September 11th Experience
Submitted by Alexander H. Spano
April, 8th, 2010
Alexander H. Spano worked for OppenheimerFunds, which was located in the South Tower of the World Trade Center between the 31st and 34th floors. Alex worked as the Operations Manager for OppenheimerFunds retirement plans division and his office was located on the 33rd floor. In addition to his normal day to day activities, Alex also acted as the designated Fire Marshall for the 33rd floor. A normal day for Alex would be arriving to the office at 6:00am and worked until 6:00pm before return home, in New Jersey, to his wife of four years and one year old baby boy.
On the day of September 11th, Alex was in his office when the first plane hit the North Tower. Obviously, everyone’s first reaction was to run to the windows and look outside at the devastation. At first, everyone was wondering what it was; was it a small plane or a new helicopter. Nevertheless, looking down at the amount of burning debris spread over Liberty Street and the loose paper caught in the winds whipping around the buildings told me there was something seriously wrong. Within a few moments, some employees began to smell smoke, then more, and then more. Protocol quickly set in, Alex instructed his fellow employees to the stairwell to begin with the long trip downstairs.
After all employees were gone, Alex ran around the floor just to make sure everyone had evacuated the 33rd floor. Two co-workers, stayed behind with Alex to assure he would be heading to the stairs as well. As they began the long journey down the stairs, around the 17th floor, the announcement came over the PA system for all employees to return back to their offices. By this time, the majority of the employees on the 33rd floor began to split up, some continued downstairs to catch an elevator back up and others began to return to their offices along with hundreds of others from various other companies. Alex and the two co-workers chose to continue downstairs. As they got closer to the bottom, police and firemen were beginning to fill the stairwell.
As they arrived into the mall area, there was complete and utter chaos. Police Officers were running in all different directions instructing whoever was around to evacuate the building immediately. Alex ran up to one of the two New York Transit Police Officers and asked why are they raising panic to everyone; the announcement said to return back to their offices and that the situation is under control? The one officer looked into his eyes and stated that we are all in danger, please leave immediately. The police officers then ran off to assess others. Listening to his instincts, the three of them headed to the doors exiting on Liberty Street. As they got to the top of the stairs and opened the doors to exit, one of the two co-workers asked Alex to borrow his cell phone to call his wife. As they stepped outside and the cell phone was handed off, the second plane then struck right over head. Standing shocked for a fraction of a second, Alex and one co-worker ran in one direction while other co-worker ran in the other direction, with Alex’s cell phone in hand. Alex and the other co-worker ran across the street near a mobile hot dog stand where Alex covered over his co-worker and an elderly lady. He was struck in the back of his head and in the lower back with debris. After the initial turmoil of the 2nd plane striking the South Tower, they just stood across the street staring up at the destruction to the building and the horror on the ground. The vision was just horrifying. Bodies in the street, plane seats with partials still seat belted in and watching helplessly as people continued to leap; some landing only a few feet away from watching bystanders.
Alex, his co-worker and a few others began to head to a more secured location to find a working phone to call their loved ones. A young man in the group suggested to go to a commodity brokerage firm located below the Broadway where he know some guys that will let us use their phones. When they got there they were able to learn over the TV what was really going on. Alex then called his wife to inform her that he was alright and will be heading off the island as soon as possible. After a few moments, Alex and his co-worker decided to head to the World Financial Center to catch a ferry to the Jersey side. Being that they had to walk near the two burning goliath towers again, they chose to take some of the side streets to avoid seeing the disgust and experiencing the pandemonium again.
As they approached the West Side highway, a police officer stopped them from crossing. They explained that they wanted to cross to catch a ferry from the piers facing Jersey City. The police officer again stated with a firm voice to begin walking to Battery Park and wait there for instructions. After Alex attempted one last plea, they heard the most horrifying sound; a sound like no other; the sounds of metal twisting and load thumps continuously. They felt the thumps in their chest as the inevitable began to happen. People began running in all directions, not knowing if the building was coming down sideways or in their direction. Alex and his co-worker ran toward the direction of Battery Park when a police officer shuffled them into a building for protection. Only being one block away from the fell South Tower, the police officer was able to get about 20-25 people into the lobby of this building. The ground shook, daylight turned into night within seconds as clouds of debris, dirt and ash fill the streets.
After a few moments of hysteria, the power went out. The officer instructed everyone to remain calm. He tried to reach anyone on his radio, but no one answered. The police officer and a few others tried the door but it was jammed. The police officer told everyone that we will wait here for a while until he can reach someone on the radio, locate his position and help remove the obstruction to the door.
As we all sat on the floor and waited, we began to exchange stories of the prior events. The officer explained to us that the White House and Pentagon are also under attack. Many rumors then began to fly. Some said that there are about 25 more hi-jacked planes in the air; some said the Empire State Building also got hit and others just listened, but grew either more worried or angrier.
The officer was finally successful in contacting other fellow officers and a few firemen. They found the location and tried the door. The frame of the door was bent and damaged; therefore the door would not open. They broke the window of the door and began to escort everyone out. As Alex and his co-worker exited, the officer then again stated to head toward Battery Park where now they were reporting buses for our transportation to midtown via the FDR. As they turned their back to begin the walk, the sounds of destruction happened again. The North Tower began to collapse and, once again, everyone ran; but this time toward Battery Park. As Alex and his co-worker ran as fast as they can, the clouds of dust and hot ash consumed everything around them. Vision became difficult, breathing became even more.
As they reached the further area downtown, Alex and his co-worker waited on line for a bus which then took them to W. 39th Street, where they were dropped off. They asked how they can get to the west side to catch a ferry across to Jersey. The bus driver side they will have to walk across the island or try catching a cab. But he was pretty sure that all public transportation was cancelled due to the events. Alex and his co-worker then began the walk across Manhattan Island.
As they passed various landmarks, such as the Empire State Building and Madison Square Garden, the police presence was vast. By the look on most of their faces they seemed to be just as concerned and worried as everyone passing by. It was around 1:00pm, when Alex stopped at a public phone and called home again. The co-worker also used the phone next to him. Alex’s wife instructed him that her sister will be in Weehawken, NJ to pick him up and drive him home to Old Bridge, NJ. After they reached Chelsea area, they were able to catch a Circle Line ferry across to Weehawken, NJ; all the while staring at the forever changed landscape of lower Manhattan.
In Weehawken, the streets were lined with loved ones and concerned residents starring at the aftermath of the attacks. Alex was then able to connect with his sister-in-law where she, with her boyfriend, was able to drive them both to Alex’s house where his co-worker’s sister came later and take her home.
Since the attack, Alex’s life has been dramatically changed in every way possible. Two to three weeks after September 11th, Alex began to feel pain in his back. His doctor found that the debris that hit him ruptured his discs. He underwent surgery and rehabilitation in February, 2002. In November 2008, this injury was later exacerbated by a minor car accident which he had to have 2 more back surgeries which left him partially paralyzed in the right leg. He was in the hospital for 3 months and had to learn to walk again with a permanent affliction.
To this day, Alex still suffers from the emotional and physical damages of that day. He continues to go through physical rehabilitation 3-4 days out of the week.
Donald W. Spiro Award Nominee
In recognition of outstanding effort since September 11th and for exemplifying our Shared Values of Team Spirit, Dedication to Caring, Commitment to Integrity and Passion for Excellence.
December 13, 2001