Witnesses come face to face with terror

Towers' collapse leaves those at scene dazed, fearful amid debris

Terrorism Strikes America

New York City

September 12, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein, Michael Stroh and Todd Richissin | Gady A. Epstein, Michael Stroh and Todd Richissin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- Some workers were just emerging from their commute yesterday morning when they heard a boom, gazed upward and saw fire shooting out of a jagged, wide-mouth hole in one of the World Trade Center towers.

The day would only get far, far worse.

Just as officials were determining that an airplane had crashed into the building, a second explosion echoed through the canyons of buildings on Manhattan's southern tip. This time the blast and fire came from the first tower's twin.

While people on the ground, bleeding and dazed, looked for anything resembling safety, some of those trapped in the towers began leaping to the ground from 100 floors up, some of them hand-in-hand, some of them alone and afire.

Then the towers collapsed, one after the other, forever altering New York's skyline as well as its psyche.

"I think we're beyond shock," said Danielle Friscia, a 30-year-old software developer. "And I don't know if it's ever going to wear off."

It began for her shortly after she exited the No. 4/5 subway and was walking toward her job next door to the towers at the New York Mercantile Exchange. When she emerged from the tunnel stairs and reached street level, just before 9 a.m., she hit a crowd that was looking skyward.

The first plane had just hit, and the top 30 floors of one of the towers were billowing smoke and shooting fire.

"We're kind of watching it for a few minutes in disbelief, than all of a sudden, people started diving out of the top floors," she said, her voice faltering. "There was one man in a suit. It was so clear and so slow. He wasn't diving anywhere except to his own death."

At about the same time, Hector Ortiz, 24, a student at St. Johns University, was walking to meet his girlfriend, Mariel Maldonado, 21, who works within blocks of the towers. During his walk there, the first plane struck and computer parts, paper, hunks of plastic and other debris began raining down.

People ran screaming through the streets, pushing Ortiz to the ground. He got up in search of Maldonado, was told she had been evacuated and so went to her apartment in Battery Park City, next to the towers.

He found her there shortly before the second plane crashed, a few hundred yards from them.

"I thought I was going to die," Maldonado said.

Immediately they dropped to the floor and crawled into the kitchen where they put wet T-shirts over their faces to combat smoke.

As horrific as that scene was, the day went from unforgettable to unbelievable at about 10 a.m.

That's when the first of the towers crashed to the ground.

Ash settled on Maldonado's carpeting despite the closed windows. The thick smoke outside and lack of electricity inside made it impossible for her and her boyfriend to see each other, even as they stood side by side.

With the collapse, debris and smoke went spinning through the streets, knocking down rescue personnel and people who only moments earlier had been pitying those caught in the building.

The ash fell a half-foot thick in some areas, over cars, streets, sidewalks and people who could not escape its charge. Some were hit with debris hurled in the collapse.

Police, firefighters and other rescue workers -- the ones not in the building as it crashed to the ground -- covered their mouths and noses with surgical masks.

Those who could ran from the ash, debris and smoke, but it caught up with thousands of them, leaving them blackened by grime, some of them red with blood.

"It was a sunny, beautiful morning," said Jay Akasi, 30, who works for a financial publication on Wall Street. "And then everything became dark with ash. You couldn't see a foot in front of your face."

Just as the air began to clear from that collapse, the flames in the remaining tower intensified for just a moment and the smoke thickened, hiding the building.

It never reappeared. It, too, had collapsed to the ground.

On the surrounding streets, co-workers, friends and family members frantically searched for one another through smoke, darkness and tears, their sobs and cries drowned out by sirens.

At Beth Israel Medical Center on 16th Street on Manhattan's East Side, dozens of ambulances covered in gray debris from the explosions delivered patients to the emergency room where medical personnel lined the street with stretchers and intravenous tubes.

Fire hydrants streamed water from hoses hooked up to spray down the ambulances before they took the wounded out to make sure debris covering ambulances did not fall on patients.

That helped, but only a little.

"A group is out there to meet the patients. We open the doors of an ambulance and puffs of dirt and smoke and debris come flying out," said Denise Blasiole, a physician's assistant who went to Beth Israel after she was unable to make it to the Bronx, where she normally works.

"It's like a factory with doctors and nurses and patients," she said.

Volunteers lined 17th Street to give blood at Beth Israel, at least 200 people waiting in line at a time.

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