Twin Tower Tales
September 11, 2001
A little history of the fighting 69th
From William Harvey, Student at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City – with his kind permission.
Yesterday I had probably the most incredible and moving experience of my life. Juilliard organized a quartet to go play at the Armory. The Armory is a huge military building where families of people missing from Tuesday's disaster go to wait for news of their loved ones. Entering the building was very difficult emotionally, because the entire building (the size of a city block) was covered with missing posters. Thousands of posters, spread out up to eight feet above the ground, each featuring a different, smiling, face.
I made my way into the huge central room and found my Juilliard buddies. For two hours we sightread quartets (with only three people!), and I don't think I will soon forget the grief counselor from the Connecticut State Police who listened the entire time, or the woman who listened only to "Memory" from Cats, crying the whole time. At 7, the other two players had to leave; they had been playing at the Armory since 1 and simply couldn't play any more. I volunteered to stay and play solo, since I had just got there.
I soon realized that the evening had just begun for me: a man in fatigues who introduced himself as Sergeant Major asked me if I'd mind playing for his soldiers as they came back from digging through the rubble at Ground Zero. Masseuses had volunteered to give his men massages, he said, and he didn't think anything would be more soothing than getting a massage and listening to violin music at the same time.
So at 9:00 p.m., I headed up to the second floor as the first men were arriving. From then until 11:30, I played everything I could do for memory: Bach B Minor Partita, Tchaik. Concerto, Dvorak Concerto, Paganini Caprices 1 and 17, Vivaldi Winter and Spring, Theme from Schindler's List, Tchaik. Melodie, Meditation from Thais, Amazing Grace, My Country 'Tis of Thee, Turkey in the Straw, Bile Them Cabbages Down. Never have I played for a more grateful audience. Somehow it didn't matter that by the end, my intonation was shot and I had no bow control. I would have lost any competition I was playing in, but it didn't matter. The men would come up the stairs in full gear, remove their helmets, look at me, and smile.
At 11:20, I was introduced to Col. Slack, head of the division. After thanking me, he said to his friends, "Boy, today was the toughest day yet. I made the mistake of going back into the pit, and I'll never do that again." Eager to hear a first-hand account, I asked, "What did you see?" He stopped, swallowed hard, and said, "What you'd expect to see."
The Colonel stood there as I played a lengthy rendition of Amazing Grace which he claimed was the best he'd ever heard. By this time it was 11:30, and I didn't think I could play anymore. I asked Sergeant Major if it would be appropriate if I played the National Anthem. He shouted above the chaos of the milling soldiers to call them to attention, and I played the National Anthem as the 300 men of the 69th Division saluted an invisible flag.
After shaking a few hands and packing up, I was prepared to leave when one of the privates came to me and told me the Colonel wanted to see me again. He took me down to the War Room, but we couldn't find the Colonel, so he gave me a tour of the War Room. It turns out that the division I played for is the Famous Fighting Sixty-Ninth, the most decorated division in the U.S. Army. He pointed out a letter from Abraham Lincoln offering his condolences after the Battle of Antietam...the 69th suffered the most casualties of any division at that historic battle. Finally, we located the Colonel. After thanking me again, he presented me with the coin of the regiment. "We only give these to someone who's done something special for the 69th," he informed me. He called over the division's historian to tell me the significance of all the symbols on the coin.
As I rode the taxi back to Juilliard...free, of course, since taxi service is free in New York right now...I was numb. Not only was this evening the proudest I've ever felt to be an American, it was my most meaningful as a musician and a person as well. At Juilliard, kids are hypercritical of each other and very competitive. The teachers expect, and in most cases get, technical perfection. But this wasn't about that. The soldiers didn't care that I had so many memory slips I lost count. They didn't care that when I forgot how the second movement of the Tchaik. went. I've never seen a more appreciative audience, and I've never understood so fully what it means to communicate music to other people.
And how did it change me as a person? Let's just say that, next time I want to get into a petty argument about whether Richter or Horowitz was better, I'll remember that when I asked the Colonel to describe the pit formed by the tumbling of the Towers, he couldn't. Words only go so far, and even music can only go a little further from there.
We were about 5 hours out of Frankfurt flying over the North Atlantic and I was in my crew rest seat taking my scheduled rest break. All of a sudden the curtains parted violently and I was told to go to the cockpit, “right now”, to see the captain. As soon as I got there I noticed that the crew had one of those "All Business" looks on their faces. The captain handed me a printed message. I quickly read the message and realized the importance of it. The message was from Atlanta, addressed to our flight, and simply said, "All airways over the Continental US are closed. Land ASAP at the nearest airport, advise your destination. "Now, when a dispatcher tells you to land immediately without suggesting which airport, one can assume that the dispatcher has reluctantly given up control of the flight to the captain.
We knew it was a serious situation and we needed to find terra firma quickly. It was quickly decided that the nearest airport was 400 miles away, behind our right shoulder, in Gander, on the island of Newfoundland. A quick request was made to the Canadian traffic controller and a right turn, directly to Gander, was approved immediately. We found out later why there was no hesitation by the Canadian controller approving our request. We, the in-flight crew, were told to get the airplane ready for an immediate landing. While this was going on another message arrived from Atlanta telling us about some terrorist activity in the New York area. We briefed the in-flight crew about going to Gander and we went about our business 'closing down' the airplane for a landing.
A few minutes later I went back to the cockpit to find out that some airplanes had been hijacked and were being flown into buildings all over the US. We decided to make an announcement and LIE to the passengers for the time being. We told them that an instrument problem had arisen on the airplane and that we needed to land at Gander, to have it checked. We promised to give more information after landing in Gander. There were many unhappy passengers but that is par for the course.
We landed in Gander about 40 minutes after the start of this episode. There were already about 20 other airplanes on the ground from all over the world. After we parked on the ramp the captain made the following announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, you must be wondering if all these airplanes around us have the same instrument problem as we have. But the reality is that we are here for a good reason." Then he went on to explain the little bit we knew about the situation in the US. There were loud gasps and stares of disbelief. Local time at Gander was 12:30 pm. (11:00 AM EST) Gander control told us to stay put. No one was allowed to get off the aircraft. No one on the ground was allowed to come near the aircrafts. Only a car from the airport police would come around once in a while, look us over and go on to the next airplane. In the next hour or so all the airways over the North Atlantic were vacated and Gander alone ended up with 53 airplanes from all over the world, out of which 27 were flying US flags. We were told that each and every plane was to be offloaded, one at a time, with the foreign carriers given the priority. We were No.14 in the US category. We were further told that we would be given a tentative time to deplane at 6 pm.
Meanwhile bits of news started to come in over the aircraft radio and for the first time we learned that airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center in New York and into the Pentagon in DC. People were trying to use their cell phones but were unable to connect due to a different cell system in Canada. Some did get through but were only able to get to the Canadian operator who would tell them that the lines to the US were either blocked or jammed and to try again. Some time late in the evening the news filtered to us that the World Trade Center buildings had collapsed and that a fourth hijacking had resulted in a crash.
Now the passengers were totally bewildered and emotionally exhausted but stayed calm as we kept reminding them to look around to see that we were not the only ones in this predicament. There were 52 other planes with people on them in the same situation. We also told them that the Canadian Government was in charge and we were at their mercy. True to their word, at 6 PM, Gander airport told us that our turn to deplane would come at 11 AM, the next morning. That took the last wind out of the passengers and they simply resigned and accepted this news without much noise and really started to get into a mode of spending the night on the airplane. Gander had promised us any and all medical attention if needed; medicine, water, and lavatory servicing. And they were true to their word. Fortunately we had no medical situation during the night. We did have a young lady who was 33 weeks into her pregnancy. We took REALLY good care of her.
The night passed without any further complications on our airplane despite the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements.
About 10:30 on the morning of the 12th we were told to get ready to leave the aircraft. A convoy of school buses showed up at the side of the airplane, the stairway was hooked up and the passengers were taken to the terminal for "processing". We, the crew, were taken to the same terminal but were told to go to a different section, where we were processed through Immigration and customs and then had to register with the Red Cross. After that we were isolated from our passengers and were taken in a caravan of vans to a very small hotel in the town of Gander. We had no idea where our passengers were going. The town of Gander has a population of 10,400 people. Red Cross told us that they were going to process about 10,500 passengers from all the airplanes that were forced into Gander. We were told to just relax at the hotel and wait for a call to go back to the airport, but not to expect that call for a while.
We found out the total scope of the terror back home only after getting to our hotel and turning on the TV, 24 hours after it all started. Meanwhile we enjoyed ourselves going around town discovering things and enjoying the hospitality. The people were so friendly and they just knew that we were the "Plane people". We all had a great time until we got that call, 2 days later, on the 14th at 7AM. We made it to the airport by 8:30AM and left for Atlanta at 12:30 PM arriving in Atlanta at about 4:30PM. (Gander is 1 hour and 30 minutes ahead of EST, yes!, 1 hour and 30 minutes.) But that's not what I wanted to tell you.
What passengers told us was so uplifting and incredible and the timing couldn't have been better. We found out that Gander and the surrounding small communities, within a 75 Kilometer radius, had closed all the high schools, meeting halls, lodges, and any other large gathering places. They converted all these facilities to a mass lodging area. Some had cots setup, some had mats with sleeping bags and pillows set up. ALL the high school students HAD to volunteer taking care of the "GUESTS". Our 218 passengers ended up in a town called Lewisporte, about 45 Kilometers from Gander. There they were put in a high school. If any women wanted to be in a women only facility, that was arranged. Families were kept together. All the elderly passengers were given no choice and were taken to private homes. Remember that young pregnant lady, she was put up in a private home right across the street from a 24 hour Urgent Care type facility. There were DDS on call and they had both male and female nurses available and stayed with the crowd for the duration. Phone calls and emails to US and Europe were available for every one once a day.
During the days the passengers were given a choice of "Excursion" trips. Some people went on boat cruises of the lakes and harbors. Some went to see the local forests. Local bakeries stayed open to make fresh bread for the guests. Food was prepared by all the residents and brought to the school for those who elected to stay put. Others were driven to the eatery of their choice and fed. They were given tokens to go to the local Laundromat to wash their clothes, since their luggage was still on the aircraft. In other words every single need was met for those unfortunate travelers. Passengers were crying while telling us these stories. After all that, they were delivered to the airport right on time and without a single one missing or late. All because the local Red Cross had all the information about the goings on back at Gander and knew which group needed to leave for the airport at what time. Absolutely incredible.
When passengers came onboard, it was like they had been on a cruise. Everybody knew everybody else by their name. They were swapping stories of their stay, impressing each other with who had the better time. Our flight back to Atlanta looked like a party flight. We simply stayed out of their way. The passengers had totally bonded and they were calling each other by their first names, exchanging phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses. And then a strange thing happened.
One of our business class passengers approached me and asked if he could speak over the PA to his fellow passengers. We never, never, allow that. But something told me to get out of his way. I said "of course". The gentleman picked up the PA and reminded everyone about what they had just gone through in the last few days. He reminded them of the hospitality they had received at the hands of total strangers. He further stated that he would like to do something in return for the good folks of the town of Lewisporte. He said he was going to set up a Trust Fund under the name of DELTA 15 (our flight number). The purpose of the trust fund is to provide a scholarship for high school student(s) of Lewisporte to help them go to college. He asked for donations of any amount from his fellow travelers.
When the paper with donations got back to us with the amounts, names, phone numbers and addresses, it totaled to $14.5K or about $20K Canadian. The gentleman who started all this turned out to be an MD from Virginia. He promised to match the donations and to start the administrative work on the scholarship. He also said that he would forward this proposal to Delta Corporate and ask them to donate as well.
Why, all of this? Just because some people in a faraway place were kind to some strangers, who happened to literally drop in among them? WHY NOT?
Nazim-Amin is a Delta airline crew member.
This letter was sent in by a friend and its authenticity could not been verified. Ed.
So many people have called and written and want to know what happened, especially since both Joan & I were in different towers. I thought it was easier to write it down and send it around than tell it over and over. It seems to be getting away from me though so I'll have to finish it later. Our story is below:
How can I not believe in miracles when both Joan & I walked out of two different towers of the World Trade Center unhurt? How can I not believe in love when I see the outpouring of it from the friends and family who have been calling and e-mailing us since the attack? Rather than seeing the world as an uglier place after the attack, I see it as a beautiful place where people give all they can when called upon to do so.
I will never forget the police and firemen who walked past me to save lives in the building and never walked out. Who went in knowing that the chances were good they would never walk out. I will never forget the people I worked with and Joan worked with who were not as lucky as us. As the stories come out of those who did not make it, you realize how every second made such a difference; how one wrong decision could be fatal.
Joan worked on the 91st floor of the South Tower; while I worked on the 72nd floor of the north tower. We usually get into work late(about 9am), but Joan had been pushing me to get out the door earlier and I was quite proud of myself that Tuesday when I succeeded. So as luck would have it, we got in the building at 8:30, 15 minutes before the 1st plane hit the building.
Going up in the elevator I decided that I would take my laptop and work on the 65th floor that day, where I had been been helping another Port Authority department. Normally, I get caught up in a discussion and it takes me quite a while to get off 72; but not that Tuesday. I made it down to 65 just 5 minutes before the plane hit. That spontaneous decision got me 7 floors further away from the impact point and that much closer to the ground. Thank God all the people I work with on 72 also made it out, so I probably would have survived either way.
When the first plane hit the North Tower on about the 90th floor it was nowhere near as dramatic as you would think on the 65th floor, just 25 floors down. There was a definite explosion but it did not sound that bad. There was a big flash of light. The really scary part was how much the building moved, and kept moving, for a long time before restabilizing. At the same time we saw out the window that flaming pieces of the building were flying past the window. People on the floor were a little confused, should we stay there or start to evacuate. The Floor Wardens with their red hats had not yet mobilized to give us instructions. They probably would have suggested we stay in the hall and wait for an announcement. My survivor instinct kicked in. I screamed out at the top of my considerable lungs that people should get to the stairs and then I did so. We all filed down the stairs quite calmly. We also moved very fast, because we were not slowed up by other floors coming in until we had gotten down 30 floors or more. Some people were crying, some people were tired and not in that good a shape, but we all helped the weaker. There were several times that 2 landings ahead of me were empty because I was helping a heavy woman named Michele who was having trouble with her knees. No one pushed past, no one yelled at us. Many people in the stairs with me had been in the last bombing, and they kept telling us this was much better than that time. The lights were on, the smoke was not so bad, the bomb was above, not below us - of course we were going to make it out. It wasn't until all the traffic on the stairs stopped that people got panicky and started to yell, but then a stop & go pattern developed and we were calm again.
It was on the stairs that I started to worry a little about Joan in the other tower. We started to hear that a plane had hit the building, and I wondered if it might not bounce into the other tower. I kept trying my cell phone but it wouldn't work- no surprise. I put the thought of her being hurt out of my mind because it was only causing me trouble. We kept walking down the stairs. The smoke was acrid, for a brief moment I thought we may get poisoned, that perhaps we were not yet safe, but that passed quickly too. Of course we were safe, we were near the ground (just 20 or so flights to go).
We saw the first rescue worker coming up our stairway on the 17th floor. I remember that because one woman said that last time she first saw them on the 18th floor. Their coming up slowed us down a little more, but we had all the time in the world... When we were almost all the way down we came upon a floor that had water pouring out from under the door. This caused a waterfall all the rest of the way down, there were several inches of water on the floor, but it was passable and did not slow us up much.
We came out on the mezzanine level, which is the ground floor street level on the front of the building. In all it took us about an hourto get down the stairs. There was probably less than a half hour before the south tower would collapse. The plaza was filled with burning debris, but it did not look very bad. The lower level windows to West St were completely blown out, but nothing looked bad out in the street.
It was then; however, that the seriousness of the situation became apparent. The police had panic in their voice. They yelled at us with a real sense of urgency to move . You very quickly realized you were not safe yet. I ran to the first officer I saw and asked how 2 world trade was because my wife worked there on the 91st floor. I saw his face and everything went out of me at once; I could barely speak and I squeaked "don't tell me, please, I don't want to know right now". I said how could both towers be bad and he told me that a plane had hit each building. I knew instantly that it was a terrorist attack. He asked to use my cell phone and tried to call someone but it didn't work so he gave it back. He then looked at me strangely and said "look at my name badge, my name is Morse. If I don't make it out alive get in touch with my family, let them know how I died, and that I loved them". I promised I would and ran down the escalator- dead inside because Joan could be dead, and scared because the whole building could fall any minute if that officer was so worried.
At the lower level they routed us through the basement mall. It was a surreal scene. It was completely empty except for a few rescue workers, the lights were out, the sprinklers were all going off and the floor was flooded. I looked to the right, toward the south tower, and did not see a single person moving. There was nothing to do but get out and get to a phone, call Joan's parents and see if she had called in. I was not accepting her death until it was real. To think of it crippled me, made my heart race, my breathing rapid, and my head clouded. I had to stop thinking, I had to get out first and then find her later.
We ran down the corridor past the PATH train, the same way I left work every day. I saw the doors on the North side of the tower and the street there looked fine, but they were making us go a different way. That door was closer, but I decided to trust the police and so I went up the escalator and out the door by where the Borders bookstore was, the Northeast corner of the complex. When we got outside they yelled for us to run, some stuff was on the ground and I realized that I could still be killed by falling debris. They kept yelling "don't look up" so I waited until I got across Church Street next to the Millennium hotel before I turned around to see the fate of the South Tower where Joan worked. That was when I lost all hope; the second plane had hit the building BELOW Joan's floor. The flames were leaping upward. She was in a towering inferno in the worst possible place, trapped above the flames.
I will write the rest of my story, and Joan's story later. I have to get to work.
Author unknown. Story not verified, but... Ed.