Marguerite A. DeMartino: From Fleeing the WTC to Active Duty in 24 Hours
I was working downtown Manhattan directly across from the World Trade Center. At the time, I was a Public Affairs Chief Petty Officer in the United States Coast Guard Reserve. My daily walk to work was through the WTC lobby coming from the Staten Island Ferry. Once I settled in my office, a colleague ran in shouting that a plane had hit one of the WTC towers. My first thought was that it most likely was a small plane because the Hudson River was a main corridor for small fixed wing aircrafts. But when I went into the pantry and looked out the window, my jaw dropped—that was no small plane! I ran back into my office and called my partner (now spouse), Maureen, to tell her what had just happened. But during the call, my office building shook when the second plane hit and calls to evacuate came over the PA. I then told her that I would be on my way to her office as soon as possible. (From what I would later understand, part of the plane's landing gear had hit the 8th floor of my office building.)
Once down in the street, I looked up and the first thought that came to my mind was that those buildings were going to collapse. I started telling people to evacuate. After the second tower was hit, my partner called Carol, a close friend of ours, because she could not get in touch with me. Carol worked across the street from my office building. At that time, she did not evacuate from her building. Carol told Maureen she' saw me through her office window busy directing people to leave the area pointing toward Chambers Street!
I noticed the situation was getting worse and decided to leave the area and head toward my partner's office near Battery Park. My plan was to get her and head to the United States Coast Guard office located at The Battery Building next to the Staten Island Ferry. When I made it to her office I said to come with me to the Coast Guard but her boss wanted to keep the staff at the office for the time being. So she stayed while I went to the Coast Guard office. I told her to meet me there when she could leave.
When I made it to the office, I remember seeing the front desk security guard praying. We both looked at each other in shock. I ran up to the second floor where my active duty colleagues worked and remembered running into the office and yelling, "What is happening?" In the background, I could see on the TV that the Pentagon was hit too. Then the inevitable happened—Two WTC collapsed; then approximately 40 minutes later, One WTC collapsed. During that time, clouds of dust and debris covered downtown Manhattan. I saw crowds of people running toward the ferry and the shore line to get off of the island. Then a line of vessels started coming toward the battery—tug boats, Coast Guard, NYPD, and site-seeing vessels came to evacuate the crowds near the shoreline. It was an incredible sight to see.
My spouse ended up meeting me around noon at the Coast Guard office. We ended up staying at that office until we could get on a ferry back to Staten Island. Then that night I was called to active duty by Title 10 Executive Order and had to report first thing in the morning. As Public Affairs Chief, I spent three weeks photographing, escorting the media and military chaplains to the site, and responding to media requests.
I used to live right across from the WTC in the mid-90s and I remembered my mother asking me, "Aren't you afraid that those buildings might come down?" On 9/11, I looked up at the sky with tears in my eyes and said, "Mom, the buildings came down."
Like everyone else in New York City on 9/11, I will never forget this horrific event and will always remember how we all pulled together in the weeks and months after to heal and rebuild.
Ken Radigan: “It seemed like nighttime in the lobby as no light could get through.”
I remember every minute of that day. It is something that just stays with you.
I remember hearing the thud and the building shake when the first plane hit. They were doing construction on Pine Street and it sounded like they dropped about 10 of those 6 by 10 feet steel sheets that they use to cover the road to allow traffic to pass. I was on the third floor. Soon after the thud, I noticed a lot of paper flying around outside my window. It was like a ticker-tape parade, but the sheets were not cut up. I did not know at the time that we were downwind from the trade center.
I remember getting a call from one of my best friends Bill. Bill witnessed people jumping from the Trade Center. He didn’t want to go to his office and asked if he could stop by our office. I had known Bill for over 20 years and when I first saw him I knew without a doubt that he saw something horrible and that it would probably change him forever. I could just see it on his face; he did not have to say anything.
Bill and I stayed in the AIG guest room that was located in the lobby. We tried to call our wives, but the cell service was not good. We would get information that the United States was under attack. There were two planes that hit the World Trade Center. Another hit the Pentagon and a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania. We thought that downtown NY was being targeted and we wanted to get out of lower Manhattan and we decided to leave.
As soon as we walked outside of our office we were completely overcome with white smoke. It was not like you may recall from seeing on TV where this white cloud came rolling down the street. It happened instantaneously. We were outside in the clear air and all of the sudden I could not see Billy or the building even though they were a couple of feet away. You could not tell where the smoke was coming from because it was everywhere. I reached out to where I thought he might be and pulled him back into the building.
When we were back in the lobby, we learned that one of the Twin Towers had fallen. We did not know what to do. I remember thinking that the timing was critical. The towers were hit just as people were coming into the office; there would likely be a second strike as people were trying to leave. I wanted to be out of Manhattan by 12:00 noon. I lived on Long Island and would normally take the Long Island Railroad out of Penn Station, but I wanted to avoid this at all costs.
We decided that we would try to leave and walk to the Flatbush station in Brooklyn. While we were discussing this, the second tower fell. Unlike the first tower that had white smoke, the smoke from the second tower to fall was dark black. It seemed like nighttime in the lobby as no light could get through.
We took off our tee shirts and made facial masks to protect us from the smoke and headed out the door. We walked down Pine street and made a left as soon as we passed our building. By making the left, we were no longer downwind from the towers; all of the sudden we could see that it was actually a sunny, clear day. There were plenty of people on the street doing what we were doing—leaving Manhattan. Nobody really said anything, they just kept on walking. When we were on the bridge there were several fighter jets that flew by, low and loud. Several people stopped, crouched down, and covered their heads as they did.
The Flatbush Ave train station was well organized. No one was allowed to wait in the station. We would form lines outside the station instead. When a train came in, people would rush onto the train, it didn’t matter where it was going and the train would take off.
I was covered in smoke and ash, and I did not want my kids to see me like this. I did my best to clean myself up, but it was everywhere. There was an inch of ash in my pant cuffs (they were in style at the time). But despite what I experienced downtown, the hardest part for me was facing my younger daughter. She knew something terrible had happened and she wanted to understand why? I did not have an answer for her.
Teresa Chan: “The memory of 9/11 still rattles me and stirs intense emotion.”
My office was located on the 51st floor of the South Tower at the time of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. I was out of the office that day for my grandmother’s funeral. At the time, there were no smartphones, so I only knew what I heard as people talked about the news throughout the day.
On September 11, 2001, I was at home holding my newborn daughter when my husband called and told me to turn on the TV because he could see a fire at the WTC from his office in midtown. It was 8:50 AM. That was the time I would usually be coming out of the train station at the WTC to walk to my office a few blocks away.
I still had many friends and colleagues who worked in the South Tower, not to mention those who worked elsewhere in the WTC and downtown. I knew many people who commuted through the WTC for work in the city.
Initially, I thought that there was just a horrible accident that caused the fire in the North Tower. As I watched the live coverage of the news, however, I saw a plane hit a tower. I thought that it was a replay of the first plane hitting the North Tower. Then, it struck me that the North Tower was already burning. It was at that moment that I realized that this was no accident. I had witnessed the terrorists’ attack on the South Tower.
It is because I was spared from the events at the WTC and “saved” by my family twice that the memory of 9/11 still rattles me and stirs intense emotion as I write this in remembrance of that day. Perhaps I feel a bit guilty.
I know that I could have perished or suffered immense physical harm on that day, so the feelings about 9/11 remain very deep and the indelible memories of that day replay in my mind. On days of clear blue skies and sunshine—the way it was on 9/11 twenty years ago—I often recall the tragedy our country endured. I take a moment to honor those we lost and remember the humanity that pulled the country together. I will never forget.