September 29, 2023
Vol. 1, No. 2
September 11, 2001
Letter By William J. Ziebell, Eagle, Idaho
I was on the 84th floor of Tower Two in the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. This is part one of an account of how I survived. Part two can be found here.
It was a Tuesday. I left my apartment on Thompson Street and made my way to the subway at Houston. I remember on the southbound 9 noticing Barry Young from work and minutes later how he said goodbye to his son as the boy departed for school at Chambers Street. At Cortlandt, our stop, the platform was unusually backed up due to dozens of middle-schoolers eager for their morning tours of the World Trade Center.
In the lobby of the South Tower I stopped to watch the endless flow of people ascending the PATH escalators. A large-capacity express elevator whisked me to the 78th floor Sky Lobby and then a local took me the rest of the way to the 84th floor, where I worked for Tradesoft, Inc. in the offices of Euro Brokers as a systems engineer. I stopped at my desk to drop off my backpack and check my email, then proceeded to my manager Dan White’s office. While we waited, my co-worker Scott and I discussed the class I was taking at NYU. At 8:46 AM, a boom rang out. I turned and saw out the window that a wall of fire was rushing at us. “Bomb, everyone down!” someone shouted, and Scott and I hit the floor.
After long moments of nothing happening, I got to my feet and trepidatiously crept out onto the trading floor. I was met with an intense smell like jet fuel and could see drifting embers of what may have been office paper floating down outside the west-side windows. Scott strode past me, asking, “Where’s the emergency exit?” Dozens of people had the same idea and had started their hurried walks towards the stairway doors.
I told Scott I was going to hang back. He was incredulous. “Are you sure?” “I want to grab my backpack and keys. I’ll catch up,” I assured him, then hurried to my office. It was there that I made the first of several choices that would save my life.
Crazy as it sounds, I was thinking I should wait it out for a bit and go through my desk to see what I might want to take. Now that I was behind it, I dismissed the thought, grabbed my backpack and keys. Left everything else where it sat. Including my brand-new Ralph Lauren cardigan—purchased just the week prior. Yeah, I’m outta here, was my parting thought as I closed the door.
Except that, on turning around, I wondered if I could get some idea of what was going on by having a look at the North Tower. I arrived at the windows that faced north just as Jud Molisani did. He was 6’3” and weighed 290 pounds. A lifetime weightlifter, Jud carried himself with confidence and an affable, authentic kindness that put you right at ease. He and I stared out in disbelief as we surveyed the devastation and billowing smoke spreading out from the North Tower not two-hundred feet away. Jud said, “There was an attack on the World Trade Center—in the parking garage, actually—in 1993. I’m sure it’s going to be okay. Why don’t you come back to the trading desk and sit this one out with us?”
Jud’s invitation meant a lot. I had just started here in July. To decline the opportunity of building on our relationship, especially given the extreme circumstances unfolding before us, would be a loss. Noting my hesitation, he repeated the invitation. “Thanks, man,” I said. “But I’m going to head down.” “Okay,” Jud said, with a hint of disappointment. It’s time to move, I thought to myself.
Passing Dan’s office, I felt a tug at my back. I swung around to find Dan, his hand still on me, attempting to zip the zipper on my backpack. “Your backpack was open,” he said. “What are you still doing here?” I asked him. Dan held up his laptop in reply. “Has the latest trading systems source code on it.” This was no trivial matter, as Tradesoft—a competitor of Cantor Fitzgerald’s eSpeed—would provide the technological linchpin for Euro Brokers’ global business going forward. I said, “At least you’ve got your priorities straight.”
In the main lobby, Dan and I asked our facilities manager, José Marrero, where we should exit. He reeled off multiple possibilities and pointed towards each. Confused, I said, “José, just tell me which door.” He pointed to the southern stairway and spoke decisively, “Take that one.”
Dan and I set out. A subtle dread had come over me as I considered the daunting task of walking down 84 floors. I made a point of noting the number on the sign as we passed each landing. The stairs were adequate and utilitarian. While a few lights were out or flickering, and the walls were unfinished in sections, the stairs worked. What struck me was how calm and professional everyone was being as they (mostly quietly) focused on our evacuation. While there was urgency, there was also a sense that, despite whatever horrible thing was happening, it was happening to Tower One.
Around the 58th floor, a co-worker passed me on his way up the stairs carrying a walkie-talkie. It was blaring inaudibly. “Ron, where are you going?” I called after him. Without turning, he stated without explanation, “I’m heading back up.”
At the 56th floor, a woman’s voice came over the intercom. Everyone seemed to stop in their tracks to listen. “Building One is in a state of emergency. Building Two is secure.” The announcer instructed us to go back to our floors, then continued, “Power to the elevators has been restored.”
“F**k that!” I yelled. “Everyone, keep walking! Don’t stop until we’re out!” A few people laughed nervously. Others nodded in agreement. Our column started down again but slowed in the approach to the 44th floor, where people were beginning to queue to one side for the Sky Lobby and an elevator trip up or down. Past the 44th floor, the stairwell became almost impassable due to those—also dead-set on getting to the Sky Lobby—making their way up.
At the 43rd floor, the door to Morgan Stanley was open and people were loading into an elevator. Dan and I made our way forward thinking we’d found our way down. The elevator was packed, but Dan pushed me in. “I’ll find you outside,” he called as the door closed.