Editor’s Note: The letter below was written in 2001 and appears in the self-published book, Through Our Eyes: A Tapestry of Words and Images in Response to September 11. Printed and distributed in 2002, the book was the result of an independent, volunteer documentary project organized by a journalist and several friends. The author’s bio was written in 2002 and has not been updated.
Hoboken, New Jersey
Russell Moskowitz, 25, was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and today lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. Russ is an analyst at CIBC World Markets and is co-owner of a design company. His interests include reading, watching the History Channel and simply enjoying life. Russ, who is Jewish, will take a two-week trip to Israel this summer. On the morning of Sept. 11, Russ was working on the 79th floor of the second tower when he felt the building shake and saw debris falling outside his window. A half-hour later, he managed to escape the building – but not the horror. He started writing his submission on Sept. 13 and finished the next day (his 25th birthday).
It is now 9:25pm on Thursday night. A little over 60 hours since World Trade Center was hit by a hijacked airline. 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. This is MY story of that horrific story. What I saw. What I felt. What I heard. What I cannot forget. What will be in my mind and heart for a lifetime. This is the story I have to tell every time someone asks me, “Where were you …”
When the first plane went into WTC 1, my building shook, and no one had any clear idea what happened. I heard “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? I have to find out. 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.
Immediately 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 had happened, what would happen, and what will happen in the days ahead. I thought a plane hit, on accident, not an act of terrorism. After the dart to my desk, I followed the mayhem to the staircase. I can now, for the first time, hear people yelling, “What staircase? What staircase?” It sounds so real, so real. 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. 79 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 and still have not found it. It feels like the tragedy took place at least two, maybe three years ago. It did not. It happened less than three (“3”) days ago, only days ago. From what I remember, the stairs were as you would expect. A little crowded. 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 G-D in person, nothing would make me stop walking. I yelled, “Run, fucking run,” or something of the like. I did not want to hear why people were not walking. It just did not matter. It was not important. 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 for the whole building to hear. Read closely, you can hear it as 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 one, please evacuate that building. Building two is secure, you may return to your desk.” Did you hear what they said? Those words are with me forever. YOU MAY RETURN TO YOUR DESK. Hey, that is wonderful. The building is secure. WTC 2 has nothing to worry about, except of course for the fire in WTC 1.
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, G-D told me what to do, or according to my mother, her deceased father showed me the path to follow. I DON’T KNOW WHY. Maybe I just wanted to take a day off. My guess – it was the work of G-D, 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. Either way, I do not think their families have heard from them. 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. If I come across his pictures somewhere, I have to relay this story to his family and friends. I would rather lie and say I never saw him. But I would not. I do not know the fate of those who walked into those offices, but I pray for all those that exited on the 44th floor.
I continued downward, and let me add something else. At one point on the stairs, I believe around the 60th, I heard people say, “At least we have lights this time.” A clear reference to the bomb in WTC 1 only eight years ago. Great, I am lucky we have lights this time.
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 – the other building fell into this one. And I was dead. Maybe not then, but 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 embassy the last time bin Laden struck us. When I went to a shrink with my mom today, he asked, “At that moment, were you thinking of your mom?” I said I was not thinking. Nor did I ’til I got out of the building. I started praying … shema yisreal, etc., and I put the mezuzah around my neck in my mouth the whole way down. I would not get out of there without help from a higher source. That was the 33rd floor.
“Building two is secure, you can return to your desk.” Some had returned and may have been at their desk when WTC 2 was struck dead on by a plane on floor 79. I learned today that it was determined, or some guess that the plane went into my office. I cannot even comprehend that.
Fortunately, the remaining 33 floors were relatively uneventful. I prayed and got down as soon as I could, with many around me. Around the tenth floor, we were met with some smoke. Not much, but enough to have the presence of mind to cover our mouths to help our breathing. Then we hit the bottom of the staircase. What a relief. Who would think the towers would eventually collapse. Because this only happens on CNN in some distant area. Not, not on American Soil.
As I got down, 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. I answered. It was my oldest friend from kindergarten telling me to call my mom; she was worried. I told him I had evacuated and got out. At least that is what I thought I told him. So I was under the impression he called my mom, who would call the rest of my family and friends and 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. I am trying, but don’t remember. I do remember daylight. It was a beautiful day when I went to the PATH train in the morning across the river. When I first saw daylight in NY moments later, it was anything but beautiful. 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 this week, but I was up close and personal. But it was more than that. I had walked around that area at lunch so often, and so often looked up at it from such close proximity with awe and disbelief that man could build such an awesome and amazing thing. My disbelief had shifted to one of awe that it could be ruined. This is only one of three times I saw our building burn in person. I ran. I needed to run far enough to get cell phone service or a pay phone.
I ran and ran. I stopped for another look at my building about five blocks out. As I stopped, bystanders said they just saw someone jump. Bystanders. Were these the same people who would be running for their life when the building collapsed? Probably. People jumping! My stomach turned. I could not and did not want to see that. It may have been at this time that I learned for the first time that it was two planes. Or helicopters. I had heard conflicting reports during my day, but I do not remember when or where I heard them. As I saw these bystanders, all I could say was, “I ran down 79 flights, that is my floor on fire, they made an announcement it was secure to go back up.”
I passed a girl with a cell phone, or should I say engaged in a conversation on a cell phone. I verbally attacked her as I asked her to please call my mom for me, that I could not get service. She quickly exited her call and dialed my mother’s number for me. My mom would call everyone else and all fear of my death would subside. The lady dialed and dialed but no service. I told her to please continue as I ran for a phone and my life. Next stop: pay phone. After running and running, 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 floor 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 next. 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.” This sounded like WWIII. Or was it? At this point I learned it was two planes on a hijacked mission that set the WTC on fire and tried to cripple our democracy. It was also the third and final time I would look at the towers on fire.
After trying and trying, I got through to my mother’s office. I explained I was ok, and to please call my mom ASAP, and gave my step-mother’s work number for someone to call and told the woman on the other end to make sure someone gets in touch with my sister as well. I also said I would be headed to my uncle’s on the Upper East Side. 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 ran some more. Although the path I was on was to my uncle’s house, I think I was running away from the WTC instead of toward the Upper East Side.
If I wanted to, I could continue this story right through this very moment. But I don’t know if anyone would believe me if I said what has happened since that frightful first hour (yes, I think the preceding text all took place in a hour) has been just as bad, if not worse. Hearing accounts of friends who could not talk because they thought I was dead, e-mails sent to me that people did not know if I ever would respond to, calls from people I have not spoken to in months, and happy reunions with family. But it is more than that. It is the images in my mind. The fear I get at the littlest sounds. The terror it can happen again.
It is now my birthday, September 14, 2001, as I slept since I started this last night. I am happy and even in a slightly joyous mood. But I still pray for those who are missing and their families. And I ask you to please do the same.