Personal Experience Story of 9-11 | Submitted by Victor Guarnera

I was the Chief Technical Advisor for Security Systems to the World Trade Department. This is my account of events at Ground Zero from the first minute of those fateful events in New York City on September 11, 2001.

At 8:30 A.M. on the fateful morning of September 11, 2001, Jitendra Mavadia (one of my System Administrators) and I left the 107th floor of the South Tower (also known as 2 World Trade Center). We had completed a preliminary access control test on some new doors that were scheduled to be brought on-line later that morning. Jitendra returned to the Security Command Center (SCC) on the 22nd floor of the North Tower (also known as 1 World Trade Center) and I headed for my office on the 35th floor on the South Tower. This floor was occupied by many of the people who had day-to-day responsibility for the oversight of the daily activities of maintaining the World Trade Center complex; the cleaning, elevator, security and fire safety operations and those who performed these tasks.

After attending to a few other mundane tasks I started to go back to my office. I had just gotten off the elevator and was in the lobby on the 35th floor chatting with a few of the guys when my radio erupted with the terrified voice of one of the Security Officers in the SCC. She was screaming excitedly that the building had been hit by an airplane and debris, paper and people were falling past their windows. I did not comprehend what could possibly have brought her to that state of emotion, but it was enough to galvanize all of us on the floor to respond immediately to various command desks throughout the complex. My boss, Douglas Karpiloff, who was later to become one of the missing when the South Tower collapsed, said he was going to the Fire Command Desk in the Lobby of the South Tower and suggested that I should respond to the SCC. The few moments it took to get to the Lobby Level was enough for everyone who was on that level to have gotten out of the area.

I started to cross over to the North Tower through the now vacated Concourse, past the empty stores and corridors normally alive with hundreds of tenant employees, visitors, and people passing through from the ferries, PATH and NYC subway lines. What I found was a deserted Shopping Mall with a smoky haze down near the Coffee Station. As I approached the construction site where Thomas Pink was due to open, I saw that all of the signs of a repeat of the lobby scene from the February 26, 1993 bombing. The large directional signs that were suspended from the ceiling were warped and partially dismounted, the fire sprinklers were in action, a haze of smoke was hanging in the air, there was a hole in the plaza roof near the North Tower, the turnstiles were battered by falling ceiling tiles, and large chunks of marble walls around the elevator shafts were blasted into the corridors.

I tried to quickly go through the gauntlet of water cascading from the overhead sprinklers without getting really soaked. Just as I got into the deserted lobby I saw that people in various stages of distress and disarray were just beginning to come out of the stairwells and down the escalators from the mezzanine. (Two of the three stairwells emptied onto the mezzanine and one into the lobby level.) I began directing them to the West Street exit where EMS units were starting to set up their stations while trying to caution the evacuees not to run because the floors were covered with water and debris and many of the people were shoeless. During this period I ran up the escalator to direct the people to use the one escalator that had been turned off so I could turn off the second escalator. I was afraid of the possibility of either a fire or a short that could result from the water that was falling into the motor pit. I then directed the people to use both of the escalators to help speed up the evacuation of people from the mezzanine level to the lobby and out of the building. (In retrospect, I realize that I never looked out of the windows while I was on the Plaza level. I guess I was too focused on the evacuation to try to gather in the extent of the surroundings.) I returned to the Lobby level to continue the evacuation of people. I am not sure how long I was there, but some of the radio traffic I had with the people in the SCC was to assure them that I would be there in a few minutes. They were concerned that there was a pile of debris outside their sally port that prevented them from getting out of the SCC. I said that I had just directed several squads of firefighters to the stairwells and that either they or I would be there soon. Sometime during these activities I remember hearing what sounded like debris falling in the Plaza, and the glass panes above and behind me, the ones over the revolving doors leading to the Concourse were shattering. I attributed this to the torqueing the building may have been going through. I was not aware that a second plane had crashed into the other tower. There was no real concern. These buildings will never come down! Not the way they were designed and built.

[It is comical to recall that one of the thoughts that flashed through my mind was that we would now have the opportunity to replace the damaged turnstiles with a better unit; one that was designed with improvements based our experiences. I also remember responding to a tenant's question of when I thought they would be able to get back to their offices. I said that it was two months before we were allowed to get back to our offices after the last incident, and we would have to wait to see what the extent of the damages were before we could hazard a guess this time. I guess it will be several years this time.]

I remember looking at my watch several times, but none of this registered. All of the time checks that appear in this narrative are the result of reading reports of what happened at what time. One of the times I do remember is sometime around 9:20 when I noticed the pedestrian traffic was slowing down a little bit and decided it was time to get to the SCC. I called the staff in the Security Command Center to tell them I was on my way. They appeared to be a little bit calmer, but were still very anxious. I managed to climb the 22 flights of stairs with only two short breaks and arrived at the 22nd floor at what must have been about 9:50. I thought that was pretty good for a 67 year old geezer.

On the way up, I was meeting quite a few people I knew either by name or by sight only. A few I remember seeing are Jerry Dinkles (caught on West Street in the cloud from the collapse of 1WTC along with Trish Cullen), Greg Reszka (banged up in the Concourse during the collapse of 2WTC and interviewed on TV just after getting out of the building), Alan Simmons, Tina Hansen (being carried by a couple of men was teased for being a flirt and having 'royal coachmen'), the last of the people from Empire Blue Cross (the company I had retired from 9 years earlier), and many tenants we had come to know through our presence in the lobbies or dealing with them in our their daily routines. They chided me on going the wrong way. In retrospect, they probably knew more about the situation than I did, but I told them I had some people trapped in the Command Center and I was going up help them. (Later when we had occasion to meet for the first time, there were embraces and some tears. Some had heard that I had "made it". Others were finding out for the first time that I did not get caught in the collapse, and their emotions were stronger.)

When I reached the 22nd floor and tried to go through the door onto the floor, a few firefighters were there to challenge my presence. (They had already made a path to the outer door of the sally port. When I explained why I was there they helped me over the debris in the corridor and removed some more of the debris away from the door. The firemen assisted me in getting to the sally port without falling through the now open elevator shaft and the damaged corridor floor adjacent to what was once the wall between the corridor and the elevator shaft. Evidently, this wall had exploded into the corridor when a fireball blew down the shaft and this was the debris that had blocked the staff from exiting the SCC.

When I got into the SCC, I found several of my co-workers including George Tabeek (Manager of Security Operations) who had just gotten there a few minutes before me, Tom Comerford (Information Services Project Manager) who stopped off on his way down from the 71st floor, NYFD Fire Lieutenant Andy Desperito (later died when the North Tower collapsed), an unidentified FBI agent, and the three people of my SCC staff. We all conferred on the status of the SCC, the two towers and the various computerized security and building management systems. Maria, one of the Security Officers was concerned about her children and I said it was okay to leave, there wasn't anything we could do here anyhow – 'see you tomorrow'.

Things were not looking too good from any aspect; the computer systems were not responding (I could not get a logon screen so I could not log into the systems as Doug had requested), radio traffic was heavy, there were reports that another plane had impacted the South Tower, and the building was making funny noises. I believe it was George who said something to the effect that we should be thankful that building 2 (the South Tower) was still in good shape. (I guess this is an example of what happens in a chaotic situation such as this: the people involved are focused on their immediate tasks, and detailed information available through the marvels of real-time media telecasts is not available to those who most need it – the on-site commanders.) Alan Reiss, the Director of the World Trade Center called us from the Police Desk in 5 World Trade Center. He and Captain Whitaker had witnessed the second plane hitting the South Tower and wanted to know if we could give him a status report from our vantage point. We went to the window to see for ourselves.

We (George and I) saw a hole that looked to be about two stories high and 10 or 12 windows wide on the west wall. When we took a second look, we saw the top floors apparently get lopped off as if they were the top layer on a layer cake, and begin to drop on the Hotel. Then the view was completely obscured by the dust cloud. There was this tremendous sound and physical sensation like that of a straining freight diesel engine under load, or a set of jet engines on a heavy jet plane thundering down the runway for take-off, or an avalanche. The outer windows exploded either from impact or differential pressure. But the inner window wall of high tempered bomb and bullet resistant glass we had installed a few months before held fast. These windows are responsible for our survival up to that point. I offered the opinion that it was time to evacuate. (Of course the real words were more emphatic and I have omitted the expletives and gerunds.) I think I know what I saw and recognized it for what it was, the collapse of the tower. But somehow, I did not accept that fact, although all of my actions from that point on were in recognition of the fact. It's weird. I recognized it, accepted it, rejected it, refused to believe it, and acted as if it were true.

It took a little convincing about the proper procedure for evacuation, who had authority to 'order' certain things to be done, and setting up a peripheral zone if one suspects that an event is the work of a terrorist, but the FDNY Lieutenant agreed to get on the NYFD frequency and order an evacuation of the building. However, by the time he reached that conclusion/decision, a message to evacuate was already coming over his frequency from one of the NYFD chiefs.

George, the SCC staff, Lieutenant Desperito and his 5-man crew and I left in an orderly manner. (Jitendra stopped to open a cabinet and get some flashlights, and in the process forgot to take his laptop just a few steps away on the desk.) We crossed over the hole in the floor and made our way to the "B" stairwell. George, the firemen and I started sweeping the floors as we descended. We banged on the doors, opened those that were ajar, or George opened the locked doors with a master key he carried, and shouted our warning to evacuate the floor. There were only a couple of floors where there were any people at all and these were firefighters.

Although we did not get any response to our vocal calls up the stairwell, it did turn out that there were others in the stairwell at higher floors (above the 22nd). (Some of these stories have been fairly well aired through various forms of the media: some of miraculous escapes, some of unthinkable results, of loyalties, of unselfish acts of humanitarianism; some never to be known or told.)

Along the way, I met a "civilian" trying to assist a heavy-set woman down the stairs. He was literally carrying her on his back. A few of the firemen said they had her as they knew how to provide that kind of assistance. This civilian turned out to be Sgt. Dennis Franklin of the PAPD. After we assisted in trying to clear the floors up to the 9th floor, we made our way to the lobby level. This stairwell, the "B" stairwell continued on down to the basement levels and we made sure the gate to the lower levels was closed so nobody could inadvertently go further. [It is strange how your mind works in these little quirky items.] When we got to the bottom of the stairs, we knew of three groups of people still in the stairwell; one with a wheel chair bound person, one with the woman who had a lot of difficulty negotiating the stairs, and one comprised of the group of firefighters and George.

Dennis and I became separated from the rest of these groups. We made our way out of the lobby, through the portals on the north wall and up the escalator to the Plaza level outside of the Customs Building at the North Bridge. Speaking of quirky events, we seemed to be casually walking around the periphery to the escalator on Vesey Street, and down Vesey to the corner of West Street. (Along the way, Dennis showed me the watch he was wearing, an expensive Rolex, and made me promise him that I would make sure it went to his kids if I made it and he didn't.) We then found ourselves on the corner of West and Vesey Streets discussing with a NYFD Battalion Commander (name unknown) where would be a good place to relocate a Command Post some distance from the front of the North Tower. You have to imagine the situation. Here is a civilian trying to convince a NYFD BATTALLION COMMANDER to move his equipment and his men out of the area where he knows he has to perform his duty. Something akin to a civilian going up to a Major General in the middle of a battle and telling him how to conduct his battle plan, or what the next series of troop movements should be. (Shades of the Johnson Administration!!) While I was trying to use the same logic on him that I had used on Lt Desperito, I heard "that sound" and said "Lets get the Hell out of here". I had a lot of motivation to get my old legs moving as fast as they could go, north on West Street. I did not cover much ground before I felt the heat, wind and small particles. And they all got stronger as the fleeting seconds went by. Then the cloud encompassed me and I ran into a piece of fire equipment, dodged around and tried to keep going. I got hit in the back of my right leg by what I felt was a relatively heavy piece of light-weight material. My only thought was that "I am not going to go down! I am not going down!". I continued to stagger and feel my way around the equipment, and to keep going north. I couldn't see the hand in front of my face that was my jacket collar up over the back of my head – the same hand that still clutched onto my radio. My right hand was over my mouth one second and trying to feel my way through the maze of abandoned fire and emergency equipment the next. My eyes were getting caked with dust, the same stuff that was beginning to fill up my mouth – I could no longer breath through my nose.

Finally, the wind began to die down, the debris subsided, and the cloud began to lighten up. I walked out into the open about one block from where I had started: dazed, fully aware of my surroundings, but unwilling to believe that the two towers had actually collapsed. I was able to get a few breaths of fresh air, spit the junk out of my mouth, and wipe my eyes clean enough to see through my messed up glasses. I took off my glasses and tried to clean them up, and scratched the lens in the process.

I started up the West Street (north) to see where I could volunteer my services; after all, I had a lot to offer. I am IC (Incident Command) qualified, I know the World Trade Center complex like the back of my hand, and I am ambulatory. I saw a group of official looking people going in and out of the high school (Stuyvesant – where I had graduated 50 years earlier). When I went in, I started to feel the soreness in my leg but I was determined to be useful. This was not to be.

None of the federal agents, state or city Law Enforcement Officers was able to get around the blocks that had been installed on the school's phone system to prevent out of area calls. As if that was not enough, someone detected an odor of gas and ordered the building to be evacuated. While there, I tried to use the pay phone to get through to my home. On one occasion that it did seem to work, the phone just rang, and rang, and rang. I found out later what may have caused that.

Back on the street, I again tried getting in touch with my family to let them know I was a survivor, again. But now my leg was starting to hurt and getting stiff. I made some northward progress and was greeted by two of my co-workers (Mike Hurley, later awarded the Civilian Commendation Award for valor, and Rich Pietruszki) who had earlier evacuated the area or come from home when they heard about the first plane. They were now working their way toward the WTC to see what assistance they could offer. We warmly greeted each other and they told me I looked like s---. They took my jacket and tried to shake it out, and guided me to a fire hydrant to get my face and head cleaned up. I was surprised at what I felt in my hair, ears and mouth, on my face, neck and arms. I was given an ice pack for my knee by an EMS responder and made my way north for two more blocks where I met George and Captain Whitaker (the PAPD Commander of the WTC precinct).

(George, Lt Desperito and the 5 firefighters had gotten as far as the North Bridge which ran over West Street between the World Trade Center and the World Financial Center when the North Tower collapsed. Everyone tried to get behind one of the support columns as the gale force winds enveloped them. Andy was pulled from just beyond George's grasp, and was later found under the debris. He was the only one in that group to succumb to the devastating avalanche of debris.)

Again there was a warm reception, this time longer and more emotional. One by one more of the people we worked with came into view and the welcoming sessions were repeated again and again. At this time, a civilian came by holding a cell phone. He offered it to us to try to contact our families. He refused to accept any payment. Just goes to show you how New Yorkers do come to the fore when the chips are down.

This time I did get through. My daughter answered. She works a few miles from my house and had come there to be with my wife as soon as she heard the news reports of the attacks. It took a few moments for me to get across to her that it was me on the phone. She, my son-in-law and my wife had watched this disaster unfold and it was difficult for them to imagine that I had survived. They were sure that I was in the middle of it doing what I had to do. They were prepared for the worst, and when this voice was reaching out to her, it was hard to believe the impossible had happened; I had survived and was actually talking to her. Screaming and crying, she transferred the phone to my wife and I assured her that she was not a widow yet. I let her know that I was okay and would be talking with her later to let her know where I was and when I would be home as I was not sure where I was going to go or what I would be doing next.

I let her know I loved her and would be okay. Then I turned the cell phone over to the next person who needed to contact their loved ones. Then, when 5 of us had stood around long enough, we decided we needed to get to the Tech Center in Jersey City just outside the Holland Tunnel to help set up the primary Emergency Operations Center. We were given a lift across (actually under) the river at breakneck speed. I was concerned we may end up in a fatal accident after just surviving this calamity. We were met by the PA Police Department's staff that had already mobilized the supplies, set up a triage and crisis center, set up an emergency radio antennae (along with our Radio Shop staff), and cleared an area for the senior staff to hold their initial council session. The rest of us were offered the use of showers, and replacement clothing such as t-shirts, coveralls, etc. Then it was off to the medical facilities for first aid treatment and some preliminary trauma counseling. George received a stitch to close up a small cut in the back of his head.

The medical offices were the scene of many tearful reunions and questions about our collective knowledge of who made it out and who was missing. As time went by, the hopes for some of our friends, co-workers and acquaintances grew dimmer and dimmer. And yet, there were the grateful surprises as more of our 'family' turned up here and there and got their message in to one of the control desks to let them know that they were among those 'present and accounted for'. Later in the afternoon, probably about 3 PM, we transferred to the Journal Square facility where the Emergency Operations Center was coming on-line. All the time we were trying to get in contact with our staff, our bosses, and other co-workers we knew were involved in helping with the evacuation. Many of the attempts were fruitless.

At the new command center, we began the process of organizing lists of names, contact phone numbers, schedules for who was to report where, equipment and supplies needed, food services to be arranged, lists of tasks to do, what systems needed to be revived, how to make a payroll, etc. Everybody wanted to pitch in and we needed to help them help us.

George arranged for a company car and he and I finally left the facility at 9:30 P.M. to go home. On the way, we stopped at Liberty Park to see if there was some kind of list of missing and injured since this was the area that we heard had been established as the triage and primary treatment area. Nothing positive came out of this attempt. It turns out that the area has been acting more or less as a true triage transient area. They assessed the damages and where the best place was to send the person, but did not take names. Disappointed and a little more crestfallen, we left the area.

I got home about 11:30 P.M. and was back at the Command Center at 6:30 the next morning. George convinced the powers that be, that we were ready and able (psychologically, mentally and physically) to return to the site. We were teamed up with two engineers and returned to Ground Zero to locate the entry to the pump house where there are two 60 inch intake pipes. Ed McGinley, one of the engineers, went into the 'hole' and manually closed the valves on the open pipes to preclude this flow of water from completely inundating the sub-grades.

Later in the week (Friday night), I aided Motorola staffers from Milwaukee in an over night attempt to use a large antennae they had built to scan the debris pile for ID Card locations. Technically, the thing worked very well. Logistically, it proved unusable because there weren't any survivors to find, and it used a valuable resource (a large boom crane) to slowly, very slowly, move the unit over the pile. The process of getting this equipment into the city was a story in itself as we had to get one of our PA Police Officers to contact the FAA controllers to allow the Motorola Corporate Jet into Teterboro Airport.

The rest is, as they say, 'history'. The stories of the uniformed personnel, EMS and construction trades who lost their lives or put in huge amounts of time to help the original rescue efforts and the following recovery effort are legend. Not so well publicized are the stories of the non-uniformed personnel who did the same thing.

All of the SCC staff made it out alive, but there are 11 of their fellow security officers, 14 building maintenance personnel, 5 fire wardens, and hosts of others who did not. There are several 'civilians' who unthinkingly dove into the life saving mode including Jim Usher (E-J Electric Installation Co. - Site Program Manager) who ran throughout the subgrade areas alerting other contractors whose headquarters are all over the subgrade to get out of the complex. Jim's story has been written up in several Electrical and Construction trade journals. And Chris Hardej who works for NYS DOT and is an USAFR major in a SAR outfit based in Long Island who got blown around and banged up in the concourse when the South Tower collapsed. He assisted several other civilians in exiting the concourse onto Vesey Street before seeking treatment for his own injuries. Later that week he was on his way to the Near East on a deployment – serving on two fronts within one week's time. My current boss, John Paczkowski was trapped in an elevator with the now famous window washer and his escape tool, the window wiper. (John is a Colonel in the USMCR and has been activated for a few weeks here and there.)

Like those who responded to the disasters at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh, these people will forever live in our memories. There is not a day that has passed since 9-11 that all of us have not shed a tear or two by ourselves or in the company of our fellow survivors and supporters. My wife has been a real comfort for me in spite of the trauma she has endured. I like to think I have been able to support her too.

One light hearted event took place a few weeks later when I met up with Dennis Franklin outside the Tech Center. He was standing there with a few of his PAPD compatriots in a small circle, good naturedly ribbing each other as 'guys' will do. He introduced me around telling them "this is the guy I was telling you about". I took the opportunity to get in a 'zinger' myself. I asked the group if Dennis had told them of his promise to give me his watch if we both got out of it alive. The look on Dennis' face and the quizzical looks from the rest of the group said it all. They all knew Dennis would never make a promise like that, and just to see the look on his face gave everyone a hearty chuckle. Dennis at first was taken aback, but quickly recovered with some more 'guy' type retorts. Everyone had a good laugh. It was a pleasant interlude in the midst of all the pressure each of us was going through.

Although I have no problem, most of the time, watching the news snips and file footage of the disaster without emotion, I can no longer listen to "God Bless America", TAPS or some personal recitations, read certain poems or other eulogies without a gut reaction that brings on the tears. I know that I will carry this with me for the rest of my life, and I hope that is for a lot more years to come. And if I am in an enclosed location when that certain combination of sound and vibration hits, it is 'all over' for a couple of seconds until the combination stops, fades away or changes enough to not be 'a threat'.

It has been 'back to business' from day one. There are many thoughts and ideas that have come out of this. Some relate to how well the ICS (Incident Command System) worked or did not work in a multi-agency situation. Another is the perception that they could not get to us from the landside because of the tightness of our commercially based access control system, so they had to go to the air. This followed closely by the thought that they really did their homework very well. They devised an excellent plan, and carried it out with precision.

Epilogue:
George has been out on medical leave since March 14, 2002. We found the firehouse where the Lieutenant was assigned, and this did George "in". Jitendra also has had similar psychological problems and is trying to cope with it without medical assistance. His old world culture, which greatly assisted him during the attack and the immediate aftermath, is hindering him in this regard. He has recently opened a driving school, and our wishes are for his success.

Frank Varriano, who assisted an 89 year old Construction Supervisor, for whom we all had a great deal of respect, make his way down 86 flights of stairs to a safe exit, died of a massive heart attack on Easter Sunday Morning (2002) while his 11 year-old daughter was on his lap opening her Easter basket.. This may be the result of the tremendous amount of pressure generated from his assignment as one of the WTC 'family' coordinators. He was under constant pressure to respond to the families for information about benefits, search efforts, or just the 'ear' for their complaints and diatribes.

On June 11, 2002, I received the Civilian Commendation Medal for Bravery / Valor for my actions on the 11th. I don't think of what I did as a big deal, there were hundreds of us who reacted in similar fashion – just doing what we had to do, what needed to be done – doing our job. [I have been told that this is the equivalent of being awarded a Silver Star.] While being selected to be a representative of all of these people is an honor and privilege, the events that made this possible are intolerable, the pain and suffering indescribable, the cost in lives and injuries unbearable, and the knowledge that this is not the end is constantly haunting. If you have gotten this far, I sincerely thank you for your patience. Committing this story and my feelings to paper does not make things whole. But it does journalize another story for those who are interested in a "first hand account" of this piece of history.

Victor M. Guarnera