Posted: 5/27/2002 2:57:22 AM EDT
The New York Times
May 26, 2002
Fighting to Live as the Towers Died
This article was reported and written by Jim Dwyer, Eric Lipton, Kevin Flynn, James Glanz and Ford Fessenden.
They began as calls for help, information, guidance. They quickly turned into soundings of desperation, and anger, and love. Now they are the remembered voices of the men and women who were trapped on the high floors of the twin towers.
From their last words, a haunting chronicle of the final 102 minutes at the World Trade Center has emerged, built on scores of phone conversations and e-mail and voice messages. These accounts, along with the testimony of the handful of people who escaped, provide the first sweeping views from the floors directly hit by the airplanes and above.
Collected by reporters for The New York Times, these last words give human form to an all but invisible strand of this stark, public catastrophe: the advancing destruction across the top 19 floors of the north tower and the top 33 of the south, where loss of life was most severe on Sept. 11. Of the 2,823 believed dead in the attack on New York, at least 1,946, or 69 percent, were killed on those upper floors, an analysis by The Times has found.
Rescue workers did not get near them. Photographers could not record their faces. If they were seen at all, it was in glimpses at windows, nearly a quarter-mile up.
Yet like messages in an electronic bottle from people marooned in some distant sky, their last words narrate a world that was coming undone. A man sends an e-mail message asking, "Any news from the outside?" before perching on a ledge at Windows on the World. A woman reports a colleague is smacking useless sprinkler heads with his shoe. A husband calmly reminds his wife about their insurance policies, then says that the floor is groaning beneath him, and tells her that she and their children meant the world to him.
No single call can describe scenes that were unfolding at terrible velocities in many places. Taken together though, the words from the upper floors offer not only a broad and chilling view of the devastated zones, but the only window onto acts of bravery, decency and grace at a brutal time.
Eight months after the attacks, many survivors and friends and relatives of those lost are pooling their recollections, tapes and phone records, and 157 have shared accounts of their contacts for this article. At least 353 of those lost were able to reach people outside the towers. Spoken or written at the hour of death, these are intimate, lasting words. The steep emotional cost of making them public is worth paying, their families say, for a clearer picture of those final minutes.
Many also hope the history of the day is enlarged beyond memorials to the unquestioned valor of 343 firefighters and 78 other uniformed rescuers. It is time, they say, to account for the experiences of the 2,400 civilians who also died that day. Iliana McGinnis, whose husband, Tom, called her from the 92nd floor of the north tower, said, "If they can uncover even one more piece of information about what happened during those last minutes, I want it."
Some details remain unknowable. Working phones were scarce. The physical evidence was destroyed. Conversations were held under grave stress, and are recalled through grief, time and longing. Even so, as one fragile bit of information elaborates on the next, they illuminate conditions on the top floors.
The evidence strongly suggests that 1,100 or more people in or above the impact zones survived the initial crashes, roughly 300 in the south tower and 800 in the north. Many of those lived until their building collapsed.
Even after the second airplane struck, an open staircase connected the upper reaches of the south tower to the street. The Times has identified 18 men and women who used it to escape from the impact zone or above. At the same time they were evacuating, at least 200 other people were climbing toward the roof in that tower, unaware that a passable stairway down was available, and assuming — incorrectly — that they could open the roof door. "The belief that they had a rooftop option cost them their lives," said Beverly Eckert, whose husband, Sean Rooney, called after his futile trek up.
Hundreds were trapped on floors untouched by the airplanes. Even though the buildings survived the initial impacts, the twisting and bending of the towers caused fatal havoc. Stairwells were plugged by broken wallboard. Doors were jammed in twisted frames. With more time and simple tools like crowbars, rescue workers might have freed people who simply could not get to stairways. In the north tower, at least 28 people were freed on the 86th and 89th floors by a small group of Port Authority office workers who pried open jammed doors. Those self-assigned rescuers died.
In both towers, scores of people lost chances to escape. Some paused to make one more phone call; others, to pick up a forgotten purse; still others, to perform tasks like freeing people from elevators, tending the injured or comforting the distraught.
The crises had identical beginnings and endings in each tower, but ran different courses. At least 37 people, and probably well over 50, can be seen jumping or falling from the north tower, while no one is visible falling from the south tower, in a collection of 20 videotapes shot by amateurs and professionals from nearby streets and buildings. Both towers had similar volumes of smoke and heat, but in the north tower, about three times as many people were trapped in roughly half the space. Scores were driven to the windows of the north tower in search of relief. In the south tower, people had more opportunities to move between floors.
The impact zones formed pitiless boundaries between those who were spared and those who were doomed. Even at the margins, the collisions were devastating: the wingtip of the second plane grazed the 78th floor sky lobby in the south tower, instantly killing dozens of people waiting for elevators. In all, about 600 civilians died in the south tower at or above the plane's impact. In the north tower, every person believed to be above the 91st floor died: 1,344.
The farther from the impact, the more calls people made. In the north tower, pockets of near-silence extended four floors above and one floor below the impact zone. Yet remarkably, in both towers, even on floors squarely hit by the jets, a few people lived long enough to make calls.
To place these fragmentary messages in context, The Times interviewed family members, friends and colleagues of those who died, obtained times of calls from cellphone bills and 911 records, analyzed 20 videotapes and listened to 15 hours of police and fire radio tapes.
The Times also interviewed 25 people who saw firsthand the destruction wreaked by the planes, because they escaped from the impact zone or above it in the south tower, or from just below it in the north.