I saw the Twin Towers FALL

Editor’s note: This is one story of an occasional Florida Courier series entitled ‘Survivor’s Stories, First Person.’ We highlight the lives of Floridians who have survived life-changing events, as described in their own words.  Ed Hashey, formerly the Florida Courier’s creative director, survived the September 11 attacks, and for five years he was silent about what he saw.  He spoke about 9/11 for the first time exclusively to the Florida Courier in 2006.

ED HASHEY
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER

150911_editorial01I’ve had some tough experiences. But nothing prepared me for what would be one of the worst days in my life.

Still, I’m humble enough to know I can’t complain. I am alive, and lucky – and I feel somewhat guilty about that fact. For the first five years after witnessing that horrible event up close and personal, I did not complain. I remained silent out of respect for those who suffered and died, along with the anguished families they left behind.

I thank God for every day given to me, no matter how bad it gets sometimes. I know inside that it will never be worse than what unfolded in front of me on September 11, 2001.

Calm before the storm
This story actually begins in 1999. I am a graphic designer and illustrator, and I was immersed in a freelance project to redesign the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) newspaper. This took me around the world, starting with the WSJ Europe publication in Brussels, Belgium in 1999, then to the Asian WSJ in Hong Kong in 2000, then finishing up at the WSJ’s New York office in 2001. Their headquarters are  – were  – located in the upper floors of 1 World Financial Center, directly across the street from what were the World Trade Center towers.

It was my sixth visit to Lower Manhattan. I decided to ask my wife Jeanne if she wanted to join me this time, as my birthday is September 13. We wanted to celebrate it together, especially since we didn’t see much of each other due to my busy schedule.

We flew in on the afternoon of September 9 into Newark, N.J., and stayed at a hotel in Times Square. The following Monday was a normal opening workday. I took the Number 1 and Number 9 subway lines from Times Square to the WTC station at Cortland Street.

The weather was perfect outside. It was the typical WSJ workday; eight hours of work and a typical lunch at one of the hundreds of local restaurants.

After finishing my workday, it was back up to Times Square to spend the evening with Jeanne. We dined at a simple pizza joint. She told me she walked up and down Fifth Avenue all day, and her feet were killing her.

After asking her what she was doing for the next day, she said the hotel concierge gave her a bunch of coupons, including one for free admission to the observation deck of the World Trade Center. I replied,  “Great. You can go up to the towers in the morning and do lunch with us after that. I can show you where I work.” We decided to get to bed fairly early, and leave around 7:30 a.m. on September 11 for 1 World Trade Center.

A normal day
We woke up to a beautiful Tuesday morning, got breakfast, gathered our belongings and headed out for the day. We got about halfway to the subway station; Jeanne had a confession.

“I don’t think I can make it today,” she said. “My legs are killing me from all that walking yesterday.”

So I escorted her back to the hotel and she prepared a hot bath and turned on the ‘Today Show.’

She felt bad for bowing out at the last minute. I told her not to worry, and that we could try again tomorrow. I then headed back to the subway.

I was reading a book about the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry and listening to my iPod. It takes about 20 minutes to get down to Lower Manhattan from New Jersey. I looked at my watch; it was 8:40 a.m., and my stop at Cortland Street was next.

Leaving the train, I walked up to the street exit, and right as I saw daylight, I heard a huge explosion and then many pieces of falling debris, some the size of car hoods, started falling around me and the large crowd of people with me at the station.

The noise hurt my ears and I could feel the heat from the fireball above. I fell down twice as the large crowd began to scramble for safety. What happened?

Witness to hellish destruction
The mass of people in the train station responded by frantically reversing course and heading back into the train station, but there were too many people trying to exit. Many of us squeezed against the side of the World Trade Center complex, trying not to be hit by the falling debris. After about a minute, the debris stopped falling. I looked up and saw smoke and flames; the distinctive smell of kerosene lingered in the air. There were several parked limousines and cars damaged from the debris.

Broken shards of glass were everywhere, and some pedestrians were injured. A few paramedics arrived and began administering first aid. Police began setting up barricades, while firemen started driving up and pulling out fire hoses.

I decided to cross over Liberty Street. I looked up and saw the first tower engulfed in flames that quickly turned into thick black smoke. Eyewitnesses said a plane had crashed into the building.

From our perspective, we were thinking it was a small plane, but I remember one man saying it was a jet. This made sense, as the explosion was huge. I knew this was the north tower, the one with the big antenna on top.

I decided to cross back over the street closer to Tower Two. Police arrived and instructed us to clear the area.

People die
All of this time, my eyes were fixated on the damage above. To my horror, I started seeing people jump to their deaths. I have always wondered three things with respect to dying: first, what it would be like to die in a plane crash; second, what it would be like to die falling as we all have dreamed about; third, if we die before we hit the ground. But I never wanted to bear witness to any of it.

As each person fell, I started praying. Two men next to me argued whether the first object coming down was a body; after about three seconds, the argument was over. We were not sure where to go or what to do. People in the crowd screamed and gasped in horror as each person fell to their death. Police and firemen alike were scrambling for cover. Chaos ruled.

Bodies were landing on awnings, on the cement pavements, on the shrubbery. Each time a body hit, it made a sound similar to that of a sack of flour hitting the ground. There is no time to look away in a situation like this. There were mists of blood in the air each time a body landed.

Almost every person was alive before they made impact, some kicking and screaming, others calm and choosing to land on their backs. Others were smoldering and unconscious. Most poignant was a brave couple that jumped together and obviously wanted to somehow be in control of their own fates. I remember the clothes they wore, and to this day I cannot get the image of this one man in a plaid, outdated suit, orange or brown in color. He was bald, maybe 50 years old or so.

It is true what they say about shock. Everything in your brain starts playing in slow motion. This whole time I felt helpless, as if I was in a trance waiting for some logical end to the whole thing.

Second tower hit
Then I heard a loud noise of an aircraft. A rapidly moving shadow was visible in the sky. I looked up and remember seeing another large airline jet smash into the second tower.

This explosion seemed much closer. You could hear the jet engines throttle up just before impact, and it slammed into the building so fast, it was just a blur.  I fell to the ground again, feeling the heat of the huge fireball that grew from the explosion directly above me.

The markings on the aircraft were distinctly that of United Airlines. Then it became clear to me that this was no accident. This was terrorism.

A wave of panic soon hit me. Were there more jets coming in? Will the towers collapse and kill us all? Are there bombs on the ground? How big is this attack?

Survival instinct
I felt a rush of adrenaline as I ran into an entryway of a bank across the street. Flying debris destroyed the windows all around us. Cops and firemen were among the large crowd of people running for their lives. I ducked behind some tables and waited for debris to stop falling, and I heard the distinctive sounds of metal and broken glass ricocheting everywhere.

The police regrouped and used bullhorns to give evacuation orders to either go up Broadway or go over the Brooklyn Bridge. I starting walking briskly up Liberty Street, and as I passed the entrance area to Tower Two, I saw a fireman coming out with a very large Black woman on his shoulders.

She was moaning. He stood her up against a round shrubbery pot, and I saw that her
polyester suit was melted to the back of her body. Pieces of melted clothing and burnt flesh were falling off her. The fireman collapsed in exhaustion. Then, about two dozen of his colleagues went running into the building in heavy gear. I had a real bad feeling that they were all in grave danger.

I realized I needed to get back to Jeanne to assure her I was safe. So I start running north up Broadway. I kept trying the phones but nothing worked; all circuits were busy.

I tried getting on the subway, but electrical power had failed and the subway system was on lockdown. So I ran to my Times Square hotel room, which took about 30 minutes.

Reality hits
When I arrived back at the room, Jeanne was in tears. I gave her a big hug, and she felt me trembling. Then we watched on the television in disbelief as the first tower collapsed. Two thoughts came to my mind: What happened to those firemen? Did they get all the people evacuated in time?

I lay down on the bed and so many emotions flowed over me. I learned that Washington, D.C. was under attack. My brother worked as a Navy corpsman in the White House clinic. Was he OK?

Eventually, I did make contact with everyone, including colleagues at the Wall Street Journal. And we were all lucky.

I was sad, angry, nervous, and happy to be alive, but humbled and completely overwhelmed by others’ deaths that day. I can’t stop seeing the visions of bodies falling. I still pray for their families.

And then there is fate. What would have happened if my wife decided to visit the World Trade Center’s observation tower that morning? For this, I have to believe there are guardian angels.

They certainly had too much to cope with that day.

New York City was a ghost town that afternoon.  No whir of traffic, only the constant wail of sirens heading south to the horror downtown.

Leaving the city
It took us two days to get out of Manhattan. Luckily, Jeanne’s college roommate lived in Montvale, N.J. Our journey home started with a long walk to Madison Square Garden with our luggage, then taking the PATH subway train to New Jersey. The train stopped abruptly just before the Newark stop, and we had to evacuate due to a bomb threat.

We finally got picked up after a round of cellphone tag and arrived at our friend’s home, only to learn that four families on the block had family members missing. This humbled me quickly. The next day we drove back home to Sarasota, ironically the same place President George Bush was when he was notified of the attacks.

How 9/11 affected me
I first thought this event would make me an angry, bitter person filled with hatred. But actually the opposite has occurred. I have a higher level of compassion for people, but with a resolve not to put up with nonsense or ever let my guard down. We live in a dangerous world, but we must live free.

I have come to terms with the reality that this will never leave my mind. Almost every day, something triggers a memory; the sound of a jet, anyone crying, movie trailers, etc. But I am more acutely aware of how precious everyone’s lives are, and will never take life for granted.

Even in the midst of the evil that happened that day, I saw all much good. There were storeowners handing out flip-flops to women who abandoned high heels in panic. There were firemen and policemen who after several disruptions, kept regrouping and kept on trying.  Many made the ultimate sacrifice. I remember an Asian paramedic cradling an elderly man who was bleeding from his head, comforting him. And most of all, I remember how compassionate people were in general, helping each other out despite the panic.

I have always felt that people’s true colors come out in times of crisis. I am a witness. The people of New York City shined that day, and continue to do so. They are all my heroes, and my heart goes out to anyone who was a victim of that day.

Ed Hashey, a Sarasota resident, now teaches fifth grade at Wilkinson Elementary School in Sarasota. He is Sarasota County’s Teacher of the Year for 2015-16.

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