Friday, September 9, 2016

Remembering 9/11. Our founder's personal account of that tragedy 15 years ago.

Bill's personal account he wrote shortly after 9/11

55 Flights of Stairs

By Bill Hay

    On September 11, 2001 at approximately 8:48 am/et, an evil atrocity against the United States was committed. The responses to these attacks have varied from anger, rage, fear, to uncertainty. Others have responded with acts of compassion and bravery, some sacrificing their own lives to save others. President Bush told the Nation: "We’re at war".

    As some of you might know, I witnessed this attack and also was a party to this terrible event. While a U.S. Marine, I had been shot at in three wars and hit in two—at least in those instances I knew who the enemy was. This atrocity was unlike anything I have seen in my 73 years, and God willing I will never have to experience anything like it again.

    I would like to take this opportunity and means to relate my experiences as they unfolded on 9.11.2001, the day that changed a Nation.

    The World Trade Institute (WTI) of Pace University invited me to be a guest lecturer on Mexican Logistics. At 8:30 am/et on September 11, I was standing behind a podium at their facility on the fifty-fifth floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC) and began presenting an eight-hour seminar. We had just completed self-introductions when suddenly we heard an explosion that was followed by the rocking of the tower. The explosion did not register with me, but the rocking did - first thing that went through my mind was an earthquake. I soon realized that this was not the case when I looked out a window and saw flames and debris falling from the floors above.

    My next words were, "Pick up your personal effects and lets get the h*ll out of here!" I did not follow my own instructions. I left my laptop, course outline, and briefcase containing everything I owned of value. Still, I got out with my life, what else could I ask for? Everything else is replaceable.

    The class started down the fifty-five flights of stairs along with hundreds of other people. There was no panic; people were taking their time and helping those who needed it along the way. At about the thirty-second floor, we met firemen that were on their way up. They were laden with hoses, axes, crowbars, etc. These brave firemen were the first ones to tell us that a plane had hit the building. Somewhere along the way down someone must have opened a water vending machine, because all of a sudden small bottles of water were being passed up and down the stairs. People were taking a sip and then passing it on to the next person. Up until the twentieth floor, the stairwell was full of smoke and some water.

    We did not hear the second explosion when the other plane hit the South Tower. It took about thirty minutes to exit the North Tower and get onto the street. Upon exiting this building, we were immediately ushered over to Broadway. It was not until two days later that I found out and I thank the Lord that all my class members and the WTI staff were safe and accounted for.

    Once out of the building, I thought I was now out of danger. I was wrong—I then heard another explosion. Looking over my shoulder I saw both towers in flames and a giant ash and debris cloud coming down Broadway at hurricane speeds. I turned down at what I believe to Ann Street in hopes of avoiding the raging cloud. A few minutes later, I was engulfed with ash and debris from the top of my gray hair to the bottom of my cowboy boots. Thank God I wear glasses; they are the only things that saved my eyes. The dust was so thick; I could not see my hand in front of my face. Everything and everybody was coated with a layer of soot.

    After what seemed like an eternity, the cloud finally dissipated enough that I could see three men coming towards me. I was informed by one of them that I could not exit that way and would have to go back to Broadway. It was in this street that I met Ellen. I took her in hand and we headed back towards Broadway. Ellen too was in the North Tower and had walked down from the seventy-second floor. When we reached the corner Ann Street and Broadway, a man I assume was the manager of the Starbucks was all but dragging pedestrians off the street and into his coffee shop. He and his associate were providing tap and bottle water, paper towels to clean our faces, plus anything else we may have needed without cost. I will always remember the kindness and generosity of these Starbucks employees.

    A short time later, a city bus pulled up in front of the Starbucks. Wanting to see the sun and sky again, Ellen and I got on the crowded bus without any idea as to the destination. The first stop the bus made was at the edge of Chinatown. Not knowing my way around the city, I did not want to get too far from what is now known as "ground zero" so we got off the bus here. It was not more than two minutes later, when a young lady named Pam Lundquist came up to us, saw our appearance and offered the hospitality of her apartment. Over three hours had passed and this was the first opportunity that I had to call and let my wife Mary and my office staff know that I was fine and that I would give them all the details later.

    For the next four hours we did little but watch the demise of the World Trade Center on television. Ellen and I were fed and loaned some clothing. Late in the afternoon, Pam and Keith, one of her roommates, escorted us back down to "ground zero" along the river waterfront. By this time the ferryboats were running. We took Ellen to the pier so she could get home to Bayonne, NJ. Pam and Keith then walked me back to my hotel on Gold Street, the Holiday Inn Wall Street. After that, they then had a good five-mile walk back home. Just for the record, Pam Lundquist is my guardian angel. To this day I do not know what I would have done if it had not been for her generosity and kindness.

    The scene of lower Manhattan walking up from the river is almost indescribable. The streets were covered with one to four inches of ash and debris. Not a single taxi, bus or automobile was moving on any of the streets. The only things on the roads were emergency vehicles. Your legs were the only means of transportation, and the number of pedestrians could be counted on two hands. Nothing was open. Nothing was moving. This part of the city was dead.

    Less than an hour after I got back to my hotel, the power went off. The gas and water were the next to go. Dinner that night was half of a tuna sandwich and a beer that I shared with another hotel guest. On Wednesday morning, the hotel conditions had not improved other than somehow the kitchen staff managed to serve coffee, danish and orange juice. For $9.95, you could have cold cuts, hard rolls, and cold cereal. I passed.

    I checked out of the hotel and went looking for better accommodations with two other guests. We walked up to Canal Street, a distance of about three miles. From there, we took a subway up to "Time Square" (Forty-seventh and Broadway) and checked into the Doubletree Hotel.

    I spent the better part of the next two days on the phone trying to get a flight back to San Diego. As everyone knows, all the flights were cancelled and the airports were shut down and nothing was moving or flying into or out of New York. I couldn’t even get a phone call through to any living person at the airlines and only got recorded messages telling me what I already knew: "All flights have been cancelled. All airplanes are grounded until further notice."

    Around 6:30 am on Friday the 14th, my luck changed for the better. I finally got through to Ms. Irene Baker, an America West agent in Phoenix, AZ and told her my sad tale of woe. Again I received the same response as before - no aircraft are flying in or out of the New York area. Then, I got a great idea: if got down to Philadelphia, could she get me home from there? The answer was yes, but you definitely could not consider it a direct flight. I would leave Philadelphia at 6:47 pm/et and travel by way of Columbus, OH and Las Vegas, NV. I would have to layover in Las Vegas that night and take a 9:10 am/pt to San Diego and home the next morning. After a few minutes of waiting, she was back on the line with confirmations and seat assignments. I was going home.

    Ms. Baker called my wife Mary with my itinerary and instructions to call her at her home if I had any problems along the way. I took a quick shower, checked out of the hotel, walked ten blocks in the rain to the Greyhound Bus Depot, and left New York City at 11:30 am on the Philadelphia Express. When I arrived at the Philadelphia station, I crossed the street and took the subway out to the airport. I checked in with America West using only a credit card with my picture on it and a faxed photocopy of my passport the office had sent (the original lies beneath the WTC Tower 1 rubble, along with anything else I had with me on September 11). My bag was inspected by security, I got something to eat, got on board my flight, and began my trip home. Next stop Columbus, then on to Las Vegas. I checked into another Holiday Inn at 11:30 pm/pt that night.

    Saturday at 6:30 am/pt, I joined hundreds of other passengers waiting in the America West check-in line. It began outside the Las Vegas International Airport on the street. After two hours I had just gotten inside the terminal building and my flight was scheduled to leave in forty minutes. There were still dozens of people ahead of me in line but I knew I had to do something if I wanted to get on this flight. I walked to the first class check-in agent, gave her my name, and asked her if she could help me. The agent told me not to worry and that they had been looking for me. She assured me that I would get on the flight even if they had to hold it a few minutes (they didn’t need too). Upon arrival in San Diego, I don’t know who was the happiest: Mary and my family or I.

    My thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by this horrible tragedy on September 11, 2001. Thankfully, events of terror like this are infrequent and definitely not "the norm". However, questions will still remain and be asked by many like: Where is God in all of this? How could He allow such evil to happen? Although we do not always understand God’s ways, we can still trust that He is in control of the world. We know that all that happens to us is working for our good if we love God and are fitting onto His plan (Romans 8:28).