102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers

BOOK: 102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers
13.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
For Mary, Maggie, and Kevin
For Julia Sullivan and Sheila Carmody
and all who travel with them
Table of Contents
Title Page
“It’s a bomb, let’s get out of here.”
“It’s going to be the top story of the day.”
“Mom, I’m not calling to chat.”
“We have no communication established up there yet.”
“Should we be staying here, or should we evacuate?”
“Get away from the door!”
“If the conditions warrant on your floor, you may wish to start an orderly evacuation.”
“You can’t go this way.”
“The doors are locked.”
“I’ve got a second wind.”
“I’m staying with my friend.”
“Tell the chief what you just told me.”
“We’ll come down in a few minutes.”
“You don’t understand.”
Authors’ Note
367 People at the World Trade Center
Praise for
102 Minutes
About the Authors
Copyright Page
8:30 A.M.
irst into the office on the 89th floor of 1 World Trade Center, as always, Dianne DeFontes shut the door behind her, then locked it with a bolt that slid up and down, into floor and ceiling. The lawyers were unlikely to arrive at the office of Drinker Biddle & Reath for another thirty minutes. Until then, DeFontes, the fifty-one-year-old receptionist, would serve as the early voice of a humming, busy law firm engaged in global-trade litigation. Atop the world—or near enough, more than 1,000 feet above New York Harbor—she settled into a solitary bubble. She sipped coffee, spooned yogurt, answered the phone. He’s not at his desk right now; may I have him call you? She swapped the easy-on-the-feet running shoes she wore to commute for the easy-on-the-eyes dress shoes stashed in a desk drawer.
The conference room behind her stood empty. The hallway walls were lined with bookshelves, a law library for this satellite office of a firm based in Philadelphia. The 89th floor in the north tower of the World Trade Center gave the lawyers an office where they could see, and be seen, for miles. It had taken DeFontes a long time to get used to life at the trade center, but now, after thirteen years, she at
last felt that she had her arms around it. She had a few friends on the floor—Tirsa Moya, her girlfriend at the insurance company down the hall, and Raffaele Cava, the older gentleman at the freight company who always wore a hat, no matter what the weather. DeFontes may have been the earliest arrival in her office, but Cava, at eighty years old, was always the first person on the 89th floor, at his desk by 6:30. To DeFontes, Tirsa and Raffaele were fixtures.
On the way to work, as her morning train rolled across Brooklyn, the towers grabbed hold of the sky ahead, staying in view until the train sank into the tunnel that crossed the harbor. From a distance, the sight surged through her with … well, she found it hard to define the feeling. Familiarity. Maybe a kind of pride, a tiny fraction of ownership, or simply the pleasant jolt of seeing the familiar with fresh eyes, like glancing down from an airplane and spotting a particular house or a park. Of course, the view from the train was pretty much the only way the world at large saw the twin towers: two silver streams running in a blue sky. To DeFontes, they were all that. But they were also the place where she worked and ate and spent half her waking hours. The winter before, the building operators had set up a rink in the plaza, and she had finally learned to ice-skate. During the summer, she lolled over lunch in that same plaza, catching free concerts. In fact, a concert was scheduled for the afternoon; when she arrived that morning, the chairs were in place. As iconic structures, the towers could be seen for miles and miles; their human pulse was palpable only from the inside out. For DeFontes, the geography of the World Trade Center began in a desk drawer in room 8961 of the north tower, where she stashed her dress shoes.
With her door locked, Dianne DeFontes felt safe, if alone, in this colossus.
At 8:30 on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, she was one of the 14,154 people who typically arrived between midnight and 8:47 A.M. in the 110-story towers known as 1 and 2 World Trade Center. Another 940 were registered in the Marriott Hotel nestled between them, at 3 World Trade Center. Yet DeFontes’ sense of solitude, while an illusion, should hardly count as a delusion. This small city
of people was spread across more than 220 vertical acres: each of the 110 floors per tower was its own acre of space, not to mention the hotel, and a basement that gave the trade center more space below the street than the majestic Empire State Building had above it.
Vast as the whole physical place seemed from afar, people inside naturally experienced it on a far more human scale. Each floor provided a little more room than a football field. The count of 14,154 people in the towers worked out to about 64 per floor—or 64 spread across a football field, including the end zones. On the 89th floor, where Dianne DeFontes sat, 25 people were also arriving for work; her solitude actually was just a spatial illusion, from the low density of the place. This spaciousness made it easy to feel that each floor was its own island, part of an archipelago in an ocean of sky. A person in the south tower, sitting 131 feet away from DeFontes, might as well have been in the Bronx. For that matter, someone on the floor below, a mere 12 feet under her, was not only invisible but also inaudible.
All around Dianne DeFontes’ corner of the sky, people she could not see were, like herself, poised on the brink of the workday. On 88, Frank and Nicole De Martini sipped coffee and chatted with Frank’s staff and colleagues. The couple had driven in from Brooklyn that morning after dropping their children at a new school, and traffic had been light. Nicole worked in the south tower, but with a few extra minutes, she decided to visit Frank’s office in the north tower to say hello. Frank worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which built and owned the trade center. The agency had just completed a deal to lease the entire complex to Larry Silverstein, a private real estate operator, and down the hall from Frank’s office, his colleague Jim Connors, a member of the Port Authority’s real estate department, awaited a messenger who was bringing a flatbed trolley stacked with the indentures and documents that described the transaction in excruciating detail. The change in control had, inevitably, led to anxiety among members of the Port Authority staff who served as de facto mayors of the complex, masters of its byways, keepers of its lore. For the most part,
they were being transferred to new departments within the Port Authority. Alan Reiss, who had run the world trade department, including the trade center, was downstairs on this Tuesday morning, in a delicatessen at street level, part of his own shift to new work. He was transferring to the post of deputy director of the Port Authority’s aviation department, so he was having a cup of coffee and an English muffin with the deputy directors from some of the agency’s other departments.
The 90th floor, directly above Dianne DeFontes, was not quite vacant, but close; Anne Prosser was just arriving for her job at Clearstream, an international bank. She would be getting married in a month. On this floor, some artists had studios because the Port Authority gave them unused space. They kept irregular hours and none had arrived yet for the day. Most of the 91st floor also was empty, but Mike McQuaid, an electrician, was there, installing fire alarms in vacant space that would soon be used by Silverstein Properties, the new operators of the trade center. McQuaid stopped at the office of the American Bureau of Shipping, the only business currently on the floor, to chat with someone he knew.
Above him, on a quiet corner of the 92nd floor, a sculptor named Michael Richards was in his studio space, having worked through the night, as he often did. The rest of the floor was unusually busy, and tense. Carr Futures, a division of a French company, Crédit Agricole Indosuez, had summoned about forty of its brokers for a meeting on commission rates. The brokers, most of them men, led daily lives of wallet-to-wallet combat on the floors of exchanges that traded commodities; many of them had become wealthy through a combination of guile, charm, and pure nerve, without having stopped at the more prestigious universities or, for some, at any college at all. Tom McGinnis, who normally worked at the Mercantile Exchange trading natural gas for Carr, had told his wife that he expected the meeting to run from 8:00 until 8:30, when their boss, Jim Paul, had to join a conference call. The meeting would resume after the market closed at four o’clock. Instead, the schedule had slipped, which was not surprising, given the contentious
topic of commissions for people who earned their living by thinking and acting quickly.
Carr Futures was hardly the only business in the trade center where many people came to work unsure of how much money they would go home with at day’s end. And few companies in the trade center had more people, with more money at stake, than Cantor Fitzgerald, a bond-trading company famed for its aggressiveness. Yet the firm also encouraged its employees to recommend family members for jobs, so that it was not uncommon for a father to be working a few steps from a son, or for a brother to have an office just a flight of stairs away from a sister. The firm’s founders had been art collectors, and Rodin sculptures were arrayed in well-lit displays around the office. Cantor occupied four floors near the top of the building—101, 103, 104, and 105—and they were far busier than most at this hour. Some 659 people were already at work.
One of them, the firm’s managing director, David Kravette, stood by his desk, talking on the phone with his wife. She wanted to cancel their newspaper delivery. The paper was being thrown into the driveway, their kids were running out to the street to get it, so she wanted to put a stop to the problem.
Kravette listened impatiently. Clients were waiting for him in the lobby, nearly a quarter mile below his offices. They had just called from downstairs, more than a half hour late for an appointment. And despite Kravette’s specific reminders, one had forgotten to bring a picture ID. So now they would have to be personally escorted through the lobby checkpoint. His assistant, heavily pregnant, was busy. He would fetch them himself. Just as he was departing for this irritating errand, his wife called to report on the newspaper-in-the-driveway crisis.
“Janice, I got people downstairs,” Kravette said. “Let me talk to you later about this.”
“Let’s talk now,” she responded. “I’m out all day.”
And so it went, on the 101st floor and every other floor in the complex. Life simmered at 14,154 different temperatures, in the log-on ritual for e-mail, as men and women lined up the day’s tasks,
or as they unloaded some fraction of life at home that had been carried into the world of work. One woman called her husband to report that she had stopped at a drugstore to pick up a second home pregnancy test, still not quite able to accept the results of the one she had taken earlier that morning. A window washer, bucket dangling on his arm, waited at the 44th floor of the north tower, having just grabbed a bite of breakfast in the Port Authority cafeteria on 43. In the health club atop the Marriott Hotel, a Roman Catholic priest with clogged arteries had just climbed down from the stationary bicycle, and was weighing a decision to complete his workout with a few laps in the pool. In the north tower lobby, Judith Martin, a secretary with Marsh & McLennan, had just hopped on an express elevator after finishing a final cigarette outside before work. On the 27th floor of the north tower, Ed Beyea rolled his wheelchair to his desk in the office of Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield, his aide having set him up with the head pointer that he used to operate his computer. At the top of it all, Christine Olender called home from Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors of the north tower, where she worked as the assistant general manager. She had lived in New York City for twenty years, but still checked in most mornings with her mom and dad back in Chicago. Christine and her mother were organizing a visit by her parents to the city, no doubt one that would include a stop at Windows. Still, she had a busy morning ahead of her—besides the regulars having breakfast in the dining area called Wild Blue, a conference was about to begin in the ballroom, sponsored by Risk Waters, a big financial publishing firm. Mother and daughter agreed to talk again later.
As Dianne DeFontes was settling in for the day, the passengers on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston were seated for their flight to California. The crew chief would have recited the procedures for an emergency evacuation—lights on the floors, locations of the exits, life vests under every seat. Among those who would have been listening, perhaps with the glaze of repetition, was Linda George, a
buyer for the apparel retailer TJX who was on her way to Los Angeles for a buying trip. She was to be married at the end of October to a man she had met while playing volleyball. Their first date had been to see the movie
As it happened, the safety rituals of modern airline travel—the instructions on the location of doors, life vests, emergency masks—were all the residue of seagoing laws enacted after the
brushed against an iceberg and foundered in the North Atlantic in 1912. Perhaps the most famous safety inquiries of the twentieth century had examined the catastrophe. The goal had been to learn how such a mighty and supposedly unsinkable ship had been lost. Why had 1,522 of the ship’s 2,227 passengers perished, even though the vessel remained afloat for nearly three hours after the collision? In the end, the deaths turned out to be not much of a mystery. The casualties were a result of poor preparations, communication failures and confusion, and a woefully inadequate inventory of lifeboats. If the hearings on the
did not answer precisely why the unsinkable ship had sunk, they provided a clear explanation of why so many died and an agenda for reforms.
Moments after the American Airlines crew demonstrated the evacuation protocols that evolved from those revelations, Flight 11 turned unexpectedly south, toward the World Trade Center. It was a journey that had started some twelve years earlier.
In the summer of 1989, a group of mujahideen warriors, fresh from the triumph of turning back the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, migrated from Central Asia and the Middle East to the United States. A battlefield formed in slow motion. One group of the mujahideen took over a mosque in Brooklyn, installing Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind fundamentalist cleric from Egypt, as spiritual leader. In November 1990, the group made its first strike in the United States, targeting Meir Kahane, a radical rabbi and Israeli politician who had made himself into a human megaphone of Jewish empowerment and anti-Arab views. Kahane was assassinated after giving a speech at a hotel in midtown Manhattan. A member of the gang was arrested fleeing the hotel, smoking gun in hand. Inside a locker at his job, and in boxes at his home, police
found stashes of ammunition and tracts in Arabic calling for destruction of the “edifices of capitalism.” They also found pictures of American landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center. The gunman was quickly written off as a lone nut. City and federal officials overlooked blunt evidence that he had associated with quite a few men of similar ideological bent. In fact, most of the written material in his possession would not get translated for a long time.
BOOK: 102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers
13.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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