Cheating death (Lloyds List)
Two employees of the American Bureau of Shipping tell of their miracle escape from the 91st floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower. John McLaughlin and Alison Bate report
 

EVERY catastrophe has its miraculous survivors, who escape the carnage around them only through a chance meeting or a freak accident or a small decision unthinkingly taken, writes John McLaughlin. Tuesday’s terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York was no exception. In the days that followed, any number of stories emerged of hairsbreadth escapes and unlikely rescues.

 

They were cheering in themselves. They certainly sold newspapers. But they also served an important purpose for a city still stunned into silence by the images of the attack and its aftermath, each life saved adding its small sum to the growing, desperately willed belief among New Yorkers that the city’s famous spirit remained unbowed, that life could regain its old optimism and vibrancy.

 

Steve McIntyre’s is one of those stories. McIntyre is 48 years old. He is a husband, and the father of three small children, and he lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. For the last 24 years, ever since he graduated from the University of Michigan’s Naval Architecture School, he has worked for the American Bureau of Shipping. He is now its director of regulatory affairs. Until last Tuesday, his office was on the 91st floor of World Trade Center One.

 

That morning, he arrived in the office at 08.35, a good half-hour earlier than usual. His office faced north, and on that brilliantly sunny day, from that height, he could see all Manhattan stretching out before him. He closed his blinds because of the glare, sat down at his computer and began checking his email.

 

He says, “it was then that I heard the roar of jet engines coming right at us. I have a vague recollection of a shadow crossing the blinds. And then one or two seconds after the roar came the impact. The whole building shook, moved, and oscillated. The interior wall and the ceiling at the east end of the office came in.

 

“My perception was that it came in at about the 93rd floor, right smack in the center of the north face. I knew it was a jet engine. I thought, ‘Oh s**t, someone’s lost control of a private Lear jet and crashed into us’. I had no idea of the size of the thing.” It was 08.48.

 

The news, and the images of what happened, was soon rocketing around the world, but on the 91st floor, Steve says, the 11 ABS employees had no idea what was going on outside. He thinks now it was one of the things that saved them. The mood was definitely not calm, but it was orderly, perhaps also because some had been through the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 when ABS had occupied a sparkling office on the 102nd floor of Two World Trade Center. “We started our routine, started checking who’s here....” He chokes up, as he does several times in an hour-long conversation, and then apologizes. “Sometimes it gets me at odd times,” he says.

 

He collects himself, and continues: “People were getting fire extinguishers. Someone had the presence of mind to soak a big roll of paper towels.” Everyone was safe, though George Sleigh, a phlegmatic Briton who is manager of ABS’ Technical Consistency Department, was “encased” in debris and had to be extricated from his cubicle. Steve went to check the fire exits. There were three of them. “The first, on the left, had a lot of water and debris. I went down the hall and turned right to the second fire stair. It was dark, worse than the first. And I have a clear feeling now that the two closest stairs were blocked above our floor. I thought ‘where the hell is the third fire stair’.

 

“The corridors to the east were impassable, and there was a lot of smoke. I finally found my way to the third fire stair. But I tripped on some gypsum board and fell. I slid down to the first landing and then round the corner and down to the second landing. Then I realized ‘it’s better here’.” He went back to get the others.

 

“We started down. I remember very few people coming down from other floors. We stopped at around the 85th floor to take stock and to calm each other. That was much better. We realized the fire was above us and that it was clear below. We just had to get down.”

 

From then on, they moved quickly, their minds focussed entirely on getting out rather than on whatever might be happening above them. All the same, he says that emotionally he was “up and down like a yo-yo”. “We were completely encased in tunnels. And then we would open a door onto a floor and there would be guys fighting a fire, and then we would open another door and there would be people just milling around. It frightened me, all these people just standing around. Maybe they had seen what happened to the second tower.”

 

They continued their way down, crossing floors to find new fire exits when the clog of people became too thick and the pace of descent too slow for comfort or when, as on the 78th floor, they ran into a locked fire door and had to retreat. By the 40s, they met the first firemen moving slowly up against the current.

 

“They were already beat after climbing 44 floors with heavy equipment. People were giving them water and encouragement. And those poor guys kept climbing up to do what they could do.” Many would never make it out again. Steve and his companions kept going down, counting the floors until they reached what they imagined the sanctuary of the mezzanine. He still had no idea what had happened outside. It did not cross his mind that his ordeal might just be beginning.

 

“I was thinking ‘okay, great, we’re safe’. But outside I could see all this falling debris flying around. I thought ‘we’ve being coming down for an hour, what the hell is this’.” By now, he had been paired with Ruth, who had sprained her ankle and had trouble getting down. They were ordered down to the lobby floor and directed across the plaza to an exit on the eastern side of the complex, Steve helping Ruth along under the drenching rain of the fire sprinklers. Seconds later, at 9.58, Two World Trade Center imploded.

 

“We were about 50 feet from the escalator up to Church St and I was saying to Ruth ‘we’re okay, we get up this escalator and we’re okay’, and then there was a big rumble and a huge roar and everybody shouted ‘run’ and then a huge wind came through there. I remember distinctly being lifted off my feet and blown down the hall, I don’t know how far. Ruth was holding onto me but we were ripped apart. I had no conception of what was happening. It went through my mind that a bomb had gone off in the subway. Then the plume came through and there was an opaque blackness. It was not an absence of light. It was opaque. My glasses were gone. I put my hand in front of my face and I couldn’t see it. I thought ‘a bomb has gone off and I’m going to die right here of smoke inhalation’. Then I realized that it wasn’t smoke, that it was just very heavy air. There was all this stuff on the floor but it was light stuff. I was coated in it, as if I’d been immersed in a vat of butter. And the exposed skin on my arm was all pocked from tiny glass shards, maybe 100 of them.

 

“We must have been on the very edge of the blast field when number two came down. I ran into a glass storefront. I could feel the glass but not see it. People were yelling. And then suddenly, and this was a seminal thing for me, I saw a flashlight, not the bulb just a lume of light, and a guy yelling ‘come to me’. I ran to him and I grabbed his belt and hung on, and someone hung on to me, and in that chain we started stumbling around looking for a way out.”

 

After a time, they heard more voices yelling, “and then it was like stepping out of a mirror. It took only a few steps to break out of the opacity, which was not smoke but ash and debris and dust, and into the light.”

 

Steve ran northeast. He realizes now he was in shock. He found an ambulance and asked for help, but the paramedics, as traumatized as he, were unable to respond. He remembers seeing ordinary people heading south, as if drawn irresistibly towards the site of the disaster. He remembers shouting at them ‘run’ and, still convinced there had been a subway bomb, ‘don’t go down the subway’. They ignored him. Only when the first tower began to collapse did the tide of people turn, and only then did he look back for the first time. Even then, he believed only the top floors of number one had gone. It was 10.28, just half an hour after he had been blown off his feet at the very bottom of the building.

 

He kept heading north. A car radio told him that WTC1 had been hit by a flight from Boston, and it struck him like a hammer blow that his wife was due to fly back from Boston that day. He found a man with a cell phone, had him call his home. His nanny Rhonda burst into tears when she heard his voice. He reassured her, told her to tell everyone he was safe. A man gave him a ride to 23rd street, dropping him close to the UN school where his kids were.

 

Still covered in ash and dust, he started walking across town. “It was a lunchtime crowd on 23rd St. People were sipping cokes, talking on their cell phones. It was complete normalcy. I can’t tell you how weird it was. I went into a deli and stood in line for a glass of water. I stood in line! A man came round from behind the counter. He gave me two bottles of water. But I realized he just wanted me out of the store. In all that time, only one person asked if I needed help. One person! I got a glimpse of what it means to be a refugee or a homeless person. I was transparent.” He recalls with a hollow laugh pressing himself up against a building in fear as an F16 fighter plane flew low overhead, the lunchtime crowd walking on oblivious.

 

He arrived at the UN School, where at first the security guards refused to let him in. But he was finally able to make sure his children were safe, and then catch a ride back to West 84th St, where again the sight of life proceeding as if nothing had happened struck him as “utterly bizarre”.

 

He says: “I walked into the apartment and Rhonda let out a scream. (His colleague) Greg Shark was sitting on the sofa, and it was such a comfort to realize he was there and alive. He had been there. He could corroborate what happened. It was almost hallucinogenic. I sat down with Greg and watched the images on TV. I remember lurching the first time I saw the plane go into Two. I jumped out of my seat. Later I saw the plane going into One, and I could connect it. But it is getting harder to watch all the time.”

 

By some miracle, everyone from Steve’s office made it out alive. His kids were fine. His wife chose not to fly, but drove back from Boston with a colleague. Thinking back, it scares him how close he and his friends came to disaster. If ABS had still been in its old World Trade Center Two home, their fate would have been sealed: all 650 people who were in the offices of brokerage Cantor Fitzgerald above and below the 102nd floor are still unaccounted for.

 

And on the day of the attacks: “If people in our vicinity had known what was really going on, or what was to come, there would have been complete panic. It is a miracle the plane did not come in a notch lower. It is a miracle the jet fuel did not come down to our floor. And it is a miracle the stairwells were as clear as they were. If we had been slower coming down we would not be here today.”

 

Like her colleague Steve McIntyre, Claire McIntyre — no relation — was checking her e-mail when she first heard the plane, writes Alison Bate.

 

“I was working at my computer and first heard this horrendous roar of a jet engine,” she recalls. “I thought it couldn’t possibly be here this close. Then I saw the wing and tail of a plane.” She jumped up screaming and ran out her office to alert the rest of the staff. “I thought: ‘Oh my God, all my people’. I ran out into the hallway and just screamed: ‘Everyone, get out now’.”

 

Then American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the building two story’s above her head, wiping out the 93rd floor offices of the world’s largest insurance broker Marsh & McLennan. At the end of last week there were still 700 Marsh employees missing. Claire had no idea at the time that it was a terrorist attack. “I thought it was an accident,” she says.

 

As all her 11 colleagues working in the office that day gathered in the reception area Claire had the presence of mind to grab her pocketbook and a flashlight before they started their long escape down 91 floors. “The first two flights were dark, with no emergency lights, and water was pouring down the stairs,” says Claire. “We could barely see and I put my flashlight on. Then the emergency lights came on, and water was still flowing down.”

 

Fellow office worker Emma ‘Georgia’ Barnett slipped and slid down three flights of stairs. She got up but then tripped over a hose, damaging her knee, but carried on. Claire and four others crossed over to another stairwell that was moving faster and worked their way down floor by floor.

 

“In the 60s I was thinking: ‘How much more to go?’” says Claire. “I remember getting to 22 and saying: ‘Oh my God, we’re almost there’.” When they emerged from the stairwell at the mezzanine level, and were greeted by emergency services people, who were rushing everybody out.

 

Then came the worst part. Claire chokes as she recalled the moment. “As we passed the Plaza, I saw bodies and body parts.” By this stage desperate workers still trapped in the building were throwing themselves out of windows to escape the blaze that had engulfed both buildings.

 

When she got to the escalator to reach the lower level, Claire met up again with Georgia, and they went through the Concourse. Finally they reached the street, exiting on the east side of the complex. While Claire was helping Georgia toward an ambulance across the street they saw the neighboring south tower start to collapse.

 

As it began to fall at around 10.00, Claire, Georgia and Steve started to run up the block. “We thought: ‘We made it down 91 flights of stairs and now we are going to die’,” says Claire. Just as they realized they were safe from debris, a huge cloud of dust came at them, reaching them as they were halfway up the block. “We were in total blackness and couldn’t breathe at all.”

 

They pulled part of their shirts over their faces for protection, and Claire and Georgia held on together, feeling their way up the street. In the murky confusion they became separated from Steve. Gradually the dust cloud lessened, becoming dark grey, and they ran into the Chase Bank, next to the Millennium Hilton Hotel. The bank had closed its doors, but someone let them in and they stayed for about 15 minutes until the air cleared enough to go back outside.

As they walked toward Broadway, they met a TV crew and gave a phone interview about their escape.

 

Claire also called her sister and ABS office headquarters in Houston, Texas, to let everyone know they were safe. “It was very emotional, of course,” she says.

 

ABS has held offices in the World Trade Center for about 10 years, but downsized when the corporate headquarters moved to Texas two years ago. The New York office normally employs 22 people, but at the time of tragedy only 11 staff were actually in the office. Miraculously while hundreds of people located on lower floors in both the north and south buildings are still unaccounted for all the ABS staff escaped.

 

At least 70 Port Authority of New York and New Jersey staff — including the executive director Neil Leven — are still missing. Their 65th floor offices are over 20 floors lower down the building than ABS’ office.

 

Georgia was now also able to get some medical attention for her injured knee. Throughout the ordeal, Claire feared for the safety of her fiancé, Danny Franco, an elevator mechanic working in the south tower, the first tower to collapse. “We both thought each other was dead,” she recalls. Cell phones were not working well, and it was 11.30 before Claire could leave a message for him. It was another hour before Danny got through to her and they learned of each other’s safety. “We just couldn’t believe God blessed us. It was a miracle all round.”

 

She learned Danny was having coffee on the 44th floor of the south tower when the first plane hit her building. He saw a fireball come out of the building and had made it to the lobby when the second plane hit his building just 18 minutes later.

 

Later that day, Claire went to her brother’s house on Long Island and checked around again that all ABS staff had escaped. All the roads, bridges and tunnels were closed off in the wake of the attack so she stayed at her brother’s home overnight. It was Wednesday evening before she got to go home to Union Township, New Jersey, and was reunited with her fiancé.

 

Since then, Claire has been crying a lot. “I feel up and down, but I am fine,” she says. As to what action the US should take now, Claire admits to feeling torn. “I wouldn’t want other innocent people to be harmed,” she says. “I want the responsible parties to be harmed, but it has to be well thought out.”

 

As with so many New Yorkers, talk is now of rebuilding and getting back to some sense of normality without ever forgetting those who lost their lives in the world’s worst terrorist atrocity. Claire and Danny, like so many affected by the disaster, have practical matters to deal with. Both lost their cars, which were parked at the World Trade Center, and are dealing with insurance issues. “We’re trying to get our life back in order,” she says.