"I Knew I Had to Get Out"
Compiled by Shira J. Boss '93
Many Columbia alumni worked in or near the World Trade Center
and witnessed the events of September 11 at close range. Following
are their recollections, as compiled by CCT contributing writer
Shira J. Boss '93.
Sheldon Licht '54 has been assistant commissioner for
the New York City Department of Buildings since July
9-11, while buying my coffee at the local stand, I watched in
horror as a plane swooped into the second tower at the World Trade
Center, and created a huge ball of fire. It was truly a "ball" of
fire. That term will stay with me forever.
Abiding by my duties, I rushed the six blocks from my office to
the site. Standing about 100 feet away from the platform, I was
struck by the intensity of the fire. I realized that the sprinkler
system had been cut by the impact of the crash. I was asked by a
colleague whether I thought it would fall. My initial impulse was
to deny, but I realized it was a matter of time and moved back from
the building. Shortly thereafter, I heard the rumble, looked up and
ran to the corner just north of where I stood. A Channel 7
photographer was to my left and stopped to get a better shot. As I
turned the corner and shoved my body against the building, I saw
the glass and metal shards fly past, almost parallel to the
that point, I looked around the corner and saw this huge cloud of
dust moving up the block. It seemed to be in slow motion, but it
was not. I ran for the subway and made it in a few steps ahead of
the cloud. I walked five blocks north in the mezzanine of the
subway tunnel and waited. After 10 minutes I walked up the stairs
to a very white street and met up with the mayor [Rudy Giuliani]
and his entourage.
was with that group for the rest of the day. That mayor was larger
than life. He was a hero. He maintained his good humor, but spoke
with truth and candor. He showed no temper; he was factual. I was
impressed. Apparently he had read Stendahl and understood that
those in power do not have the luxury of emotions.
Fredric Fastow '69 is a lawyer and architect who works for
the Port Authority. He had arrived at his office on the 66th floor
of the North Tower at about 8:30 a.m. and was standing at the
copier machine when the first plane hit.
heard a big boom and felt an impact and the building started to
shake violently. With some effort I was able to stay standing. I
felt as though I was living moment to moment; with each moment I
assured myself that I was still alive and that the building was not
toppling over. I knew I had to get out.
We headed down the stairwell, which was smoky. We were tense and
nervous because we had a long way to go. But we remained calm and
some people joked around.
were in the core of the building so we couldn't see or hear
anything outside. Somebody who must have had a cell phone told us
that an airplane had hit us. We thought that was possible and that
it might have been an accident. Then someone said another airplane
had hit the South Tower. I thought that was pure fantasy —
rumors gone wild.
Every now and then the line stopped moving for a few minutes.
This happened more frequently the farther down we got. We never
knew if this meant that we were trapped or whether it was just a
traffic jam. Every once in awhile someone would say, "Move to one
side!" and emergency workers would climb past us going up. I assume
all those workers are dead now.
It took about an hour for us to get down to the lobby. The first
thing I noticed in that glassed-in area was that it was overcast,
where it had been sunny before. We were led underground through the
shopping concourse rather than out onto the main plaza, where metal
was raining down. Rescue workers were yelling, "Hurry! Go as fast
as you can!" I was wondering why they were rushing us so much
because I figured we had reached safety.
I got out onto Church Street, things started to look more serious.
I saw both buildings in flames and had the feeling I should put
distance between myself and the World Trade Center. I walked east,
then north. A woman ahead of me who was watching the buildings put
her hands over her mouth. I turned and saw the top part of the
North Tower sink below the roof line of the buildings in front.
Before that the events were tragic, but seeing the collapse made
them nightmarish and surreal.
"A layer of finely ground stuff was
coating everything. It looked like it had snowed."
- Joanne Chan '01
Joanne Chan '01 works as a technology analyst on the 42nd
floor of 1 New York Plaza, a few blocks down Broadway from the
World Trade Center.
soon as we heard the crash, we ran to the windows and saw gaping
holes in the building and flames. We didn't know what had happened.
Our phones and our Internet connections went dead, and cell phones
weren't working. After the second crash they told us to get out and
we went down the stairs. When we got down, we could smell it. There
were papers flying through the air and on the ground.
managers told us to make our way home. By that time the subways
were closed. Two friends from work and I walked up Williams Street
and heard that the Pentagon had been hit. We stopped in a
restaurant with a TV. As we came out, walking north, we heard a
rumble and saw people running toward us, toward the East
the west I saw a several-story cloud coming at us and people
running from it and being covered with it. The cloud looked thick,
a disgusting gray. You didn't know if it was poison or what. I got
separated from my friends. I ducked into the doorway next to me and
ran down the stairs inside. There were doors to the outside that I
and others tried to hold shut but the dust cloud was pulling them
open. A layer of finely ground stuff was coating everything. It
looked like it had snowed. It was movie-like.
the cloud passed, I turned around and realized I was in a chapel.
About 15 minutes later I went out, got a napkin from the restaurant
I had been in before and walked in a sea of people toward Penn
Rich Gentile '81, an attorney, worked out of his company's office
at 7 World Trade Center for the middle three days of the week. That
building, having been evacuated, collapsed on the afternoon of
September 11. Gentile was on a train commuting to work when the
could see the fire progress quickly down each of the towers. It was
surreal, like a dream. The train went underground so we didn't know
about the collapse. When we got into Penn Station, I started
walking to my hotel in midtown. Everyone on the street was huddled
around televisions and news tickers. Nobody knew what was going
At Penn Station people were saying, "What about Penn Station?!"
Then we realized we were under the Empire State Building and rushed
to get away from that. Then it was Times Square. It was a migration
— people were moving north.
reached my hotel, and by the late afternoon some trains were
running again, so I decided to make my way home [to Connecticut]. I
didn't want to go to Grand Central, so I decided to walk to the
Metro North station at 125th Street. By that time, around 6:30
p.m., the streets were deserted. Having gone to school in New York
and practiced there, the feeling as I left — walking through
empty streets with only police everywhere — was that it would
never be the same city we all loved and enjoyed in the carefree way
we did while in school.
"We heard an indescribabale noise. It
was much louder than any thunder I'd ever heard"
Mario Favetta '98
Mario Favetta '98 works in communications for a financial
services firm on the 39th floor of One World Financial Center,
across the street from the South Tower. The window of his top floor
office faces east and had a clear view of both
heard a noise outside and thought it was thunder. I looked and saw
the North Tower exploding in a ball of red fire. Debris and papers
fluttered by my window. I was paralyzed. I didn't know what I was
seeing. A few seconds later, my boss came running down the hall
yelling for everyone to evacuate. We were walking down the stairs
calmly. Some people had seen the plane hit but we thought it was an
accident, a tourist plane that had veered off course.
we were stepping out of the building, the second plane hit. We
realized that with two planes it wasn't an accident. We rushed back
into the building, not sure if it was safer inside, where we might
get trapped, or outside, where we might get hit by falling debris.
We escaped and ran south over broken glass and metal shards. When
we got to the north end of Battery Park everyone was staring at the
buildings, watching fire consume the upper 20 floors. It was like a
moment of peace at that point. We were talking about how difficult
it would be for firefighters to put out a fire that high
saw people waving flags out of the building. Then we started seeing
the bodies falling. It was horrendous. I will always remember what
this one man I saw jumping was wearing. I turned away. It was too
difficult to watch.
Someone got a call about the Pentagon, and that's when I realized
the scope of what was happening. Then we heard an indescribable
noise, much louder than any thunder I'd ever heard, and it got
louder and louder. We couldn't see the buildings because smoke was
blowing in our direction. People started running toward us. We'd
ask people what they were running from and they just kept going,
with a look of terror.
cloud of dust started as smoke, then blocked out the sun and
enveloped us. Our hair and clothes were covered. It was difficult
to breathe. I finally got on a ferry to New Jersey, and everyone
was looking at the smoking pile that had been the World Trade
Center. I grew up in Jersey City seeing it all the time. My high
school had a view of the World Trade Center. It was so shocking to
see that what I knew belonged there wasn't there.