“Jules, this is Brian. Listen, I’m on a plane that has been hijacked. If things don’t go well and… it’s not looking good, I just want you to know that I absolutely love you. I want you to do good, go have good times. Uh, same to my parents and everybody and I just totally love you and I’ll see you when you get there. Bye, babe.”
“Hi baby, I’m… baby, you have to listen to me carefully. I’m on a plane that’s been hijacked. I’m on the plane, I’m calling from the plane. I wanna tell you I love you. Please tell my children that I love them very much, and I’m so sorry, babe. I hope to be able to see your face again, baby. I love you. Goodbye.”
“Sean, it’s me. I just wanted to let you know I love you and I’m stuck in this building in New York. There’s lots of smoke and I just wanted you to know that I love you always.”
Like any other Tuesday, people bustled about their morning routine along the floor of the concrete jungle. September 11, 2001 was primary day for the next mayor of New York City. The skies were clear, and temperatures were in the low 70s with a slight breeze from the hurricane that spun 500 miles south-east of New York City.
Up to that point, I’d had a Brady Bunch, cookie-cutter, beautiful day,” says 9/11 survivor, Michael Wright, “I now know what it’s like to have a 110-story building that’s been hit by a 767 come down on my head.”
Wright was a thirty-year-old account executive who worked on the eighty-first floor of 1 World Trade Center. He had just gotten to his office a quarter to eight. He had a bran muffin and a cup of coffee.
“It was as mundane a morning as you can imagine. Tuesdays are usually the days I go out to see clients and make sales calls.”
He was in the men’s room when he felt a percussive boom that caused the building to shift, like an earthquake. The aftermath was startled clatter, with coworker asking coworker if they felt a jolt or heard a boom.
“The way I can best describe it is that every joint in the building jolted. You ever been in a big old house when a gust of wind comes through and you hear all the posts creak? Picture that creaking being not a matter of inches but of feet.”
Opening the bathroom door to look outside his senses became overwhelmed with the bright glaze of fire and piercing cries. In front of him in the hallway was a large crack “about half a football field long.”
“If I’d walked over, I could’ve looked all the way down. Chunks of material that had been part of the wall were in flames all over the floor.”
With the elevator destroyed, the only way to escape the smoke that was consuming him was the stairs.
“Out! Out! Out!”
“The stairs! The stairs!”
Some people were crying, others had eyes wide in shock, but like school children rehearsing for a fire drill, people started filing down the stairs in rows of two.
Realizing his uncertain fate, Wright used a coworker’s phone to call his wife, Jenny, and six-month-old son Ben. He hit the call button 20 times but was never able to reach her.
As Wright and his coworkers neared the bottom half of the building, many began to calm down.
“The thing that kept us calm on the stairs was the thought that what happened couldn’t possibly happen. The building could not come down,” he says, “Yeah, we knew something bad had happened, but a fire doesn’t worry you as much when you’re thirty floors below it.”
He even felt comfortable enough to make a joke to his friend, Ryan.
“Ryan, hold me.”
“Mike… I don’t know.”
“Well, we’re all going to die, might as well tell you.”
A few around him chuckled, but one man, disgruntled, said, “I really think you should keep that humor down!”
“I felt lousy. In hindsight, he may have known more than I did. Even though I’d seen physical damage, what I can’t stress enough is how naïve I was at that point,” Wright describes.
Halfway down at the fortieth floor, Wright and his coworkers met firefighters coming up the stairs. He describes some of them as stone-faced, some as frightened.
“C’mon, down you go! Don’t worry, it’s safe below,” they said.
At the thirtieth floor, injured people were being brought down from higher up in the building. A man with his shirt burned off. A woman with burns on her face.
“Was it a bomb?” The people wondered.
Twentieth floor, a firefighter calls for someone who knows CPR. Even though he was no longer certified, Wright still knew how to do it if need be.
However, no one needed help, so he walked out into the mezzanine level of 1 World Trade Center. Any sense of “it’s going to be okay” vanished as he looked across the plaza and described what could be a warzone. Blood splattered the windows. Bodies were scattered around him. None of them, he describes, were whole.
“I scanned for a second and then focused on the head of a young woman with some meat on it. I remember my hand coming up in front of my face to block the sight. Then I took off.”
He turned back to the people coming down the stairs, crying out, “Don’t look outside! Don’t look outside!”
Making it to the next level, he saw smashed bits of plane, and shattered windows. His co-worker Alicia was crying and moving as if in slow motion from the trauma. He put his arm around her and another woman nearby, leading them up the escalator that would take them out to Church Street.
And then it started. A crack. In the reflection of the Millenium hotel, he saw Tower Two folding in upon itself.
“How do you describe the sound of a 110-story building coming down directly above you? It sounded like what it was: a deafening tidal wave of building material coming down on my head. It appeared to be falling on the street directly where I was headed.”
Following his instincts, he ran back into Tower One.
“You’re thinking, If you stay outside, you’re running into it. If you go inside, it might not land there. So, I turned and ran into the building, down into the mall, and that’s when it hit. I dove to the ground, screaming at the top of my lungs, “Oh, no! Oh, no! Jenny and Ben! Jenny and Ben!” It wasn’t a very creative response, but it was the only thing I could say. I was gonna die.”
Wright says the explosion was impossible to describe. It was “a noise thousands of people heard when they died.” A noise that penetrated to his very core as we laid on the ground, awaiting death.
Smoke and debris were everywhere—in his mouth, his ears, his nose, his eyes. He was alive, he was whole, but he was buried alive beneath a building. As the impact of the explosion faded, a noise no better took its place. The sound of death. Moaning and cries arose around him.
“This is how I’m going to die,” he thought. “I was going to be trapped in a hole and it was going to fill with smoke, and they were going to find me like one of those guys buried in Pompeii.”
He thought of his family. His bride and his son. But the images he saw in his mind’s eye, he describes, were like the photos on his desk—He wasn’t in any of them.
But as he lay in the heavy darkness, a thought louder than the others came to him, “I gotta try to survive.”
Wrapping his shirt around his mouth and nose to filter out the smoke, he began crawling.
“I saw a light go on. I can’t say I was happy, because I was horrified, but that light was hope.”
Luckily, Wright says, there was a fireman with him. The fireman had a big, bushy mustache, an ax, and determination to survive. Seeing a wall next to him, the fireman crawled over and wiped his hand across the surface. What once looked like a completely solid wall turned out to be a glass wall that looked into a Borders bookstore.
He smashed through a door next to the wall and people started flocking towards the light like moths. They made it into Borders, up the stairs and outside. The smoke so thick it seemed as if the sun had abandoned its post in the sky. He ran away from ground zero and the further he got away, the easier it became for light to pierce the darkness.
“I went along Vesey Street, using it as a guide. It started clearing up more and more, and I got to an intersection that was completely empty. That’s where I saw one of the weirdest things—a cameraman near a van with the NBC peacock on it, doubled over with his camera, crying.”
Like he had done so many times, he looked up at Tower One, which was engulfed in flames, and then he searched for Tower Two but it wasn’t there.
“I looked up and said, “Hundreds of people died today.” I was trying to come to terms with it—to intellectualize it. My wife’s family is Jewish, and her grandparents talk about the Holocaust and the ability of humans to be cruel and kill one another. This is a part of a pattern of human behavior, I told myself. And I just happen to be very close to this one.”
Running to NYU, where his brother works, he was finally able to reach his wife and tell her he still lived.
“I said, “Jenny, it’s me.” And there was a moan. It was this voice I’d never heard before in my life. And I was saying, “I’m alive. I’m alive. I love you. I love you. I love you.” We cried and cried. Then the phone went dead.”
Michael Wright made it back to his family. One of the few who did. 2,977 fellow Americans died that day. Remembering 9/11 is about remembering those who lost their lives, and people like Michael, the survivors.
“I lost a friend in 2 World Trade Center. He was one of those guys you liked as soon as you met him. Howard Boulton. Beautiful person. His baby was born three months ahead of mine. He was on the eighty-fourth floor and I was on the eighty-first. The last conversation he had with his wife was by telephone. He told her, “Something happened to 1 World Trade Center. It’s very bad. I don’t think Michael Wright is okay. I’m coming home.” I like to think Howard wasn’t scared like I wasn’t scared in the stairwell. I like to think that he heard a rumble like I heard a rumble and then he was gone.”
Sourced from 2002 issue of Esquire.com