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All the time in the world
Escaping the World Trade Center

By Mehdi Dadgarian
October 9, 2001
The Iranian

I am a civil engineer and consultant to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey through my company PMA Consultant, LLC, headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan. On the day of that horrible act I was on 72nd floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower. I would like to share my plight with your readers.

So many people have called and written. They want to know what happened. I thought it was easier to write it down and send it around, rather than tell it over and over. So I was finally able to gather my courage to sit down and write about that horrible day that changed our world and me forever.

How can I not believe in miracles when I walked out 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 emailing me 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. Those who went in knowing that the chances were good they would never walk out. I will never forget the people I worked with who were not as lucky as me. As the stories come out about those who did not make it, you realize how every second made such a difference; how one wrong decision could have been fatal.

When I visited New York, I usually worked on the 72nd floor of the North Tower (Tower 1) . I had arrived in the city late on Monday night , September 10th. The next day a group of us from Bechtel and the Port Authority were going to attend Primavera's user conference in Philadelphia.

Going up the North Tower elevator I decided to spend some time responding to emails and then get ready by 10 a.m. when we were supposed to leave for Philadelphia. At 8:40 a.m. I remember I was on the phone leaving a message for one of the Port Authority division managers when the first plane hit our tower (North Tower) at about the 90th floor, I even remember saying "Oh my God we got hit... Oh my God we got hit!" in my phone message.

When the plane hit, it was nowhere near as dramatic as you would think on the 72nd floor, compared to the higher floors. There was a loud explosion and the building shook violently. 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 stabilizing. At the same time we saw out the window that flaming pieces of the building were flying past our floor window on their way down.

People on our floor were a little confused, not knowing to stay or evacuate. I heard some of the secretaries crying and hugging each other. 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.

Not knowing what hit us, I didn't feel it was anything serious, so I went back to my desk to finish answering my emails. Next I noticed the smoke filling the floor and most of the people had already evacuated the floor. One of the Port Authority managers asked me what I was doing there and that I needed to leave immediately. I asked him if everybody had been evacuated. He told me he wasn't sure and if I want I could search the floor. So I started running on the floor and shouting on top of my considerable lung" "Everybody has to evacuate immediately!" By then it was only me and the manager left on the floor.

We moved toward the stairs to leave when we heard cries from the elevator. Four people were stuck in it. We tried to open the elevator door, but to no avail. I ran back to the office trying to find some tool to use as a lever. I found a heavy-duty stapler that we tried to use to pry the elevator door open. We tried for ten minutes and we could only open the door a few inches leaving the stapler between the doors so they could get some air, even though, there was smoke in the air but still it was better than the air in the elevator.

By now the floor was getting really hot and full of smoke, our eyes were burning. I was running back and forth to the men's room and bringing wet paper towel to put on our eyes and the eyes of the people in the elevator. By now my survival instincts were kicking in and I knew that we needed to leave. So I told my comrade in arm that we need to leave since we could not do anything for the people in the elevator except to let the firemen know. He told me I should leave since I have young kids. He was going to stay so he could tell the firemen about the people in the elevator.

I started my descent with my heart still with the people on the 72nd floor. The stairs were deserted. I started to get worried and thought I had stayed too long, not knowing the full danger of the moment. I was able to get to the 40th floor fairly easily. After that we were slowed up by people coming in from other floors. Some were crying,, some were tired and not in good shape, but we all helped the weaker ones.

There were several times when two landings ahead of me were empty because I was helping a heavy woman named Michelle. She was having trouble with her knees. No one pushed past, no one yelled at us. Many had been in the last World Trade Center bombing in 1993, and they kept telling us what we were going through was much better than that time. The lights were on, the smoke was not so bad, the fire was on the floors above. We were going to make it out.

It wasn't until all the flow of traffic on the stairs stopped that people got panicky and started to yell. But then a stop-and-go pattern developed and we were calm again. I started to worry about my wife and kids. I wasn't ready to die yet. 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 to dial my cell phone but it wouldn't work. No surprise.

We kept walking down the stairs. The smoke was getting thick. 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. It slowed us down a little more, but we had all the time in the world, or so we thought.

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 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 to the street level in the front of the building. It had taken us about 50 minutes to get down the stairs. There was probably less than a few minutes before the South Tower would collapse.

The plaza was filled with burning debris, but it did not look very bad -- that is until you looked again. The site of a heart stuck in its entirety against the mezzanine window got my attention. So I looked again at the plaza debris and all of a sudden I noticed a horrible scene of body parts and human organs, maimed bodies all over the plaza. Arms, legs, guts, half bodies, a site that I would never ever forget as long as I live. I kept thinking this can't be real, it's a movie. Oh how much I wanted it to be just that.

The lower level windows to West Street 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. When we came out of the stairwell the police asked us to walk in single file and do not run. After we got to the concourse level they were asking us to run. You very quickly realized you were not safe yet.

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. We ran down the corridor past the PATH train, 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 so I went up the escalator and out the door by the Borders bookstore at 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!" but I couldn't help myself. I turned around to see the fate of the buildings. Both towers had been hit. I kind of froze looking up at the magnificent towers with fire and smoke bellowing out of them.

I still did not feel safe right at the base of the buildings where many had stopped to watch people throwing themselves from the building. I saw the looks of horror on the onlookers' faces and I knew I did not want to look back. I saw one policeman scream that another body was falling and then quickly turn his head away. There was nothing I wanted to see back in that building. Those were not images I could bear to imprint on my memory cells so they could haunt me for decades to come.

I moved fast, searching only for a free phone to call my wife and kids (my wife is in California and my kids are in upstate New York). At this time more debris started to fall from the South Tower along with loud crackling sounds. Somehow I knew that something bad was going to happen and I started to run for my life. That's when the South Tower started to fall.

I had somehow injured my left knee coming down the stairs and I couldn't run fast, but it was a matter of life and death. I wasn't going to let anything to happen to me as long as I could help it. I was able to outrun the falling building but not the thick smoke. I remember running and kept looking back and seeing the smoke getting closer and closer until finally it engulfed us and turned the sunshine into darkness and horror. People began screaming and other in the street ran by the building, (think of Godzilla movies).

The South Tower was the second to be hit and the first to fall. It had collapsed, imploding upon itself. Later I learned that the smoke was traveling at 50 miles an hour covering a two-mile radius. After the smoke got clear I found myself covered in what seemed like gray ash. Medics had setup a makeshift station to tend to the injured. I had difficulty breathing so I was given some oxygen and a mask and kept there for what seemed like an eternity.

Thinking back to that moment I do not remember hearing the sound of the building falling, the sound that people said was like a bomb exploding. All I remember was running away from smoke and then darkness and silence.

I started to walk uptown looking for a phone. Cell phones didn't work. Of course every phone had a long line of people waiting,. I was brought up to be too polite to push them aside. I felt their calls were as important as mine; we had all just suffered incredibly horrible things. But, never one to follow the crowd, I did not want to be herded with everyone and I felt I'd never be able to get to a phone. So I ran across Broadway and up Fulton Street, dashing to some of the smaller side streets where there were less people; always heading north. Even on the back streets all the phones had lines.

On Canal Street, while walking with a co-worker named Sam, we got stuck for a minute while traffic passed ahead of us. I had a clear view of the remaining tower, the one I had worked in. As I watched in disbelief, the building chose that very moment to fall. It crumbled, appearing to melt down from the top. It looked like a very controlled demolition, and I began to theorize that the elevator workers had planted bombs, but I heard enough since then to realize that the building was actually designed to fall that way if the worst happened.

As an engineer I was so impressed and proud that the architects had foreseen a disaster on this scale and made plans to minimize losses. So many lives had been saved because of their careful, well thought out design. When I later found out that a 767 loaded with fuel had hit the building I was even more impressed. The impact was so minor, the swaying of the building so much less than one would have expected, the explosion so muffled, that I could not believe how well the building had been constructed. Were it not for this, we would have all been dead. The buildings gave us a lot of time to get out. It was like they valiantly held themselves together as long as possible so the greatest possible number of people could get out, and then expired in a way that harmed the least number of people in their passing.

But as I walked uptown from Canal Street my mind was not on the buildings, it was on my wife and kids. I kept trying my cell phone to no avail. By the time I was able to talk to my wife it was 4:30 in the afternoon. She said she had died and came back to life when she finally heard from me. She had thought that I hadn't made it, since I was the last one in my group to be accounted for. I thanked God for my wife's strength and loyalty. She had been in touch with my kids throughout the day by talking to them and giving them hope that somehow I will be okay.

So what are we left with, in the aftermath of this great tragedy? Thousands of people are dead; our world stands poised on the edge of senseless destruction, and survivors like me fear a repeat performance. If that were all, the fanatics would have succeeded, and struck a victory. Instead, in that dramatic morning, because of a cruel and inhuman act, the world was given back its humanity. Places of worship are full, and we are discussing world events more than our personal lives. People have donated time, money, clothes, their blood, and most important of all, their lives, to help others through this difficult time. We are taking the first steps toward being a better people.

Unfortunately, there are always ignorant and cruel people in every culture, and some Americans are senselessly attacking innocent Middle Eastern people who live in America. Typically, this happens quite far from the place where the attack took place, and is perpetrated by those who lost no one or nothing in the attack, except their feeling of security. At Ground Zero we feel only numbness, and an intense feeling of vulnerability. We want only a place of safety.

When we were running down the stairs of the North Tower we thought we were safe until a plane hit the second tower while we were still inside. When we miraculously got downstairs we thought we were safe until the first building fell. And when we were not hit by debris we heaved a sigh of relief, only to have our lungs filled with dust from the pulverized building.

Now although some of us are back home in our own beds, we still don't feel safe, because of world events. My heart pounds and adrenaline flows and I find it hard to eat. But still we get up, shower and dress and go about our everyday lives, and try to find the greater meaning. I for one will try to find it in helping others every day, in being kinder and more patient, in re-establishing my ties with God, and in sending out messages of hope like this so my worst fears do not come true.

May God bless all of you and help us all to find our inner humanity.

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