TSeptember 15, 2001, The Washington Post
Fear on the 86th Floor; James Gartenberg Called Friends, Family for Help -- and Then Silence,
By Shankar Vedantam,
The door that could lead him to the bright Manhattan morning wouldn't budge.
Smoked poured into James Gartenberg's office on the 86th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. A moment earlier, the walls shook, the ceiling rattled. There was a huge explosion. With an administrative assistant, Patricia Puma, he pushed at the door, desperate to get to the stairwell, but it was blocked by debris. A fire wall came down and blocked their access to the other stairwell.
The phones, miraculously, were still working. For the next hour, from the moment of impact at 8:45 on Tuesday morning until the lines went dead, Gartenberg, 35, a commercial real estate salesman, talked to his wife, his mother, his two best friends and the personnel manager of his company, sometimes simultaneously, using his cell phone as well as his desk phone. This story is pieced together from their recollections.
He called his wife, Jill, at work on the Upper East Side. She wasn't there yet. It was 8:46.
On the answering machine, Gartenberg's voice was panicky. He said there appeared to be a fire in the building; he didn't know if he could make it out alive. He said he loved her.
He hung up. Puma, 33, tried to call 911, but it was busy. The phone rang. It was Adam Goldman, Gartenberg's best friend. They had been buddies since fourth grade, camp counselors together in summer, best man at each other's wedding. Goldman's wife was expecting her second baby, too. The friends talked three times a day on ordinary days. Although Adam lived in Chicago, he liked to say, "I could be in New York in three hours."
Goldman was calling from his office at Mesirow Financial in Chicago. He had been watching CNBC when the television announced, impossibly, that a plane had gone through the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
"Adam, there's a fire on the floor," Gartenberg screamed. "I'm trapped and can't get out."
Goldman felt his body shaking. He told his friend about the plane.
"It looks like the smoke is going up," said Goldman, staring at the TV and racking his brain about how to help his friend. "You want to get out and go down."
"We can't get out."
"Stay calm," Goldman said.
"I can't stay calm with you, Adam -- I'm afraid. Please get me out of here."
Gartenberg hung up and called the midtown offices of his company, Julien J. Studley Inc., at 300 Park Ave.
A receptionist passed him on to Margaret Luberda, the senior vice president for human resources.
Luberda did not know Gartenberg very well -- she had been at the company six months -- but she did know he had recently resigned from the firm and was moving to a company in midtown. In fact, he had told his wife and Goldman that today was his last day.
"Margaret, we're trapped," said Gartenberg, as Luberda recalled.
"What's going on?" she asked. Luberda had not heard the news. Almost simultaneously, someone ran into her office and said a plane had gone through a tower of the World Trade Center. It must have been a prop plane, Luberda thought. Some pilot had probably had a heart attack and lost control.
"Where are you?" she asked.
"In the reception area. The glass is completely blown out. There is no sound from the hallway."
"Go to the fire escape and get out."
"Because there is so much debris in front of the door, I can't get through it."
"You have to try again."
"We can't get through it. It's too heavy."
Luberda put Gartenberg on hold and called 911. The police patched her through to the fire department. She said there were two employees trapped in Suite 8617 of World Trade Center 1. The fireman's voice was confident, an immensely reassuring I'm-in-charge voice. Help was on the way, he said.
Luberda was elated. Her line to Gartenberg had become disconnected. She called back. It was just before 9 a.m.
"They're coming for you, Jim," she said.
While Luberda was off the line, Gartenberg received another call. It was from Andrew Rosen, a friend since freshman year at the University of Michigan. Rosen was two days older, and the duo shared happy memories rooting for the college football team. Rosen was calling from a car phone in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. He had just heard the news on the radio. Gartenberg asked his friend to hunt down evacuation information.
Next, he went on the air with a television station in New York to tell firemen where they could find him.
He called his wife again. She had arrived in the office. They agreed she should go to his mother's house on the Upper East Side, near her office. When Jill Gartenberg stepped onto the street, she saw the plumes of smoke and ash from the two giant cigars to the south. Unbidden, the thought came to her mind: "No one could survive that."
In Florida, Jill Gartenberg's father, Frank Freeberg, was thinking the same thing. He tried to tell from the television picture where the plane had crashed.
"I was trying to count the floors," he said. The plane "seemed pretty darned close to the 86th floor. I was trying to count how many floors were above it."
Gartenberg came back to Luberda, who was on hold as he talked to the others. She congratulated him for an excellent performance on television.
"Margaret, I didn't want to tell them how bad it was," he replied. "I didn't want to worry the other families."
"How's the smoke?" she recalled asking him.
"It's getting worse. Can I put a chair through a window?"
"Let me check with the fire department." A colleague called the fire department as Luberda kept Gartenberg on the line.
"Is the floor hot?" they asked. Luberda relayed the question.
"Is there smoke coming from the floor?"
"No, it's from the hallway."
Don't break the window, the fireman advised. Luberda gave them Gartenberg's location again.
"They know where you are," she assured him.
Around 9:10, Andrew Rosen called again from New Jersey. He was hoping Gartenberg wouldn't answer. But he did.
"Do you have any evacuation information?" Gartenberg asked.
"I haven't heard anything."
The phone rang again. It was Adam Goldman.
"The smoke's getting worse," Gartenberg said. Goldman knew that a second plane had smashed into the South Tower, but decided not to tell his friend.
Back on the line with Luberda, Gartenberg handed the phone to Puma, who said she had spoken with her husband, Kevin.
"How are you doing?" Luberda recalled asking. "Can you breathe?"
"It's hard," said Puma.
"Do you have water with you?
"Douse your jacket with water and breathe through it," instructed Luberda.
Gartenberg asked whether they should douse all their clothes. Luberda didn't think so.
And then more debris began to fall. Luberda's confidence began to waver. She hid her fears.
"Can you take cover?" she asked.
"We can move under the reception desk," Gartenberg said.
So they crept under the desk, taking with them the lifelines of the telephones. They called other employees. Gartenberg called his mother and spoke to her and his wife. It was about a half-hour after the crash. Jill Gartenberg noticed a sudden calmness in his voice.
"Stay low," she said.
He told her they were trying to avoid the smoke, but they wanted to stay near the door to call out to firemen.
Adam Goldman called back. It was getting difficult to get calls into New York. The switchboards were overloaded.
"I love you," said Gartenberg. "You're my best friend. I don't know if I'm going to get out of it. You have to take care of everybody for me."
Goldman was not ready to give up.
Rosen called, too. Gartenberg was now crying. He and Puma didn't have the strength between them to move the debris that blocked the door. The smoke was getting worse.
Gartenberg called his wife again. Crouching beneath the desk on the 86th floor of the burning building, he told his wife all that she and their 2-year-old daughter meant to him.
"I love you," he told her. "I love Nicole."
"I love you, too."
Gartenberg told Luberda, who had been on one line since before 9, that it was getting very smoky.
Then the line went dead. Luberda's digital phone said the call had lasted 58 minutes. She didn't note the time but would later deduce it was 9:45 or 9:50.
Adam Goldman in Chicago and Andrew Rosen in New Jersey talked to each other when it was no longer possible to get through to the World Trade Center. About 15 minutes after Luberda's line went dead, the friends saw one tower collapse.
"At first I didn't know it was not his building," said Goldman. "Then I remembered that since his was the first one that was hit, it was the second that fell."
It was 10:05.
The friends watched and waited. At 10:28, Gartenberg's building collapsed, disintegrating at the top and peeling downward in giant strips of crumbling concrete and molten steel.
It should have been the end of hope. For Jill Gartenberg, it was.
"The building collapsed and then I knew he wasn't calling back," she said.
Rosen felt the same.
But Goldman refused to give up hope. And then, more than 24 hours after the buildings collapsed, as if to reward him for his persistence, news reports about people who had escaped from the building mentioned a survivor named Louis Lesce.
He had climbed down from the 86th floor.
He said that there had been five others with him, two women and three men.
Goldman raced to his computer and tracked down Lesce on the Internet. Lesce, 64, had just gotten home from the hospital when Goldman called.
He said he knew the two women were receptionists at the Port Authority office on the same floor, but did not know the men. He said the group had been trapped by the smoke, too, but Port Authority security staff had eventually come for them. He told how, on the way down, he had passed firemen going up.
The timing and description didn't seem to match what Goldman knew of Gartenberg's situation. Goldman tried to find floor plans of the building to see if his friend was in a different section of the floor.
"He must have had an opportunity to get out," he insisted.
Goldman kept calling Gartenberg's cell phone. The phone rang and went to voice mail. If the phone had been destroyed, Goldman reasoned, it wouldn't ring.
"I hold out hope that he made it down, that elevators might have been working," he said. "Even if he was on the floor when it did collapse, maybe he rode the wave and survived."
Goldman cited reports of a man on the 81st floor who "rode the wave" of the building as it fell and emerged alive. "They say whole rooms of furniture are intact in there," said Goldman.
Everyone has different strategies of dealing with grief, he said. Others might not want to build up their hopes and see them dashed: "I just don't want to slip into the other camp of believing anything else," he said.
Gartenberg may be "currently unidentified and in the hospital. There are miracles to all of this and he should be one of them."
"It was his last day of work," Goldman pleaded. "He shouldn't have been there."