First-Person Account: The Destruction of the World Trade Center
Section editor Rhona Melsky was outside smoking a cigarette with a co-worker and witnessed the first plane to crash into the north tower at 8:45 a.m.
"We heard the plane flying right over us really low," she said. "We looked up and saw that it was extremely low. It looked like a passenger jet, and I was thinking, 'Oh, my God. It's flying right into the World Trade Center. That's impossible,' " she said. "As it got closer, it banked to the left and looked like it flew in deliberately. And then it exploded. We both burst into tears."
For my part, I commute through the World Trade Center on the PATH train from New Jersey every morning. I was apparently underground, maybe even under the river, when the first plane hit. I didn't hear anything unusual, but when I exited the train, I thought I smelled diesel fuel. I was in the Air Force 20 years ago, and jet fuel smells a lot like diesel fuel.
As I came up the first small set of escalators leading out of the cavernous basement PATH stop, I heard alarms in the café where I buy a bagel and bottle of diet Snapple every morning. The café doors were shut, and employees were gawking at the vents over the grills. Then, as I headed up the second bank of escalators, a couple of men at the top were screaming, "Everybody out! Everybody out! Everybody out!"
Understand that these are no ordinary set of escalators. There are -- Jesus, I mean, there used to be -- something like eight of them, I'm guessing each the length of four regular ones. They were always packed with humanity at this hour. I always used to tell people, "If you ever want to feel like you're not remotely unique, go up the World Trade Center escalators during the morning rush. You'll see an unimaginable throng of people just like you, all doing the same thing as you are. No wonder they tried to bomb it." I thought about the 1993 attack probably once a week during the past four years here.
The yells prompted people to start trotting up the escalators and toward the exits. Obviously, no one in the commuters' throng knew what had happened.
"Take your time. Take your time," said some apparent World Trade Center officials as a few people broke into panicked runs.
When I came into the daylight, I saw debris on the ground, and a couple of people were hurt. I remember seeing a 5-foot-long, tan piece of metal among the chunks on the ground. It was my first piece of evidence that something serious had happened.
I then looked up and saw a gaping hole in one of the towers.
"Not wise to stick around," I thought, so I started walking up Church Street.
You never realize how many people work in that area until you see them all out in the streets. It was hard to push through them. There were many gawkers clogging the way uptown. People milled around, many trying to call on their cell phones as police tried to direct them away from the towers. I tried to call my girlfriend to let her know I was OK, but cell coverage was out.
I had made my way a few blocks up Church Street when the second plane hit -- but at this point, I was unaware that either explosion was the result of plane crashes. I looked up in time to see the side of the second tower blow out. Papers exploded out of the side of the building like a big ticker-tape parade. Then I saw several people fall out of the second tower to their deaths. It took me a few seconds to realize that I was witnessing people die.
Then people started screaming, and the throng began stampeding up the street. Cars were swerving and screeching, their drivers trying to accelerate away from the scene.
"Don't run in the street! They'll kill you!" one of the more levelheaded people in the crowd yelled.
I flattened myself against a wall to avoid being trampled and watched the wave of people go by. A woman next to me began crying, saying, "God, give me strength." A young woman in a business suit made her way up the street, sobbing uncontrollably. Another man and woman spotted each other and were both visibly relieved to see the other was safe. They ran into each other's arms and squeezed hard.
I continued making my way up the street away from the towers, occasionally looking back, trying to calculate whether I was far enough away to be safe if one of them fell, never really thinking they would.
I got to work a few minutes before the first building collapsed, and we witnessed the rest of New York's part in this generation's version of Pearl Harbor play out from our conference room windows. Our offices are on the sixth floor of 100 Sixth Ave., just one block north of Canal Street. Mayor Rudy Giuliani ordered everything evacuated from Canal Street south.
A colleague was looking out the window as the second tower imploded. His voice barely a whisper, he said, "The f***ing World Trade Center is gone."