So Ken over the past few days had a work conference. I joined him--who am I to turn down a hotel room and food?--and it was a nice, relaxing time. Ken works with an Illinois agency whose purpose is to organize statewide law enforcement in the event of an emergency. There were lots of panels that dealt with terrorists, pandemics, bridge collapses, and the like. While I didn't attend any of those--I shopped and napped and read and relaxed instead--I did attend the dinner on Monday night. I am so glad I did, because I got to hear the guest speaker. I forget his name, but he was an insurance executive that was on the 105th floor of 2 World Trade Center on 9/11/01. His first-person account of the event was by turns terrifying and wrenching and inspirational. Mostly he talked about how every single decision that we make every single day is important, and that keeping your cool and being rational during a crisis can save your ass.
This guy was in a meeting when the first plane struck the other tower. He was in an interior room with no windows; the lights flickered, but that was all. They couldn't hear or see anything else. Soon after the volunteer fire marshal came and corralled them up, saying he couldn't leave until everyone left the floor. So they took the stairs down, down, down. He following people out onto the 90th floor lobby; at the time he didn't know why everyone left the stairwell, but he followed--maybe they had to take another set of stairs or something--but once he was out of the stairwell he saw that the 90th floor was all windows. He got to see the destruction for the first time. He remembered thinking, "It's a clear, beautiful day. How did that pilot miss?"
He commenced going down, down, down. Hits the 78th floor. A woman that he knew well was corralling everyone into the elevators--there was still power and all that in the second tower, so why the heck not, right? This guy didn't follow the woman he knew; something just told him not to. He continues to go down the stairs. Once he hits the 75th or 72nd floor (I don't remember which), he and his fellow descenders feel a huge ball of heat, hear a horrible sound, and the walls of the stairwell rocked back and forth at 30 degree angles. Debris fell. Handrails popped from the walls. He didn't know it at the time, but the second plane had just hit, and everyone he knew that had followed the woman into the elevators is dead. He mentions how the friction from the plane entering the building generated 2000 degrees F of heat; those people were vaporized. They literally didn't know what hit them. They were alive. And then they weren't.
He remembers how calm everyone was; the stairwell fit three people across and that's how everyone went down. People had taken off jackets, discarded laptops and other equipment, women had tossed their heels, but all of that had been pushed to the sides; it didn't block the road. Down, down, down.
At one point, he helped an obese woman descend. She said she couldn't do it. He said she had to. At another, a maintenance man's walkie-talkie squealed with a voice that said, "We're on the 82nd floor, we're stuck" and the dude trucked back up the stairs to help his friend.
Later--and I don't remember where he said he was, maybe the 30th floor?--he saw some firefighters and police officers on their way up. He said the men were silent, but their faces said it all. They were going to fight a fire they couldn't contain; they were climbing to their deaths. And they went, without complaint or question.
On the fifteenth floor, a worker--maintenance man, maybe--sang "God Bless America" and between each line shouted encouragement to all the descenders. The speaker likened it to the musicians that played while the Titanic sank, and he could just imagine what the singer's superior had told him: keep their spirits up, make them laugh, do what it takes to get them out of the building. The speaker left through the lower mall and out the street. He spoke about the smoke and falling debris and red blotches from the falling bodies. Eight minutes after he exited the building, it collapsed. He said he can hear the sound of the building falling mixed with the noise of a million people screaming at once every day. He was able to get a subway to Penn Station, take a train to his parent's home in Philly, then drive to his home outside Chicago. He attended Wednesday night Mass at his church with his wife.
He ended the speech by thanking the room full of law enforcement officers for everything they do and reminding everyone once again that every decision you make every day makes a difference. I have never felt so inspired and insignificant at the same time.