In New York, lives preserved by chance

Survivors recount efforts to escape towers as they collapsed

`We couldn't outrun it'

Terrorism Strikes America

New York City

September 12, 2001|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

As he fled a breakfast meeting in New York's World Trade Center yesterday morning, trying desperately to outrun the volcanic-like dust that was settling over him, Gary Thorpe watched America change forever.

He saw papers flying through the air that only moments before had been held in someone's hands. He saw terrified people jumping from nearly 100 stories up as flames reached toward them. He saw old and young running, running, running, their shoes flying off, their purses and computers thrown aside. And as fast as he ran, there was no way to outrun it.

"It was a well-organized attack on the most powerful symbols of our country," said Thorpe, a Severna Park resident. "It was an attack on the president, the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. It's the end of our innocence."

In the hours he spent wandering, trying to find his wife and daughter, Thorpe began to understand a new reality.

"Global terrorism is with us now," he said. "Today proved how vulnerable we are. It's a different kind of war we're going to be fighting now. "

Chance saved Thorpe yesterday, just as it did so many others - a New York business analyst who ignored a public address announcement assuring employees of the south World Trade Center tower that it was safe to return to their offices; a broker from New Jersey who lingered as he dropped his son off at school and arrived a little late to work; a young Baltimore woman who got off the subway at the World Trade Center just as the first plane hit, and got right back on the next train out.

Chance turned them all into witnesses and survivors.

Thorpe, 63, is Maryland's assistant comptroller. He went to New York on Saturday for a meeting of the National Association of Business Economists. He, his wife, Connie, and their daughter, Susan, checked into the Marriott in the first World Trade Center tower. They had rooms on the 17th floor.

"Just before 9 we heard a huge boom," he said last night. "There was a huge explosion. People threw over their chairs and ran out."

Bits of airplane and debris were hitting the street, sending into the air bits of stone and brick that badly injured the people walking by. Parts of the airplane pelted the earth, along with passengers' shoes and mutilated bodies. Thorpe, whose meeting was on the first floor, ran across the street, wondering how he could get back to find his wife and daughter. They had been talking about going up to the 72nd floor for breakfast. And Thorpe could see that it was somewhere near that floor that the plane had hit.

Witness to collapse

"The jet fuel had lit up into flames. It was black. Then I saw the second plane coming. It sliced into the building and exploded. That was when everyone knew it was a terrorist attack. People started running. I ran about six blocks and stopped. I saw the building collapse. The smoke was thick and full of what looked like a volcanic dust. We started running again. Of course we couldn't outrun it," he said.

Thorpe ran down to the Battery, at the tip of Manhattan, unable to see more than a foot in front of him, unable to understand how he would ever find his wife and daughter. He saw hundreds of documents floating through the air. He saw people in the first tower, trapped above in the floors above where the plane had hit, jumping to escape.

"I saw about seven or eight jump, and I couldn't watch it any more. When we realized we were in the midst of a terrorist attack, the police said, `Run, run, run,' but of course we couldn't outrun it. I put my tie over my mouth and was able to ride it through.

"They decided they had to evacuate lower Manhattan. There were fires all over. Then they started walking us down toward the Brooklyn Bridge. They checked to make sure it wasn't rigged for bombs. They told people to go to Brooklyn and find their way back. I walked down to Chinatown, looking for my wife and daughter. I wasn't about to go to Brooklyn."

At 2 p.m., after five hours of running and wandering, Thorpe found a funeral home director who let him use the phone. He called his son-in-law in Richmond to find out if his daughter Susan had called. She had not.

He called repeatedly, terrified about the fate of his wife and daughter. At 3 p.m., he reached his son-in-law. Susan, who had left her two young children at home for a short vacation with her parents, was on the other phone. She and her mother, who had been knocked down and nearly trampled, had walked to the Marriott Marquis near 45th Street.

By that time, the subway was running. Thorpe caught an R train, and reached his family. Last night, they were staying with friends in Chelsea, washing off the dust, hoping they could find some way of coming to terms what they had seen and felt.

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