Recounting a fearful ordeal in embattled Manhattan


September 16, 2001|By Rosalie Falter | Rosalie Falter,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THE USUAL DRONE of lunchtime chatter slowly faded, then stopped. At Snyder's Willow Grove Restaurant, a man with Linthicum roots was describing his journey from the terror of the World Trade Center to the sanctuary of church, family and home.

The man is William K. Sieglein, a 38-year-old manager with Gaithersburg-based Enterprise Security Management Services. He was eating at the restaurant with his father, Bill Sieglein, who still lives in Linthicum, and friend Harold Lewis, a former resident of the area.

Bill Sieglein noticed that everyone in the Wednesday lunch crowd seemed to be listening as his son recounted a tale of people helping people.

The story began with William Sieglein, who lives in Catonsville with his wife Jane and their three children, taking a train to New York. He and a co-worker from Delaware expected to stay one night. They made their way to an appointment in the city's financial district - two blocks from the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

All seemed normal.

"The streets were alive with people walking to work, talking on cell phones, drinking coffee and buying fruit at the corner market," Sieglein recalled.

He noted the time, 8:45 a.m., as he signed the visitor's log in the lobby of his client's building. Then he heard a loud noise, and the building trembled.

Sieglein ran outside with everyone else and looked up. What he saw, he said, was incomprehensible. One of the towers he had admired minutes before had a gapping hole on the side, with black smoke billowing out and red and orange flames lapping up the sides.

Sieglein and his co-worker did not know that a plane had crashed into the tower. They thought it was a rocket attack, and they immediately took off running north.

"My mouth went dry and I started breathing faster. I was truthfully frightened," he recalled. After running for two blocks, sweating from carrying their laptops and luggage, dazed and not sure where to go, they joined the throngs of people looking back to see the burning buildings.

As they made their way northwest they stopped a few times to look at televisions in storefronts and to listen to radios in cars. When they heard about the attack on the Pentagon and the plane crash in Pennsylvania, it hit them that this was a much larger attack than they thought.

That made the urgency to get home to protect their families even greater.

After walking for blocks, they came across a cab stopped at a traffic light with one passenger in it. They asked the man if they could share the cab to the George Washington Bridge, and he graciously opened the door to let them in.

As they rode, the cab driver, who was angered by the attacks, told them personal stories of terrorist attacks he had survived when he lived in Africa, Sieglein recalled. The cabby let them out two blocks from the bridge. It was 3 p.m.

Just as they got to the bridge, officials opened it to outbound traffic. Sieglein ran to the line of waiting cars, waving $20 bills in hopes of getting the attention of someone who would be willing to give them a ride.

A young man driving an empty bread truck offered them and about 20 other people a ride in the back of his truck, but would not accept any money. Sieglein stood and looked out a rear window.

"I watched as Manhattan got smaller," he recalled. "We felt like refugees escaping from an embattled land."

On the other side of the bridge, Sieglein and his co-worker were back on foot. They had been using a cell phone to keep in touch with families and their office. A co-worker back in the office had made arrangements for a rental car in Clifton, N.J., 10 miles away.

Sieglein used an envelope to make a sign announcing their destination, and they tried to get a ride there. No one stopped.

But then a woman walked over from a nearby parking lot, read Sieglein's sign and offered them a ride. She was an off-duty nurse who could not get back into Manhattan. The men offered her money. Like the bread truck driver, she refused.

In Clifton, Sieglein and his co-worker got the last available rental car, and headed down the highway.

He dropped the co-worker off in Delaware, and continued to Baltimore. Racing against time, Sieglein wanted to attend a church service his wife had told him about in a phone call that afternoon. He hurried to St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Catonsville.

"I desperately wanted to - needed to - attend that service," he recalled. "As I walked toward the church, the emotional stress of the day overwhelmed me and I began to weep. I stopped shy of the door and collected myself. I needed to be strong for my family.

"As I opened the doors to the sanctuary, I felt instant relief."

Next came tears and hugs, as he met his wife and children, who were in the pews praying.

As the difficult day came to an end, Sieglein sat in church thinking of the many messages he felt God had sent him.

"It was this: `We are powerless without Him,'" he recalled. "The other message was to be thankful for the many little angels He had sent my way that day."

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