9/11 plus 10: Our community remembers

9/11 plus 10: Our community remembers

"Everyone evacuate": An eyewitness account

Russell Moskowitz stands with his child in front of a store in Teaneck, happy to be alive.. Courtesy Russell Moskowitz

I wrote this at 9:25 p.m. on Sept. 14, 2001 – a little over 60 hours since World Trade Center One was hit by a hijacked airliner. A little over 60 hours since I felt the impact of the blast. A little over 60 hours since I saw burning debris, which looked like confetti at the Yankees annual parade, outside my window. A little over 60 hours since I began my life-saving journey down 79 flights of stairs….

When the first plane went into WTC 1, my building shook and no one had any clear idea what happened. I heard that “a plane crashed,” and I believed it. I believed it was an accident, one of those little planes that take off at rinky-dink airports. Not a 727 or 747 or the like. A few people went over to the window to take a look. I was a good 40 feet away, but the burning debris was clearly visible.

“Everyone evacuate.” “Everyone evacuate.” Those two words saved my life. They were not over the PA system. They were not mandated by the WTC. They were not said to Fuji Bank. Someone on my floor yelled them. Who? That person saved my life. He saved my family untold nightmares and countless tears. He saved my friends the agony of losing me. He saved me.

I rushed toward my desk to grab my Au Bon Pain coffee mug and my leather bag. I did not rush toward the staircase at first; I rushed toward my desk to grab easily replaceable objects of absolutely no worth. Why? Who knew what happened, what would happen, and will happen in the days ahead? I thought a plane hit, an accident, not the act of terrorism.

Too self-absorbed

After the dart to my desk, I followed the mayhem of people to the staircase. Where was everyone I knew? I did not know and did not care. I was too self-absorbed. Wrong? Probably, but I was not thinking about anything. We had fire drills before but this is how they were administered: “Everyone please go in the hallway and line up.” Then, “If this was a real emergency you would hear further instructions on what to do next.” In real situations, you don’t wait, you don’t think, you don’t hesitate, and you sure as hell don’t stand in a line.

The stairs. Seventy-nine floors is a long way to go. I think I made it in 30 minutes with people in front of me and stopping for a few minutes. I think. I lost all concept of time. People walking, some coming in at every floor. At one point, I think around floor 50, people stopped walking. What can make people stop walking? Unless I saw God in person, nothing would make me stop walking. Walking shortly resumed, although there was still not the sense of urgency that would quickly arrive.

The fateful 44th floor: I have tried to remember what happened here, as it proved to be the decision of a lifetime. An announcement came on the PA system…. Everyone stopped to listen. The door from the stairs opened as people crowded in the hall to hear it: “There is a fire in building 1; please evacuate that building. Building two is secure; you may return to your desk.” Those words are with me forever: “YOU MAY RETURN TO YOUR DESK.”

I went into the hall as people walked toward the elevator to go back up. I thought about going with them. Why? Because when any decision comes upon you, you automatically think what to do. Did I think about it for more than a second. No. Why? Fate, God told me what to do, or according to my mother, her deceased father showed me the path to follow.

One of a million miracles

I don’t know why. Maybe I just wanted to take a day off. My guess – it was the work of God and an example of the millions of miracles he does on a daily basis. People waited for the elevator. I believe they were going up.

I started into the staircase once again (although I had only exited for a minute and one second – the minute for the announcement, the second for the decision). I saw people walk away from the elevators into the offices. I heard them joking that they were in someone else’s office and did not know where they were. I knew one of those guys. On Mondays I would ask him how his weekend was…. I do not know the fate of those who walked into those offices, but I pray for all those who exited on the 44th floor.

The 33rd floor: This one provided the worst memories of my life. The scariest time. A time to start praying. A time to ask myself “Am I alive.” The CRASH. I shook; maybe I fell. Others fell. The building had been struck. I did not know that at the time. I felt a shake. A great shake. Then the noise. Like nothing I ever want to hear again. I tried telling people it sounded like 15 to 20 elevators falling down, all landing 10 feet from me.

That description does not do it justice. Remember, I was inside, so I had no idea what it was. What I thought was that the other building fell into this one. And I was dead. Maybe not then, but I would be shortly. I thought I heard the beginning of the building crumbling. I envisioned myself trapped. Like those at Oklahoma City, those in earthquakes, those at the embassies the last time bin Laden struck us.

Praying, not thinking

When I went to a shrink with my mom later, he asked, “At that moment, were you thinking of your mom?” I said I was not thinking – nor did I till I got out of the building. I started praying Sh’ma Yisrael, etc., and I put the mezuzah around my neck in my mouth the whole way down. I felt I would not get out of there without help from a higher source.

Fortunately, the remaining 33 floors were relatively uneventful. I prayed and got down as soon as I could, with many around me. Around the 10th floor we were met with some smoke, then we hit the bottom of the staircase. We were guided through the mall at the WTC to get out. Something really weird happened as I went through the revolving doors. My phone, which of course had no service in the staircase, rang.
It was my oldest friend from kindergarten telling me to call my mom because she was worried. I told him I had gotten out. At least that is what I thought I told him. I was under the impression that he called my mom, who would call the rest of my family and friends and tell them there was no need to worry. I later found out I only said or he only heard that I was evacuating. When the building collapsed later, he had no idea I had gotten out.

As we ran through the interior of the WTC I cannot remember the path we took. We were herded across the street and told not to look up. I saw debris all over on the ground. I do not know what it was, nor did I care to inspect it. I crossed the street and looked up. What I saw was indescribable. It was the same sight people all over the world saw on their TVs, but I was up close and personal.

‘Get away from here’

I ran and ran. I stopped for another look at my building about five blocks out. Bystanders said they just saw someone jump. People jumping! My stomach turned. I could not and did not want to see that….

I passed a girl talking on a cell phone. I asked her to please call my mom for me because I could not get service. She quickly exited her call and dialed my mother’s number, but there was no service. I told her to please continue as I ran for a phone and my life. I finally decided to confront a pay phone line of about 10 people. All I could do was point to my building and say that is my building and I ran down 79 floors and I have to call my family. First, the people tried to calm me down, then the line parted and they let me use the phone. As I was dialing frantically I saw two FBI men right next to me. “See that building across the street, that is the FBI building. Remember Oklahoma City. Get away from here.”

When I got off the phone I felt so much better. I had rested the fears of my family, and hopefully my friends would get wind that I was alive as well.

I heard from friends who thought I was dead and received e-mails from people who did not know if I ever would respond and calls from people I have not spoken with in months. I had happy reunions with family. But I can’t erase the images in my mind, the fear I get at the littlest sounds, the terror that it can happen again.

Russell Moskowitz lives in Bergenfield. He lived in Hoboken in 2001. This is an abridged version of his account on http://bit.ly/js-mosk

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