Tuesday, September 11, 2012

 

SEPTEMBER 11: A SURVIVOR'S STORY




September 11, 2011

By Alan K. Stout
The Weekender

The United States notes the 10th anniversary this week of the Sept. 11 attacks, and with those reflections come personal memories. Where were you that day? How were you affected? What were your thoughts? I’ve already had this conversation with a few friends and family members, and I thought I’d share them with you as well. And not so much because of anything significant that happened to me on that day, but because of a story that I was told — on that very day — that will stay with me forever.

I had just arrived at work at The Times Leader when I first heard that a plane hit the North Tower of The World Trade Center. And frankly, I didn’t think much of it. As a kid, I had been to the top of both the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers, and I distinctly recalled, when visiting the Empire State Building, hearing about how a small plane had once hit the structure decades before. Apparently, it was a foggy day, and the pilot had lost his way. Sad, in that I believe the pilot was killed, but the loss of life was minimal, as was the damage. And for some reason that’s what I figured must have happened at the Twin Towers on Sept. 11.

We had a meeting at 9 a.m. that morning. It was not a newsroom meeting, where I worked, but rather one attended by members of all departments. As we waited for the meeting to begin, most everyone was chatting about the situation in New York. If I recall, I shared the Empire State Building story with some co-workers, trying to reassure them. It was a gorgeous morning here, but who knew what the weather was like in New York? And we hadn’t yet learned that it was a jet. Maybe it was another small plane in the fog? Or maybe the pilot had a heart attack? Our community news editor, however, already sensed something much worse. She was the first one that I can recall speculating that it was terrorism. And just a few minutes later, our managing editor came into the meeting, told us there was a significant event happening in New York and that another plane had struck the towers. He asked all members of the newsroom staff to return to the newsroom immediately. It would be the only time in my nearly 20 years at this company that we would publish a special afternoon edition.

Soon, we were all given assignments. Mine was to investigate whether or not any of our local federal buildings were being evacuated. Truthfully, I didn’t understand the assignment at first. Did anyone really think any buildings in Northeastern Pennsylvania would be targeted? Regardless, I had my assignment, and off I went. My first stop was at the Federal Courthouse on South Main Street in Wilkes-Barre. And as I arrived, I admit I was pretty shocked to see that it had already been partitioned off to the public by yellow police lines and that the people that worked there were indeed being moved out. And as I stood there, looking at that yellow tape, it occurred to me that nobody really had any idea what was happening. Maybe there were cells of terrorists all over the nation. Maybe any federal building was a target. To be standing in the middle of my hometown and have that odd and uneasy feeling is something I will never forget.

My next stop was the Stegmaier Building on Wilkes-Barre Boulevard. Though not technically a federal building, it was the home of some federal offices and the office of U.S. Congressman Paul Kanjorski. And it too was being evacuated. When I got back to the newsroom, I called the federal courthouse in Scranton. They were also being moved out.

Amid all of this, everyone was monitoring what was happening in New York. I was so busy, I don’t recall when I found out about the plane hitting the Pentagon or the crash in Shanksville, Pa. I know I was on my way back from the Stegmaier Building in my car — at the red light the intersects E. Market Street and Wilkes-Barre Boulevard — when I heard on radio that the first tower had fallen. And I was in the newsroom watching the coverage on TV when the second tower fell.

Soon, it all got a lot more personal.

My sister called. She was crying. Her fiance’s best friend was missing. He worked on about the 102nd floor of the South Tower, and no one had heard from him. All anyone knew was that he was in the building at the time of the attacks and that his office was well above where the planes had hit. With cell-phone service overloaded, the anguish of his family and friends would go on for several heartbreaking and excruciating hours before he was finally able to reach them and tell them he had escaped. Later in the day, sometime around 3 p.m., I asked my sister if she thought he might be willing to talk to me about it. When I think back on it now, I don’t know how many reporters anywhere in the country actually interviewed anyone on Sept. 11 that was actually inside those buildings on that very day, but when he agreed to get on the phone with me, I realized that neither of us had fully realized the magnitude of what he had been through. He was calm and collected, but his story was memorable:

He was at his desk at about 8:45 a.m. He and one co-worker, an older woman, were the only ones that had yet arrived at their office. She saw smoke coming from the North Tower and suggested they leave. He resisted and said there was nothing to worry about. And who could blame him? If you ever saw the Twin Towers in person, you could see that there was actually plenty of distance between them, and that if one had somehow caught fire, the other wasn’t really close enough to be affected. But she had worked there in 1993 when terrorists first hit the buildings, and she insisted that they leave immediately. And rather than take the elevators, she insisted they walk down more than 100 flights.

And by doing that, she saved his life.

He explained that when they got down to about the 50th floor, they felt the whole building shake. It was the second plane hitting their building. And most everyone above that floor died.

I also interviewed his girlfriend that day, who was a native of Larksville and was my sister’s best friend. She was still stunned, yet as you would expect, incredibly relieved. The following summer, they were both in my sister’s wedding party. He was the best man. And when he gave the toast, I wondered how many people in that crowded room even knew his story.

Unfortunately, there were many such stories on that horrible day. Nearly 3,000 of them ended much worse. His was one of the better ones, and while I was just a working reporter, I was glad to hear him tell it. I saw him again three months ago. My sister and her husband had their first child, and he was at the christening. And as I looked at him from across the room, 10 years later, I thought the same thing as I did at that wedding. I wondered how many people there knew his story.

I am told that he never talks about Sept. 11. And who can blame him? He lost many co-workers and probably some part of himself. But what I hope he knows — and what I hope all Sept. 11 survivors, widows, widowers, grieving parents and siblings and orphans know — is that what we all said 10 years ago wasn’t just lip-service. It wasn’t just patriotism brought about by tragedy. When we said it, we meant it.

We will never forget. And you will all remain in our thoughts and prayers. Always.