Survivor shares his story to offer `glimmer of hope'

Owings Mills man got out before second tower fell

Terrorism Strikes America

The Healing Process

September 18, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

At first Joseph Lacomare didn't want to talk about surviving the terrorist attack on One World Trade Center. He didn't want anybody to think that in all the grief and despair, he was trying to get in the spotlight.

It was enough that he was back home in Owings Mills, safe with his family and his fiancee, Kim Hirsch, 26. But his minister encouraged him to tell the story, not so much for himself, but because in a week where there has been so much sorrow his story needs to be told.

"If this miracle could touch somebody's life, then maybe it would be worth it," said Lacomare, 26, "to give people a glimmer of hope."

Last Tuesday began as an average day for Lacomare, a software consultant for Knowledge Impact, based in Columbia. He'd been working on a contract with the New York Port Authority for five months, shuttling back and forth. He loved the work, and the location. This was New York City. The World Trade Center.

That day he got to his desk on the 70th floor at 8:15 a.m. He popped open his laptop and got to work. Less than a half-hour later, he felt the collision, heard the explosion as American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the floors above him. He thought it was a bomb. Concrete and debris rained past his window. Ceiling tiles started dropping.

"There were no words exchanged at the beginning, just people screaming and looks of terror," he said. "Everything was falling down around you. ... You didn't know if the thing was going to fall down or if it was going to crack open and you'd see the sky."

People headed for the stairwells, which were wide enough for four people standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The path narrowed around the 40th floor to two rows heading down and two rows of firefighters heading up - sweat pouring off their faces, bodies laboring under the weight of oxygen tanks and fire-proof jackets, axes and hoses in their hands. On some landings he saw them resting, catching their breath before pushing on. People were sobbing and crying. He saw the wounded carried down, some terribly burned, "skin just falling off their bones."

He'd been in the stairwell for 15 minutes when the entire building shook from another tremendous explosion. A Boeing 767 had crashed in Two World Trade Center. In the stairwell, Lacomare saw cracks form in the walls.

Conditions worsened as they neared the ground. Water poured down the stairs from fire extinguishers and burst pipes. Smoke collected around the landings. What had been a relatively calm evacuation became urgent. He kept thinking about his family, his fiancee. They'd set May 31 as their wedding date, had picked Paradise Island off the Bahamas for their honeymoon, even though he hated flying and often joked about going to Ocean City instead. He kept moving. He had to get out.

Two hundred miles away, Kim Hirsch was stuck in traffic on Interstate 695. She was going to the dentist for a root canal. The morning disc jockeys mentioned a plane crash at the World Trade Center. She thought they were joking. But the reports kept coming.

She called Lacomare on his cell phone. He always had his cell phone, and he always answered. The phone rang and went to voice mail. Again and again she tried his number. Each time the phone rang and clicked over to voice mail. Then, the phone didn't ring at all - it went straight to the mailbox.

She went to work. She had met Lacomare there. Her colleagues tried to reassure her. "Don't worry," they said. "He's not there, yet ... He's still sleeping ... He's having a cup of coffee."

"But it didn't comfort me. I know Joe. When he goes on a project like this, he goes on time," she said.

About 9:30 a.m., Lacomare reached the lobby. The revolving doors were crushed, so were the adjoining doors. He took an escalator to another exit.

"I just saw pools of blood and body parts, bodies from the jumpers," he said. "What made it real was walking out and seeing the people who jumped."

He exchanged a few words with a co-worker. "Then all of a sudden people started screaming and I looked up and I saw Tower Two was coming down," he said.

The only thoughts going through his mind were to keep moving, and keep breathing. He was worried about his asthma. He had left his inhaler behind. His lungs were desperate for medicine.

He joined the frantic crowd fleeing the destruction. People were banged up, limping, covered with ash. Then, call it chance, or luck, or fate, or God's hand, he saw a woman walking along, shaking an inhaler. He doesn't know if he made any sense to her, but he offered her $20 for the medicine. She waved off the money and shared her inhaler. They parted and he pressed on, wanting more than anything to get a message to his family.

No one could get a call out. Cell phones were useless. Another stranger came out of the crowd, this one had a pager that could send e-mails. They walked together, the stranger offering to send a message and get him to midtown Manhattan, where he could make a phone call.

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