Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11, minute by minute: Chaos and 1 man's escape

Close your eyes and picture Sept. 11. The memories are cauterized, familiar forever. The second plane banks and slides in, the fireball blooms, the towers peel away as if unzipped from the top.
Start with the Tuesday morning and the blue sky and walk through the day from two perspectives, inside and out. From that of a man who managed to survive above the impact zone in the south tower and from that of the helpless, watching world.
In those first two hours, before anyone could put together the full, awful picture, chaos filled in the gaps.
No one knew exactly what was happening, or how vast, or at whose hand. No one knew, for a time, that the instruments of destruction were not prop planes but jumbo jets. At the very first, almost no one knew there were planes at all.
Brian Clark was working at Euro Brokers, on the 84th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center. He arrived at about 7:15 a.m., had his cup of coffee, went about the morning's chores.
A "loud double boom" is the first thing he remembers. Then flickering of the lights in his office. Something caught his peripheral vision. He spun around. His view usually looked out over the Hudson River. The river and the sky.
"It was filled with flame," he says. "Two yards from my nose is the window, and it's right against the glass, almost swirling. I can't recall whether there was a flash of heat. But the bright glass — you were in the fire. The flames washed right up."
It was 8:46 a.m.
For reference, Clark sometimes tells people to imagine a three-by-three grid, like the first nine digits on a telephone keypad. The north tower sat where 1 would be, the south tower at 8.
Clark's office faced west, near the southwest corner of the 8 button. American Airlines Flight 11 had crashed into the north face of the north tower, the top of the 1 button.
Since the 1993 bombing of the trade center's underground garage, Clark had volunteered as a fire marshal for his floor. Now, as if on autopilot, he grabbed the flashlight, grabbed the whistle.
He remembers encouraging his colleagues to leave the floor. He also remembers one of them, a woman, spinning around from the window in shock and tears, and telling him that people were jumping.
Clark called his wife. "Something's happened next door," he says he told her, "but we're OK."
Just then, the network television morning shows, where the top stories of the day had included whether Michael Jordan might make a comeback in the NBA, cut for the first time to a live shot of the gashed north tower of the World Trade Center.
The first alert on the national news wire of The Associated Press moved at 33 seconds past 8:53 a.m.:
NEW YORK (AP) — Plane crashes into World Trade Center, according to television reports.
At about 8:55, Clark remembers a voice over the PA system: "Building Two is secure."
Eight minutes later, at 9:03, he was standing outside his office and talking with a coworker, Bobby Coll. They were 2 feet to a yard apart, he thinks, eye to eye.
In an instant, "the room exploded."
The feeling was of tremendous air compression. Then things so secure no one ever gave them a thought, things like the lights and the floor, came loose. For several harrowing, torqueing seconds, it seemed the building itself might go over. The power went out.
"Everything was full of construction dust," Clark says. "Yellow, chalky, gritty air. As if you gave a demolition crew a week to destroy the floor, but it happened in a second. It was like someone had torn open a cement bag and just waved it in the air."
He remembers terrorism crossing his mind. He also thought something that seems ridiculous to him in hindsight. He remembers cursing and saying, "We've got to come back tomorrow and clean up this mess."
To the outside world, at 9:04, went the AP alert: "Explosion rocks second World Trade Center tower."
TV networks were in the middle of interviewing eyewitnesses to the first explosion when United Flight 175 approached, slipped into the south face of the south tower, and sent a mushrooming fireball out the other side.
"That looks like a second plane," Charles Gibson said on ABC.
"And now," Matt Lauer said on NBC's "Today" show, "you have to move from talk about a possible accident to talk about something deliberate that has happened here."
With people around the world now fixed on live pictures of the trade center, the puzzle was slowly coming into focus. The AP reported at 9:12: "FBI investigating reports of plane hijacking before World Trade Center crashes."
In Sarasota, Fla., President George W. Bush was reading to schoolchildren when Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, whispered news of the second crash into his ear. The color appeared to drain from Bush's face.
Inside the south tower, Clark was trying to lead a small, snaking line of people toward a central stairway and down from the 84th floor. Three floors into the trip, they were met by a woman, heading up.More...

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