World Trade Center Archives
Stranded at Ground One on September
NEW YORK, NY - At 8:00 AM on September 11th, eleven Getronics employees working on the INS FOS/HM contract gathered with their INS colleagues for a Remedy workshop being held in the Federal building located just seven blocks from the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.
Several minutes into his presentation, Greg Hale was satisfied all was going well. Barbara McNair studied her notes preparing to follow Greg as a speaker. Mark Wimmer, Michael Kirkham, JoAnne Casagrande, Geneene Pinkston, Ernest Ozuna, Joe Roullier, Lewis Kendricks and Bob Horowitz were listening intently ready for a day's worth of learning. Ed Charboneau momentarily thought about his wife who was planning to go to the World Trade Center this morning to get some pictures.
As Ed Elzenberger made a point for discussion, a loud boom shook the building interrupting the room's focus. New Yorkers teased the non-natives about being too jumpy and they all got back to work - it was probably thunder or a trash truck. Moments later they were told to evacuate, no explanation. The Getronics employees and their INS partners mobilized to leave the building and there was a second loud boom.
Just as fate brought them together in NYC that morning, fate separated them as they filed onto the street through different stairwells and exits. Most would not see their colleagues again for hours, each bringing back a very personal story of the day most of us saw on TV.
Chaos and Confusion
Greg and Lewis stood with INS employees on the corner near the Federal Building, staring in shock at the smoke billowing out the World Trade Tower visible from that vantage point.
It was obvious something was terribly, terribly wrong. Sirens and lights seemed to appear from all directions and then kept coming. Fire engines screamed by, police cars, ambulances, official-looking unmarked cars, then, the FBI. Overwhelmed by thousands of calls, cells phones were useless and long lines at phone booths were growing. A mass of people moved north -- some walking, some running, some crying hysterically… some with blood on their clothes.
Unlike most of us watching the disaster from afar, our eleven Getronics colleagues were in the midst of it - with no way to get information as to what was going on. Like detectives, they scavenged clues from their surroundings by listening to conversations and asking people on the street: It was a plane that hit the WTC, but was it just a sesna? No, it was a jet. Why was the smoke coming from both buildings? Was it a bomb? No, another plane hit. Someone from the mass of confusion yells "Two jets hit the WTCs, we're under terrorist attack."
Ed Charboneau was one of the first to bolt. Where was his wife, Carol? Had she left the hotel yet, or, was she in the Tower? There were no cabs. Everyone was walking north, but their hotel, the Seaport Suites on Front Street, was on the south side. This meant going toward the WTC for at least seven blocks and then heading east five more. He pushed his way south against the sea of people hoping, praying that she was ok.
Michael had no intention of heading back to the hotel. As an ex-marine, his first inclination was to run toward the danger to do whatever he could do to help. Determined, he and his INS partner set out for ground zero.
Geenene had a bad feeling about coming to NY. Now she knew why. This was utter chaos. With no map to guide them, she and Barbara stood on the street guessing the best way to get back to the hotel. Walking would be difficult since Barbara had just undergone foot surgery and was wearing orthopedic shoes, but, there was no choice. Weaving slowly through the current of people Barbara and Geneene forced their way south, at one point grabbing onto a fence to keep from being swept into the crowd.
Joe and his INS counterpart decided not to fight the current. They would move north away from the WTC. Eventually they would turn back and go toward the hotel - that is if his exit strategy didn't work. Using his PDA he emailed some friends back in New Orleans asking them to secure a rental car, train tickets or another hotel. But, they had no luck. Everything was booked.
After what seemed like weeks, Ed Charboneau finally arrived at the hotel at 9:30 to discover an innocent, beautiful sight. Carol Charboneau, unaware of the happenings, was just about to leave. After quickly sharing the news, they looked out their hotel window wondering what was going to happen next.
The World Falls Down All Around
At around 9:50 AM, Michael and his colleague were only a block and a half a way from the WTC, when there was an ominous rumbling that grew into a roar, shaking the ground "like a thousand trains." It took them a moment to realize that the South Tower was starting to fall. They turned on their heals to run for their lives.
Just three blocks away, Geneene and Barbara saw people screaming hysterically knowing their friends and colleagues were inside the crumbling building. Policemen, symbols of strength, were even brought to tears. One covered his face crying in the horror. Another one yelled, pleading for an answer from the sky -- "What is going on?"
Then it seemed at the same instant, everyone realized the debris cloud was moving, and fast. Everyone started running. As the people, ash and debris rushed toward them, Barbara, unable to run, clung with Geenene to the side of a building and covered them selves with a jacket.
Mark was just a few blocks from the hotel and ten blocks away from the World Trade when the south tower collapsed. Still the wall of people and smoke came pushing toward his group and they retreated into a bar by the dock. JoAnne was also only a block away from the hotel but could not get there because of the wave of running people. She, too retreated into a restaurant for safety. Fortunately, Ed Elzenberger and Greg had just arrived at the hotel in time, enabling them to escape before the debris encroached.
By the time the first tower fell, Ernest had gone to the hotel, gotten his camera and returned to the streets to document on film what no one believed was real. He was about ____ blocks away when the collapse started in what seemed like slow motion. Against the brilliant blue sky, the pressure of the building popped windows out one by one. Thousands of fragments of glass glistened like gold in the sun and fluttered gracefully to the ground. A surreal moment of beauty transformed into horror just seconds later when the sight was overtaken by smoke, debris and death.
Joe Roullier was videotaping and photographing the disaster as well. Fifteen blocks from the WTC, he saw the tower fall in horror as he thought about the people still inside and the brave fire and rescue workers at the base.
Lewis, who had gotten separated from Greg, decided to walk north with the crowds. He was five miles away when the south tower fell. Without having the buildings in sight, he had to rely on occasional news reports to find out what was happening. He heard that the tower fell as he crowded around a parked car with dozens of others listening to radio news that had been turned up loud for pedestrians to hear.
Michael and his INS partner had run eight blocks before they looked back to see the south tower gone. Parched from running with ash stuck in their throats, they stepped into a fashionable Soho restaurant to get a drink of water. There, calmly sipping their designer water, they watched the world outside coming down around them like it was a movie.
The North Tower Comes Down
Ed Elzenberger hurriedly checked around the hotel for his friend, Lois, who had joined him on this trip. She planned to go down toward the financial district that day, but he was concerned she might have wandered toward the WTC. There was no sign of her anywhere. He waited in his room for the phone to ring.
Out his window, Ed had a clear view of north tower engulfed in flames. At about 10:30 AM, there was another ominous rumbling. He looked up and saw the north tower crumbling into a cloud of dust that raced towards the hotel.
Hundreds of people screamed, desperately running for their lives as ash chased them through the canyons between buildings. Helpless to outrun the cloud, in seconds the dust enveloped them. The swirl continued on, eventually reaching Ed's window that now revealed nothing but a dark gray haze. Was Lois caught in all this?
Back Safe and Sound
As people entered the Seaport Suites, the hotel staff handed them wet towels to wipe their ash-covered faces. Greg and INS management began making a list of people as they returned to determine if anyone was missing. By about 2:00 PM, everyone had returned safely except for Lewis and Ed's friend Lois.
At 2:30, Ed's phone rang -- it was Lois calling from the lobby of the hotel. She had gotten back safely but was severely shaken. After the second tower fell, she was buried and pinned by debris.
Using all her strength Lois was able to pull herself out of the pin. But the dust made it impossible to see and walk anywhere. She heard a man's voice through the haze telling her to grab his hand. He led her to safety in the basement in a nearby building. When the smoke cleared, she walked back to the hotel, never finding out the identity of the invisible hero who led her out of danger.
Finally after eight hours of walking, Lewis Kendricks made it safely back to the hotel at 5:30 PM. Everyone from Getronics was safe and accounted for.
Conditions Motivate Early Escapes
Since the hotel was so just eleven blocks from the WTC, it was on the edge of the disaster zone. A good portion of the area had been evacuated. Police barriers precluded any cabs or cars to go near the hotel. Subways and buses weren't working. So guests at the hotel were for the most part stranded, waiting to see if conditions would change.
While there was chaos outside, up until late afternoon the hotel still offered a relatively comfortable refuge. Some had retreated to their rooms. Most people were in the lobby watching the news on TV. But, at 3:00 PM, that changed. Building seven of the World Trade Center complex collapsed creating another torrent of dust and knocking out electricity. The phones went dead. There were no lights. There was no hot water.
Michael was ready to get out. He used his battery-operated computer to ask his friends in Miami to find him a car, literally anywhere they could. They found him a car in Queens. He walked 12 miles to get to a working subway that would take him to Queens and to the car that would get him home.
With this latest development, Ed and Lois had little desire to stay on Manhattan, either. At 6:00 PM they left to catch any ferry they could to get them out of NYC. They ended up on Long Island where they took the railroad 15 miles out, only to discover there were no vacancies nearby. So they continued on another 15 miles to Smithton hoping their luck would change, but it did not: Still no vacancies. Tired and frustrated, they got off the train and just started to walk. Luckily they happened upon some police who not only found a room, but drove them several miles to get there. They checked in at 11:00 PM.
World War II in Downtown Manhattan
Without power, and located near a disaster area, as night fell the Seaport Suites became increasingly uncomfortable in spite of the good efforts of hotel staff.
Without elevators, guests had to walk up the ash-covered stairs located outside the building in complete darkness and amidst a lingering acrid haze. Guests were given candles to help them find their way to their rooms and for light when they got there. The base of all the door entries had to be covered with wet towels to block the dust from coming inside. Even so, the rooms smelled like smoke and rancid debris.
The hotel didn't have food. Under normal conditions, this would not be a problem located in lower Manhattan with hundreds of restaurants. But, everything close by was closed. With no transportation available, Getronics and INS employees had to walk a considerable distance -- as much as 20 blocks -- to get dinner.
That evening could have been a scene from World War II in London. Lightless streets were covered in ash. Smoke still hung in the air. Fear of what would come next was palpable - would it be another attack or fire from a gas leak? Every now and then there was an explosion. There were constant sirens. Guests huddled in the lobby by candle light listening to the news and their leaders speak on a battery-operated radio.
The next morning a heavy haze covered Front Street. There was an eerie emptiness with almost no one on this typically crowded Manhattan street. The city looked as it was frozen at a moment in time by the gray blanket of dust. There were abandoned food carts newsstands and sidewalk vendors. Baby carriages and strollers were just left in the middle of sidewalks. Some cars had their doors left open as if someone had just stepped out. An occasional pair of cast off shoes offered additional proof of the horrific events from the day before.
At 8:00 AM, Mark Wimmer and Greg Hale walked out of lower Manhattan. Passing several checkpoints with police in riot gear and national guardsmen with machine guns they found a subway that could get them to Penn Station. From there they took trains home to Nebraska and Washington DC.
By this time, Ernest Ozuna was well into his drive to Miami. And, luckily Ed Elzenberger and his friend Lois, now on the easternmost part of Long Island, had snagged the last car from a rental company close to their hotel and began their long drive home to LA.
For those who had not found a way out of NYC yet, like JoAnne Casagrande, Ed Charboneau, Barbara McNair, Geenene Pinkerston, Ernest Ozuna, Bob Horowitz and Joe Roullier, the INS was there to take care of them. At about 10:30 AM, they sent an INS van to rescue them from the hotel in lower Manhattan taking them to a location uptown on Varick Street. Doctors there checked people for injuries and asthma.
From Varick Street, most everyone was driven to Penn Station to catch a train somewhere, many with a plan to rent a car from their initial destination and drive the rest of the way home. JoAnne and Ed were picked up by their supervisor outside of NYC who personally drove them home to Vermont. Leaving was bittersweet for JoAnne. She was glad to be away from the horror, but wished there would have been something she could have done to help.
We will all remember where we were on September 11th. But, the Getronics employees fatefully present at the NYC INS Remedy workshop hold more personal memories having been in the midst of the disaster.
For some, a sight or sound that made this movie-like disaster real will be etched in their memory. Geneene Pinkerston remembers a dark-skinned Ethiopian woman perfectly dressed in traditional garb moving up the street gripping her brief case - her face and body totally white with ash except for streaks on her checks washed clean by tears. The scene from Ed Elzenberger's window after the collapse of the north tower, with the dust rushing and overcoming desperate, fleeing people, will stick in his mind.
A single piece of singed paper that landed in front of Lewis Kendricks on the sidewalk became his lasting impression. "That piece of paper was on someone's desk that morning. That's when the reality of this really hit me," he explains. JoAnne Casagrande remembers a line of burned, destroyed cars that had been towed from the area around the World Trade Center after the disaster. She wonders, "Where are the owners?"
Ernest Ozuna found the ironic beauty of the weather that day juxtaposed against the horrific destruction memorable. "The sky was as blue and I've ever seen it. The weather was perfect. When the tower was collapsing, the windows looked like pieces of gold in the sunlight as they popped out. How could such a tragedy have happen on such a glorious day."
For some, their new impressions of New Yorkers became their strongest impressions. Michael Kirkham found it strange that while he walked through some of the worst neighborhoods in NYC, he felt safe, "No one was interested in crime on September 11th, they seemed to be most interested in helping people." Joe Roullier was impressed with the shear number of people walking in such an orderly fashion. "There were no rude New Yorkers, but generous ones giving out drinks and free food to those who needed it."
Some say their best memory is how the Getronics and INS people came together during and after such a horrific event. Bob Horowitz explains, "Some people were more upset at times than others. And, there were those of us who had strong moments as well. We traded off to work as a team helping out each other when we could."
Barbara McNair says the events created a lasting bond that goes beyond workplace camaraderie. "The night of the disaster we had no electricity and minimal food. We just had each other. It didn't matter that some of were contractors and the rest were INS - we all become very close friends. I truly believe that something good always comes out of something so evil as bombing the WTC."
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