“Everybody knows what they were doing when it happened. Everybody remembers where they were,” says SAP employee Steve Peck. “I just happened to be a little closer than most.”
In the service of a previous employer, Steve was due at Tower 1 of the World Trade Center at 9:00 a.m. to present to the New York and New Jersey Port Authority. When checking with security that morning, one of Steve’s colleagues asked if the meeting was in the really nice conference room on the 90th floor or in the much more modest room on the 63rd. A quick check of the meeting invitation confirmed that on September 11, for whatever culmination of influences, Steve and his colleagues were expected on the 63rd floor.
There, at 8:46 a.m., just after arranging brochures on the conference table, Steve and his colleagues were violently shaken out of their preparations by a tremendous impact. “There was no question that something very big and terrible had happened,” he says. The first 15 seconds were the most terrifying. “I thought the building was going to collapse right there and then. All you could do was hang on to your chair. I remember thinking: ‘It’s a Tuesday morning, and I don’t want to go like this.’”
But the shaking subsided. Steve and others on the floor headed straight to the stairwell. No one knew exactly what had happened, but everyone knew they had to get out. “From there, it was simply an exercise to see how fast we could make it down 63 flights of stairs,” he recounts.
“It was a perfectly clear day”
In a little over three minutes, Steve had made it down to the 37th floor. There, however, the stream of fleeing office workers thickened and slowed. “Anybody who has ever left a big stadium event will know the feeling,” Steve describes. “You just kind of creep down.” Though people were fearful, there was no panic, Steve recalls, and most everyone was able to maintain composure. “Everyone was very orderly and looking for ways to help each other out.”
The slower pace, a little more than a minute per floor, gave those fleeing time to assess what was going on. Many recalled the images from the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and wondered if this was a second attempt. In fact, several of them, Steve found out, had actually been in Tower 1 during that attack.
Some people had stolen a fleeting look out the window before entering the stairwell and saw debris falling from above. “We were just trying to make sense of the whole thing,” Steve says. Then, one person in the group carrying a BlackBerry (not the ubiquitous tool then that it is today) received a message that an airplane had hit the building – American Airlines Flight 11. “That didn’t make sense to us either,” Steve says. “It was a perfectly clear day.”
Steve also took advantage of the slower pace to call home on his cell phone. He left his wife a message on the answering machine that he was in the World Trade Center and there had been an explosion, but that he was making his way down the stairwell. “It was a very tough call to make,” he says, as “getting out was far from certain.”
At 9:03 a.m., as Steve had made his way to the 28th floor, the building was rocked again. “It was not as strong as the earlier impact, but it was definitely noticeable,” he says. Shortly thereafter, the man with the BlackBerry received another message: Tower 2 had also been struck by an airplane – United Airlines Flight 175. “That changed the mood a lot,” Steve recalls. “It was obvious to most that this was a coordinated attack, and we felt like sitting ducks.”
Nevertheless, the group remained calm. “The lights were still on, we knew the impact was above us, and no one suspected the building could come down on their head,” Steve says. “So we just concentrated on slowly but surely getting to the bottom of that stairwell.”
“While we were racing out, they were racing in”
At the 20th floor, Steve encountered faces now etched in his memory forever. Firefighters from Rescue One – the first responders in high rise emergencies in New York City – squeezed up the stairs in a rush to aid those trapped on the higher floors.
Steve specifically recalls the five members of the Fire Department of the City of New York. Laden with more than sixty pounds of equipment, the Rescue One group trudged up the stairs. As they ascended, they informed Steve and the others that, aside from a bit of water on the 7th floor, the path was clear to the lobby. “I can’t tell you how comforting that was to have a firefighter let us know that there wasn’t much between us and safety except for a little bit of time,” Steve says.
The group wished the firefighters luck, gave them information on what was above them to the 63rd floor, and watched them proceed up the stairwell. “You could tell in their eyes that they knew they were going into a tough situation,” Steve says. “They had a better idea of the danger we were all in than we did. Yet they kept going. While we were racing out, they were racing in.”
Leading Rescue One up the stairs, Steve would discover later, was a young Captain by the name of Terry Hatton. Rounding up the group was sixty-three-year-old Joseph Angelini Sr. In total, 11 firefighters from Rescue One responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center- none of them would survive the day.
“It was just chaos everywhere”
At around 9:30 a.m., nearly 45 minutes after the plane had struck their building, Steve and a colleague reached the lobby. It was a cathartic moment. “I can’t describe how nice it was to see sunshine and breathe fresh air,” he recalls.
But here, too, the damage was apparent. The fire alarms were blaring, loud crashing sounds were everywhere, and glass had been blown out of many of the windows. Unspent fuel from the plane had fallen down the elevator shafts to the ground floor and ignited into an evanescent fireball.
Steve and his colleague John Sindel (also an SAP employee today) had planned to wait in the lobby for a few others, but the Port Authority Police would have none of it. They were instructed to leave the area immediately and were ushered down the escalator and through the basement shopping center. Every 50 to 100 feet a police officer or fire fighter directed them away from the debris falling down all around them. Steve quickly got another message out to his wife that he was getting out of the building. “Squeeze the kids for me,” he remembers saying.
Steve and his colleague made it to St Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church, just opposite the World Trade Center. Here they looked up toward the sky and saw for the first time the severity of the attacks and the carnage that had been wrought above them. “It was simply unbelievable: the gaping holes in the buildings, the thick plumes of smoke. They were the images that we have all seen.”
Steve’s first instinct was to try to help, “but there is nothing you can do – it was just chaos everywhere,” he says. Steve and his colleague figured the best thing they could do was just get out of the city.
They made their way north up Broadway, hoping to reach a train station that would get them out of New York. Steve passed through the crowds that had circled the World Trade Center at a five-block distance, their mouths agape and faces taut in unified disbelief. They stood around parked taxis, which were blaring the latest news from their radios. Lines of as many as 50 people emanated from phone booths.
In a surrealistic moment, Steve noticed a man tending his hotdog stand, dolling out brats like on any other day. Shaking off the absurdity of the scene, he and his colleague bought six bottles of water and continued their way up Broadway.
A pillar of dust and debris
Then, just before 10:00 a.m., the thousands of faces peering up at the site of the attacks uttered a collective gasp. Tower 2 was collapsing, leaving a pillar of dust and debris where its silhouette had once been. Steve watched as the cloud quickly made its way up Broadway toward him. He and John went into an all out sprint. “All I was thinking was that the more blocks I can put between me and that dust cloud the better,” he explains. “That and where I’m going to duck into when it catches up with me.”
While scanning the horizon, Steve noticed a taxi with its light on, indicating it was available. He rapped on the window and asked the driver if he was taking passengers. “I said, ‘You see that cloud of dust? I want to go in the other direction.’” While in the cab, Steve passed the United Nations building as it was being evacuated. On the taxi radio, he learned of the plane that had hit the Pentagon – American Airlines Flight 77.
The cab dropped Steve and John off at a commuter station in Harlem. They took a train 20 miles north to White Plains and then went their separate ways. It would take Steve five hours in one of the last remaining rental cars in the area to make it to his home in Baltimore.
“I am just one of the thousands of survivor thanks to them”
As the adrenaline began to wear off and the events of the day started to register clearly, he pulled over at a campsite to arrange his thoughts. There, sitting on a picnic table, he watched vacationers sip their coffee outside their campers, some apparently not even aware of the day’s events.
Steve tried to get his head around the toll in human life the attacks must have claimed. He thought about what would have happened if the attacks had come an hour later, when the towers were fuller. Most of all, though, Steve thought of the firefighters. “My kids were 14 months and three years at the time,” he says. “Those firefighters had children of their own. They gave the ultimate sacrifice so that I could drive home and hug my kids that evening. And I am just one of the thousands of survivor stories thanks to them.”
American Airlines Flight 11 struck the northern façade of Tower 1 between the 93rd and 99th floors. Had Steve’s meeting taken place on the 90th floor, the outcome would have likely been entirely different for him. But he has never put much stake in the “what if?” questions. Steve has taken the events of September 11 as a call to focus on the future. “Being in that building and getting out unscathed is ultimately a gift that I must do something with to contribute to the greater good,” he says. “Every day is a gift that you must try to live to the fullest, with passion in all that you do.”
His respect for emergency response teams has only grown. He attributes the safe evacuation of 30,000 people to the diligence and bravery of the firefighters and police officers, many of whom gave their lives. Steve has shared his accounts of their heroism with many, including his children. “I think of them quite often, especially as the anniversary approaches.” Steve adds.
Steve never misses an opportunity to show his gratitude. “When you see a fire fighter or a police officer, shake their hand and say thank you,” he says. “Sometimes they may think you’re crazy, but do it anyway.” He also has taken time to visit the Rescue One firehouse on several occasions while in New York City. Armed with donuts and coffee, he just wants to extend his thanks. They were heroes before 9/11, they were heroes during 9/11, and they are still heroes every day of the week.”
Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in the combined attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and in the downed United Airlines Flight 93 outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Among the victims were two Sybase colleagues who were in Tower 2 at the time of the attacks. More than 400 of the victims were firefighters or police officers. Their sacrifice was not in vain: Approximately 30,000 people were evacuated safely from towers 1 and 2 of the World Trade Center. On the 10th anniversary of the attacks, people across the world are commemorating the tragedy of 9/11 and remembering those who fell that day.