September 12, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Sai Narasimham

'I am glad to be alive'

I was at the World Trade Centre (I work at the World Financial Centre building, across the highway from the WTC) on Tuesday morning.

I walked out of the WTC just minutes (probably 8 minutes) after the plane slammed into the first tower.

As I got out of the PATH train (which runs through the bowels of the WTC) I could smell something burning. There is a restaurant at the same level and I thought they must have had a minor accident. Sure enough, the fire alarm lights were blinking. People usually ignore these lights as these are a frequent occurrence. Of course, people at the restaurant were ignoring the alarm.

I took the escalator that takes me to street level. As we approached that level, I suddenly saw people on the escalator above me running away; there was a great deal of commotion and shouting. I thought it must be a hostage situation and dashed toward the exit I usually take. I saw a man being supported by a policeman. It looked like he was bleeding. I assumed he had been shot and took off like a mad man. I slowed down when I realised that all the shops around me were closed -- and the scene outside the glass door some 50 feet before me was a little murky. There appeared to be some smoke outside. I wasn't sure what was happening.

I walked to the exit and stepped out. It looked like a scene from a war movie. The street looked like a war zone. I immediately drew parallels to Beirut. Then another thing struck me -- the smell of burning had not gone away at all! How could a restaurant fire deep down smell all the way up here? I wondered. Then I saw the debris all around me -- some of it was still burning. I chanced to look up -- then the horror of it dawned on me. The WTC was burning! I whipped out my cell phone and tried to call my wife. No signal. Obviously everyone around me was using up the cell sites -- not enough network bandwidth to get my call through.

Usually I turn right and go to my office. But the way towards my office appeared to be impassable. There was just too much debris there. So I crossed the road in front of me and then turned right to my office. Still no go. There was a police officer blocking my path. I stopped. But several others pushed through. He told me the only way was to go one block and then try to turn right. I did just that. That road had debris. I was pushing along when I saw -- right in front of me -- a huge hunk of what appeared to be freshly hewn beef sitting on the windshield of a car. I was shocked! What kind of person would store freshly cut meat -- even temporarily when taking it out of a truck and putting it into cold storage -- on the hood of a car? Just then a couple of people put a sheet of white cloth on that. Then I heard some women screaming and pointing to something below. I looked down, and a scant six inches from my foot I saw a foot.

I managed to cross the highway that separates my office from the WTC. I struggled up a small embankment and watched as people poured out of my office building. I still did not know that a plane had crashed into the WTC. Then I heard someone say so. I just did not believe him. I thought to myself, this is a small fire -- these people should be able to contain it quite easily. Why would my building be in danger? I walked up to the security staff at my building and asked them if they were planning to evacuate the building. They said 'Not yet, but it could be any moment.' Decision time. Should I go up or go home? I decided foolhardily to go up. Since I work on the sixth floor -- any emergency exit would not be quite as painful as, say, an exit from the 38th floor (which is where I used to work). I pressed on up, took the first elevator.

Just as I got off the elevator, I saw a couple of people rushing out of an adjacent office, saying they had just seen a second plane hitting 'our' building. Oh no! All I wanted to do at that time was call my wife and tell her I was coming home. I opened my office -- which I share with three others -- dialed home, only to find that I could not get through. I dialled again. In the meantime I heard the people on my floor rushing to the emergency door. I managed to get through to my wife and told her the WTC was burning, that there had been another plane crash and that I was trying to return home. Then I left.

I was the last person on my floor to leave. As I wended my way down the stairs I was struck by how calm people were. This New York resilience is something I saw time and time again today. We left the building and I got out -- now I realised the second plane had slammed into the other WTC tower. Someone standing by said to me he had seen the plane coming from near the Statue of Liberty and slamming into the tower.

I kept turning back to see what was happening. I saw at least three or four people jumping from what must have been the 40th or 50th floor of the WTC tower. They were flying out only to slam into concrete -- which I fortunately did not witness. They were obviously jumping from the fire and willing to take a chance with the jump. I was horrified. I looked at the pavement below me and saw many, many empty high heeled shoes. Did they come from the explosion? Not possible because they were all in pairs and undamaged. Then I got it -- this must have been people watching while the second plane crashed into the building.

By now I was numb. It was almost 9:15 am. Or 9.20 am. I wasn't looking at my watch. I saw a few people with digital cameras taking videos and pictures of the building going up in flames. I kept walking until I reached a subway station I knew existed. I got into the subway numb with shock and escaped from the area.

I got off the subway at 14th street and 4th Avenue and trudged all the way up to 33rd street and 8th Avenue. A mighty long walk, considering that each street takes about a minute at a brisk pace and each Avenue takes about 4 minutes. I reached Penn station at around 10 am. I got into what would be the exit train for me, the 10:43 am going home. Unfortunately they evacuated Penn station so I had to wait outside for about four hours before ultimately reaching home by the same train around 3:30 pm.

I am glad to be alive. I hope and pray the thousands of souls that died there today go to heaven in peace. It was never their fault. It never is.

Photographs: Paresh Gandhi

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