Update: 11-Sep-01 I no longer work in the trade center; we moved to midtown (ironically) because of the first bombing. I'm fine.
On Friday, February 26, 1993, at approximately 12:18 p.m. a bomb went
off in the basement parking lot of the World Trade Center complex in
New York City. The 1200-pound car bomb went off in the B2 level (the second
basement) but the blast was so intense that it shattered the steel-reinforced
concrete floor, causing debris to plunge down into the B3 and lower
levels, and forcing thick smoke up into the stairwells and elevator shafts
of both towers, which acted like chimneys given the position of
the blast. Six people were killed by the explosion, and more than 1000 were
injured or suffered from smoke inhalation. The explosion also caused $500
million in damage to the complex, and necessitated structural repairs that
kept tenants out of the building for more than a month.
The FBI arrested four suspects from a radical Muslim group, who
were later convicted and sentenced to 240 years each. The alleged mastermind
of the operation, Ramzi Yousef, fled the country immediately after the
bombing but was tracked down in Pakistan two years later.
I was inside when it happened.
And I was almost at the top.
Our firm was on the 96th floor of tower one (the northern one, with the
big antenna on top). We were all sitting at our desks typing away, when
there was a very loud yet muffled BOOM. The building shook, enough
to knock things off the edges of a desk, and the lights dimmed briefly.
As I sat at my desk, thinking wtf?, I watched half the company
run to the windows. Apparently in everyone's minds the only thing that could
produce such a boom-and-shake was a plane hitting the building. (This is not entirely unprecedented, btw, since the Empire State Building was hit by a plane in the 1940s.) So lots
of people run to the windows and look down, expecting to see, well, half
a plane sticking out of one of the floors.
Then time slows down, and a number of things start to happen at once.
Our group manager Brigitte has security on speed-dial, so she is
immediately on the phone with them. They tell her that there has been an
explosion, and that we should "get your people out". By now
people have realized that Something Bad has happened, and they start grabbing
their coats and heading for the emergency stairway.
While this is happening, the phone at my desk rings. It is my friend
Rick. This is maybe 30 seconds after the blast. I pick up the phone, and
he says, "Did you hear that?". I am a little concerned at this
point since the office is now filled with a thin smoky haze, and we are
obviously evacuating. I am also totally confused, because Rick works in
Midtown (about two miles north of the Trade Center), and couldn't possibly
have heard the explosion. Unless it was a really big explosion, I think,
and worry a little more. As it turns out, he was on the phone with a trader
for a different company in the building when the blast happened, so he immediately
hung up and called me. But I don't give him time to explain this. I can
only muster, "Uh, yeah, but I...uh...I can't talk because we're evacuating.
Bye." I hang up, grab my coat, and follow everybody else through
the haze. We pile out into the lobby, and I follow a couple of co-workers
down the "A" emergency stairwell.
Things have already backed up significantly, and we're at almost a
total standstill before we even get to the stairs. We had an awesome,
breathtaking view from the 96th floor. What you never think about is that
in an emergency you will be walking down 96 flights of stairs. Not only
will you be doing this, the other 25,000 people who work in the building
will be doing it as well.
As I enter the smoky stairwell, which is pretty dark despite the emergency
lighting, I think for the first time: we could really die in here.
Not because the smoke is that bad right now, but that stairwell was a death
trap. The doors lock behind you (for security reasons, of course, so people
can't gain access to other companies on different floors), so once you're inside you are trapped.
At this point we have absolutely no information, so we don't know if there's
a raging fire going on downstairs or what (and remember this is 1993,
before everyone and his dog had a cell phone, which probably wouldn't
work inside that staircase anyway). If that staircase had filled up with
thick black smoke all of a sudden, we would all be dead.
We walk slowly down the stairs. After we pass through the 78th floor
skylobby and into the second stairwell, we are feeling a little better because
the thin smoke is not getting worse. But it's not getting better either;
it's kind of like the air in a really smoky poker game held in a small
room. Several people have scarves (It is wintertime) and breathe through
them. After about 20 floors, most of us have accumulated little dark smoky
patches around our mouth, eyes, and especially in the spot between our
mouths and noses, like a bunch of little Hitler mustaches. We wonder
why we aren't hearing any official announcements over the public-address
system that appears to be installed; there are speaker-like objects mounted
below the emergency lights on every floor.
After a while, a bunch of us invent some games to pass the time. Roughly 50,000 people work in the two towers. With us is a junior sysadmin who is on his third day on the job. We reason that it is a near statistical certainty that it is at least a few people's first day, or last day. We get a little jolt out of the irony of this.
We reach the 48th floor in about 30 or 40 minutes. We are met by a security
official who is in radio contact with the ground; they want to move us
into the offices (which are less smoky) while they truck in heavy industrial
fans in an attempt to suck the smoke out of the stairwells. Strangely enough,
the 48th floor is the offices of one of our major competitors. We sit
in the corner and joke about going through a few of the filing cabinets,
since we have nothing better to do.
After what seems like a half an hour, we are given instructions to
proceed. We are filing out into the 48th floor lobby, down the staircase
again, and then WHAM. The lights go out.
We are in total darkness.
We find out later that apparently there has been enough time to do some
damage assessment, and Con Ed (the power company) has determined that
they don't know enough about the damage done to the power plant and the
electrical wiring to declare the building's electrical system safe.
So they shut off all of the building's power. Never mind that we've been
at this for over an hour now. Never mind that the backup generators that
supposedly powered the emergency stairwell lighting were destroyed in the
blast, so they don't kick in the way they are supposed to.
A person walking down about a floor and a half has brought a pocket
flashlight, and a few people have cigarette lighters, but we are basically
walking down the rest of the way in the dark. For 48 floors. But it doesn't
matter now because it's funny in a weird way. This sucks, but we're obviously
not in any real danger now, and whatever they did has made things a little
less smoky (or at least it seems that way, since we can't see a thing),
so our spirits are lifted a bit. This feels like the home stretch.
We emerge at ground level inside the 1WTC lobby, and we are amazed.
All of the enormous panels of glass that separate the lobby from the outside
have been shattered, either by the explosion or intentionally by the emergency
workers. There are piles of glass everywhere, but a path has been cleared
for us to get out onto the World Trade Center plaza. We blink in the
daylight, and look up. Helicopters are still flying overhead; some people
on the top floors went to the roof figuring it was safer, and they are
being airlifted down. Whisps of brown smoke still trail away from the
roof and a few floors where the windows had been broken. We make our way
across the plaza which presents its own challenges, since a good deal of
it is rather icy. I lose my footing once or twice, but manage not to fall.
The first thing I do is find a payphone and call my mother, because
she is a compulsive worrier. She's away from her desk, but I leave a message.
Later I find out that she was in a meeting all afternoon, and heard my
message before she heard about the bomb, so a whole lot of hand-wringing
I get on the Lex line and travel up to Grand Central. As I'm walking
through the big lobby I see another guy with a trace of a soot mustache.
We exchange smiles.
"What floor were you on?"
He shook his head. "Damn. How long'd that take you?"
I call some friends who work in Midtown, but I get their voicemail.
I'm dying for a drink or three, but I'm happy just to be alive and on
the ground. I go home and collapse. That night I take them out for a it's-great-to-be-alive
dinner, and everything about it seems to be the best it can possibly be.