September 1, 2002, FireEngineering, Anonymous Letter,
An FDNY officer related the following.
As we worked our way up, we did our best to calm the evacuees, asking them to stay to the right and at the same time letting them know they were out of harm's way or would be shortly. Because thousands of civilians were on the same stairways as we were, our ascent was very slow—maybe three floors per minute in the early going. It soon became even slower. As we got higher into the building, we heard numerous "Urgents" and "Maydays" from firefighters with chest pains, in need of oxygen, or worse. I knew these firefighters were understandably trying to run up the stairs in full gear. I told my members to pace themselves. I didn't want us to be useless when we arrived at our destination, still not knowing where that was.
On the way up, we met an FBI agent, who informed me that these planes were intentionally crashing into the towers and that there were still planes in the air, unaccounted for. We were incredulous. At this point, we stopped at the 31st floor to gather ourselves. A couple of my members were a few floors below and were not doing very well. It was here that we met up with an engine company. There were also other units and a battalion chief at the other end of the floor. We still had electricity and no smoke condition but were hearing reports of jet fuel on the upper floors. I made my way to the chief for orders. Before I got to the chief to inform him of what the FBI agent had told me, our building was hit—or so I thought. As I found out later, this was actually the South Tower collapsing. It shook our building like a rag doll. We all dove into the nearest stairwell.
Once it stopped shaking, I found myself next to the chief. I asked him, "What the hell are we doing now, Chief?" He said, "I don't know, but I'll find out." So I stayed with him, waiting for an order of what to do next. Probably in the next 20 to 30 seconds, he received the order to evacuate. I passed this order on. We kept our masks and some tools, told the engine to drop its rollups, and began an orderly descent. We picked up firefighters, unaware of the order to evacuate, on the way down. As we got lower, we lost electricity and things started to slow down, eventually bringing us to a halt at approximately the 11th floor. I found myself on a landing, by the door to this floor. At this point, there was no panic, just a determination to get out and regroup. It was then a firefighter tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Follow me; the stairs over here are clear." I turned to my members, the engine company, and other companies and yelled to them to follow me because the other stairs were open. Many firefighters did.
As dark as it was, it was impossible to tell just how many followed. At this point in the operation, many of us thought we were being hit by numerous planes and still had no knowledge of the South Tower's total collapse. I was thinking, "We'll all get down, regardless of which staircase we take, and regroup outside the building."
As we got closer to the lobby, our stairs also became bogged down with firefighters. Again, there was no panic, and we eventually made it down to the lobby.
As we stepped into the lobby, I was trying to make sense of all the damage. Something wasn't right. I now felt we had to get away from this building. This was reinforced by a battalion chief directly outside the North Tower. He was frantically waving everyone north of the towers. It was here that I found a fellow member of my company in the wave of firefighters evacuating the building. We wanted to wait for everyone from our company, but we had no way of knowing if they were in front of us or behind us. The chief screamed at us to get away from the building and head north. At this point, he was still the only one of us who knew that the South Tower had totally collapsed. We tried to contact my company and the engine company on the radio, but we had no luck.
As we headed up the West Side Highway, we saw members we knew sitting exhausted and dazed on the highway median. Even though we were probably already three to four blocks from the tower, something told me we weren't far enough away. I told them to keep moving (all the while still trying to contact everyone else). Thank God they did.
In the next 20 to 30 seconds, we heard a roar. We began to run. As we ran, I turned to see what it was. I saw a mountain of dust, rubble, and debris chasing after us.
At this point, we had numerous choices: dive into a car or building, stop and put our masks on, or run for our lives. Once I realized it would catch us no matter what we did, I figured my best choice was to keep my mask, pick a path, and run.
Once it caught me, it was utter darkness for some time. I eventually reached light. Almost immediately, I again hooked up with my fellow company member. We tried reaching our other members. We contacted some visually or by radio. Something I didn't realize at the time, but that struck me much later, was that the radios were eerily absent of chatter.
We continued north, looking for a command post or staging area to report to. As we discovered much later, there was no one readily available to run one. We kept trying to contact companies, to no avail.
We were covered head to toe in debris. People were giving us water and cleaning us off. We were even taken into a small warehouse, where they helped to clean out our eyes. They also allowed us to call our families, who we knew were witnessing this on TV. Once we allayed their fears, we decided to head for a fire station.
Even at this point, we believed that it was just a matter of time before we hooked up with all our members