October 13, 2023
Vol. 1, No. 3
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 two of an account of how I survived. Part one can be found here.
As soon as the elevator started to move—lurching upward!—I realized my mistake. How is this even possible, I thought. Within moments, the door swept open, and I found myself back at the Sky Lobby. Stepping forward, I noticed I was near the east-side windows and that the other elevators were out of service. A foreboding came over me and I thought to myself, I need to move as far away as I can from these windows.
I crossed to the west side of the lobby, where people were trying to push in through the same stairwell door that I’d passed by going down minutes before. I shook my head disbelief and stepped into the last alcove of local elevators on the right. I thought, This is not where I want to be. In that next moment, I heard and felt an impact—as if from some incredible explosion—I felt the building rock and actually begin to sway; to the point that I feared we could topple over. And then the structure rebounded just as violently back the other way. People screamed, and I watched the elevator in front of me jumping back and forth. The lights went out as the building undulated and then, after ten or twelve seconds, it finally settled. There was an unexpected and complete silence.
The kind of silence I will never in my life forget.
When you have no control of the circumstances and think for long seconds that, surely, I’m about to die . . . And then you realize that, no, I’m not. That is when this kind of silence comes . . . When Death has come and gone.
It was broken moments later by soft crying. A flickering of lights came back on to dissipate the darkness, I could see and feel the dust all about me. People were coming to the same inescapable conclusion. Something terrifying had now occurred to our building as well. My adrenaline was jacked sky-high; no matter what, I was going to get back out through that 44th floor stairway door. Yet, for now I held back.
I watched the people queuing up and to my relief there was no panic, (again) just the orderly exit.
When the crowd had dispersed, I stepped from the alcove. All the windows on the lobby’s east side had been blown out. Several people appeared injured, and I hurried over to see how I could help. Most had only minor injuries and would be able to evacuate. One gentleman, however, was worse off. Someone was knelt at his side already tending to his bleeding leg. I offered to help walk the injured man down the stairs, but he said he could go no further and would wait for medical help. I encouraged him to give it a try. He thanked me but declined. I begrudgingly left the two behind.
The descent from the 44th floor was different than my first descent from the 84th floor. While no one understood what was happening, we all now knew that our lives were in danger. No more the question of whether to evacuate or to go back to our floor. The path was clear, and it led down.
Near the 28th floor I heard a commotion behind me. It was the kind of repeated outcry you hear when someone cuts a line. I turned and found myself eye to eye with my co-worker, Ron. He was terrified. His eyes had the wild look of a man in retreat from some horror he had witnessed. Last seen charging up the stairwell with a walkie-talkie, he was now determination personified shouldering his way down. “Ron, what’s going on?” I shouted. He kept going without reply. This is not good, I thought.
I had descended ten more floors when a deep groan like that of metal under immense strain was heard and felt. In that long lingering moment, it seemed as if we’d paused in our walking and braced for our collective unspoken fear—that the building was about to come down upon us. I started praying the Our Father and asked God for the blessing of safe passage.
Our pace quickened. The sight of each sign numbering a floor lower than the last quickened our pace even more. The countdown of our descent. The impact of pounding down dozens of flights of stairs in dress shoes was taking its toll on my right foot. I pushed through the discomfort and onward into pain telling myself, Embrace the pain.
I reached the bottom and passed through the door to the lobby. My soaring relief was immediately quashed; a horrible caustic stench like that of burnt plastic and kerosene overwhelmed me—as did what I saw: The elevators were scorched black and the enormous window frames that looked out over Liberty Street no longer held glass.
Security guards stationed in the lobby were directing our exit. As I passed, I told a guard about the injured gentleman in the 44th Sky Lobby. He said he’d let the firefighters know and motioned me onward. I rounded a corner and saw the single-width escalator—now stopped—that ran parallel to the east windows and down into the World Trade Center Mall. People were queued up in a funnel-shaped mob. You could feel the apprehension in the air as people confronted yet another delay.
Beyond the escalator was a group of firefighters. Huddled for a briefing with their equipment on their shoulders, they seemed eager to be let go for the ascent. My gaze locked on the expression of one firefighter, whose look of stoic determination is still etched in my mind; nor will I ever forget his face.
I was now closer to the escalator. People were reacting, I could hear them as they stepped into single file and got a clearer view down and out the windows. There were audible gasps; some pointed while others covered their mouths. I can’t quite put into words
what I saw when my turn came to look; nor could I look away (nor accept what my brain was telling me I was seeing). Before stepping onto the escalator, the woman in front of me half-turned and met my eyes. In a tone of desperation she said, “I don’t think I can take anymore.” “You can do this,” I told her.
At the bottom, more guards were stationed and directing people. The mall was a stark contrast from this morning’s commuter chaos. People were hustling through in a single file. The further we got, the more upset the woman became. I put my arm around her and each time she said, “I can’t take anymore,” I repeated back, “We’re going to be okay,” or “Almost there.”
While I still had no idea what was happening in the towers above us, the sight of Borders Books filled me with relief. My new companion, however, was pale and cold, and I had to support her as we rose up the escalators at 5 World Trade Center. Clearly, she was in shock. As we walked out onto Church Street, a female police officer rushed up and took her by the arm. “I’ll take care of her now, you’re going to be okay,” she said, echoing my mantra.
I walked away, my back to the World Trade Center, and at midblock started across the street towards St. Paul’s Chapel. I’d taken several steps before realizing that I was standing in what looked like blood. I stood in utter disbelief and watched as another female police officer peeled off pages from a newspaper, sheet by sheet, and laid them down, one by one upon the street. As she did so, the white of each sheet slowly saturated crimson red. Beyond her, I finally saw, lay an airplane engine. Its cowling and huge turbine were torn open, belly-up alongside a sundered section of wing the length of a car . . . All in the bald light of day, there at the southeast corner of Church and Fulton. The blood on the pavement, I realized, was the result of the wreckage before me.
* * *
I dedicate this story to my sister Evelyn Ziebell who passed away on April 22, 2000, and whose examples of faith, tenacity and vivacity are with me every day.
I acknowledge Farrell Warner, a best friend, a best man and an awesome human being, for his editing and advice.
I also acknowledge Todd Gabriel, coach and mentor, whose encouragement caused me to write down and to speak publicly about my story.
* * *
I am often asked how September 11, 2001, has impacted me.
The basis of the impact is the attribution of my survival to the Holy Spirit’s gift of wisdom.
I have come to understand that life is meaningless, and that what matters is who we choose to be.
In every aspect of our life, it is who we choose to be that defines us, not in just the difficult or traumatic events, but in every interaction with our family, friends, neighbors, and people in our communities as well as the choices that form the path in our life.
Christ has us covered through the cross, reconciling us to God.
Just as He forgives us, He tells us to forgive our brother, “Until seventy times seven.”
I believe that as long as we keep trying even in the face of repeated failure, He forgives us, “Until seventy times seven.”
It is our responsibility to iterate, to be the best version of ourselves every day in every choice we make.