scars.

One of the deepest scars came, of course, from the loss of a huge number of firefighters.

That number is usually given as 343, but in fact there were 344 firefighters killed that day; 343 from the FDNY, and one from the New York Fire Patrol. 

The FPNY operated from 1839 until October 2006; their main purpose was to reduce fire damage, primarily responding to commercial properties to save business stock and reduce insurance claims.

18 firefighters from Fire Patrol #2 responded on September the 11th; one of them was Keith Roma. Roma made at least four trips into Tower 1 to rescue survivors, but didn’t make it out the last time. His body was recovered on Christmas Eve, alongside nine people he was trying to lead to safety.

All of the firehouses of New York felt this great loss, even if all of theirs made it back alive. However, one firehouse in Midtown Manhattan suffered more than the rest.

Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 lost fifteen men – the entire shift. They were amongst the very first responders.

Chief John Joyce said of the loss: “The word closure, I don’t understand that word whatsoever. There is no closure… Some of the firefighters have never been found, which leaves an empty hole for a lot of the guys.”

Two of those firefighters were filling in for others, who survived, but had to carry the weight of survivors’ guilt.

John Fila had swapped shifts with Christopher Santora, the newest firefighter in the house. He said later, “I think about Chris all the time. I think about what his life would have been, what he should have accomplished by now. It’s a huge weight to carry around.”

Many units had responded “heavy” to the Trade Center, carrying more firefighters than usual because of the obvious size of the incident, plus the fact that it happened close to a shift change. This meant that some took especially heavy losses. 

A ladder company would usually respond in a team of five firefighters, plus a lieutenant or captain. Ladder Company 3 lost eleven men. 

91 FDNY vehicles were crushed or burned out in the collapses; but while the vehicles themselves could be replaced with relative ease, the people operating them could not. 

Altogether, the loss of the fire department meant a total of 4,400 combined years of experience suddenly gone. The fire department had lost many experienced and specialised staff, including its chief, first deputy commissioner, a marshal and the chaplain, Father Mychal Judge, who had long been an integral part of many firefighters’ lives. Rebuilding the department without all that experience would be extremely difficult.

Meanwhile, the most obvious physical scar was what soon became to be known as Ground Zero; the former site of the Twin Towers. The end of the recovery period was marked on the 30th May 2002, with the ceremonial removal of the last piece of steel from the site. This was a 36-foot tall steel column, which had been covered with signatures and other inscriptions by the workers on the site, and is known as the Last Column.

The decision to rebuild had been made quickly in the aftermath. Then-mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, said, “We’re going to rebuild, and we’re going to be stronger than we were before. I want the people of New York to be an example to the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, that terrorism can’t stop us.”

Businessman Larry Silverstein had bought a 99-year lease on the World Trade Center just seven weeks prior to the attack; he, too, knew immediately that rebuilding would be necessary. He recalled speaking to then-Governor of New York, George Pataki, just afterwards.

“I remember the governor, Governor Pataki, calling me, I think two days after 9/11, asking me what I think we oughta do, should we rebuild. And I said, Governor, I think we must. I really think it’s absolutely obligatory. We’ve gotta put this back as quickly as we possibly can… It was, I think, two weeks after 9/11 that our first design meeting was.”

Seven design teams competed to design the new World Trade Center; in the end Studio Daniel Libeskind was chosen. This plan featured five new skyscrapers in a semi-circle around a memorial occupying the site of the two towers. The landmark project would be One World Trade Center, sometimes called the Freedom Tower, which stands a symbolic 1,776 feet tall, and which opened in 2014.

Design of the memorial itself was the subject of another design competition; this was open to all adults over the age of 18, and brought in 5,201 submissions from 63 countries. The winning entry was by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, and was called “Reflecting Absence.” 

The footprints of the two towers were replaced by two huge reflecting pools, with waterfalls cascading down their edges. These are the largest manmade waterfalls in North America. It’s impossible to see where the water goes; it disappears into a central void. According to the architect, the pools represent “absence made visible.” 

Around the pools, bronze parapets bear the names of all the victims of the September 11th attacks, as well as those killed in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. As stated on the 9/11 Memorial and Museum website:

“…Names are arranged in a system of “meaningful adjacencies.” Friends and colleagues appear together, as well as the crews of each of the four flights and first responder agencies and units. Additionally, during the Memorial’s development, victims’ next of kin were invited to request that their loved ones’ names be inscribed alongside specific others. In this way, those who were connected in life reside together on the Memorial.”

More than 400 swamp white oak trees were planted around the plaza, a species chosen because it is native to all three sites affected on that day. There is also one Callery pear tree; this was found by recovery workers at the site, severely damaged but still alive. It was removed from the site and nursed back to health by members of the New York City Parks and Recreation Department. Returned to the site in 2010, it is known as the Survivor Tree and stands as a “symbol of resilience and perseverance.”

There is also a section of the memorial dedicated to those who have become sick or died in the following years as a result of the attack. The dust cloud created by the collapse of the towers contained a huge amount of toxins, including asbestos, which was breathed in by rescue workers, survivors, and New York residents. In the following years,it became clear that this would have long-term implications; studies have shown that those affected are at heightened risk of a range of conditions, including multiple myeloma, prostate cancer, thyroid cancer, and leukemia.

According to researchers at New York City’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, 10,000 people had been diagnosed with cancers related to the attack, and 2,000 had died, as of September 2018. Their study compared members of the World Trade Center Health Program – established in 2010 to provide care for those affected – with members of the general population. 

A pathway in the 9/11 Memorial Glade is flanked by six stone monoliths, each inlaid with steel recovered from the site, symbolising adversity and recovery. The Glade’s inscription reads:

“This Memorial Glade is dedicated
To those whose actions in our time of need
Led to their injury, sickness, and death
Responders and recovery workers
Survivors and community members
Suffering long after September 11, 2001
From exposure to hazards and toxins
That hung heavy in the air
Here and beyond this site known as Ground Zero
And at the Pentagon
And near Shanksville, Pennsylvania
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

Here we honor the tens of thousands
From across America and around the world
Who came to help and to heal
Whose selflessness and resolve
Perseverance and courage
Renewed the spirit of a grieving city
Gave hope to the nation
And inspired the world.”

Next to the memorial, stands the 9/11 Museum. Dedicated and opened to the public in 2014, the museum consists of an above-ground pavilion which then allows visitors to descend into the area once occupied by the World Trade Center complex. It includes remnants of the original construction, including the Last Column, and the Survivors Staircase, by which many of the survivors fled the site. The permanent exhibitions tell the story of the World Trade Center, and the fateful day of the attack, with exhibits including the fire truck belonging to Ladder Company 3, portions of aircraft wreckage, and a heartbreaking selection of personal items belonging to the victims. One of those is a Peter Rabbit toy, with two Winnie the Pooh stickers on his tummy, placed there by his original owner, Christine Lee Hanson.

Under normal circumstances, those stickers would probably have been worn off by Christine’s affection, or removed, possibly replaced by others. Under normal circumstances, as she grew older, he might have been put away somewhere safe, as a souvenir of her childhood, or passed on to another child to love.

Instead, he sits in a building in New York; close to the spot where two and a half year old Christine became the youngest victim of the September 11th attacks; a tragic reminder of the trauma inflicted on New York that day.


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