People likened it to a bomb, to midnight, to a volcano and, finally, when the air was choked with soot and smoke, to hell.
In the aftermath of the explosions Tuesday morning that shook the twin towers of the World Trade Center, thousands struggled to escape. Some were lucky and fast enough to find elevators still functioning. Others walked and crawled and groped their way down hundreds of stairs.
"People were screaming and things were flying everywhere. There's blood, there's glass, there's everything. You get to the point that you're so scared you're not even scared," said stockbroker John McKeehan. "This is as close as I've ever gotten to war."
Many, no one yet knows their number, could not escape, blocked by fire or fear. Experts said blazing jet fuel inside the towers would have driven temperatures to beyond 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt steel, which it did, and hot enough to kill, which it did as well. Some people, unable to withstand the flames, jumped or were sucked out into the high empty air, their bodies tumbling like dolls all the way to the ground.
At 8:45 a.m., Walter Lipiak had just unlocked the door to Cosmos Service America on the 89th floor of the north tower, the first to be struck and the second to collapse. He still had his key in the lock when the explosion rocked the building, sending him flying across the office, crashing into a desk. As other workers arrived, he made them lie on the floor and covered them with towels.
Then he gathered them up and herded them toward the stairwell, which was locked. Police arrived, unlocked the exit, and Lipiak's people joined what would become a throng on the route down.
Four floors below, Geoffrey Heineman, managing partner of a law firm on the 85th floor of the north tower, had taken an early train from his home in Garden City, N.Y., because it was "a special day," his oldest son's birthday, "and I wanted to get home for the party."
The firm's offices take up more than half the 85th floor, with spectacular views of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty. Ohrenstein & Brown has 90 people at peak hours, but only the early wave had arrived, maybe 15 in all. Heineman was the first in and, by 8:20, had already finished his first phone conference of the day, about a case in New Jersey. Twenty-five minutes later he heard the first thud and felt the building sway.
"There was a big bang, an explosion. The building has always swayed in windy weather, but it was nothing like that," he said. "Then it swayed back. I came out of my office, and said, 'Let's round up the people.' "
He figured a helicopter or small plane had accidentally struck the tower because, as he explained, "we often see small planes flying by, below the top of the tower."
"Some of the people were screaming and crying. Not saying anything, just screaming. One was saying that stuff had fallen on her, but she didn't seem hurt. I just kept saying, 'Calm down. Calm down.' "
They tried getting out through the main lobby of the firm, but smoke had already filled it, so Heineman led the group back inside the offices, down a stairway at the other end, through the file room. The door was blocked by files that had fallen to the floor. They cleared them and walked out to the emergency stairs.
They made it down to the 78th floor, where there's a "sky lobby," the usual point where people get express elevators to the ground floor. "We had to exit to the lobby," Heineman said. "There was smoke, people milling around. Then we switched to the stairwell at the other side of the lobby. And now it was very crowded."
Tom Walsh was in his office at the New York City Department of Finance two blocks away when he heard the first explosion. He was on the telephone. "I gotta hang up," he said, and looked up in time to see a second plane.
"I saw at least a dozen people jumping out of that second building."
Smoke billowed toward the East River. The narrow, shaded streets were choked with smoke and everything darkened. "It was volcanic," Walsh said. "I tried to make my way uptown. That's when I turned back around and saw the first building come down. People were screaming 'The building's collapsing! The building's collapsing!' I tried to outrun the smoke. I saw people stampeding on top of other people.
"After the first building collapsed, there was an eerie silence. Everyone was crouching. The streets were gray with soot. It was very silent in lower Manhattan. It was like what people say is nuclear winter."
Then he looked up at the other tower, toward the middle of its 110 stories.
"I saw a man waving his white towel. And then he jumped. And then I saw two people jump down together. I don't know if they were office mates or husband and wife. They drifted down so slowly."
East on Church Street, people stood and stared. The lower portion of the tower was shrouded in smoke. Above it, people continued to jump or fall. Then came the crash. It was like a movie. The tower came shuddering down, everything.
Suddenly there was no building. Explosions echoed under the rubble, gas pipes blowing. Police in navy blue suits and uniforms streamed from the wreckage. They had been operating emergency staging centers, now buried in the wreckage.
A hotel handed out wet towels and people wrapped them around their heads. Everyone was covered by soot, like gray ghosts. Even blocks away, the ash piled knee-high on a 6-foot man. Citizens helped direct traffic at street corners. Buses went the wrong way down one-way streets. The sky, but for the huge columns of smoke, was a deep, beautiful blue.
'My Whole Floor Was Destroyed'
The soot and dust were dense. After a while everything grew quiet, like an early morning in winter after a fresh snow. Except the snow was camel brown and gray. People were walking the streets.
Kevin McNeal had been on the 85th floor of one tower. A big guy, he walked down Church Street, his shirt partially unbuttoned, his belly bared.
"My whole floor was destroyed," he said. "I thought it was a bomb." He walked off, carrying a briefcase, on a normal day a businessman taking work home.
Inside, Kelly Badillo, an elevator operator, was in the lobby when he heard the first explosion. "I felt the pressure, like somebody had grabbed me and squeezed me and then let go," he said. Then came the second explosion. "It went boom. Boom boom boom. Then you couldn't breathe. You couldn't see your fingers in front of you. I turned on my flashlight just to look at my hands. Everybody was just standing there."
Above, Heineman's group continued its descent. Firefighters had broken open all of the soda machines on the landings so the evacuees had something to drink.
The lower stairwell was thick with smoke. People labored to breathe and slowed. Others pushed past.
"When we got to the 50s, there were firemen walking up, carrying hoses, pushing past us," Heineman said. "After that, there were times you couldn't move. Nobody was moving. It was like bumper-to-bumper traffic. You would look down and see all the hands in the stairwell.
"Once in a while we would yell down, 'What's going on?' They would yell up, 'It's starting to move.' But often I wondered whether we would make it.
"Eventually, as we got closer, to about the 16th floor, it started to move. The last six floors, there was water pouring down the stairwells. We got to the mezzanine and had to walk down the escalators from there to the main lobby, which had 6 to 8 inches of water.
"Then they had us go down through the shopping concourse. The sprinklers were on there and there was more water on the ground. Then they had us walk up an escalator from the concourse to get out on the east side of the plaza. The FBI were there, and the police, saying 'Get away from the building! Get away! Walk north to Broadway.'
"Amazingly, there were some people trying to get toward the scene, with cameras or to look. But I started walking away toward City Hall. Then I saw that the second tower was on fire too. I didn't understand how that could be. But I kept walking. And then I heard a big rumbling.
"We had gotten out 10 minutes earlier."
By 4 p.m., there was a sort of weird standstill. Doctors were sent back to their offices; there was not enough to do. Rescuers had yet to find enough victims.
Each of the twin towers had a six-story annex, and debris was piled half that high. Late in the afternoon, the annexes were still burning. The south side of 7 World Trade Center was sheared off. So was a corner of the World Financial Building.
Along the West Side Highway, hundreds of emergency rescue vehicles idled, waiting for the 7 World Trade Center building to fall. It caught fire from the raining debris and had been burning for hours. Police and firemen knew it would go; it was just a question of when.
Finally, at 5:20, it fell and the rescue workers moved south. An army of 50 New York Housing Authority trucks took off from Houston Street. Ironworkers from locals 586 and 40, armed with torches, oxygen and acetylene, got ready to move out.
One of them, Bobby Teofrio, said he dreaded going in. "I know what I'm gonna see and I don't want to see it. I think I'm going to see a lot of broken bodies and death. But this is what we got to do. We got to cut it all away and haul it out."
A powerful, sooty wind blew debris down the streets. Cops flashed past, gunning their cars 30, 40 mph in reverse. People held long brown poles, with paper bags taped to the ends telling people where to stand in line to give blood. O-positive here. Type A there.
It Would Have Been Worse an Hour Later
Volunteers were gathered by the hundreds, wondering what they could do. A bizarre, ragtag group of people marched down the West Side Highway. Face masks in place, they were ready to start hauling bodies from the debris.
Occasionally, an F-15 warplane zoomed overhead. Small gas explosions kept popping and the smell of gas covered lower Manhattan.
It struck Heineman afterward that everything would have been worse an hour later. The offices, like his own, would have been filled. The stairways would have been impassable. He kept trying his cell phone, to reach his wife, but couldn't get through. Pay phones were out of the question--20 people would be lined up at those.
Near City Hall, he reached his panicked wife. Their two sons were both at school, where they saw the flaming buildings on TV. The oldest, well aware of where daddy worked, called home to find out what had happened to him.
Heineman joined what had become a mass exodus uptown, heading up Broadway toward Penn Station, thinking only to get home. When he learned that the trains were not running in Manhattan, he walked cross-town, toward the East Side. At 34th Street, where the Midtown Tunnel connects Manhattan to Queens, the near end of Long Island, police were not allowing any traffic in. But they let cars out provided they took refugees along. He and four other men piled in a cab that took them, no charge, to the other side of the tunnel. He walked to one train station, then took a train to another, which put him on the railroad to Garden City.
"I called my wife and said, 'Meet me.' "
He got home around 1 p.m. and spent the next hours trying to find out if everyone he worked with was OK. By late afternoon, three members of the firm were still not accounted for. He hoped they didn't have cell phones or couldn't call in for some other reason.
The birthday party for his son was still on. The grandparents were coming over at 6.
"Were having an ice cream cake," he said. "It's just a small party. But it's a good day for a celebration."
In Manhattan, there was a hole in the middle of Warren Street, where an engine of one of the airliners came to earth. The farther away you got from the towers, the more normal and surreal the scene became. The sky was brilliant blue, the end of a gorgeous Indian summer day. A breeze blew out of the north, and the outdoor tables at neighborhood cafes were filled with hipsters in sandals and shorts and spaghetti-strap tops. But people were nervous, and every once in a while they looked back at the skyline and its missing pieces. It was as if someone you knew was suddenly, oddly changed. As though that someone was missing something--an ear, a smile, or something more. Maybe a piece of his heart.
Times staff writer Terry McDermott contributed to this story.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times