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1,463 Stairs

By Michael Hingson
Author of Thunder Dog

CBN.comNew York Times Editorial, September 12, 2001

It was one of those moments in which history splits, and we define the world as "before" and "after."

Roselle is under my desk again. This time she’s not quaking in fear but snoozing, as only dogs can, in utter relaxation. I’m scrambling to get ready for the morning sales training sessions.

It’s already been a very busy morning. Between sitting up with Roselle during the storm and then getting up just a few hours later, at 5 a.m., I almost wish I’d had black coffee instead of my usual PG tips tea, but I am a tea drinker first and foremost.

Because of the scheduled meetings, I had set my alarm for a little earlier than usual. I needed to get to work early and make sure everything was perfect both for the presentation and the breakfast. I was looking forward to serving what I thought were the best ham and cheese croissants in New York City, ordered from the forty-fourth-floor Port Authority cafeteria called the Sky Dive.

While I’d shaved, showered, and dressed, Roselle had continued sleeping on her blanket next to the bed. She’s probably still worn-out from dealing with the thunderstorm. I let her sleep as long as I could. When it was time to go downstairs and eat, Roselle tracked my movements as usual, running ahead of me down the hallway and then downstairs to the kitchen. Since we did not have a fenced in yard I first took her outside on leash to relieve herself, then came back in and turned on the TV. While I started in on a bowl of
Special K, I listened to the news. My mind was on the morning meetings, but in the background I heard reports on the primaries; by the end of the day we’d know who was going to replace Mayor Giuliani. I got up and let Roselle back in. She grabbed her favorite Nylabone and played quietly while I finished breakfast.

A few minutes before six, I called Roselle and buckled up her harness. She has a pixielike personality, energetic and fun loving. She plays whenever she can and works when she has to. But the leather guide dog harness is like Roselle’s uniform; when she wears it, her behavior changes. She becomes less bouncy, more focused, and she always takes her job seriously. She demands that I do my job too. And she loves being part of a team.

Charlie, the owner of Happy Fox Taxi, picked us up for the ten-minute cab ride to the New Jersey Transit station. We waited at the station for the 6:18 train, but the public address system announcement said the train would be fifteen minutes late. This was a surprisingly rare occurrence, especially disappointing on a day I had planned to arrive early in New York. After two more announcements of additional delays, the train finally arrived. The train was stuffed full of passengers, all equally annoyed, and our arrival at the Newark station couldn’t arrive too soon.

In Newark we immediately caught a PATH train headed for the World Trade Center. PATH stands for Port Authority Trans-Hudson and provides rail service between New York City and New Jersey. The tracks cross the Hudson River through century-old cast iron tubes that rest on the river bottom under a thin layer of silt and then continue through tunnels under the streets of Manhattan. We got off the train at the World Trade Center PATH station, which connected to the World Trade Center towers via an underground concourse and shopping station. The concourse connected the Twin Towers and was like a city, always bustling with people hurrying to work or going in and out of the restaurants, bars, and shops. We took our usual route through the underground parking lot on the fourth sublevel to an elevator that took us to the lobby of the North Tower, also known as Tower 1. The electronic security unit scanned my ID card; then Roselle and I entered the elevator.

I loved working in the World Trade Center. The Twin Towers dominated the building complex, made up of seven buildings and a concourse on sixteen acres of land. The last building in the project was completed in 1973. For one year, Towers 1 and 2 were the tallest buildings in the world. Each tower rose 1,353 feet and had 110 stories and 21,800 windows. Building components of the towers included 200,000 tons of steel, 425,000 cubic yards of concrete, and 600,000 square feet of glass window area. Together the two towers weighed 1.5 million tons. New Yorkers loved to brag that the World Trade Center even had its own zip code.

Roselle and I got off the elevator at the seventy-eighth floor. I unlocked the door to 7827, the office suite for Quantum/ATL, a Fortune 500 company that provided data protection and network storage systems. I served as the regional sales manager and head of operations in New York.

Our office suite consisted of four large rooms, side by side, measuring twenty-seven feet from hallway to the window wall overlooking southwest New York City. You entered into a small reception area. Beyond that were some tables and the ATL P-3000, our massive tape backup system. It was about six feet tall and weighed over 1,300 pounds. Through a door to the left was my office, also used for product demonstration, file storage, and housing our computer server. To the right was a conference room with an eleven-foot table, and further right was an office where the sales reps had desks.

Just five seconds after we arrived, so did the breakfast deliveryman. I helped him unpack and organize the hot plates, pastries, bagels, coffee, and ham and cheese croissants in the conference room. He left quickly, on to his next delivery.

A few minutes later, David Frank, a Quantum colleague, arrived, along with six people from Micro, a company we did business with. He had helped organize the day’s seminars and would be attending the meeting. David was a tall, quiet, thoughtful man from our California headquarters.

Roselle and I welcomed them all; then I went back to work setting up the conference room and testing out the presentation on my laptop. Roselle snuggled into her favorite spot under my desk. This was her usual office hangout when not performing her selfassigned duty as greeter.

A little after eight, one of the Ingram people left to return to the lobby to meet and direct others as they arrived. This left five guests in the conference room. David and I worked in my office on a spreadsheet list of attendees, making a few additions and corrections as we confirmed names. We were preparing to print out a final list on Quantum stationery to fax downstairs to the WTC security people when I realize I am out of stationery.

I carefully slide my feet out from under Roselle’s sleepy head. Then, just as I stand up and turn to the supply cabinet to get some more letterhead, I hear a tremendous Boom! It is 8:46 a.m. The building shudders violently, then starts to groan and slowly tip to the southwest. In slow motion, the tower leans over something like twenty feet.

I grew up in Earthquake Country near the San Andreas Fault in Southern California, so my first instinct is to go and stand in the doorway, but I know this is no earthquake. Roselle stays put under my desk while David clutches it for support. Ceiling tiles fall to the floor. We are both confused. “What could that have been?” David and I ask.

Was it an explosion? Something hitting the building? What could make it tilt that way?

Could it be an attack? No, it doesn’t make sense to put a bomb that high up. It must be some kind of a gas explosion.

As we talk, the building continues tilting. Disaster seems imminent. Another few seconds and I fear the building will fall over and we will plummet to the street. God, don’t let this building tip over, I pray silently.

Tearfully, David and I say good-bye. I’m pretty sure I’m going to die.

Then slowly, miraculously, the tilting stops and the building begins to right itself. The whole episode lasts about a minute. Just then, Roselle decides to wake up from her nap. She emerges from under my desk and quietly looks around. I can’t even imagine what she is thinking, but I emerge from the doorway and grab her leash to make sure we won’t be separated. I have no idea what just happened, but I’m grateful to be alive.

David looks out the window behind my desk and shouts, “Oh, my God!” The windows above us have blown out, and there is smoke and fire and millions of pieces of burning paper falling through the air. I hear debris brushing past the windows.

What we didn’t know until much later is that American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 leaving Boston for Los Angeles, had been hijacked. Five men affiliated with Al-Qaeda, a Muslim terrorist organization spearheaded by Osama bin Laden, had broken into the cockpit and taken over the plane. The hijackerpilot, a thirty-three-year-old Egyptian man named Mohammed Atta, flew the commercial jet into our building at the speed of 500 miles an hour, obliterating the 93rd through 98th floors. Loaded with ninety-two people and more than 10,000 gallons
of jet fuel, the plane blasted into the North Tower with a force equal to 480,000 pounds of TNT.1 The shock registered a magnitude of 0.9 on a seismograph at Columbia University, equal to that of a small earthquake.

The impact created a huge fireball. As the plane plowed through the building, it created a cloud of jet fuel that ignited into a firestorm, burning an estimated 1,000 to 3,000 gallons of jet fuel.2 An instant inferno, the blaze was so intense it drove temperatures as high as 2,000 degrees.3 The impact also caused acute structural damage, demolishing some thirty-five exterior columns between floors 94 and 98 and destroying portions of those floors.

Although the impact was more than a dozen floors above us and on the other side of the building, our office is a mess. The swaying of the tower caused the contents of the office to hit the floor, along with ceiling tiles and building materials.

I hear our guests screaming in the conference room.

David yells, “We have to get out of here NOW!”

“I agree,” I say. “But let’s slow down and do it the right way.” I want to get our guests out first, then follow after we close up the office. I’d attended many of the World Trade Center emergency training sessions, and we did fire drills every six months. I run over the guidelines in my mind. Avoid the elevators. Take the stairs. And don’t panic.

Don’t panic. Some may think that might seem easy for me to say, since I can’t see the flames, smoke, and debris out the window, like David can. Here’s the blind guy, telling David to do something contrary to what his eyes and his instincts are telling him. I have a good imagination, and I understand what’s going on as much as anyone else could understand such an unexpected and catastrophic event.

But what David doesn’t understand is that I have a piece of information he does not have. When the debris began to fall and the flames leaped out of the floors above us, and even while the people in the conference room screamed, Roselle sat next to me, as calm as ever. She does not sense any danger in the flames, smoke, or anything else that is going on around us. If she had sensed danger, she would have acted differently. But she does not. I choose to trust Roselle’s judgment, and so I will not panic. Roselle and I are a team.

We direct our guests to evacuate using the stairwell, and I ask David to go with them to make sure they find the stairs. While he’s gone, I call Karen. “There’s been an explosion of some sort. We’re okay, but we’re leaving the building now.” She’s anxious, so I keep my voice calm. “David, Roselle, and I are together. We’re going to take the stairs.” I tell her I will call again as soon as possible, but I have to go.

David returns, and we set to work shutting down our computer servers and demo libraries. At this point we have no idea what has happened and when we’ll be allowed back in, and we want to protect our data. I figure if firefighters are going to come in with fire hoses, it’s best if we cut the power to minimize water damage. However, we get anxious and abandon this idea because it’s taking too long to move each piece of equipment to reach the individual power plugs. The minutes we save by deciding to leave now will turn out to be important later.

It’s time to leave. I strap on my briefcase and clutch Roselle’s harness. “Forward,” I say, softly.

Forward is used when setting off with the dog in harness, and it’s one of the very first commands all guide dogs are taught when training begins. You stand with your left foot out alongside the dog first, then synchronize the verbal command “Forward” with the forward hand signal, a short forward motion with the right hand. You wait for the dog to start pulling, and when you feel the pull on the harness handle, you take the first step with your right foot.

We move out as one, and Roselle guides me carefully through the debris. She stays calm and focused even with things falling on top of her. David, Roselle, and I walk quickly out of the office and head out into the central corridor. People are running around. There is confusion, smoke, and noise.

Each tower has three stairwells. We head for Stairwell B, in the center. Safety is somewhere down below, and 1,463 stairs are
the only way out.


Michael Hingson, National Ambassador for the Braille Literacy Campaign and Public Affairs Director for Guide Dogs for the Blind, is a miraculous survivor of 9/11. His life is a testimony to the power of perseverence and the amazing bond between humans and animals. He lives with his wife, Karen, in the San Francisco Bay area with their three guide dogs (Roselle, Africa, and Fantasia) and cat, Sherlock.

His new book, Thunder Dog, is available through Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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