Tower One swayed. Okay, we're going down, William Wright thought. He had been standing up to get a drink of water on the 84th floor of One World Trade Center, where his hedge fund's office was, when the room jumped about four feet to the side, and then suddenly snapped back into place.
I remember walking down the hallway to find out what happened, Wright said. The explosion had come down through the elevator shafts and blown out the floor. I went down the hallway to look and there was just ... nothing. No walls, no desks, all gone.
What had happened, and what Wright and his colleagues didn't and wouldn't know until hours later, was that American Airlines Flight 11 had just collided with the building a few floors above their heads. The next few hours of the day Wright still recalled in detail, eleven years later.
Wright looked out the window. The building felt like it was still waving back and forth. We were on the side where the explosion came out, he said, as he remembered looking out the window. Everything got blown out the exit wound -- you know how you usually see papers drifting through the air? You saw desks falling through the air, just everything falling ... it blew out a quarter of our floor.
I remember looking out the window, and see the desks falling, and it was gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky, he remembered. And I saw the desks, I saw the sky, and then I looked across the river and saw Jersey City. And I then thought, 'Crap, we are really high up. We have to get out, now.'
Wright, 35 at the time and a native New Yorker, was suddenly very, very glad he had begged his father to let him watch the movie The Towering Inferno when he was a kid. You know in that movie what happens in that movie to the people who stay behind? Wright asked, sipping on a paper cup of water on another bright September day in Bryant Park. They all die. So I knew we had to go.
It's funny, said Wright, how in these situations everyone's personality gets magnified. He recalled how the office's nervous guy started tearing up and looking for towels to put under the doors to stem the smoke that had started to pour in. The accountant-type guy was backing up his files. The two women present were frozen in shock. Still no one knew exactly what had happened.
We thought it was a small private plane, Wright said, recalling how a few weeks before there had been a story about a private passenger jet crashing, and how earlier in the year during Fleet Week, sailors would fly up to the towers and veer off at the last moment. We didn't know it was a plane that had beverage service.
The six co-workers divided themselves into two groups of three and headed for the exits together. They descended rapidly from the 84th floor to the 55th floor, where they had to cross over to another stairwell.
Around floor 55, that was when we hit gridlock, Wright said, and we started to see some of the burned people. I saw one woman, she had a sleeveless shirt on, and at first I thought she was wearing cuffs on her wrists, but then I realized it was her skin all curled up around her wrists.
We started seeing firemen around the 40s, and we had to switch to going down the stairs single file. It was kind of surreal. The EMTs were helping the fat ladies. People were chitchatting and talking about stupid stuff, saying, 'Can you believe this is happening,' and 'It's like we're in a bad B movie.'
I remember seeing one guy who was heavyset, and I think he was a smoker, Wright recalled. And I remember passing him in the stairwell, he was stopped for air and was breathing hard. And I saw his picture later in the New York Times. The man didn't make it out.
They saw a blind man going down, leading his leader dog. Occasionally a man would try to cut the line, and people would yell at them. Nobody thought it was as serious as it was, Wright recalled.
The staircases began to be littered with water bottles and wet paper towels that people were breathing through and had cast aside. People were falling all over. There was broken glass everywhere. Wright remembered falling himself about three times. The top of his knees were burning. Still, no one knew what had happened; what few cell phones people had at the time weren't working in the stairwells.
Around floor 44, Wright said, was when he started to panic. The elevators in their banks were askew, and black smoke was pouring out into the lobby of each floor. At the 11th floor, water was shooting out from under the doors so hard that it almost knocked people over.
The group reached the bottom lobby, not knowing that by that time, the second tower had been hit. Instead of being able to walk out the door, a transit cop directed Wright and his colleagues into the basement. Wright recalled how some of his co-workers saw the wheels of the airplane on the ground, surrounded by other airplane debris.
The group was directed into the basement of the building. They went into the concourse of stores, passed the PATH train, and went right into the Borders, formerly on the northeast corner of Vessey Street. One man stopped to make a phone call to his wife and tell her he was okay.
And then Tower Two came down.
The lights went out. There was a whooshing noise, and then huge boom. It sounded like a screened door opening and shutting with the wind, said Wright. It was so loud, it just went right through you. And it was right above our heads. I thought we were going to die.
The falling building created a vacuum that picked up the group and hurled them across the lobby, smack against the wall. The windows of the Time Warner Building shattered and came flying at them. The ceiling collapsed. Tiles and light fixtures fell on their heads. One of Wright's co-workers had huge chunks of glass in her ankles. The smell of concrete and sheet metal filled the air.
It was pitch black now underground. Ears still ringing, a co-worker produced a small pen-light. Someone took a fire ax from off the wall, prepared to do battle to find a way out. I saw him with the ax and I said, 'Dude, just open the front door.'
They walked out, holding hands. I looked over, and I couldn't see [my co-worker]. I couldn't see anything because it was so thick, the debris coming down. There was paper and dust everywhere. You couldn't hear anything. It was like walking into a heavy snowstorm. It was just silent.
Walking north, the six of them encountered a cop who asked them what floor they were from. I asked him what was the highest he had heard so far. He said 86 or 87. Flight 11 impacted Tower One between floors 93 and 99.
Everyone from my company made it out, Wright said, But not everyone from my floor.
The group continued to walk about a block farther north, looking like they had just emerged from Pompeii, as Wright put it, covered head to toe in dust, asbestos and blood. They turned around, and saw Tower One still on fire. It's funny, I didn't even think to look for Tower Two. I didn't know it was gone, said Wright.
Wright and his co-workers sprinted, glass still in their limbs, up to Canal street. I knew the building was coming down, I knew it for sure. he said, The question was, could we get away fast enough. I figured it was going to topple to the side. I figured, it's a quarter-mile tall, so you need to get at least a quarter mile away ...That was the fastest my body's ever moved.
After obtaining a ride from two men in a maroon minivan, Wright and his co-worker got themselves patched up at NYU hospital on First Avenue to get stitches. By coincidence, Wright's sister was also in the hospital, having just given birth to Wright's nephew six days earlier. I went to visit my new nephew. It was nice to see my sister, he said. He didn't hear about the second tower collapsing until later that evening at a friend's apartment.
Life After 9/11
Wright said he returned to business as almost-usual about two days later, and spent the next six months working out of his studio. He still works for the same firm, still keeps in touch with his co-workers who emerged from that basement with him.
Every year since then, Wright said, he dreads the constant reminders of the worst day of his life. I had one bad day, he said. I have some scars and cuts and bruises. Ultimately, it was the third of three near-death experiences Wright has had in his life.
Can you imagine if everywhere, someone had videotaped the worst day of your life, and every year on the day, plays the tape for you over and over? he said. Can you imagine turning on the radio and they're just dedicating songs to you all day long. And you have friends who try to use you as a connection; they say they're 'one person removed' from the tower.
Wright saw a therapist for a while after, who told him that he didn't do anything wrong, and that the Post-Traumatic Stress he was experiencing was just noise that would fade over time.
I barely got out of there, Wright said. And you feel bad. Half the people who were in the lobby behind us probably didn't make it out.
It took a few years, said Wright but it's died down a lot. The noise has faded.
Maya covers the U.N., Europe, and the Middle East for IBTimes. She joined the company in July 2012 after having previously worked with DNAinfo.com and Gawker.