Fussman, Cal

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Cal Fussman

Excerpt from "What I've Learned"

Published in Esquire, January 2002

O n September 11, 2001, two hijacked jets hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Just over an hour later, one tower collapsed in a monstrous heap of rubble, followed shortly thereafter by the second. Almost three thousand people died: people aboard the hijacked planes, office workers in the two buildings, and rescuers.

It was the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of the United States. But there also were thousands of survivors who made their way down stairways and out of the 110-story buildings. Their trip was, in most cases, horrific.

Terrorism has many aspects: the reasons that terrorists launch their attacks, their political or social goals, and the outcome. Victims are also part of the story. The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, suddenly thrust ordinary people into an extraordinary circumstance.

That fateful Tuesday morning, Michael Wright was working on the eighty-first floor of one of the towers, not far from where the hijacked plane hit and burst into fire. Structural engineers, who study buildings, believe they know what

caused the buildings to fall. But their analysis—and political speeches about the evils of terrorism—hardly describe the impact of the terrorist attack. This is a portrait of Wright's survival story constructed from an interview with him.

Things to remember while reading "WhatI've Learned":

  • As Michael Wright was fighting his way out of the World Trade Center, hundreds of New York City firefighters were fighting their way inside, trying to put out the fire and rescue people trapped in the building. Their lives were snuffed out when first one tower, and then the other, collapsed into a huge pile of concrete and steel. Michael Wright's description of the horrific conditions inside help illustrate the firefighters' tremendous heroism and self-sacrifice.
  • Almost three thousand people died in the two towers and the hijacked airplanes on September 11, 2001. The death toll surpassed the number killed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, when Japanese planes dropped bombs on the U.S. Navy fleet anchored in Hawaii. Almost everyone who was on the upper stories of the two buildings—above the floors where the hijacked planes hit the buildings—was killed.
  • This is the story of Michael Wright. The author of the article, however, is a writer named Cal Fussman, who interviewed Wright.

"What I've Learned"

Up to that day, I'd had aBrady Bunch , cookie-cutter , beautiful life. I now know what it's like to have a 110-story building that's been hit by a 767 airplane come down on my head. For better or for worse, it's part of my life. There are things I never thought I'd know that I now know.

Brady Bunch: A popular 1970s television situation comedy that featured a close-knit family, and a pleasant, innocent view of the world.

Cookie-cutter: Something common or unoriginal.

It was asmundane a morning as you can imagine. Tuesdays are usually the days I go out to see clients and make sales calls. I get to my office at a quarter to eight, eat a bran muffin, drink a cup of coffee, and get my head straight for the day.

Mundane: Practical, everyday events.

I was actually in a good mood. A couple of us were yukking it up in the men's room. We'd just started sharing the eighty-first floor of 1 World Trade Center with Bank of America, and they'd put up a sign telling everyone to keep the bathroom clean…. It was about quar ter to nine.

All of a sudden, there was the shift of an earthquake. People ask, "Did you hear a boom?" No. The way I can best describe it is that every joint in the building jolted. You ever been in a big old house when a gust of wind comes through and you hear all the posts creak? Picture that creaking being not a matter of inches but of feet. We all got knocked off balance. One guy burst out of a stall buttoning up his pants…. The flex caused the marble walls in the bathroom to crack.

You're thinking, Gas main. It was sopercussive , had a big bang made by hitting something so close. I opened the bathroom door, looked outside, and saw fire.

Percussive: A sharp sound.

There was screaming. One of my coworkers, Alicia, was trapped in the women's room next door. The doorjamb had folded in on itself and sealed the door shut. This guy Art and another guy started kicking … the door, and they finally got her out.

There was a huge crack in the floor of the hallway that was about half a football field long, and the elevator bank by my office was completely blown out. If I'd walked over, I could've looked all the way down. Chunks of material that had been part of the wall were in flames all over the floor.

Smoke was everywhere.

I knew where the stairs were because a couple of guys from my office used to smokebutts there. I started screaming, "Out! Out! Out!" The managers were trying to keep people calm and orderly, and here I was screaming, "The stairs! The stairs!"

Butts: Cigarettes.

We got to the stairwell, and people were in various states. Some were in shock; some were crying. We started filing down in two rows, fire-drill style. I'd left my cell phone at my desk, but my coworkers had theirs. I tried my wife twenty times but couldn't get through. Jenny had gone up to Boston with her mother and grandmother and was staying with my family. Our son was with her. Ben's six months old. It was impossible to reach them.

The thing that kept us calm on the stairs was the thought that what happened couldn't possibly happen. The building could not come down. After a while, as we made our way down, we started to lighten up. Yeah, we knew something bad had happened, but a fire doesn't worry you as much when you're thirty floors below it…. Even though I'd seen physical damage, what I can't stress enough is hownaive I was at that point.

Naive: Unknowing.

Some floors we'd cruise down; others we'd wait for ten minutes. People were speculating, "Was it a bomb?" But we were all getting out. I didn't think I was going to die.

At the fortieth floor, we started coming in contact with firemen. They were saying, "C'mon, down you go! Don't worry, it's safe below." Most of them were stone-faced. Looking back, there were some frightened firemen.

When we got below the thirtieth floor, they started to bring down injured people from flights above. There was a guy with the back of his shirt burned off, a little burn on his shoulder. One woman had severe burns on her face.

We got down to the twentieth floor and a fireman said, "Does anyone knowCPR ?" I'm no longer certified, but I know it from college. That was ten years ago. You wouldn't want me on anEMT team, but if it comes down to saving somebody, I know how.

CPR: Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation; a procedure to restore normal breathing to a person who has had a heart attack.

EMT: Emergency Medical Team.

So me and this other guy volunteer. We helped this one heavy, older man who came down huffing and puffing, and we kept our eyes out for anyone else. "Do you need help? Do you need help?" Nobody needed help. The stairway became wide-open. It was time to go. The other guy took off in front of me. We were going pretty fast.

Have you ever been to the World Trade Center? There's amezzanine level, then you go downstairs, which issubterranean , into this big mall. Our stairwell exited out onto that mezzanine level. At that point, I could look out across the plaza at 2 World Trade Center. That's when I realized the gravity of what had happened. I saw dead bodies everywhere, and none that I saw were intact. It was hard to tell how many. Fifty maybe? … I remember my hand coming up in front of my face to block the sight. Then I took off. As I ran, people were coming out of another stairwell. I stopped and said, "Don't look outside! Don't look outside!" The windows were stained with blood. Someone who'd jumped had fallen very close to the building.

Mezzanine: A half-floor between floors of a building.

Subterranean: Underground.

It felt like my head was going to blow up.

I made it to the stairwell and got down. The mall was in bad shape. It must have been from chunks of the plane coming down. Windows were smashed. Sprinklers were on.

I saw Alicia, the coworker who'd been trapped in the bathroom. She'd seen what I'd seen in the plaza and was traumatized. She was crying and moving slowly. I put my arm around her. Then there was another woman—same thing. I put my arm around the two of them, saying, "C'mon. We gotta go. We gotta go."

We were moving through the mall toward the escalator that would take us back up to street level and out to Church Street. There were some emergency workers giving us the "head this way" sign. I think they were trying to get us as far away from the fire as possible and out toward Church Street and the Millenium Hilton hotel.

I got to the bottom of the escalator, and that's when I heard what sounded like a crack. That was the beginning of it. I ran to the top of the escalator as fast as I could and looked east, out toward Church Street at the Millenium hotel. The windows of the hotel are like a mirror, and in the reflection I saw Tower Two coming down.

How do you describe the sound of a 110-story building coming down directly above you? It sounded like what it was: a deafening tidal wave of building material coming down on my head. It appeared to be falling on the street directly where I was headed.

I turned to run back into the building. It was the instinctual thing to do. You're thinking, If you stay outside, you're running into it. If you go inside, it might not land there. So I turned and ran into the building, down into the mall, and that's when it hit. I dove to the ground, screaming at the top of my lungs, "Oh, no! Oh, no! Jenny and Ben! Jenny and Ben!" It wasn't a very creative response, but it was the only thing I could say. I was gonna die.

The explosion was extreme, the noise impossible to describe. I started crying. It's hard for me to imagine now that when I was on the ground awaiting my doom, hearing that noise, thousands of people were dying. That noise is a noise thousands of people heard when they died.

When it hit, everything went instantly black. You know how a little kid packs a pail of sand at the beach? That's what it was like in my mouth, my nose, my ears, my eyes—everything packed with debris. I spat it out. I puked, mostly out of horror. I felt myself: Am I intact? CanI move? I was all there. There was moaning. People were hurt and crying all around me.

Then I had my secondreckoning with death. I'm alive, yeah. But I'm trapped beneath whatever fell on top of me and this place is filled with smoke and dust. This is how I'm gonna die—and this was worse. Because I was going to becognizant of my death. I was going to be trapped in a hole and it was going to fill with smoke and they were going to find me like one of those guys buried inPompeii .

Reckoning: Encounter.

Cognizant: Aware.

Pompeii: A city in ancient Roman times that was buried in ash by a volcano.

I sat there thinking of my wife and son again. It wasn't like seeing the photos of Jenny and Ben that I had on my desk, though. The images I had were of them without me. Images of knowing that I'd never touch them again. As I sat there, thinking of them, I suddenly got this presence of mind: I gotta try to survive.

I tore off my shirt and wrapped it around my mouth and nose to keep some of the smoke out. I started crawling. It was absolutely pitch-black. I had no idea where I was crawling to, but I had to keep trying. It's haunting to think about it now.

I saw a light go on. I can't say I was happy, because I was horrified, but that light was hope.

Luckily, I was buried with a fireman. I got over to him and stuck to this guy like a sticky burr on a bear's ass. He was frazzled, but he had it a lot more together than I did. I was like, "What are we gonna do??" You can't imagine the ability to haverational thought at that point. I was purely in survival mode. It wasn't like, The smoke is traveling this way, so I'll go that way to the fresh air. It's whatever presents itself.

Rational: Reasonable; logical.

The fireman looked like a big Irish guy. Big, bushy mustache. He had an axe. He was looking at a wall, and it looked solid, but when he wiped his hand on it, it was glass, a glass wall looking into a Borders bookstore. There was a door right next to it. He smashed the door and it spread open.

Everyonegravitated to the light. Now there was a bunch of us. People were screaming. We got into Borders, went upstairs, and got through the doors heading outside. The dust was so thick, there was barely any light.

Gravitated: Moved toward; attracted.

At this point, I still had no idea what was going on. I didn't know if we were being bombed or what. I didn't know if this was over or if it was just beginning.

I took off into the cloud. I crossed Church Street, and some light started coming in, and I could see a little bit. I saw a woman standing there, horrified, crying, lost. I stopped and said, "Are you okay? Are you okay?" She couldn't speak. I kept going.

I went along Vesey Street, using it as a guide. It started clearing up more and more, and I got to an intersection that was completely empty. That's where I saw one of the weirdest things—a cameraman near a van with the NBC peacock on it, doubled over with his camera, crying.

I was alldisoriented . I saw a turned-over bagel cart, and I grabbed a couple ofSnapples bottled soft drinks. I used one to rinse out my mouth and wash my face. I drank some of the other. Then I started running again. It was chaos.

Disoriented: Without a sense of direction or time.

Snapples: Bottled soft drinks.

Even though I'd been around these streets a million times, I was completely lost. I looked up and saw my building, 1 World Trade Center, in flames. I looked for the other tower because I always use the two buildings as myNorth Star . I couldn't see it. I stood there thinking, It doesn't make sense. At that angle, it was apparent how devastating it all was. I looked up and said, "Hundreds of people died today." I was trying to come to terms with it—to intellectualize it. My wife's family is Jewish, and her grandparents talk about theHolocaust and the ability of humans to be cruel and kill one another. This is a part of a pattern of human behavior, I told myself. And I just happen to be very close to this one.

North Star: The star toward which the northern end of the earth's axis points almost exactly and consistently.

Holocaust: A period before and during World War II (1939–45) in which six million Jews were systematically murdered by the German military.

Maybe it seems an odd reaction in hindsight. But I was just trying to grab on to something, some sort of logic or justification, rather than let it all overwhelm me. I was raised Irish-Catholic, and I consider myself a spiritual person. I did thank God for getting me out of there for my kid. But I also tend to be a pretty logical thinker. I'm alive because I managed to find a space that had enough support structure that it didn't collapse on me. I'm alive because thepsycho in the plane decided to hit at this angle as opposed to that angle. I'm alive because I went down this stairwell instead of that stairwell. I can say that now. But at that moment, I was just trying to give myself some sanity.

Psycho: Crazy person.

I was still running when I heard another huge sound. I didn't know it at the time, but it was the other tower—my tower—coming down. A cop on the street saw me and said, "Buddy, are you okay?" It was obvious that he was spooked by looking at me. Aside from being caked with dust, I had blood all over me that wasn't mine. He was trying to help, but I could tell he was shocked by what he was seeing.

I was looking for a pay phone to call my wife, but every one I passed was packed. My wife never entertained for a minute that I could be alive. She had turned on the TV and said, "Eighty-first floor. Both buildings collapsed. There's not a prayer." It was difficult for her to look at Ben because she was having all these feelings. "Should I be grateful that I have him? Is he going to be a reminder of Mike every time I look at him?" At the time, these thoughts just go through your head.

Finally, I got to a pay phone where there was a woman just kind of looking up. I shoved her out of the way. I guess it was kind of harsh, but I had to get in touch with my family. I dialed Boston and a recordingsaid, "Six dollars and twenty-five cents, please." So I pulled out a quarter and called my brother atNYU . I got his voice mail. "I'm alive! I'm alive! Call Jenny! Let everyone know I'm alive!" It was 10:34 A.M.

NYU: New York University.

I started running toward where my brother Chris worked at NYU. I'm the last of six in my family. The two oldest are girls, the four youngest, boys. Chris is the second oldest above me. The classic older brother. The one who'd put you down and give younoogies . He probably would have had the best view of the whole thing going on. But he'd left his office, thinking, My brother is dead. He walked home to Brooklyn across the Manhattan Bridge, unable to look back.

Noogies: Slang term for a playful rubbing in the head with a fist.

On my way to NYU, I met this guy—a stranger named Gary—who had a cell phone. He tried and tried and couldn't get through to Boston. I said, "I gotta get to NYU" and left him. But he kept calling Boston and eventually got through to my family. At that point, four of my five siblings were at the house. My wife's father was on his way from New York with ablack suit in the car.

Black suit: Clothing traditionally worn at a funeral.

The people at NYU took me in. They were great. I said, "I don't need anything. Just call my family." They kept on trying to get through. They couldn't, they couldn't. Finally, they got through.

I said, "Jenny, it's me." And there was a moan. It was this voice I'd never heard before in my life. And I was saying, "I'm alive. I'm alive. I love you. I love you. I love you." We cried and cried. Then the phone went dead.

At that point, I went into the bathroom to clean myself off, and suddenly I couldn't open my eyes anymore. They were swollen. I knew I wasn't blind, but if I opened my eyes toward any amount of light there was intense, intense pain. I didn't feel this while I was running. It seemed to happen as soon as I was safe and theadrenaline came out of me.

Adrenaline: Also known as Epinephrine; a hormone of the adrenal gland causing narrowing of the blood vessels and raising blood pressure.

At the NYU health center, the doctors said, "Yeah, your eyes are scratched…. " They put drops in them, but they needed more sophisticated equipment to see what was going on. I wound up having 147 fiberglass splinters taken out of my eyes.

Chris came back from Brooklyn to pick me up, and I held on to him and hugged him. Later, he said, "You know, Michael, this is why I stuffed you in sleeping bags and beat on you all those years as a kid. Just to toughen you up for something like this."

When we got back to my place, I collapsed and it all hit me. I cried like I've never cried in my life. I finally let loose, and it felt better. My brother helped me pack, and we got to Westchester, where my wifeand family had gone. Jenny came running to the door. I can remember hearing the dum, dum, dum, dum, dum of her footsteps.

My mother was there. My dad. My father-in-law. They all hugged me. Then they gave me my son. I could tell by the noises he was making that he was happy. I hugged him and sort of started the healing process there.

Later, I went to Maine to sit by the ocean for a few days and get my head together. I saw all of my old friends. It was amazing. Everyone I know in my life has called me to tell me they love me. It's like having your funeral without having to die….

I lost a friend in 2 World Trade Center. He was one of those guys you liked as soon as you met him. Howard Boulton. Beautiful person. His baby was born three months ahead of mine. He was on the eighty-fourth floor and I was on the eighty-first. The last conversation he had with his wife was by telephone. He told her, "Something happened to 1 World Trade Center. It's very bad. I don't think Michael Wright is okay. I'm coming home." I like to think Howard wasn't scared like I wasn't scared in the stairwell. I like to think that he heard a rumble like I heard a rumble and then he was gone.

I went to his funeral. To see his wife and his baby—it would have made you sad even if you didn't know him. But it was much more loaded for me. Here was a perfect reflection of what could've been.

What happened next …

It took about six months to clear away the thousands of tons of rubble that was the World Trade Center towers. The remains of many people who had been working in the buildings were never found and identified. Hundreds of firefighters and rescue workers who rushed into the burning buildings died alongside the workers who were trying to escape.

The United States declared an international "war on terrorism." After the Taliban government in Afghanistan refused to hand over Osama bin Laden (c. 1957–), the Saudi Arabian leader of the terrorist organization Al Qaeda that was responsible for the hijackings, the United States military launched an extensive bombing campaign in Afghanistan. Uncounted Afghans died or were driven out of their homes and became refugees.

Many companies found new office space and were able to resume their businesses after the World Trade Center towers collapsed. A committee was organized to decide what to do with the empty hole that was left after the building debris was cleared away.

Did you know …

  • Three-hundred-forty-three New York City firefighters died trying to fight the fire and rescue people trapped in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
  • When they were built, between 1966 and 1977, the World Trade Center twin towers were the tallest buildings in the world—rising 110 floors—to a total height of of 1,353 feet. Visitors to the rooftop observation desk on a clear day could see forty-five miles in all directions.
  • The terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, was not the first attempt to destroy the twin towers. On February 26, 1993, a truck bomb parked in the basement garage exploded, but it failed to demolish the buildings. That bomb also was believed to have been planted by Islamic extremists associated with Osama bin Laden.

For More Information

Bresnahan, David M. 9-11: Terror in America. Waxahachie, TX: Windsor House, 2001.

Corona, Laurel. The World Trade Center. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2002.

Fussman, Cal. "What I've Learned." Esquire, January 2002, pp. 66–69.

Harris, Bill. The World Trade Center: A Tribute. Philadelphia, PA: Courage Books, 2001.

Lalley, Patrick. 9.11.01: Terrorists Attack the U.S. Austin, TX: Raintree/Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 2002.

Picciotto, Richard, with Daniel Paisner. Last Man Down: A Firefighter's Story of Survival and Escape from the World Trade Center. New York: Berkley Books, 2002.

Stewart, Gail. America under Attack: September 11, 2001. New York: Lucent Books, 2002.