Rob Beaton: Survivor

WTC: My Story
September 13, 2001

Where were you when the attack on the World Trade Center unfolded? Just like the Challenger or JFK assassination, I'll bet you know exactly where you were. I know where I was: Empire BlueCross BlueShield, Tower 1, 28th floor. I had to be there at 8:00am on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. My only responsibility for the entire extra hour was to press one single button to make sure a computer was online for a videoconference. Piece of cake. After I finished that, I had over an hour to kill, so I took a stroll to the mall downstairs on the ground level. I headed over to the deli next to Sbarro and picked up a bagel and a regular coffee -- I knew that I'd need it since I had woken up at 4:15am. I knew it would be a pretty long day.

My spirits were high as I headed back up the express elevator to the 28th floor. I can't believe my ears still pop when I ride this thing... I never see anyone else yawning... Carrying my bag of goodies, I walked back to the multimedia room affectionately known as the Blue Room. Everyone always loved the Blue Room. "You guys are always playing around in here," they'd say. I grabbed my trusty crossword puzzle and kicked back in my chair with coffee in hand, chuckling to myself. Looks like business as usual in the Blue Room... I glanced up as Joe walked through the open door and said, "Wow, it's been a while since I've been here in the mornings... I almost forget what the routine is!" He had been stuck with jury duty for the past month, and it was his first full day back on the job. From what I gathered, he was ecstatic that his tour of duty had finally come to an end. I refocused my attention on my puzzle and shoved the remaining quarter of my bagel into my mouth. Wow, I'm really doing well on this crossword... I can't believe how quickly I'm getting......

Before I could finish my own thought, a muffled rumbling sound permeated the walls of the seemingly rock solid building. A split second after I heard the noise, I felt it. I've never been in an earthquake, but I would imagine that it was a very similar sensation. The tremor shook me upright in my chair and rounded my eyes like dinner plates. What the hell was that?? Not another bomb...? I ran to the door and looked out into the sea of cubicles; a few frantic heads had emerged from within their cube walls. My eyes squinted to see out the thin, vertical windows on the opposite side of the room. I could see debris falling from above down to the streets below. UH oh... isn't that stuff going to hit someone down there? This was the most significant thing I had seen out those windows since my boss Amaury pointed out a window washer lowering himself past that very same window.

Oh shit. Today is the day that I'm going to die. And this is how it's going to happen. Please, not now... not today.
Then the entire tower began to sway. It was like a giant-sized teeter-totter, just not nearly as much fun as I would have imagined a giant teeter-totter would have been. It was reminiscent of the final climactic scene of Titanic where the ship took its final dive with a groan of twisting metal. I clutched the doorframe that I was standing in with my left hand and hung on with all my might. Oh shit... today is the day that I'm going to die. And this is how it's going to happen. Please, not now... not today. I felt the adrenaline charging through my body and down my limbs like a freight train. Screams flooded the office space as we rode the giant beast for what seemed like an eternity; although in actuality was probably only 30 seconds. When the building finally stopped moving, I looked down at my right hand, still clutching my cup of coffee and shaking like a leaf. I had spilled coffee all over my hand and arm, so I wiped it on my shirt and set my cup back down on the table. In the room, dialogue was abundant:

"That must have been another bomb!"
"Whoa, that was crazy!"
"Maybe a helicopter or airplane hit the building..."
"They're saying we have to evacuate the building!!!"

Upon hearing that, people began to make a mad dash for the doors. Should I get my bag? It's right here, but they always said that in times of evacuation, you should leave your stuff. We'll be back for it though, right? Amaury ran into the Blue Room and grabbed his bag and the company's digital camera. Following his cue, I grabbed my bag, slung it over my shoulder, and ran towards the doors that everyone else was running towards. Hey, where IS the stairwell? I had only been working at Empire for a month, and I remember thinking to myself that if there was a fire, I really wouldn't know where the exit was. I know the whereabouts of the express elevator, but not the stairs. As we burst through the heavy wooden doors, the hallway was filled with white smoke. It was straight out of the fire safety movies we had seen in school. Instinctively, we turned around to find another route, but the doors had slammed closed behind us and locked! One woman frantically rattled the doorknob in vain. I guess this lady doesn't remember that you need to use your key card to open these doors... I wagged my butt over the wall sensor panel, and the door unlocked with a small beep. I always kept my key card in my back pocket. It was a convenient place to keep it. Besides, I thought it was a pretty funny trick to be able to open a door with just your butt.

Realizing that the smoky hallway was the only way to the stairwell and to safety, we followed the arrows on the red exit sign that was glowing in the haze like headlights in a fog bank. Apparently no one else knew where the stairs were either. Luckily, we found them quickly, entered the solid concrete stairwell, and began our descent. It wasn't quite as smoky in there, but there was a slight haze. The square plastic sign on the wall read "28th Floor". This is going to be a long, long walk... The first four floors seemed to go by very quickly, but we hit a major bottleneck as we got close to the 24th. In fact, we came to a total standstill. I could see that the holdup was due to the fact that people from the 24th were trying to make their escape into the stairwell too. White smoke seeped in slowly through the open door, and it was getting harder to breathe in there by the minute. I looked around at the pure concrete surrounding us. God, we've got to get the hell out of here... if this place caves, we're in big trouble. I was counting the minutes.

When we finally got to the door at the 24th, two women were holding the door open and screaming as they looked down the hall. Morbid curiosity got the best of me. I peeked my head through the door and saw that ceiling had caved in from the above floors. It looked like a tornado had come through the place. "Hey, maybe we should shut the door... we're letting smoke in!" I told the women, and I nudged them out of the way as I pushed the door shut. On the next floor, a few people were pouring bottles of water over a Latino man's head. He was gagging and coughing as if he couldn't breathe. "This guy's got asthma!" one of the men shouted as they tried to assist him. Some stopped to help, but we needed to keep the line moving as much as possible if we wanted to get out of here alive.

I knew it wasn't gum. It was her charred skin peeling off her arms and face.
"EVERYONE MOVE TO YOUR RIGHT! BURN VICTIM COMING DOWN!" echoed from the stairs overhead. A fireman was coming down the stairs, followed by a filthy looking woman. "Don't touch her, just move to your right," barked the fireman. Everyone squeezed against the wall as if she was contagious with the bubonic plague. As she passed me, I realized that she was not filthy; she had third degree burns all over her body. It reminded me of being a kid and getting Bazooka bubble gum on your face while blowing bubbles -- you try and peel the gum off your cheeks, but it just turns black with the dirt on your hands. You end up going home a sticky mess so your mother can scrub it off. It looked like she had quite a bubble gum mishap... except that I knew it wasn't gum. It was her charred skin peeling off her arms and face. Her right elbow was cherry red with a bloody abrasion about the size of a silver dollar. Jeez, I wonder what floor she was on... They rushed her straight down the stairs for immediate medical attention. Not far behind her was the asthma guy. It was good seeing that guy get some help... he looked terrified as he gasped for air like a fish out of water.

The haze was getting thicker. I pulled my jacket out of my bag, wadded it up, and held it over my mouth. A gas mask it was not, but it would have to do. I looked back up the stairs at the others. No one else was covering their mouths. I couldn't believe it... How long until one of these people passes out from smoke inhalation? Amaury was close behind, and I flashed him a grin from behind my makeshift air filter. He grinned back. I was hoping to keep morale high, at least for myself. Am I getting dizzy? I can't tell. I sure hope not. Maybe I need some water. I pulled out one of the two bottles of spring water in my bag and gulped down a bit. That's a little better... "GET TO YOUR RIGHT!" Everyone jumped to the right side of the stairwell like a bunch of trained dogs ready to please their master. Firemen in their full, clunky fire gear were coming up the stairs. They looked hot, sweaty, and exhausted. Some of them stopped shortly for a breather on the landing before continuing up the seemingly never-ending flight of stairs. 110 floors... I wonder how high they're going to go. I would never be able to do that job. Many people from the crowd cheered the firemen and shouted blessings as they walked by. It was nice to see that they were genuinely appreciated. Several of the firemen assured the frantic crowd that everything would be alright and that everyone would get out just fine. When asked, they told us that the smoke got thinner as you got lower, and it would get easier and easier to breathe during the descent. One firefighter on his way up the stairs screamed, "I NEED SOME WATER!!!" I grabbed one of the water bottles out of my bag and said, "Hey, here, take this one." He looked down at the water, grabbed the bottle with a giant glove-clad hand, took a swig, and tucked the bottle under his belt. "Thanks... let's go!" he said, before disappearing up around the twisting staircase. I would estimate that a total of fifty firemen passed by, all on their way up. Most of them probably never found their way back down.

Further down the stairs, the same two women from before were opening another door, letting more smoke seep in. These women must be morons!!! They were greeted with a chorus of "Shut the damn door!" from everyone else in the stairwell. Jackasses. It had probably been around 15 or 20 minutes since we had entered the stairwell. Looking up, I noticed that by this point, everyone else was covering their mouths with their shirts, jackets, or whatever they could find. The plastic sign on the wall read, "9th Floor". I looked up at Amaury and tapped the sign optimistically. We're almost there!

"Watch out... there's some water down here, and it's slippery," said one of the men in front of me. The place was like a water park. Water was flowing down the stairs like an enormous cascading waterfall. Deep puddles formed on each of the landings on the way down. Wow, I'm glad I bought the shoes that were waterproof... who would have thought? I had it pretty easy. My socks were soaked, making that all-too-familiar "squish squish" sound when I walked. I fell into a lot of ponds as a kid, I guess. Fortunately, my shoes held up like champs. Many of the women ended up having to take off their designer shoes to walk barefoot down the wet concrete stairs.

The last stretch of floors went by rather quickly; 3rd... 2rd... 1st... Basement. We ended up in some weird storage closet with two WTC workers. "You went too far! The exits are on the 1st Floor," one of them yelled from behind the disheveled pipes and disarray. I noticed that the walls down here were heavily damaged. It was dark, damp, and it looked like the building really took quite a structural blow. It was pretty tough to backtrack against the steady flow of people coming down the stairs, but we managed to get back out to the ground level.

I had reason to smile - we were almost out of there. I recognized the ground floor as being the familiar security lobby, except this time it was a scene from a Disney ride. Parts of the walls and ceilings had broken into pieces and fallen to the ground, and water covered the entire floor. Security was always very high in the lobby of the WTC; you needed an ID card to get anywhere past the first floor. The turnstiles had been opened to allow for an easy escape, and the revolving doors were similarly folded back. One woman that I worked with was having trouble walking on the slick floor, so she linked arms with mine and I helped her walk in her high heels. Nice fashion and all, but they're certainly not made for all-terrain use. As we moved through the folded revolving doors, we were drenched by the fire sprinklers showering water from the ceiling in the mall. Amaury ran ahead of the woman and I and snapped a quick picture of us with the digital camera that he had snagged from up in the Blue Room; we were absolutely soaked, but I smiled a nice 1000-Watt smile for the photo. After all, I had reason to smile -- we were almost out of there. We also had no idea what was to come. Trying to make light of the whole situation, I made a corny joke about how I had been a tad bit upset about spilling coffee on myself this morning, but this was ridiculous! Dumb joke, but we probably all needed the chuckle.

Emerging into the sunlight was a relief; a mere 25 minutes ago, I wasn't sure if I'd ever see the light of day again. The police filed us all underneath a roofed area, presumably to protect us from falling debris. "JUST KEEP GOING! GO DOWN BROADWAY. DON'T LOOK BACK!" one of the officers instructed us. Of course, my full intentions were to look back to see what the damage looked like; I expected to see broken windows, perhaps a hole of some sort. When I looked back at the enormous building that we had just escaped from, I was horrified to see that the upper third of the tower was surrounded by a ring of fire, belching black smoke into the sky. The building has been on fire this whole time?!? The woman with the high heels that I helped out of the building was screaming like a banshee, as were most people. I was just focused on getting as far away from the scene as possible. The police had put up barricades along the streets, and you'd think the Macy's Day Parade had come early this year. I can't BELIEVE all these people are so close to this. What if the towers collapse? I had made up my mind... I was going to head down Broadway and not stop until I reached the temp agency at 36th and 6th. After all, they had gotten me the job in the first place, so maybe that would be the best place to go.

The upper third of the tower was surrounded by a ring of fire, belching black smoke into the sky. Looking down at my trusty cellular phone, I could see that I had 3 voice mail messages. Wow, already? I tried to phone home a couple times, but my efforts were futile. Besides, I don't think I could have heard over the noise of all the sirens -- it was deafening. I've never seen more emergency vehicles in my life. In fact, it was just like a scene from a movie, except it was happening right in front of my eyes -- people screaming and crying, photographers and newsmen running towards the building with cameras, escapees running away from it, police cars crashing into each other on the streets but continuing on their way as if nothing at happened, sirens blaring, and gawkers gawking, all trying to catch a glimpse of the bedlam.

After walking several blocks, I decided to stop at a nice little park area to watch the action unfold. I could see my tower burning from there, and I'd have a pretty good view of everything. Not to mention that it would be a great place to hang out for a while since I figured I'd be stuck here in the city for quite some time. I glanced down at my phone again; I had 7 messages. Wait a minute, what are you doing? Get out of here. Get as far away as you can. Start walking and don't stop. About five minutes later, I heard a soft rumbling sound that could have easily been mistaken for the sounds of a subway or train passing by. Uh oh, maybe that was one of the towers... "OH MY GOD! The tower just fell!!!" screamed one frantic woman between sobs of terror. I turned to see a rising cloud of smoke several blocks behind me swallowing the entire street and cityscape in a thick, gray blanket of dust and debris. Most people were frantic, crying, screaming, and wandering around aimlessly. I didn't have time to scream, cry, or be frantic. I was on my way out of hell.

Lines for pay phones were outlandishly long. No one could get cellular service, so pay phones were the last resort for many. I waited on a line for one phone for about five or ten minutes in hopes of reassuring my family that I was okay, but my calls were not going through. Along Broadway, the scene was unforgettable people gathered around store windows watching the destruction on the televisions inside, as well as people huddled around parked cars, straining to listen to the radio broadcasts.

I had been walking for over an hour. Down 28 flights of stairs, through a mob scene on Broadway, and finally, the crowds were beginning to thin out. I strolled up to the agency with wrinkled, damp clothes, shirt half untucked, and a hairstyle that looked more like a ratty mop than anything else. Standing outside the building was Evan, the man who had set me up with the job in the first place. I didn't think he'd recognize me, so I re-introduced myself. "Rob Beaton, Empire BlueCross," I said with a firm handshake and a smile. I think if Evan had been drinking something at the time, he definitely would have spit it out in astonishment, just like they always do on television sit-coms. He was very glad to see me in one piece. It wasn't until then that I learned that Tower 1, the tower that I worked in, had also collapsed. The hospitality at the agency was great; they fed me, let me use the phone, and made sure I had a place to say. I found out that my sister's future father-in-law was staying at a hotel on 54th, so after a meal and trip to the bathroom, I headed on up there to stay with him. At least I wouldn't have to go through this ordeal alone. Looks like everything's gonna turn out a-ok after all... I finally arrived back home at 3:30 PM on Wednesday afternoon. Home sweet home.

The Armageddon that I saw in person was about one million times worse than anything that I witnessed on television. However, I had it easy. I didn't see a single person die, I didn't see any dead bodies or body parts, and I didn't stick around to watch the towers come tumbling down. Don't feel sorry for me; I don't need your sympathy. Give it to those who weren't quite as lucky and their families -- they are the ones who need it. I'm just fine with being alive.

-- Rob Beaton, survivor

Copyright 2007 Rob Beaton