COG member escapes World Trade Center blast, says nothing will ever be the same

The writer is a member of the United Church of God, New York City. This article may not be reprinted or posted on any Web site without the permission of Adrienne Johnson, © 2001 Adrienne Johnson. All rights reserved.

By Adrienne Johnson

NEW YORK, N.Y.--I was sitting at my desk on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, in One World Trade Center checking my E-mail when I heard a loud explosion then another and a boom! boom! boom! The whole building--all 110 stories--shook and then swayed back and forth. Lights in the office flickered but didn't go off.

We all looked at each other. An economist looking out of his office window said an airplane had just hit the building. He told me to get under a desk.

Shaking and frightened, I hurried to find something to hide under, but for some reason I just didn't feel safe crawling under whatever I found and kept looking for other places.

Then I realized: This is crazy! We've got to get out of here!

I went back to my office area and looked out through the window in the door that led out to the hallway and saw white smoke wisping around it, filling the hallway until I could barely see. Others came and saw it too.

It was deja vu for many of us who had been in the same building during the 1993 bombing.

One of the economists said with some finality in his voice, "Well, this is it." We knew then we had to get out as quickly as possible.

Are we under attack?

With the alarms sounding and the warning flashers blinking, I grabbed as many things as I could and stuffed them into my tote bag and grabbed my purse.

Questions raced through my mind: Are we under attack? Was it a fighter plane? Did a commercial jet accidentally take a wrong turn?

I would find out the answer to those questions soon enough. I had worked for 14 years in One World Trade Center, one of the towers that would soon come cascading down in a shower of smoke and dust. I worked on the 37th floor of the building for a regulatory agency, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

Stopping and going

I made my way down stairwell B. It was a bit smoky, so I put a tissue to my mouth and nose. It seemed like it took an eternity for us to work our way down the steps.

It was stop and go. As we made our way down, asthma victims came from the upper floors and passed us on the stairwell, helped along by coworkers. One lady looked like she would collapse any minute. A man looked at his Palm Pilot and read the jarring news: "Two planes hit the twin towers."

We heard someone above us say: "Move to the side of the wall! We're bringing some folks down."

Blank stares

As we made our way down, the harsh reality for many of us in the stairwell hit home. The victims who were coming down from the upper floors stared blankly straight ahead, their clothes disheveled and dirty and an ashy-gray residue on their faces and arms. Half or most of their hair was burned off, exposing their scalps. What was left of their hair hung limply on their heads, edges black and smoking.

The images were terrifying, but I managed to hold myself together. I stared at the injured with great sorrow and heaviness of heart.

We continued moving downstairs and reached the 24th floor. There we saw firemen coming up the steps with beads of sweat on their faces, panting hard with the heavy equipment they carried on their backs. Some stopped to rest, and some coughed and spat and looked up at the floor ahead of them and continued.

As they passed, I studied each one of their faces, thinking we might never see them again. How appropriate that thought turned out to be.

'Take your time'

We got down to the 19th floor. The door opened, and several firemen who had hacked open a vending machine began handing out soda, juice and water to us as we passed by.

Finally we got down to the fifth floor. Water was all over the stairwell and trickling down the steps. I kept thinking what a day for me to wear heels, even though they were low heels. I had to be careful going down because the floors and the steps were slippery.

I carefully held onto the banister and continued to walk. No more firemen were coming up, so people began running down the steps.

I was on the third floor and all of a sudden I felt all alone in the empty stairwell. I turned to look up, and no one was coming down. I stared in front of me: no one.

As I was getting ready to go down, suddenly beside me was a gentleman with gray hair who looked to be in his early 50s. He was wearing a yellow plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans. He was carrying nothing. He smiled and said: "Don't worry. You're going to make it. You're going to get out. Take your time."

He smiled the whole time. As we walked down the steps side by side, he asked me, "Can I help you carry anything?"

I'm a New Yorker, so I was wary about that so I just smiled and shook my head. We continued down in silence, and, as we got to the last step, he smiled and laughed and said: "See? I told you!"

I walked through the door leading into the lobby. The hallway leading to the elevators was in shambles: doors blown off, walls cracked, floors buckled. I quickly and nervously glanced toward the glass door leading to the street near One World Financial Center. It was strewn with debris. I went the other way and toward the glass doors leading to the mall area.

I looked up and saw water coming down heavily from the ceiling. The water had turned the floors in the mall area into a lake. The firemen standing there waved me on, so I turned to look back to see what happened to the kind gentleman who had walked me down the steps. But he was gone.

I knew then that God had sent me an angel to guide me and protect me.

'Don't look up!'

I walked through the minilake. My eyes darted back and forth at the empty stores, their lights on and clothes for sale hanging in the display windows so nice and neat down there under the chaos only a few yards above. It was eerie.

A man called out to those of us who passing through the mall: "Come on! Come on! Let's go! Let's go!" His voice carried a sense of urgency as he pointed to the escalator leading up through Five World Trade Center. I reached the top and looked at the Borders bookstore in front of me. It was dark. The HSBC (Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corp.) building was empty.

I walked through some more glass doors leading into the street with my hair and wet and my clothes soaked. A military man and a policeman stood outside waving us on: "Keep going! Keep going, and don't look up!"

I wondered why they said not to look up. I crossed over to the other side of Church Street, across from the Millennium Hotel, and walked towards Broadway. A woman I recognized from the stairwell stopped and turned around to look up. I looked at her and heard her cry loudly and watched her shaking her head. I comforted her and told her it was going to be all right.

I looked up. I saw the two towers with their upper floors ablaze. They were burning fast and were emitting heavy smoke. I stared in horror and then began to cry too. I continued up the block crying, heading towards Broadway, as people snapped pictures of the building. I turned up Broadway and began walking as fast as my legs could carry me and did not look back anymore as police cars, fire trucks, ambulances and military personnel filled the area.

Tower Two crashes

I walked several blocks to a government building. Many people stood out on the street in front of the building. I spoke to a maintenance worker who was standing there. Are they letting anybody in?

He said no, and we began to talk. He looked up at the twin towers and said, "Yes, this was indeed a terrorist attack." He began reciting a list of names of countries that might have been responsible for the attack.

I just told him that whoever did this unspeakable thing thought they were doing God a service, just like the Bible says in John 16:2. But they were not doing God a service at all, but Satan.

It is clear that these people don't worship the same God I worship. I told the man that our God is a God of love, and He would never sanction such horrible acts against human lives.

Just then Tower Two, the building I had just come out of, fell down in a great big cloud of dust.

I continued up Broadway to the workplace of one of the brethren, a man named Hank Briody, a member of our congregation and a longtime close friend of mine who worked on Hudson Street.

Tower One crashes

I had just made it to Hudson street in a daze when I saw people running past me and screaming. I heard a great roar and turned around in time to see Tower One falling.

It looked like slow motion, but it happened in real time.

It look like something out of a science-fiction movie with its huge antenna still attached while the building shrank, getting smaller and smaller. It was soon as small as the buildings it had towered over. Then it just vanished in a cloud of dust and smoke.

I looked no more and said to myself I've seen enough. I turned the corner and saw people walking along. Some just stopped and stared in disbelief and horror. I cried and told people I had just come from there, I had been in the building! Why were they doing this to us!

People tried to comfort me.

How could they do this?

I reached my friend's place of business and entered the elevator to ride it up to his workplace. Four men with their lunches in tow got on the elevator with me and began talking about Two World Trade Center.

People on the upper floors of Tower Two had been hurling themselves out of the broken windows to the streets below. Some of them were burning.

I sobbed uncontrollably and said how could they do this to us. Why? Why?

They tried to comfort me. I felt pats on my back. I got out of the elevator and asked a lady: "Is Hank here? Is he here?"

She asked, bewildered, "Are you a client of his?"

I said: "No! He's my friend!"

I told her where I had just come from and began to cry again. She comforted me and began to cry too. Soon Hank's coworkers were standing around me and trying to comfort me.

Hank came out and hugged me. He helped me up and guided me to an empty office, where we talked. I told him everything that had transpired over the last hour and a half. I was trembling the whole time. The woman who had consoled me brought water to me.

Hank kept asking me if I wanted something to eat or drink. I knew he was shaken. Even though I didn't feel like eating, I said yes, and he left to bring me some bagels and pastries and a nice tall cup of hot tea.

I'm okay, Mom

I called my mother to let her know that I was okay and was at Hank's job. I tried to reach our Washington, D.C., office to let them know I had made it out of the building and was safe but found the number had been disconnected. I did not know that the Pentagon had been hit too or about the plane crash in Pittsburgh, Pa.

I tried to reach my minister, Kevin Epps, but the lines were not working properly. I also tried his cell phone number, to no avail.

Oh, well, I would try again when I got home.

I sat there forcing myself to eat when Hank told me we had to leave. We would have to go across the Manhattan bridge to Brooklyn because the train and bus service was interrupted and the police weren't letting any cars go through.

So we left the office and walked through Chinatown and across the bridge into Brooklyn.

Hank continued to console me and offer me encouragement. As I crossed the bridge, I could not keep from staring across the water to where the two towers had stood.

I know that many people were looking in the same direction at the same time.

We were looking for the two towers as if they could magically appear standing tall and stronger than ever.

But it was not to be. Nothing would ever be the same.

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