‘On Sept. 11, 2001, I was blessed to get out alive’

By James Calautti
Special to The Observer

NEW YORK CITY —

With the anniversary of 9/11 once again approaching, I am brought back to that fateful day. I was a Port Authority employee at the time, and was at my desk on the 72nd floor when the first plane struck.

Having grown up in Kearny, I watched those towers rise back in the ‘70s. Unfortunately, I was also there when they came down. I had the privilege and honor to have worked at the World Trade Center for eight years. Every day, I would have morning coffee in the plaza between the buildings, looking up at those magnificent towers and feeling blessed to work in the most amazing environment I could imagine.

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, I made a fateful decision to arrive at work early. I had a project I really wanted to get finished, but it was sitting on my desk undone from Monday night. It was that decision that put me at Ground Zero of the worst attack on American soil.

What started as a beautiful day was suddenly turned into a nightmare at 8:47 a.m. When the first plane hit, I thought it was an earthquake. The building shook so violently and swayed over so far I thought we were going to topple right then and there.

But then everything went silent. A thousand thoughts raced through my head as to what had just happened. It didn’t matter, my supervisor, who was there for the first bombing in 1993 yelled: “Come on, let’s go!” I snapped back to reality, and headed for the stairwell as we had drilled for many times. The orderly conduct of the other Port Authority employees and the directions of the building managers were very reassuring. Unfortunately, many of those around me had also been through this before in 1993.

We headed down the stairwell and a slightly light-hearted attitude took over. Everyone was very helpful to each other. Those who seemed to be taking it worse than others were comforted and pushed ahead. We even had a blind woman in our midst. I was quite surprised by the lack of smoke and how well the emergency lighting worked. I guess the lessons from the last bombing were well learned.

Our progress was rather slow, though, and considering our situation, anything less than an all-out sprint was unacceptable — and dangerous. Many times, we had to make room for the wounded being helped down. I saw some people who were severely burned. We also had to stop often to make room for the firefighters to get past us on their way up.

That is something that will always haunt me.

As I was fleeing this building in terror, these brave first responder were headed into the heart of it. I remember how young they looked, mostly in their 20s, but with a smattering of older fellows who I assumed were the supervisors.

I thought of their spouses and children who were (likely) watching this unfold on the news. I now know that for most of the police and firefighters I saw heading up that day, it was their last on earth. Enough can never be said of their heroism. Just the sight of them being so professional was very comforting.

When we got to the sky lobby on the 44th floor, I exited the stairwell to take a small break and look out the window. It was at that moment that the second plane hit the South Tower. The explosion was so severe that it shook our building again quite aggressively and I saw flames shoot past. The light-hearted mood quickly dissipated.

Now, all I wanted was to be out of the building. At one point, I started counting the floors. Twenty-one, 20, 19, 18 — and so on. It gave me hope to track my progress. Once through the teens, I knew I was home free. But the adventure in horror wasn’t over.

We exited the stairwell and were greeted by the sight of the plaza. What I saw was almost unrecognizable. That beautiful plaza where I would have my coffee looked like a war zone. Many people turned away in tears. Charred bodies and smoldering debris lay everywhere. I will not go into detail of what a body looks like that has fallen 1,000 feet, but it is something no human being should have to see in their lifetime.

I followed the directions of the police and guards who guided us through the mall under the plaza. I later learned one of the guards, a young man with four children probably not making much more than minimum wage, didn’t make it. He was such a nice fellow. His name has slipped my mind, but I will never forget his heroism.

Once on the street, many people froze at the sight of those magnificent towers now crippled with flames licking at their sides and black gaping holes. I then made another fateful decision. I got the heck out of there. Many people just milled about, but I could sense that considerable damage had been done.

The engineers who designed those buildings deserve credit. That they remained standing for so long saved many lives. The death toll could have been much higher. But getting out was not enough — we now had to get away.

I made about two blocks when the South Tower fell.

I will never forget looking down a canyon-like street in lower Manhattan and seeing a wall of smoke and debris barreling toward me with people screaming and running. It was like being in the middle of a Hollywood disaster movie, but this was real life.

I ran as fast as I could, but the cloud caught up to me. I was dazed and walked uptown with the other survivors. Why I was spared when so many perished I’ll never know. Life and death does not discriminate, but I lived to tell the tale.

And that’s where I was Sept. 11, 2001.

The Observer Staff