Life-and-death choices in rush down stairwell
Los Angeles Times
During the worst storms, the cords on his window shades would appear to sway a few inches, but it was an illusion. They actually hung straight, held steady by gravity. It was the tower that swayed, to absorb the weather.
When Adam felt the first rumble Tuesday morning, he glanced at the cords. They were oscillating like a pendulum, 3 feet in both directions.
He shot from his desk, turning his back on breakfast and e-mails to face the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Outside, paper fluttered through the air — "gently," he would say later, "on a breeze." He looked down at the tiny people staring up at him from 876 feet below and offered them a New York retort:
"What're you looking at?"
They were looking at terrorists ripping apart the World Trade Center.
It was 8:45 a.m., and American Airlines Flight 11, bound for Los Angeles, had just torn into the north side of Adam's building, the trade center's north tower. At 9:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 would strike the south tower. At 9:50, the south tower would collapse. The north tower would follow at 10:28.
Adam Mayblum would find out all that much later.
For 103 minutes, he was one of thousands cast into an extraordinary purgatory. As many as 15,000 found their way to safety. Perhaps 5,000 did not.
For many, it was a matter of chance.
On the 87th floor of the north tower, one worker went to the bottom of the building to get a muffin. He lived. Another went to the bathroom. The roof collapsed on him, and he died.
Window-washer apprentice Fabian Soto, three weeks on the job, low man on the union hall's totem pole, was dispatched early Tuesday to wipe the noseprints of tourists from the observation deck's glass atop the north tower. He would not be seen again.
The confusion inside Adam's office at May Davis, where he is the managing director, lasted just seconds. He knew he needed to get out. The phones were still working, which seemed odd, and he called his son's nanny, told her to page his wife. There was a bomb, he said, but he was on his way out.
He took off his dress shirt, then ripped his T-shirt into pieces, soaked the pieces in water and gave them to some of his 13 colleagues to cover their faces. Among them: Harry Ramos, the head trader at the investment firm. Adam had worked with Harry off and on for 14 years. They were casual, beer-after-work friends.
Adam, 35, a native of Queens, put his dress shirt back on, grabbed his laptop computer and raced for the stairs through white smoke. Sparks bit at his ankles. He missed the stairs on his first pass. It was the World Trade Center. No one took the stairs, so who knew where they were?
After bolting two flights down, he realized that his partner and close friend, 46-year-old Hong Zhu, had been left behind. Adam went back upstairs and reached the office, now filled with smoke and burning jet fuel.
There was no sign of Hong, a quiet, private man, unmarried, devoted to his work and good at it.
He didn't make it out through the smoke, Adam thought.
He raced back down and made it to the 78th floor, a transfer lobby where one set of elevators and stairs ended and another began. He saw a stranger bravely staving off a wall of flames with a fire hose.
People were collapsing from the stress. Others tried to give comfort, stuffing a shirt under the head of the fallen before racing for the stairs.
Adam found Harry, wading into the pandemonium to help panicked workers into a safe stairwell. It was a reassuring sight and a typical one. The trade center could be a competitive, back-stabbing workplace. But there is not one person, Adam said, who has ever said a bad thing about Harry, a father of two, a tall, handsome man.
Adam found another stairwell and began walking down again. His heart was beating faster and faster, and the muscles in his calves were contracting in spasms.
On the 53rd floor, Adam came across a heavyset man whose legs wouldn't move anymore. The man was sitting on the steps and said he needed help. Adam knew his bad back would make it hard to carry him, but he offered anyway. The man hesitated.
"Do you want to come, or do you want us to send help?" Adam shouted.
The man asked Adam to send help. Adam said he would.
The hijackers did not strike either tower with their wings level. Instead, they hit at an angle.
Twelve employees of the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), a nonprofit group that promotes safety and property protection at sea, were on the 91st floor of the north tower when the first plane hit almost exactly at their level.
But they were on the northwest corner of the building. The bulk of the plane's fuselage entered the building about 100 feet south of them. The plane's left wing, banked toward the ground, wiped out the east side of the floor. But the plane's right wing, banked toward the sky, sliced through the office above them.
George Sleigh had been at work at ABS since about 7:30 a.m. He was in his cubicle, surrounded by technical shipping manuals.
"I heard this unusual sound. A roaring sound," he said. "As I looked up I saw the plane. I thought: 'This guy is really low.' "
A wing flashed past his eyes, followed by the plane's smooth belly. Then the world caved in. Down the hall from ABS, an office was obliterated. Above them, Marsh USA, an insurance and risk-management firm that occupied the 93rd through 100th floors, was hit badly. It would later report as many as 400 workers missing.
George, who occupied the easternmost desk in his office, was buried under ceiling tiles and bookshelves. His colleagues were fine, as surprised they were still alive as they were that a plane had crashed into their building. They dug George out, and they all escaped.
"I can't believe that I'm alive," George said later. "I don't know why I was spared."
Tom McGinnis, a 41-year-old broker for Carr Futures, was on the 92nd floor of the north tower for a business meeting when the attack began. He called his wife, Iliana, his high-school sweetheart and the mother of his 4-year-old daughter, Caitlin. He told her he could see people jumping from floors above him.
"This doesn't look good," he said. "There's no way out of this room. ... I love you. Take care of Caitlin."
"Don't hang up," Iliana said. "Don't hang up. You are coming home."
She would not hear from him again.
Hong was alive.
He had been behind Adam in the stairwell the whole time, but in the noise and the smoke and the sparks, Adam didn't know. They had apparently passed each other on Stairwell A, Hong running down, Adam running up to rescue him.
When Hong got to the 53rd floor, he came across Harry Ramos. Harry had stopped to help the heavyset man. "I'll give you a hand," Hong said.
Together, Harry and Hong helped the man down one more flight. They found an office, a securities firm, where the air-conditioning was working. While they tried to get a dose of cool air into the man's lungs, Hong found an elevator.
"No! No!" a Port Authority official screamed. "Don't take it!"
Hong and Harry tried to send a magazine down in the elevator. In the confusion of the moment, they reasoned that if the elevator came back and the magazine was still inside, it would be safe. That was what passed for logic at the time. They pressed the "down" button, but the doors didn't close. So Hong decided he would be the guinea pig.
He stepped inside, and the doors closed behind him.
In the center of each floor of the twin, 110-story towers at the World Trade Center, the hallways converged in a spot that employees called the crossroads.
The path down began at that spot. In many cases, escape depended on choices: left or right, up or down, Stairwell A or B, stay or go.
Roko Camaj, 61, had cleaned the windows of the World Trade Center since it opened in 1973. He was on the roof when the first plane struck, hanging the rigging for the machines that scrubbed the windows. He began racing down the stairs but was told on the 105th he should return to the roof.
He called his wife on his cell phone and told her he was heading up to wait for a helicopter. Then she heard a scream. The line went dead. She wouldn't hear from him again.
Arlene Charles had a choice, too.
An American Building Maintenance employee, she had started her shift at 5:45 a.m., turning on the elevators that had been shut down for the night.
Then, filling in for a vacationing co-worker, she headed to her assignment on the 78th-floor lobby and began saying "Good morning," in her Grenadan drawl, to the arriving executives. A group of visitors was headed to a breakfast conference at the Windows on the World restaurant.
The plane struck the north tower, just above her, about 15 minutes later.
"I squeezed between the desk, put my head down and put my jacket over my face," Arlene said. "I was so scared to look up, but when I started peeking, I heard a lady screaming."
It was Carmen Griffith. They had worked together for 20 years, swapping stories as their children grew from toddlers to teenagers. Now Carmen, who had been standing nearby when a glob of burning jet fuel burst through the elevator shafts, was crawling toward her. Arlene looked at Carmen's hands pawing at the floor. Skin was peeling from her fingers.
People sprinted past toward safety, but Arlene refused to leave without her friend. With the help of an executive who stopped, she soaked Carmen with water from a nearby office, then picked her up and began a slow walk down 78 flights of stairs.
"She was crying," Arlene said. "She was burning."
Arlene's walkie-talkie crackled with static and voices all the way down as other workers with radios urged them on.
"I'd say: 'I'm on the 40-something floor, on the 20-something floor,' " Arlene recalled. "They said: 'Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!' But I said: 'I can't hurry. I have to help Carmen.' "
Around the mid-40s, two men sprinted past them, then doubled back to help. Together, they made it out after 90 minutes, just 15 minutes before the tower's collapse, Carmen alive but with burns on 60 percent of her body.
Adam was progressing steadily toward freedom, stopping occasionally to counsel people from his office, to usher a few of them into the line ahead of him.
His cell phone rang. It was his parents, calling from Delray Beach, Fla. Adam was nervous but betrayed little of his fear. They were hysterical.
"Get out," his father said sternly.
"Relax," Adam said. "I'm fine."
And he was, in a way. He wasn't hurt. He was making good progress. He felt oddly bored. He couldn't believe it himself. But he was.
Harry and Hong, meanwhile, were in trouble.
Hong took the elevator down to the 44th floor, the next transfer lobby. So far, so good.
He pressed "52," went back up and collected Harry and the heavyset man.
On 44 — halfway down — Hong, Harry and the heavyset man got off the elevator and stumbled across the lobby toward the last bank of elevators that would take them all the way down.
Hong pressed the "down" button again. Nothing. They would have to take the stairs.
Harry and Hong each took an arm of the heavyset man and draped them over their shoulders. "One floor at a time," Hong said. "One step at a time."
They had been trying to get out for an hour and five minutes. They were on the 39th floor when they felt the south tower collapse.
"We really have to move," Hong said.
The rumbles of the collapsing tower next door seemed to sap the heavyset man of his last gasps of energy. He sat down again.
"I can't move my legs," he said. "I can't do it anymore."
In both towers, the stairs were a lifeline that grew increasingly frayed as time passed.
It takes a long time to walk down 90 flights of stairs.
"It was not designed for quick evacuation," said Thomas Humphreys, a Brown & Wood attorney who escaped from the firm's 57th-floor offices after the 1993 car-bombing at the trade center and then again Tuesday.
"You had to get everyone in our building out in 90 minutes. That's tough."
At first, even in the upper floors, the exodus was calm and orderly. Someone had time to break into a vending machine and pass out grape sodas. Someone made a joke about how the water from sprinklers and fire hoses was ruining their shoes.
"I was at the tail end of the crowd," said Humphreys. "You wait. People are orderly. It's crowded, and it's slow. You go down a few steps, and it would stop. Some of the stops were five minutes. You don't know why."
As time passed, the stairs became increasingly crowded. Heat began to build, dust poured into the stairwells, and the water was around their ankles.
All the while, the building was coming apart. Walls creaked and then cracked.
"It seemed we were walking down very calm, very orderly ... and all of a sudden you felt like the ground was falling out from under you," said Claiborne Johnston, who escaped from the 64th floor of the south tower.
"You knew the structure had been altered severely, and the rest of the way down you could feel that."
There were three stairwells: A, B and C. Veterans of the 1993 bombing knew Stairwell B was the widest and could accommodate the most people.
On most passes of most staircases, there was room for two people to stand side by side, but that didn't last long. From the top, the injured were being carried out, and those who could walk were forced to step aside.
Near the 40th floor, workers began encountering the firefighters coming up, many of them carrying heavy gear and sweating profusely.
Receptionist Dianne DeFontes took to the stairs from her law office on the 89th floor. After walking down 50 floors, she ran into the first wave of firefighters, their ruddy faces peering up the stairs.
"You're going to be all right," one of the firefighters said.
"I thought, they're going up there, and they may not come back down," she said. "The night that I came home I couldn't sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw a face. I thought, they may not have wives or girlfriends, but they all have mothers, and they're going to be devastated."
Hong was screaming at the heavyset man to move.
"You don't have to move your legs!" Hong shouted, as Harry waited with him. "Just move your butt. Slide down, one at a time."
Hong recalled, "He moved two steps, and that was it. He couldn't go on. 'Let's go!' I shouted."
A firefighter ran up to them. Hong expected he would join in to get the heavy man to move. Instead, the firefighter turned to Hong. The firefighter knew what they did not: For the stragglers, it was too late.
"Who the (expletive) are you, screaming at him to get out?" the firefighter shouted. "You get out!"
"I wanted to help," Hong recalled. "But at that moment, I didn't see how we could."
Hong looked at Harry, who was still standing with the heavyset man.
"I'm coming down with you," Harry told the man. "I'm not going to leave."
"I left," Hong recalled. "Alone."
Adam was nearing the bottom. Still trudging down the stairs, he told everyone around him to link hands.
They ended up at a courtyard where a pleasant fountain had been just an hour earlier. Now it was a pile of ash, dust, gnarled metal and body parts.
His cell phone rang as the group headed toward Houston Street. It was his wife. Adam fell to his knees.
"Hong is alive," she told him.
Saturday, the skies cleared over New York, a bright and chilly day. Just over the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan, a small group gathered at the tree-shaded New Jersey home of Owen May, one of the May Davis presidents. They lighted the barbecue about noon.
Adam was there. Hong was there, too. Micky Ramos, Harry's wife, was there.
And there was one guest with only the slightest connection to the investment company.
Adam, like many survivors, had grown weary of telling his story to his friends and relatives. So he sent them an e-mail describing the ordeal. And they sent the e-mail to their friends and relatives, who sent it to their friends and relatives.
At 2:50 a.m. Saturday, his phone rang. The e-mail had made it to San Francisco, where it was read by someone who knew a woman in New York named Rebecca Ward, and knew that Rebecca's husband, a heavyset man, was missing. The San Francisco man got in touch with Rebecca, who called Adam.
The heavyset man was her husband, Victor.
On Saturday afternoon, Rebecca came to Owen May's house to learn how Victor was comforted in his last moments, how Harry refused to leave him behind.
Harry's wife was walking around with a floor plan of the World Trade Center.
She questioned everyone who had been inside the north tower, convinced that somehow, Harry — the only May Davis employee still missing — is alive.
She developed a picture of his escape, learned that Harry was on the 87th floor when the plane hit, that he stopped to help on the 78th, that he met up with Hong on the 53rd.
But as hard as she pushed, as many questions as she asked, the picture began to fade after that.
And finally, on Stairwell A, it went dark.