September 11th 2001
An explosion of sound blasted through the building. It lurched violently to one side. Two people in the express elevator with me gripped the handrail as we continued our ascent. One was a twenty-something woman wearing tan pants, a white blouse, and an embroidered red scarf. I’d seen her many times having lunch at The Odeon on West Broadway where I worked. The other, a man, was tall and broad-shouldered. He looked about sixty, handsome, with a shock of white hair. I had never seen him before but by the looks of his tailored suit I assumed he was someone of importance.
“What the Hell just happened?” the man questioned.
“I don’t know!” I replied.
“Was it a bomb?” the woman asked, her voice high with fear.
A second explosion rocked the elevator followed by severe, earthquake-like shaking. The woman screamed. The elevator shuddered and jolted to a stop. We crouched low and braced against the floor. A cloud of smoke engulfed us.
“We’ve gotta get out of here!” the woman cried and coughed.
She fumbled with her purse and retrieved her cell phone. Instinct told me to act. I hopped to my feet and looked around in exasperation.
“I can’t get a signal!” the woman stated. “There’s no phone signal!”
“C’mon!” I hollered to the businessman, coughed, and wedged my fingertips in the thin space between the elevator doors. “Help me open these!”
The businessman stood and grabbed at the other side. We pulled; heaved; coughed. My muscles swelled. Slowly, the doors pried apart to face a wall of sheetrock stamped with the identification: 102nd floor.
“Oh God!” the young woman sobbed, and started coughing. “It’s blocked!”
I looked down the shaft. Several floors below was all fire.
Panic hit. I kicked at the sheetrock; slammed the heel of my foot with all my might. Over and over. It didn’t make a dent.
“We’re never gonna bust through this!” I stated. Ideas jumped into my brain. “We’re gonna have to dig out!” I turned to the businessman. “You got anything sharp?”
“Dig out!” the young woman cried. “We can’t possibly!”
I coughed. The businessman’s eyes were huge O’s of fear.
“All I have is my car keys,” he said.
“Give them to me!”
Smoke thickened. The young woman tried to use her cell phone again. A series of coughs overtook her.
“Get some cloth!” I stated, and pulled off my white Perry Ellis button down shirt. “Spit into the fabric and then wrap it around your mouth. It’ll help you breath!”
The businessman removed his shirt. The young woman used her scarf.
Driven by panic, I gouged the keys into the sheetrock. My hands moved fast but made little progress. The businessman climbed up on the handrail and tried to push out the ceiling. He hammered with his palms to no avail. The panels were made of steel and screwed in tight.
Heat intensified. Smoke stung my eyes and scratched my throat, smothering my ability to think clearly. Sweat ran down my forehead and soaked my T-shirt. I puffed and wheezed, poking and jabbing with the keys until my arms and shoulders ached. Pieces of sheetrock chipped off. Two of the keys bent. My fingers cramped. Breathing came in lung-pinching, hot gasps. My eyes went unfocused. Faintness swept over; light headed and winded.
I thought about dropping the keys, closing my eyes, and giving up.
Suddenly, the key poked through to the other side. The hole was no larger than what a worm bores, but it was enough. Fresh air drooled in.
“I’ve done it!” I stated.
I put my lips to the hole and breathed oxygen that was free of ash and smoke, but tasted of fuel. We took turns gulping fast breaths. Then I quickly sawed and made the opening about the diameter of a quarter.
Infused with energy, the businessman and I started kicking at the hole, kicking for our lives. Chunks of sheetrock broke off. And then bigger chunks. Finally, his foot punched out a huge, chair-size opening. A drafty inrush propelled the smoke in the elevator to the ceiling.
“We’re free!” the young woman gushed, nearly overcome with emotion.
“Go clear the way ahead!” I said to the businessman. “I’ll kick the hole big enough for me.”
He nodded, squat down, and wiggled through the space, then knocked out a thin sheet of drywall on the other side and disappeared. The young woman crawled out next. I kicked at the sheetrock until I could fit my large frame and then squeezed through both holes, emerging through the wall and into a deserted conference area. Except for the lack of activity and the strong odors of combustion and gasoline, everything appeared strangely ordinary: desks, computers, cluttered stacks of paper, a copy machine in the corner.
The young woman’s hands trembled as she attempted to dial her cell phone again.
I stepped toward the window.
Below us, flames rolled upward in massive orange turrets as thick, black smoke gushed into the sky. My eye caught a flaming object free-falling to the ground. And then another flaming object jumped from a broken window. And then another. My mind reeled with horror as I realized they were people leaping from the building.
I whipped out my cell phone and tried for a signal. Amazingly, one bar came up.
“We’ve got phones!” I announced.
Shaking and reeling, I pressed Amber’s number. She answered on the second ring.
“Amber!” I said. “Are you alright? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine!” she replied, her voice cracking as it often did when she was nervous. “We’re all fine! Where are you? I was so worried about you!”
“I’m on the 102nd floor.” I swallowed hard, trying to keep the adrenaline staccato and tension from my voice.
“What are you doing there?”
“It’s a long story. I stopped on ninety-seven to surprise Rick at Cantor Fitgerald. But he’s late, so I—”
“Someone said the lower floors are on fire!” She cut me off. “Did you feel the building shake? What happened? All I can see out the windows is smoke.”
My mind battled to recapture its sanity and jerk my senses back to some semblance of normalcy.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Maybe a gas explosion. Maybe a bomb.”
“Oh, dear God!”
“I’m certain the fire and police departments are on their way,” I assured her. “They’ll have the situation under control soon enough. What’s important is that we’re all safe. How are you feeling? How’s the baby?”
“I’m okay. The baby’s kicking a bit, but I’m good. No nausea so far.”
“How about everyone else?”
“They’re fine. We’re all fine up here.”
“I’m heading to the stairs now,” I said. “I’ll see you in a few.”
“No, don’t come up! Someone said Emergency Services wants everyone to stay where they are. They don’t want people clogging the stairwells in a panic. The safest thing for us to do is to wait for the fire department to get here.”
“I don’t care what Emergency Services said!”
“Nathan, no! You’ll only worry me. Stay where you are until the building is safe. Please! I’ll see you at home when this is over. Don’t worry, it’s totally normal up here. I’ll be fine.”
I gripped my phone, frazzled with indecision.
“Guess I should have picked a different place for breakfast?” I said, trying to lighten the situation. “I’m sorry. This was supposed to be such a special day.”
“Like any of this is your fault,” she replied, trying her best to sound uplifted. “We’ll celebrate next week. Someplace street level. We… then— ”
The signal cut.
I looked over at the young woman. She was putting down her cell phone.
“My mom told me the city is sending every fire precinct in Manhattan over here,” the young woman said, her voice shaking. “My mom said I should stay put until they get the situation under control. That the whole middle of the building is on fire.”
We all looked at each other. Stony silence ensued.
“I think we should get out of here,” I said, after a few moments.
“I think we should stay,” the businessman countered. His face was still pale but he looked immensely relieved to be out of the elevator. He wiped sweat from his forehead and smoothed his hair. “It’s what they want us to do. It’s safer.”
“I don’t feel safer,” I said. “The fire’s only a few floors below. Fire burns up. If they can’t get this out quickly it’s going to burn its way here.”
“I doubt that,” he replied. “The building has fire retardant systems. Sprinklers and such. For all we know the fire may be out.” He crossed his arms. “I’m staying.”
“We don’t know what’s going on down there!” I stated. “The systems may be knocked out! It could be total chaos!”
The young woman shifted uneasily.
“I’m staying!” the businessman affirmed. “You can do whatever you want.”
“I… I agree,” the young woman said, her mind in an obvious state of uncertainty. “I… I think we should stay.”
I looked at them both and thought perhaps that I was the one making a mistake. Surely, the building was equipped to contain this type of emergency. Surely, the New York Fire Department, the best in the world, could quickly remedy this situation. We were out of the elevator and safe. Why put myself in more danger by trying to evacuate? But something deep inside me said to get Amber and our families and get out. This was no ordinary accident. I sensed something extraordinarily horrible had happened.
“I’m leaving!” I affirmed, and started toward the emergency stairwell. “I’m not going to sit around here and hope to be rescued.”
“Wait!” the young woman called, her voice quavering. She looked about in alarm and then nervously licked her lips. “I… I changed my mind. I’m coming with you. I don’t want to stay here! I want to get out of this building!”
I nodded, and turned to the businessman. “How about it?”
“I’ll take my chances,” the businessman concluded.
The businessman sat down in a leather executive chair, leaned back, and rested his hands across his lap as if none of this was really happening.
“Okay then,” I replied. “Take care of yourself.”
“You too.” He paused, and looked at me in an ethereal, brotherly way. “Thanks for that quick thinking back there. You really came through.”
I nodded, and forced a thin smile, then turned to the young woman. “Ready?”
We headed past a maze of identical cubicles toward the emergency stairwell located in the core of the building. I pushed open the thick steel door and held it for the young woman. Phosphorescent lights glowed feebly in the tunnel-like stairwell. The door closed with the solid, echoing click of engaging metal.
“I’ll see you on the street,” I said, and turned to head up the steps.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“To get my fiancé.”
“You’re leaving me?”
“I have to!”
A small pod of people looking annoyed came trudging down the upper flights and passed us on the landing.
“Don’t bother heading to the roof if that’s what you’re thinking?” said an older, overweight woman wearing a blue dress. “A piece of concrete fell from the ceiling on 105 and is blocking the stairwell. There’s no way around it. Guess we’ll be getting our exercise today.”
My heart sank as the group continued their descent.
“Come on,” the young woman urged, and pulled at my shirt sleeve. “You heard her! You can’t go up!”
I thought about Amber trapped, and hoped and prayed that she’d be okay (in the back of my mind I knew she would) and then reluctantly turned around and started down the stairs.
A floor lower, we encountered more people, a few dozen, walking, not hurrying. Some were even joking about the situation. Others were noticeably angry about the hassles of the lost workday.
As we descended another floor even more people poured into the stairwell. It got crowded. Heads and shoulders stirred and jostled for space; a rustling tide toward the freedom of the first floor. Temperature and the biting odor of gasoline increased.
The line nearly stopped because someone ahead needed assistance, but the atmosphere remained relatively calm and orderly. The young woman turned to me. She gathered herself, making a visible effort to keep her emotions under control. I met her anxious gaze with a reassuring grin.
“I’m sorry I freaked out back there in the elevator,” she said, and cleared her throat. “I was just so scared.”
“We all were,” I replied. “But we’re safe now.”
I pressed my hand against her stiff shoulder in understanding. Her shoulder loosened a little.
“In an hour we’ll be on the street getting a cup of coffee and waiting for the all clear,” I added.
“I hope so.” She smiled fleetingly. “By the way, my name’s Lea. Lea Kramer.”
“Nathan Cruz,” I said. “I’ve seen you at The Odeon on West Broadway. I work there.”
“That’s where I recognize you,” she said. “I thought I knew you from somewhere.”
“Today’s my day off. I was supposed to meet my family and my fiancé’s family for breakfast to celebrate our recent engage—”
A huge explosion shook the stairwell. Steel shrieked, concrete cracked and shattered. Dust and smoke encased us. Emergency lights shut off pitching the stairwell into total darkness. People screamed in horror.
The crowd broke into a panic and started to run, stampeding down and over each other. Lea grabbed hold of my arm as we held our positions with our backs pressed against the wall until the crush of people passed and the chaos subsided.
A few moments later, the emergency lights flicked back on. A flight below, I saw an older man sprawled on the stairwell in obvious distress. I raced down three steps at a time to reach him. Lea followed.
“Are you okay?” I asked the man.
“I… I… can’t… can’t breathe.” His eyes bulged from a face the color of ripe apples. “I… I… can’t…”
He gasped fervently.
“Lay back!” I said, feeling a helpless panic. “Help is coming! It won’t be…”
The man lost consciousness.
The building trembled and groaned. A large piece of the stairwell came crashing down and smashed against the flight above us scattering large chunks. Sprinklers came on and rained lukewarm water.
“Let’s go!” Lea said, and her voice pitched with fear. “It’s not safe here!”
“You go,” I replied. “I’m gonna get this guy out of the stairwell and into an office.”
“That’s very brave,” she said. She looked down the stairs and her hand trembled as she wiped water droplets from her forehead. “I’ll help. But let’s do it quick.”
We both reached down, me at his head and she at his feet, and tried to lift him. It was like trying to lift a two hundred pound sack of sand. We strained against his wet, limp weight and barely got him off the floor when we had to put him down again.
Another chunk of the ceiling fell. Lights fluttered. Jets of steam whistled from burst pipes above us.
“Hurry!” Lea cried, and struggled again to lift the man’s legs. “It sounds like this whole building is going to collapse!”
I laid two fingers against the artery in the man’s neck.
“I don’t feel a pulse!” I said, and put my hand over his mouth. “He’s not breathing!”
Lea drew back and her hand went up to cover her lips.
“He’s dead?” she gasped through her fingers.
I nodded mutely.
“Oh God!” Her eyes filled with tears. “Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!”
She made the sign of a cross over her chest.
“We’ll tell emergency services he’s here,” I said. “Let’s go!”
A flight down, we passed two more people sprawled on a landing, dead, battered, and bloody, as if crushed by a giant fist. Revulsion rolled and knotted my stomach.
“Look how messed up they are,” Lea said, her eyes wide with horror. “What could have happened to them?”
“Maybe the ceiling fell. The residents of these floors must have put them out there for the firemen to find.”
A long, deep thundering sound shuddered the building. Fluorescents fell from the ceiling and shattered. Lea screamed. Sections of the above stairwell broke away and crashed onto the landing behind us.
Every fiber in me flashed into action. I grabbed Lea’s arm and took off down the steps as fast as I could, hopping over chunks of debris and passing more dead. Most looked in their twenties and thirties, badly charred or busted up, business suits and blouses torn and frayed.
An older, badly burned, heavy-set woman wearing the tattered remnants of a blue office dress, and in obvious shock, came barreling up the steps with her arms open wide, putting herself directly into our way so we couldn’t pass her.
“Go back!” she screamed and sobbed, puffing with exertion. She gesticulated madly. “You gotta go back! The floor below is all fire! Everyone’s dead! Every single one!”
The expression on her face looked absolutely horror-stricken. Her eyes, all black pupil, were wild and nearly jittering in their sockets.
“You’re injured!” I said. “We’ll help you. But we must go down!”
“Noooo!” Her scream projected into an anguished wail. “They’re all dead!”
Lea flashed me a look of desperation. A look that said we have to get out of here immediately. I moved to detour around the woman.
Another explosion shook the building and the stairwell groaned an unnatural, unearthly sound. Cracks slithered along the walls. Suddenly, fire blew through the floor below and a tremendous cloud of thick, black smoke whirled up. The hefty woman scuttled up the steps away from the pandemonium. The wall splintered and a large piece fell down. Sheets of drywall crumbled in a blaze of sparks. Pipes burst.
I found Lea’s hand, whisked her along with me up to the next landing, and barreled through the reinforced door onto the 94th floor. Heat slammed into us. I stood a moment fixated in shock and horror. Hot, gluey air burned my eyes and lungs. The entire floor was nearly gutted. Large pieces of blazing airplane wreckage littered the buckled interior. Concrete support columns were crumbled and broken. Steel beams were blistered and blackened. Light fixtures, speakers, and wire dangled from the fractured ceiling. Half the area was consumed by raging fire that careened out a massive hole in the side of the building causing a strong wind to blow and draw out the worst of the smoke.
Bodies lay sprawled on the floor and against the walls; severed heads, limbs, and torsos tossed over broken office furniture and chunks of construction material. Chopped up. Knocked out. Thrashing. Burned beyond recognition. Smoldering. Those few still alive cowered in the fire-free sections, screaming hysterically and crying, or crumpled on the floor in pain. Some sat trembling, in all-consuming shock, oblivious to their injuries and the devastation surrounding them.
“God help us,” Lea muttered, and coughed.
A young man whose abdomen was crushed under what looked like a piece of airplane fuselage was flailing his arms wildly and calling desperately for his mother. A woman burned over most of her body sat with her hands around her knees sobbing into raw fingers. A few yards away, I recognized a man who frequented the gym where I exercised. His name was Larry. He lay twisted on his back, legs awkwardly akimbo, motionless, and moaning.
A hand whacked my shoulder from behind. I spun around and faced a nude woman, hairless and burned over most of her body. My stomach nearly revolted.
“Billy?” she asked, her expression completely lost. “Billy, that you?” Her eyes shifted to a dead man sprawled a few feet away. She wobbled toward the body. “Billy…”
I stood immobile, slack-jawed and stunned, breathing the fiery air in shallow gasps to maintain my sanity.
“Let’s go!” Lea urged. “There’s no helping these people! We’ve gotta get out of here!”
I took off my shirt again, wrapped the sleeve around my mouth, and leaned beside Larry.
“Larry!” I said. “It’s Nathan Cruz!”
He squirmed at the sound of my voice and moved his arms feebly, his expression the embodiment of angst.
“Hurry, Nathan!” Lea cried. “The fire’s spreading!”
“Okay, Larry,” I said. “I’m going to lift you. Everything’s going to be okay.”
I reached down and noticed high heat radiating off the floor.
“Do you feel that?” I asked Lea. “There must be fire beneath us.”
Lea’s pupils contracted with fear.
The building vibrated with a loud creaking, crunching sound. It rippled and roiled as if built on a foundation of gelatin. Lea flashed me a look of utter and absolute terror. And then everything seemed to happen in slow motion.
A tremendous roar-rumble and the floor crumbled and sunk away beneath us. Everything blurred into smoke, fire, dust, and the crackle of electrical sparks. I was in the air, weightless and free falling, sailing through empty space; tumbling.
I landed hard. My breath knocked from my lungs.
Reality winked out.
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I smelled smoke.
I opened my eyes, vision speckled with soot and particles, and blinked. I was on my back on top of a crumbled desk. My belly was on fire. I quickly smacked out the flame.
Wracked with hurt and nearly delirious, I rolled over and lurched to my feet. Blood and sweat poured from my face. My head pounded. A terrible pain throbbed in my side. I tried desperately to form coherent thoughts.
“Lea!” I groaned, struggling to find breath. “Lea!”
Fire raged around me. Airborne sediment and grit stung my eyes and singed my nostrils. I looked up through clouds of corkscrewing smoke at the exposed and blackened structural steel beams and burnt concrete underside of a massive hole in the 94th floor, three stories up. I’d fallen thirty feet and survived.
My scalp and the back of my neck ached. I touched my bloodied side with trembling fingers. Bleary-eyed, I swayed with dizziness. The fog of pain nearly took my senses.
I steadied myself and surveyed the collapsed ruins. Bodies and body parts littered the area, torn apart and crushed by large chunks of concrete and debris.
And then I saw her and the vision went through my body like an electric current, freezing me in place as if my shoes had melted to the floor. My breath quickened. My stomach looped. Lea lay in an obscene mixture of congealed blood and ash with her head twisted unnaturally to one side. Most of her was crushed under the weight of a concrete block about the size of a dishwasher.
My knees folded and I sank to the floor beside her.
For a moment, I was paralyzed. All around me was complete and utter devastation and yet I just squatted there, unable to move, unable to pull my gaze from Lea’s empty, expressionless face; her blank, open eyes.
Grief plowed through me. I had failed to protect her. I had done the wrong thing in staying too long to help others. We should have left the injured in the stairwell and gotten out quicker. My good intentions had killed Lea!
I forced myself to take deep, even breaths to keep from going into meltdown. Insanity merged with reality. I felt like I had ingested a hallucinogenic substance and this was all an illusion concocted by my twisted imagination.
A large, steel girder fell with a thunderous crash and jarred me from my stupor. I suppressed my breakdown and gathered my wits.
“I’m so sorry, Lea,” I said, and wiped soot from her forehead.
Galvanized into action, I continued through the pandemonium and went to as many casualties as I could, checking for life. My movements were fluid, my arms automatic, my brain a whirlwind. Not one person in my vicinity had survived the fall. I was in a world in which I was the only living thing.
Crunching over broken glass and smashed plaster, I bore toward the stairwell clutching my injured side. Blood seeped through my shirt and ran hot between my fingers. My back pulsed with hurt.
The door was bent and jammed in its frame. I panicked, pushed, and hammered at the steel. Finally, it snapped open and I stumbled back into the stairwell. Emergency lights were on and the air was cool and still. The atmosphere was calm.
I was below the fire.
My footsteps echoed in the empty stairwell as I made my way down to the floors completely unaffected by the catastrophe and only faintly perfumed with smoke. Thirty flights later and who knows how long, I came upon people. Small pockets at first, but as I continued down it got quite crowded. I kept my line of sight straight ahead and didn’t speak to anyone. These folks had not witnessed the atrocities that I had and most were completely calm and oblivious to the devastation. Some were even fooling around and making little jokes, blissfully unaware of the horrors above. A few wept softly, but no one was shoving or seemed in a panic.
No one asked about my injuries or where I’d come from and I was glad. My thoughts were spinning so wildly I probably wouldn’t have been able to give a coherent answer anyway. I couldn’t quite comprehend it myself. Unimaginable destruction and hundreds, if not thousands, dead. Right above us. My only previous experience with death was going to see my Aunt Trina’s open casket funeral when I was seventeen. She had passed at the ripe old age of eighty-four.
“This fire is nothing,” I heard someone ahead of me say. “Back in ‘93 when the bombs went off, this place was pitch black and full of smoke. We couldn’t breathe or see ahead of us. That was bad.”
“I remember,” another person replied.
I continued with the flow, walking in a daze, my mind unable to wipe clear Lea’s demise, unable to stop the worry over Amber, unable to feel or evaluate how injured I was.
The stairs became even more crowded as I got lower. At each floor, emergency crews passed out soda and bottled water that they’d probably gotten from the vending machines. I took a bottle and doused my head, watched the water run red down my scorched shirt. Handicapped people, asthmatics, and the injured passed on the left. Two husky interns carrying a disabled man in an evacuation chair asked for everyone to step aside a moment and let them by. I took the opportunity to try and call Amber, but there was no cell signal.
“Stay to the right!” a man shouted. “Firefighters are coming up!”
Four firemen passed. Their faces were grim, sweaty, and serious, dripping with exertion. They were absolutely exhausted and breathless, fully loaded, slinging gear and water hoses. They pushed upward slowly, one step at a time, jaws clenched.
I made eye contact with one of them.
“What floor you going up to?” I asked.
“97th,” he panted.
My heart sank as I thought of Amber sitting way up there on the 108th. More firefighters passed, stepping heavily with the weight of their equipment.
I stopped a moment to assist an elderly man who was having problems getting down, but after a few flights we met up with a fireman who told me to keep going and that he would help the man.
I passed another group of people surrounding a middle age man in a wheelchair. A bunch of us took turns carefully wheeling him down the steps until Emergency Services personnel took over.
A few floors down, sewer pipes had burst and the stairs turned into mini waterfalls that smelled of rotten eggs. My cell phone vibrated with a text message from Amber. There was a signal.
There’s about 60 of us holed up in the kitchen. They’ve closed the doors and are trying to keep out the smoke.
I pressed her number.
“Oh, Nathan!” she answered. There was no nervous crack in her voice, only inflections of sheer fear. “It’s a mess up here!”
I heard her sister, Sasha shout in the background. Panicky shrieks erupted, and then coughing. Amber sobbed over them.
“Amber, listen to me!” I said. My throat muscles strained to keep my voice even. “Lie down on the floor. Have everyone wet towels and wedge them in the spaces under the doorways.”
“We’ve already done that!” Her voice was as scared as I’d ever heard it. She coughed heavily. “There’s a lot of smoke! I can hardly breathe!”
“Help is coming!” I said. “I’ve passed them on the stairs! Help is coming!”
She coughed in raspy, lung-shredding gasps.
“Aunt Jen and Aunt Nancy are unconscious!” she sobbed.
“Help is coming!” I assured her. “It’s coming!”
“I love you so much!” she sobbed, and coughed.
My body filled with prickling cold and I broke into an uncontrollable shiver.
“Amber, listen to me!” I said firmly. “Hang in there! Help is almost there!”
She coughed thunderously and then weakened, and then her voice made a strangling noise that I’d never heard before and the line went silent.
“Amber!” I screamed, and people around me turned their heads.
An iron fist closed over my heart. My muscles felt like snapping rubber bands. I turned in a white-hot rage to charge up through the crowd. A husky fireman blocked my path.
“Continue down the stairwell!” the fireman ordered.
“I have to go up!” I shouted. “I have to go up!”
He shook his head. “Continue down! The stairs above must remain clear for emergency service personal.”
“You don’t understand!” My eyes bore down on him in full challenge. “I’ve gotta go up!”
“You’re injured! Continue down!”
The overflow of despair and futility was too much. I started to hyperventilate. Masses of people milled around me and continued their exodus.
“Continue down!” the fireman repeated, his voice firm and commanding. “You’re blocking the stairwell!”
My temples pounded. I was numb. My every thought was on Amber and our families’ safety.
She’s alive! They’re all alive! I’m certain she’s alive! I’m certain they’re all alive!
I fought to collect myself. Fleeting tidings of hope and wishful speculations were all that kept me from going into complete breakdown. I did as the fireman said and continued down in a complete state of unreality, barely feeling my legs as we inched along the steps. I felt detached, floaty, swimming with the downstream motion of the crowd.
People started to chat and gather their composures as we passed the 10th floor, and then the 9th, all the way down without a problem. We exited the passageway in an orderly fashion and emerged onto the mezzanine that overhung the first floor lobby. It was strewn with dust and debris. Eerie silence filled the area except for strange, successive thump sounds coming from the roof.
Firemen led us to another set of stairs and then down into the basement, which was a labyrinth of broken concrete and debris. Half a foot of lukewarm water engulfed the floor. Darkness was total.
“Stay close to the wall,” someone said from a distance, and snapped a flashlight into illuminated brilliance.
A police officer guided us to a staircase.
We walked up the steps and back to the first floor where uniformed officers had cordoned the area. They escorted us out a broken window into the square between the two buildings. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of the devastation.
Burning trees, huge pieces of flaming steel wreckage, aircraft parts, smashed office furniture, paper, dust, and smoke. The large ball sculpture was dented and the fountain was full of metal, concrete, and bodies. Hundreds of bodies strewn across the decimation lay twisted, broken, scorched, and in pieces. Others were crushed and flattened from jumping out of the high windows.
Police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks clogged the streets. Collections of people, mostly uninjured survivors from the lower floors, stood slack-jawed staring up. I followed their eyes and felt my own jaw drop. Massive flames shot from two huge, crater-size holes, one in each building. Thick, black smoke billowed into the sky.
The antenna of World Trade Center 2 and the rest of the roof suddenly leaned to one side. Ten of thousands of onlookers all screamed at once.
A horrible, indescribable thunder and terrifying shriek of tearing steel ripped through the air as the entire building collapsed in on itself and slipped away from the New York skyline into a massive cloud of dust. Panic ensued. People started to run. The faster runners knocked down the slower ones. I couldn’t keep up and was among those knocked to the ground. My palms and knees scraped the sidewalk but no pain registered. I turned my head and saw the entire building coming down on top of me.
I scrambled into a clumsy, jerky run when an immense shockwave of sound and blast of wind lifted and threw me behind a large reinforced concrete slab leaning against another massive reinforced concrete slab. Turrets of intense, sooty air whipped over me, bringing sharp, whistling shards. Chunks of debris piled in front of the makeshift shelter and just like that I was sealed in pitch darkness. For what seemed an eternity, litter continued to crash around me like exploding artillery shells.
Then everything went silent. A crypt-like, cataleptic silence that overspread the world. Time felt gelled. My ears strained for sound; the only dissonance the thumping of my own heartbeat.
Shock cancelled all feeling but I knew I was gravely injured. I struggled to my feet, picked away and pushed aside the wreckage strewn in front of my shelter, and emerged, dazed. The sky was choked with thick, black ash that blotted out the sun, turning what should have been morning into night.
“Hello!” I called, and coughed, tasting the tang of my own blood on my blistered lips. “Anyone?”
No sign of another living soul.
Was I the only person that survived this?
I stood a moment, my face hot and throbbing. What remained of my clothing was soaked in sweat and blood. I scratched my forehead and felt greasy slivers of flesh roll up underneath my fingernails. I wiggled the fingers of my right hand. They felt slimy with melted skin.
I staggered along yards of shattered pavement amidst a maze of debris. The ground was inches thick in ash, paper, and pulverized concrete. Dust covered everything and swirled through the air.
Finally, I came to an area that was nearly clear and was able to walk somewhat normally. The dust started to settle and I could see some distance ahead and make out high peaks of twisted steel and smoldering junk.
I tracked through the wreckage and came upon a huddled group of about a dozen survivors. They looked shocked and ragged, hunkered under a massive steel slab. Ash covered their bodies. Many were badly hurt and bleeding, their faces drawn and expressionless, the redness of their blood standing out in stark contrast to the white-gray of everything.
“Follow me!” I said.
“Why?” asked a man whose forehead was masked with ash and blood. His eyes were wide with shock. “Where will we go?”
“Where it’s safe,” I replied authoritatively.
Two people stepped forward; their movements raised mini clouds of dust. A few more hesitated, and then gravitated toward me. And then the rest stepped from under the security of the concrete slab and into the open, including the man with the head wound.
I led the way.
We clambered and crawled over mountains of sharp edges and hot spots. I helped those weaker than I and made sure they got through the difficult and dangerous terrain. I even carried an old woman on my back at one particularly steep pile.
Bruised, bloodied, and covered from head to toe in dust and grime, I finally scaled the last broken pillar and ushered the group onto the street into an eerie and nightmarish world.
Streams of people were walking around in a daze, covered in dust, in total shock, clutching backpacks and briefcases. My eye caught a man trying to light a cigarette but his hands shook so badly he couldn’t line the tip with the flame.
I looked up at the World Trade Center complex. What I saw was almost unimaginable. Building #1 was completely gone from the world. Flames shot out a massive, gaping hole in the middle of Building #2. My sight captured tiny dots, people, leaping from the high floors above the fire line. I realized with horror that the thumps I’d heard earlier in the mezzanine were jumpers hitting the roof.
Think about something else!
“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” people in my group gushed as they began to disburse. “You saved our lives!”
They scattered in different directions. I stood staring up at the remaining burning tower, feeling empty inside, wanting to believe that Amber had somehow escaped the building before the collapse. That she was still alive.
“Come on, buddy,” someone said. “They’re evacuating the area.”
I turned and lumbered down the avenue. Cuts, scratches, blisters, and splinters, covered almost every inch of my flesh. My face felt like it had been through a sausage grinder.
I joined a barrage of foot traffic plodding north up West Street, threading my way through the crowd and vehicles. A woman with a nasty wound along her cheek and another woman with a bloody hand were walking toward Battery Park keeping each other steady. Another man was carrying the body of an unconscious baby girl. Another woman had her right arm in a makeshift sling. Hundreds more had injuries.
I kept hiking north and came upon a portly lady in her late 70’s limping badly and huffing in great gasps. I started to feel weird, feverish and dizzy, as if standing on a spinning merry-go-round. Hallucinatory colored lights sparkled and swirled across my field of vision.
“Hey!” a voice called. “Do you need assistance?”
I turned my head. My legs became rubber and dropped me to the pavement. Consciousness floated away.
After a brief, blank moment, I opened my eyes, half aware of being lifted onto a stretcher and then sliding into the back of an ambulance. The portly woman was already inside. Two EMS workers who were covered in dust were checking my wounds.
“It’ll be okay, buddy,” one assured me. “We’re taking you St. Vincent’s hospital.”
He placed an oxygen mask over my face and pricked an IV into my arm. I heard the engine start and felt the vehicle pull forward.
Suddenly, the ground shook and a tremendous roar-rumble tore apart the air.
“Holy God!” the driver shouted.
The ambulance’s tires squealed and bumped over a rut in the road as we accelerated down the street with sirens blaring.
“Go faster!” the other EMS worker yelled. “Faster!”
I rose up on my elbows and looked out the back window. A tremendous, mountainous cloud of debris was rolling toward us eating everything ahead of it. People were trying to outrun it and getting swallowed by the dust.
“Stan, go faster!” the EMS worker yelled again. “Jesus, the second tower just fell!”
The following weeks were a blind succession of doctors, counselors, friends, bandage changes, excruciating physical therapy, mental therapy, burn creams, topical antibiotics, and agonizing skin graft surgeries. My emotions rode a roller coaster of anguish, grief, and disbelief, and then all caved in at once; floating in a weird nightmarish bubble full of unresolved feelings and unsaid goodbyes.
The deaths of my loved ones had been so abrupt, so completely sudden, I found it impossible to come to terms with the solid reality that all the people I cared about were gone forever.
I prayed a lot in the beginning. I thought that I might connect with Amber’s spirit, or my parents, or something of a higher nature, on some communicable level. I got no sign. No response. Nothing. My faith in everything had been destroyed. Every pleasure and amusement had been instantaneously cut from my life.
To me, there was no God.
As facts and interviews replaced misconceptions and rumors, I learned the true extent of the day. Two 767 commercial jet airplanes loaded with fuel for trans-continental flight were hijacked and had hit the towers. Another plane had smashed into the pentagon. And another had crashed in rural Pennsylvania after the passengers revolted and attempted to take back the cockpit from the terrorists.
It was unimaginable.
I’d wake up in the middle of the night lying rigid, and sweaty, wrapped in bandages, clear IV tubes snaking down from medicine bags and plugged into my arms. I’d wake in a black panic, thinking why me? Why was I the only survivor above the impact? Why was I saved? Why didn’t I do more to rescue Amber and my family? I should have gone up those stairs and figure a way around the blockage! I should have convinced the firemen to go higher! I should have been on time for breakfast and been at Amber’s side to calm her fears!
During the long, silent hours before the sun would rise, as I floated in my hospital bed in a medicated half-sleep, the ‘what if’s’ would begin flipping through my mind.
What if one of us had caught a cold and we had cancelled breakfast? What if we had chosen a different restaurant? What if we had made the reservation for 9:30 a.m. or 10:00 a.m.? What if we had decided to stay in and cook breakfast for our families instead of going out? What if we had met on a different day, at different time, and at a different place? Why had fate and chance been so cruel and taking?
Thoughts played over and over in my head chewing away at my capacity to accept.
As more and more survivors of that terrible day were interviewed it came out that I had led those people to safety. Exaggerated tales of my heroics flooded newspapers and television, both local and national. When it was discovered that I was among the small pocket of people who were outside the building when it collapsed and survived, and that I was the only person out of 1,344 others to make it out alive above the 97th floor, people started calling me an angel.
A miracle of God.
Strangers visited me at the hospital and lavished undeserved attention and charitable donations. The culpability I felt was unimaginable. I’d witnessed numerous heroic acts that day. Hundreds who died were unsung heroes sacrificing their lives trying to save others. I didn’t deserve to be singled out and praised.
I tried to make everyone understand that I was lucky, that’s all. The odds favored me. I wasn’t a miracle man. I wasn’t being watched over or assisted by guardian angels. There were no higher forces at work that singled me out for survival. I was just plain lucky. I didn’t deserve nor desire the public’s praise and adoration. I wished to be left alone to grieve.
Reporters didn’t care. They eyed me with wonder wanting to know how I could have possibly survived. Even they seemed in awe and wonder at my presence, as if a magical aura of fortuity surrounded me and by coming in close proximity the good fortune could rub off on them; like a communicable disease.
I sunk into melancholy.
I wanted to disappear.
My therapist told me I had survivor’s guilt and said I might experience a fairly serious emotional breakdown when I finally fully fathomed what I’d been through and comprehended my monumental loss and the extent of my disfiguring, life-altering injuries.
A month after Amber and my parent’s memorials, I was informed that New York’s Mayor Rudolf Guiliani was going to present me with a medal for heroism and I would be honored at the state dinner the following week. And the week after that I was invited to the White House to meet the President.
My whole world had been torn to pieces and they wanted to honor me?
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Key West, Florida
Ten Years Later
Evening mist swirled among the swaying palms trees spread promiscuously across the island. The setting sun dappled the ocean’s surface and smothered the land in gold. Overhead, seagulls rode the convection currents and swooped through the cloudless sky.
I vaulted over an aloe plant and landed lightly on a coral boulder. My movements were stealthy, remarkably athletic, my ripcord muscles taut, my feet nearly soundless as I moved.
A crab the size of a coffee plate scuttled toward a shoal. It disappeared behind an orange clump of Hibiscus and then came briefly into an opening between two Burma reeds. I scrambled through the foliage and threw my handmade spear. It punched through the crab’s outer shell impaling the crustacean to the beach. A perfect shot.
It had been a bountiful day: three conch, two smaller crabs, a few nice sized pink shrimp, and a handful of sea snails. Along with the Red Snapper and Grunt that I’d hooked off the stern this morning, I was in for quite a feast.
I walked passed a green marsh of wild grasses and colorful plants toward my Sea Eagle two-man inflatable dingy moored along the beach. I heaved my bag onto the bow and rowed about a hundred yards from the small uninhabited mangrove island where I did most of my hunting and gathering to my 1972, 36-foot Trojan motor yacht anchored in the cove.
Wind veered to the south and a gust traced across the water. Uprooted seaweed floated in the opposite direction of the waves, evidence of a strong current and a brewing storm. Weather.com showed a strong low-pressure system south of Haiti by Port Salut, but I wasn’t too concerned. I had been through several hurricanes over the last ten years. They kicked up waves and wind, but if you were properly prepared, they posed little hazard.
Twilight had nearly faded by the time I moored the Sea Eagle against my boat and hauled the catch on board. I stepped through the mosquito-screen I’d built over the stern, passed my small barbecue and workbench, and entered the main cabin.
Inside would have been spacious, with two large staterooms and a good size living area, if not made cramped by shelves of books, stacks of books, and boxes of books, most mildewed and yellow with age. I had bags of flour and sugar, fishing supplies, mountains of old boat parts, and piles of pans. There were large pieces of driftwood that I had planned to use for art projects and one entire storage area taken up by sculptures, paints, and canvases.
My hammock was set in the main area next to the galley beside a large desk where I kept my computer. There were two small bathrooms inside each of the staterooms, each equipped with a toilet and sink, but only one worked. I’d built a solar-powered irrigation system that pumped fresh water from dew and rain collectors that I’d installed on the roof above the pilothouse. This allowed me to wash my face, hands, and clothes. I’d also built a solar-powered motorized system to carry sewage into composting bin on the side of the boat, providing nutrient-rich soil for my garden on the bow.
The galley contained a microwave oven, a tiny refrigerator, a three-burner stove, and a flat metal cooking plate. I’d rigged a ventilator fan to pull the smoke out when I cooked. Underneath a small, rectangular dinner table was a storage area for dry goods.
Clucking from Chicken’s pen caught my attention. She was an Andalusion hen that I’d caught as a chick running loosely down a back alley behind Simonton Street six years ago. My plan had been to raise her and then slaughter her for food. But fostering her from a tiny fluff of a thing that would sit in the palm of my hand to a full grown, well-behaved hen tugged at my heartstrings. She became my pet and so much more. Her presence gave me meaning. Purpose. A reason to wake up in the morning. A creature to nurture and care for who depended on me for its survival.
“Hey girl,” I said, as I approached Chicken’s large pen constructed from a lobster pot and steel mesh.
Chicken cooed and pecked at some grain.
I reached into her cage and slipped my hand underneath her downy bottom. I withdrew an egg and put it into the refrigerator beside the sea turtle meat that I was going to grind into sausage. I’d eat the egg and make the turtle sausage in the morning. Tonight, I had a feast to prepare.
Moving toward the stern, I caught my reflection in the tiny mirror above the galley sink. I cringed at my appearance. Plastic surgeons had done their best to patch me up, but the damage to my skin was severe. “Life-altering”, as my psychiatrist had said.
The right side of my face looked like it had battled a cheese grater. Half my eyebrow was missing and replaced by a bubble of scar tissue that ran in a gnarled pink ridge down to the corner of my jaw. A piece of my lower lip was gone, which made me look like a clown who had only applied half its makeup.
But that was nothing compared to my forehead. There were still days when I hardly recognized myself. Tangles of my long, sun-bleached hair only partially hid the rough, swaths of scar tissue that surrounded deep pits and grooves. My stomach was made up of rigid bumps where they had applied skin grafts.
I turned away ashamed and disgusted.
I stepped over to my laptop computer and flicked it on. The screen winked into focus and then dimmed. A low battery warning popped up.
So did a weather alert.
AT 7:00 PM EDT… A HURRICANE WARNING HAS BEEN ISSUED FOR CUBA AND THE LOWER ANTILLES. A HURRICANE WATCH HAS BEEN ISSUED FOR THE ENTIRE FLORIDA KEYS AND MIAMI DADE AREA. NEWLY NAMED HURRICANE CHARLES CONTINUES AS A CATEGORY ONE CHURNING OFF THE COAST OF HAITI. METEOROLOGISTS WITH THE NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER ARE CONCERNED THE STORM COULD STRENGTHEN OVER THE OPEN WARM WATER OFF THE CARIBBEAN SEA AND EFFECT LOWER FLORIDA WITHIN SEVENTY-TWO TO NINETY-SIX HOURS. RESIDENTS SHOULD STAY ADVISED AND PREPARE FOR EVACUATION IF NECESSARY.
The screen glowed dimly and then blinked out.
I went up to the bow and wiped clean the solar collectors. Salt from the ocean breeze often coated them. I returned to the main cabin, switched computer power to the backup battery, and brought up the UPS website. My packages were due to be delivered tomorrow. That meant a trip into town.
Tension knotted my gut at the prospect. It had been nearly three weeks since I’d last ventured from my isolated, bubble-of-a-world and into the populace. I glanced over at my Philadelphia Phillies baseball cap on the shelf underneath my framed online degrees in psychology, philosophy, nursing, and English.
Water boiling over and hissing onto the stove drew my attention. Chicken scolded my negligence with a few loud squawks and then settled down onto her nest of dried coconut peals and saw grass.
“I hear ya, I hear ya,” I replied. “What do you care if I’m making a mess? You don’t have to clean it up.”
Shadows grew long and night fell quickly. I lit the oil lamp that hung from a hook above my hammock and set two plates onto my dining crate. Today was the only day of the year that I actually sat and ate a formal dinner instead of just picking all day.
I took out a picture of Amber that I’d snapped on the day I proposed. We were going out to dinner and I’d taken it as she emerged from the bedroom dressed as pretty as I’d ever seen.
After she died, I placed the picture in an antique frame that I’d purchased on ebay. Looking at the picture stirred cauldrons of memories. Memories were all I had left.
“We need two orders of onion rings and an order of fries,” Jamie screamed. Her voice pierced the clanking, sizzling, chopping, frying, and multitudes of other culinary sounds bouncing around the kitchen’s bright, windowless cavern of heat and smoke. “And where’s that cheeseburger? Table thirty-five has been waiting for forty minutes!”
“It’s coming!” I replied. “Jesus Christ! We’re slammed back here! Where’s Randy?”
Jamie wiped the back of her hand across her forehead. Her hair was gelled back and wrapped up in a tight bun. Her normally porcelain face was red and splotchy.
“Randy’s car broke down,” she replied. “He’s gonna be late.”
“Are you kidding me?”
I wiped my own sweat from my brow and looked around. To my right, three dishwashers scrubbed ceramic plates to the music of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb blaring from the small, grease-covered radio with the busted antennae. Dirty sink water sloshed onto the rubber mats covering the tile floor. Steam rose from the Holbert industrial machine as the boys pumped out rack after rack. Their hands worked fast, banging plates together as they stacked them.
To my left, at the far end of the chef’s line, Gary, the new appetizer cook dunked battered vegetables into the fryer. His round, boyish face looked battle-weary and was also slicked with sweat. Beside him, Steve, the short, bald, executive chef accidentally dropped a half-cooked chicken breast onto the floor, then quickly scooped it up with his metal tongs and threw it back onto the grill beside a burning piece of fish that was filling the kitchen with a funky smelling aroma. Jeff the sous chef was hastily trimming fat off filet mignons. Pedro the maintenance guy was flattening empty cardboard boxes by the back door. And I was slammed with sandwich orders.
Normally, Thursday afternoons were slow, but this was a holiday weekend coming up, Labor Day, and it was one of the busiest Thursdays of the year.
“Nathan you got a phone call,” Tina, the hostess said, peeking her head underneath heat lamps clotted with plates of food.
“I’m too busy!” I barked.
“Take a message!”
“She said it’s important! She has to talk to you!”
“Dammit!” I looked up at the string of orders hanging from the rail in front of me, and then over at Steve who’d heard our conversation.
“Can you cover me for a sec?” I asked.
Steve’s lips crimped. “Come on Nathan, we’re way too busy for you to be taking calls.”
“I know,” I said. “But it must be important!”
Steve shook his head irritably. “Go! But be quick.”
I hurried off the chef’s line and into the office. My heart pounded and my palms sweat as I picked up the receiver.
“Amber!” I said, holding my composure, but just barely. “What’s up?”
“Nathan,” her voice was shaking and I could tell she was struggling to keep from crying. “Something’s happened.”
My stomach sank. “What?”
She muffled a sob. “Are you sitting down?”
I stood and looked over at Steve struggling to cook my orders and his.
“We’re very busy,” I said, impatience thinning my voice.
“I know,” she said and let out a spit of laughter.
“What is going on?” I said, fighting against the formidable strain on my calm. “What’s so funny?”
She laughed again. “I’m pregnant!”
Her words nearly took my breath away.
“You’re… you’re what?”
“Pregnant,” she repeated, her voice now bubbly with excitement. “You know, heavy with child. I’m three and a half months along. That’s why I’ve been eating so much lately. I’m not getting fat. I’m pregnant!”
My heart thumped so hard I thought it might burst from my ribcage. I reached out for the manager’s chair and sat.
“Nathan!” Steve hollered. “I need you back here now!”
Suddenly, the orders burning on the grill meant nothing. Impatient customers meant nothing. Steve’s anger at me meant nothing. Exhilaration ran through my senses. Happiness like I’d never experienced before.
“Nathan,” Amber said. “You still there?”
It took me a moment to find my voice. “I’m here.”
“Did you hear what I said?”
I swallowed dryly. “I heard.”
“So… what do you think about it?”
The clarity of everything hit like a bolt of lightning. Suddenly it seemed like everything in my life had purpose. I was going to be a father!
I looked at Steve, his face red with anger as flames and smoke poured from the burning broiler food. Jamie stood by the heat lamps, arms crossed, waiting fitfully for her orders.
“Nathan, get back on t
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