I Survived 9/11

My story of survival is not unlike those of the thousands of others who escaped the burning World Trade Center Towers on that tragic day.

Published September 23, 2011 6:26 PM
5 min read


911 6My story of survival is not unlike those of the thousands of others who escaped the burning World Trade Center Towers on that tragic day.

By Gil Weinstein

The following is excerpted from Mr. Weinstein’s address to fellow congregants at Rye Community Synagogue’s special Sabbath service commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

My story of survival is not unlike those of the thousands of others who escaped the burning World Trade Center Towers on that tragic day.

I arrived at my office in 1 World Trade Center on the 88th floor about 8:20 a.m. After placing my things on my desk and sending a fax, I had barely taken my seat when the building shook, and a huge boom was heard and felt. Ceiling tiles began to fall, and outside my window, which faced north, I saw huge chunks of flaming debris falling a few feet away.


Thinking it was a bomb, not unlike the 1993 attack, I speed dialed my wife Caryl at her office and told her that there was a bomb and I was getting out. I grabbed a flashlight, rushed from my office, and as I looked across the wide expanse of desks and cubicles, I heard a voice calling, “ Help me, Help me.”


One of the administrative assistants with whom I worked, Elaine Duch, was a ball of flame. She had been in the corridor picking up a lease when a fireball shot down the stairwell and hit her. Another colleague and I beat out the flames with our hands. We found a sweater on an office chair and tied it around her, and the three of us made our way to a large office where about 20 or 25 of our co-workers had assembled.


Elaine kept asking me how bad her burns were, and I tried to reassure her that they had only affected the outer layer of skin. In fact, she suffered third-degree burns over 87% of her body.


Some of the people began stuffing paper towels under and along the sides of the door. Someone else yelled, “Are you crazy? We can’t stay here, we’ve got to get out.”


Three men went out to locate a usable staircase and in four or five agonizingly long minutes, they found the one that still remained. We proceeded to climb over the waist-high debris, broken wallboards, steel bars, parts of walls and ceilings with flames visible where there had been walls. There was heat and fire and smoke. It was Dante’s Inferno live.


We started down.


The men who found the stairway, Pablo Ortiz, Frank De Martini and Mac Hanna, went up to 89, 90, and even 91 and freed many people in offices whose doorways had jammed. Hanna, who was a Port Authority engineer, returned and helped many of our group down, but Ortiz and De Martini never made it back.


In the stairwell there was no hysteria, no pushing or yelling. The lights remained on and there was little smoke, but each of the 176 landings was filled with water.  


Around the 52nd floor, we met the firemen who were coming up, they thought, to fight a fire. These young people, faces red with exhaustion from carrying 60-pound loads, told us to keep going down and not turn around, while they continued going up. None of these brave young people survived. Their faces and the look in their eyes are indelibly etched in my mind.


At around the 44th floor, we had caught up to those ahead of us from other floors, and we had come to a standstill. Two young men behind me said they had to look for another stairwell. I held the stairwell door while they went out. A few minutes later they returned, telling us there was a better stair. Something, whether it was fear or intuition, impelled me to follow them.


The three of us went straight down to the lobby, where we were directed by the authorities to proceed across the retail mall, up the escalator, which was still working, and to street level. They kept repeating, “Don’t look up or back, just keep going.”


I walked along Fulton Street to Broadway at the tip of City Hall Park and onto Park Row. It was there that I looked up, saw both burning towers, and in two or three minutes witnessed 2 World Trade Center, the South Tower, start to collapse. Several hundred others and I ran for shelter and I ended up in a pizza restaurant, where I avoided some of the horrible fallout.


I was lucky to exit the tower a couple of minutes before those who continued on the original stairwell, and had barely got out before they were covered by the ash and debris from Tower 2.


Ten to 15 minutes later, much of the fallout had lessened. The phones in the store were working again, although cell phones still weren’t, and the 100 or so of us who took refuge there, took turns making one call each. I was able to reach my daughter Whitney and assure her of my safety.

Soon after I left and began to walk up Park Row and then Lafayette Street. As I reached the Chinatown area, I saw a group on church steps looking southward. I turned and witnessed Tower 1, my home away from home for 17 years, collapse.


The walk uptown was another eerie experience. People, most of them white from head to toe with ash, walked silently, almost in lines that stretched from sidewalk, across the street to the opposite sidewalk. There were virtually no cars and everyone was in some state of shock. Hours later, I reached home.


I’ve often thought about that terrible day and the fact that I’d survived major abdominal surgery and a car crash earlier that year, and the attack on the buildings in 1993. Was I there on the 88th floor on that day so that I could help save one person from death? I’ll never know the answer.


Elaine Duch underwent eight surgeries at New York Hospital, over seven months, and was kept in an induced coma during that time. She then spent eight months at Burke Rehab Hospital, where I visited her a number of times. It was at one of those visits that she introduced Caryl and me to her twin sister, and told my wife: “That’s what I used to look like.”


Has my life changed since that day? I certainly value every day as a gift. I work with SAJE, here at Community Synagogue. I helped found SPRYE, an organization that helps seniors remain in their own homes by providing volunteer services. Every week I provide Healing Touch therapy to patients at Greenwich Hospital. I work with a group in Port Chester to help reduce teen-age pregnancy and drug and alcohol abuse among young people there. And I work with RSVP, the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program to help non-profit boards operate efficiently. For those of you who are able, I recommend doing any kind of volunteer work. It’s really rewarding.


I lost 84 friends and colleagues that day. Perhaps I’m just saying: “Thank you.”

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