February 26, 1993:
It was a typical February day in New York City: cold, blustery, and gray. Flurries came down sporadically, slowly blanketing the city with an inch or more of snow during the morning hours. Bill Clinton was in office, and the Buffalo Bills had recently become the first team to lose 3 consecutive Super Bowls, when the Dallas Cowboys defeated them almost a month earlier.
During that Friday morning, I fielded a few calls from stockbrokers with computer problems, and returned to the computer room on the 62nd floor. Although my job took me to many different brokerage firms throughout the city, for the last several months, I was stationed at Dean Witter Reynolds, 2 World Trade Center.
I was in charge of 25 minicomputers, each with approximately 25 computer terminals sitting on broker’s desks. Now, after resolving important issues such as, “Why isn’t my NY ticker showing where it’s supposed to?” , or “How do I add a stock symbol to my monitor page?”, I looked out of the familiar narrow pane of reinforced glass to the street below.
The people below scurried about like so many ants on a mission. Cold winds and snow are not a mix that you stroll about in. You want to get to your destination fast, and then get inside, shake yourself off, and warm up somehow.
I heard the phone ring, and turned around to get it, while glancing quickly at the two rows of computers that fed the stockbrokers steady streams of priceless data. Each one had a monitor on top of it, with a login, or a Unix command prompt, waiting for input. Just glancing over like this gave me feedback during the day about the status of each minicomputer. Phone calls sometimes meant problems, and I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t missing something before I picked up the phone… I wasn’t.
All systems appeared normal, and anyway, it was my good old friend, Sery, on the other end. We usually met for lunch: sometimes at his ‘place’, sometimes at mine, and at other times, in the middle. I had known Sery for 11 years, and we always had something to talk about. A very likeable guy, ‘Sery’ was short for Serafino, and his last name is Vendittelli. Can you guess that he’s Italian? He once told me that his father and his uncle used to make their own wine in their cellar in Queens! When they got too old to do it, they found that the ‘Opici Barberone’ was the closest thing that you’ll get to it. I tried it, and it’s great stuff – though a little goes a long way!
I looked at my watch, and saw that Sery was right- 11:45 am. It was time for lunch! We agreed to head down to ‘Majestic’, a small pizza place across the street, on Cortland Street. They had the best calzones that I had ever had, and ‘till this day, no one has beat them. (Not even myself, and I’ve tried- believe me!). Usually I would get a regular slice of pizza, and a calzone, or just 2 slices and a soda. That day, I remember that I got the 2 slices, and Sery (reluctantly, since he loves to eat!) got the same, and we headed back to my ‘place’.
By this time, it was already after noon. It had taken about 10 minutes to take the two elevators down to the lobby, and walk through the WTC, just to exit across the street at Majestic’s. Now, with our lunch in hand, we waited for the first elevator to take us to the ‘Sky lobby’ on the 44th floor. This was a sort of halfway point in the towers where you had to change elevators, if you were going higher than the 44th floor.
As we rode the second elevator to the 62nd floor, we could hear the whooshing of the wind, and the swaying of the elevator against the rails, as it moved at a slower than usual speed. None of this was unusual for this type of day; the elevators were designed to withstand the buffeting of a fierce nor’easter.
As we exited the elevator on the 62nd floor, Sery mentioned how it looked like a ‘ghost town’. I explained that Dean Witter had almost completed moving the entire floor to another floor, something that was not at all unusual in the brokerage and securities business. Part of the floor was now under construction, perhaps to move another department onto the floor, so you could say that we had the floor to ourselves.
The computer room itself took up a small portion of the 62nd floor, and was tucked into the southwest corner of the building. From the windows of the room, one could see West Street and the World Financial Center from one side, and Liberty Street on the other.
Aside from the usual raised tile floor that concealed miles of cables, and air-conditioning units the size of SUV’s, the room also had its own power conditioning systems. All of these systems were imperative in maintaining the computers, which were the size of refrigerators, and ran around the clock.
We took off our coats, and sat down at one of the desks within the computer room. No sooner than I had taken my first bite of pizza, did I hear, and feel, a loud BOOM. “What the hell was that?” I said, as I looked at the rows of computers, and noticed all of the consoles indicating that everything was now on battery backup.
Sery and I looked at each other in disbelief, at what we just felt. And that was really what we experienced: it was like we felt the boom, more than we heard it. At first, I thought that it might have been an explosion under the tile floor, perhaps related to the power units. This would make sense, since we lost power. But then I looked around, and since I didn’t see any smoke, realized that it couldn’t have happened in our room.
At this point, I was standing up, and looking around, but I was hungry, and wanted to eat my pizza, so I took it with me. I started thinking that perhaps it was one of those transformer explosions that we would hear about from time to time. But those usually happened in the summer months.
We went over to the windows, and looked down to the street. We didn’t see anything unusual outside. We walked out of the computer room, and looked around. We didn’t see anyone in the hallways, and we walked over to the construction area. Nothing burning, or smoldering, so we went back to the computer room.
At this point, we decided that it must have been across the street, or something. Since we didn’t see or smell any smoke, we sat down to eat again. A couple of more bites, and the phone rang. It was our office on Rector Street: “There’s been an explosion somewhere in the World Trade Center, and they’re evacuating. Get out, now”. Right then, I noticed black smoke entering the room, and crawling along the ceiling toward us.
I actually debated whether to take my coat- I guess I was hoping that it was a little fire somewhere, and that we’d be able to just go downstairs for a while and come back up. Like when you have a fire drill. But something inside me said to bring everything. Instead, I just brought my coat, and my second slice of pizza. As soon as we exited the room, I knew it was serious. There was smoke everywhere. Now my mind shifted into thinking that the explosion must have happened right below us, for there to be this much smoke!
So now I figured that we’d be able to go down a few flights, where we would be below the fire, and then we would have nothing to worry about. Sery and I decided to take the stairs, instead of potentially getting trapped in an elevator. We looked at the diagram by the elevator, to find out where the nearest stairwell was. When we got to it, and opened the door, we were hit with a rush of black smoke, and saw a convoy of people descending the stairs. We joined them.
As the door closed behind us, we were plunged into instant darkness- there were no emergency lights! As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could tell that people were basically holding on to each other, going down the stairs, two at a time. It was very orderly, and methodical. There was, however, a sense of urgency; no one knew for sure what had happened. The smoke only confirmed one thing: something was burning, and we had to get below it. Some people had small flashlights to help them see where they were going. I decided to use the backlight of my pager to illuminate what I could- it worked. I had to press it every so often, since it would time-out. Thoughts of ‘The Towering Inferno’ came to my mind, and I tried to push them out.
After a couple of flights, the smoke started to get real bad, and the convoy was slowing down. At this point, I suggested to Sery that maybe we should try another stairwell. We exited the stairwell at the next floor, and I remember noticing a ‘ScottPak’ on the wall, complete with the facemask. I wondered if I should grab it, ‘just in case’. Somehow, I had the impression that they were placed at every stairwell entrance, and decided not to take it.
We looked for the elevator, to find the diagram, so that we could locate another stairwell. When we got to it, there was actually a line of people waiting to get into the stairwell! The upside was that it didn’t seem to be as ‘smoky’ as the other one. We decided at this point to just use this one, instead of looking for another one.
We kept descending a flight at a time in the darkness, and it started to get tiring, since we were still inhaling smoke. By this time, I remember noticing people were getting so hot and tired; they were just dragging their coats beside them. We are talking about fur coats, as well!
Every so often, firefighters would be going UP the stairs, with all of their equipment. If I thought for a second that we were having a rough day going down, just seeing these brave firefighters going against the tide, was enough to make me realize that we were having a picnic compared to them. That is, until we reached what looked like the stairway to hell.
I’m not sure exactly where the stairway leveled off, but it did, and I was surprised. I didn’t think that the stairwell would be designed this way, but it was. We reached what could best be described as the end of the stairway, with no way out except either back up, or forward into more darkness.
As feeble flashlights (and pagers, now) pierced the dense smoke, all I could see was what appeared to be a long passageway, filled with people, slowly shuffling now. The ceiling was very low, probably 6 ½ or 7 feet high. People were still descending the stairs behind us, and then suddenly realizing, as we did, that they had to stop. If you’ve been in a crowded subway train at rush hour, this was how dense we were packed. The only difference was that we were moving at a snail’s pace in pitch darkness (though you could also say that about some subway lines).
This was the scariest part, so far, I thought. “What if the fire is up ahead, and everyone tries to turn back?” I wasn’t too keen on getting crushed by a crowd, so I made sure that I left a buffer zone between the people ahead of me and myself. If someone ahead panicked, things could quickly get out of hand in this tunnel, I remember thinking. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you how far we had to travel in this tunnel. It might as well have been a mile. We all just kept shuffling along, and it was getting hotter. People were getting real nervous now, but we all just had to keep going forward.
Finally, I could see light at the end of this tunnel, and knew that we would be home free soon. Another turn led us to another stairwell, and I could suddenly feel a rush of cool air come up. Now, for sure I knew that we were close to the exit. Firefighters and paramedics were waiting at the stairwell exit, and there were many people being attended to- for exhaustion, breathing problems, etc.
As Sery and I saw each other for the first time since we entered the last stairwell, some 50 or so floors above us, we noticed that we looked like Oliver Hardy, (of Laurel and Hardy fame), with a black smoke mustache. We forced a chuckle about it, but were grateful that we were out of the stairwell. Just as we left the building towards the plaza between the two towers, we heard glass and/or ice raining down, and people running in toward us for cover. We weren’t sure if people were breaking windows above, or if the firefighters intentionally broke windows above to provide exhaust for the smoke.
At that point, we just wanted to get out of the entire area. As soon as we got the ‘all clear’ signal, we walked out onto the plaza, drinking in the cold air, as we headed towards Church Street.
Photo provided by Daniel Sheehan/Musarium.com
You can see some more photos of the event (not of us, though), taken by photographer Daniel Sheehan here:
In all, it took us approximately 45 minutes to descend the 62 floors, and even though we were a bit shaken up, we decided to just call it a day. Sery headed for his subway station, and I headed towards mine. I think it’s safe to say that we’ll both remember that day as long as we live.
It was only after several weeks that I was allowed to enter the building, escorted, to retrieve my other personal belongings from the computer room. The building was still off limits, since the investigation and cleanup were ongoing. There was also a lot of concern about whether the buildings were structurally sound or not.
When I entered the computer room, it looked like one of those sci-fi movie scenes after a nuclear blast. There was a blanket of soot covering everything, and I could see where firefighters or investigators had pulled up some of the raised floor tiles, and opened the computers. There still was no power in the room, and I gathered my belongings as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to be one of those ‘ironic’ stories, where I survived the blast, but then die several weeks later in the building collapse.
Two and a half months later, I started a new job, and it would be several years before I returned to the World Trade Center. When I did, it seemed a little eerie, but I didn’t think that lightning struck twice in the same spot. I would later learn that it could.