The Trailblazer

9/11 – Why We Never Forget

Rachel Paulsen

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Every year on September 11th, the country comes together and mourns for the ones we lost that day. For those who weren’t alive then, or too young to remember, we often spend times asking loved ones what is was like for them that day. When I began to ask these questions to my family, I learned that my dad was working at the World Financial Center (neighbor to the World Trade Center) at the time, and had written an email of what it was like for him that day. Every year my family reads this, and I’ve always wanted to do something more with it. I find that this account shares a very specific story of what it was like that day, and can help answer the questions that some of us may have.

Below is Brain Paulsen’s, the author’s father, email that accounts his experience on 09/11/2001. It was written the day after the attack. 

 

Many people have written to me and asked me if I was ok, and I thought I would put this email together to describe what I went through on Tuesday.

 

If I haven’t said it yet, thanks for your concern. My day began roughly as it normally does…

 

My wife, Kim, dropped me off at the train station and then departed to take our 10-month old daughter Rachel to day care. As usual, we had a small argument about how this detour to drop me off is really out of the way for her.

 

I got on my 7:34 train and I caught a short nap on the train and finally arrived in Hoboken at 8:39. I then transferred to a PATH train and arrived in the World Trade Center around 8:46.

 

After leaving the PATH trains, I headed towards a long bank of escalators to go to work…

 

“Move, move! Get out of the way!”

 

I turned around to see six or seven police officers running through the crowd and sprinting up the escalator. What could cause such commotion among NYPD’s finest? In the past, when I’ve seen officers sprinting so quickly, it was to chase a suspect. I looked around and it didn’t appear that they were chasing anyone.

 

Immediately, my mind started racing to try to determine what might be going on. Possibility number one was that there was a gunman at the top of the escalators. If that was the case, I should stay down below and wait for them to secure the scene. Possibility number two was that there was something wrong with the train system and we should leave immediately.

 

“Get of the building!” I don’t know who yelled this, but it was enough to cause the crowd to start moving. People who probably have always stood on the escalator now started running up it. Nobody had any idea of what the problem was, and there was a general panic to get out quickly.

 

As we approached the top, we saw the police officers that had raced past us and they were yelling, “Keep calm. Leave the building in an orderly manner. There’s no need to push.” Those officers did an amazing job at keeping people calm and ensuring that nobody was pushed down or hurt.

 

I looked around and I could see no damage in the building. What was going on? The only thing I could think of was that there was some poison gas attack in the train system. Everybody was going toward the east side of the building, but my work was over on the west side, in the World Financial Center.

 

I walked over to the bridge that connects the World Trade Center to the World Financial Center and immediately saw why the officers were trying to move people away from where I was. The courtyard area in the World Trade Center had scattered debris in it and, looking up, I could see papers falling as if there was a ticker-tape parade going on.

 

I immediately called my wife on her cell-phone.

 

“I’m ok.”, I said.

 

“Huh? What do you mean?”, she asked.

 

I tried to give her the basic information. “You are going to see something in the news, I don’t know what happened, but I’m ok. Maybe there was an explosion at the World Trade Center, but I’m ok.” Even though I had no idea of what had occurred, I felt very nervous and I was trying to hold back tears as I spoke to her.

 

We said a few more brief words, and I told her that I had to leave the building. I walked out of the World Trade Center and saw the police officers moving everybody away from the building. I walked across Church Street to join the crowd of people looking up at 1 WTC.

 

What I saw was horrific. The top 10-15 stories of the building were engulfed in flames. Black smoke from the intense heat was pouring out. I watched for a few minutes and decided that I should head to work and started planning my route. Obviously, I couldn’t go on streets near the WTC, and I would have to go a few blocks north and make a big loop to get to my office.

 

I just started taking a few steps when I heard the crowd gasp. Looking up, I could see that someone had jumped or fell from the building. People started crying and those who weren’t crying were obviously stunned by what they saw. Obviously, there were many people stuck in the building who were trapped by the fire.

 

While I was looking at the flames so high up, I thought, “How are they going to put this out? You obviously can’t shoot a stream of water up that high.” Just about as I was thinking this, I saw a plane that seemed to come out of nowhere.

 

“Aha,” I thought, “this plane is going to dump water on the building.” I thought that what worked for forest fires would work for this fire. I watched the plane approach, and I couldn’t believe how big these planes are that do this kind of work. As the plane neared the WTC, I thought, “This plane better pull up or it’s not going to clear the building.” A split second later, it finally occurred to me that the plane wasn’t intending to clear the building.

 

BAM!!! This giant jet smashed into the building almost directly above my head. I ran across the street for cover. I got about halfway across the street when I either tripped or someone pushed me down. I felt the basic fear that almost anyone must feel when they are in a panicked crowd. I knew that if I didn’t get up immediately, I was going to be trampled. I got up and hid near a parked van.

 

Looking back, I realize that I didn’t get pushed down by anyone because I was crossing an empty street. I didn’t trip either. It was the shock wave of the explosion that knocked me flat to the ground.

 

As I crouched next to the van, I saw someone under the front of it and I couldn’t decide whether that was safer or it would be a deathtrap if some debris fell on it. A few other people huddled near me, and we saw a rain of glass nearby. Once it seemed that no more debris was falling, everybody started running north.

 

While I was running, I realized that I had just called my wife about ten minutes earlier and told her that I was fine. After that call, I had witnessed a plane explode over my head and I was now actually running for my life. I had to make sure that I did survive this and I had to let her know that I was fine now.

 

We got about two blocks away when the crowd slowed down a bit and we all realized that we were away from immediate danger. I started feeling around my body to make sure that something didn’t hit me and I was ignoring it out of shock. My guardian angel was watching over me and nothing had hit me. Almost in unison, everybody reached for their cell phones and started trying to call loved ones. It seemed like everybody had full signal strength but nobody could complete a call. The lines for pay phones were already 10-20 deep.

 

I knew that I had to get away from the World Trade Center and I was trying to find the route to go. To my left were the streets that were above the subway stations and to my right was City Hall. Both seemed like likely terrorist targets. I thought that anybody who would launch a coordinated air attack would follow it up with a ground attack. I felt that it was important to avoid any areas that had a lot of people near it.

 

I was frozen in decision about where to go and I stopped near a building that housed one of the city’s recycling centers. It seemed to be made of concrete and had a basement that looked fairly sturdy. I went down into the basement to find a payphone. No luck. After standing around for a few minutes and talking to strangers about what had just happened, I learned that the first explosion had also been caused by a plane crash.

 

I decided that staying near the Financial District and particularly, the World Trade Center towers, was asking for trouble. So, walking next to City Hall seemed safer than staying where I was. As I walked north, I saw a few people asking about what had caused the explosions, and I told them what I saw. A big (BIG) plane had smashed into one of the buildings and that others told me that a different plane had crashed into the first building. Everybody was in disbelief. “Are you sure?” was a common question.

 

I started walking past City Hall and I eyed every passing truck as I was sure that one of them would be filled with bombs. When I finally passed City Hall, I headed west so that I could be near the river. I figured that if all else failed, I could jump in the Hudson river for safety. I got to the West Side Highway and headed north.

 

I must have walked about ten blocks and I heard some radio reports that the Pentagon had been hit. Now, I was nervous that my wife hadn’t heard from me and that she may be in trouble as she works in Times Square. I had to get in contact with her.

 

Every pay phone had long lines of people waiting for them and nobody could make a call on their cell phone. I walked past a garage for Verizon and I thought that if anybody would have a lot of phones, Verizon would. I turned the corner to see nothing but a garage. However, the nice man there was letting anybody use his single phone in the office. I thanked him and waited in line for the phone.

 

I called Kim and got her voicemail. I told her that I saw the second plane hit the building and that we were under terrorist attack. I said that she should leave Manhattan immediately and use the ferry as the bridges and tunnels are probably closed. While I was saying this, I could hear the crowd gasp in amazement.

 

People started piling in to use the phone and I got different accounts about what just happened. One said that a third plane came in and hit the World Financial Center. Another said that a third plane hit the World Trade Center and knocked it over and that it fell on the World Financial Center. Everybody agreed, though, that the World Trade Center was no more.

 

I went outside to look for myself. I found it totally credible that the World Financial Center no longer existed as the entire southern end of Manhattan was under cloud of dust. I could see one of the World Trade Center towers but it seemed that a nearby building was blocking me from seeing the other. I kept inching out into the street to see the other one. It didn’t occur to me that I would never be able to see the other tower.

 

I ran back in to call my wife again and told her that I saw the third explosion (that’s what I thought at the time) and that I was far away from that area now. She might not be able to use the ferry, but she should definitely get away from Times Square. I told her to call her mom to pick up our daughter from daycare. She should then start walking north and that we would meet up later tonight.

 

I left the garage and resumed walking north so that I could get to the ferry and every now and then I would turn around to see the remaining tower and watch more people jump from it. I walked a few more steps, turned around, and then stared in disbelief as the building crumbled. It looked exactly like what you would see if someone used a controlled implosion to bring it down. The giant cloud of dust rose again over southern Manhattan and nobody knew for sure what was still standing.

 

I kept walking north and decided to get away from the crowds and I passed a street that a friend of mine lived on. Fortunately, he was home and he had several of his co-workers over (they work at 7 World Trade Center, a building that fell down at about 5:20PM).

 

Once I got there I was finally able to call my mother-in-law, my mother, and some coworkers and we were able to determine that everybody was safe and unhurt. I had learned that my wife got my message and heeded my advice to leave immediately. She was already on her way home.

 

I stayed at my friend’s house for another hour to calm down and I then headed north to meet my brother-in-law and my father-in-law and together we went to catch the ferry to go home.

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