An attack by the terrorists group is common across the globe until.. it happens somewhere close by or we have our known and dear ones amidst the incident, it is something casual for many
Remember the attack in Mumbai and the twin tower in NY, were like TV shows for folks sitting far away from the reality.
Last year I had posted a write up on 11/9 experience of the parents who had their children working in offices in the twin tower premises, by Mr Kalyanaswamy, my revered Sir.
Here I am sharing a first hand experience of his son Ashok who ran down the stairs for his life while crossing the ascending heroes, the rescue team rushing onto their death.
9/11: HOW I SURVIVED Ashok Kalyanswamy
While heading to work that morning, I passed by the Krispy Kreme Donut shop on the corner of 5 WTC. Like always, there was no line at 7:30 AM. I was very tempted to walk in and get a dozen hot glazed donuts for my team, but as usual decided to reserve it for Friday. I walked into work at 1 WTC, where Lehman IT and some corporate functions had taken the 38th, 39th and 40th Floors in February, as we had run out of space at 3 World Financial Center(WFC). I went to my desk on the 40th Floor and started a long telephone conversation with the Floor Manager at NYSE. At 8:45 AM, the conversation ended. I got up, stretched and thought that I should get myself a coffee from our Pantry. It was around 8:50 AM. Then out of nowhere, the building started to shake and sway like a pendulum. It stopped. My first thought was that it was an earthquake. I had not read the manual on what to do on such eventualities when we moved into 1 WTC. I looked at my friends and then looked outside. We had beautiful floor to ceiling glass windows that looked out to the South side. I heard a thud and I saw debris fly out from the sky. It was as if a large garbage bag was dumped and had collapsed. I saw what looked like a red and white striped small part of a plane fly by. I looked at my friends, muttered some expletives and said, “Let’s get out of here.” I looked briefly at my table and decided to leave my palm pilot and other stuff behind – I would come back for that later. We all hurried to the stairwell. I looked quickly at the elevator bank for a fleeting moment, but dismissed the idea.
Now we were all walking down. We went down two floors in about ten seconds, and then stopped. Practically everyone was in the stairwell. My manager had a blackberry and was getting some news. It seemed like a small Cessna plane hit the building. The news was spotty. We continued to make slow progress, oblivious to what was taking place outside. Soon, there was smoke in the stairwell. People tried to shield their faces and nostrils by pulling the collar of their shirts. Still, we continued to make our way down slowly.
Suddenly everyone stopped and moved to one side. There was a person with burns being escorted by two colleagues trying to make their way down in a hurry. We let them pass and continued to make our way down. Around the 20th Floor, we saw the first batch of fire fighters coming up, panting and catching their breath. They were in full gear carrying seriously heavy equipment up the stairs. As they trudged past us, they looked very mortal. This was nothing like the movies. Some of them even seemed as old as my dad. People were very sympathetic to them, and we told them that we had cases of water under our desks. The images still remain etched in my mind. We were going down trying to escape with our lives, and they were coming up. Enough said. They are truly heroes.
The fire fighters were nonchalant. They didn’t say a word to anyone as to what was happening. All they said was that the smoke was no worse than what it was (big relief). We were warned to watch our step while walking out because there was stuff flying around everywhere. Later, it was learnt that this included people jumping out of the windows. The fire fighters kicked open the doors on the 10th Floor and told us we that could take a breather if we wanted. I heard later that one of my dear friends actually went to that floor, called his wife, saying he was trapped and couldn’t get out. His wife went hysterical. I would not have done that. He and I still share the story over a pint.
We continued to descend slowly down the staircase. As we came near the 3rd Floor, the smoke was getting stronger. Now there was water in the stairwell. Turned out a ball of fire had come down the elevator shaft and burnt the lobby, setting off the sprinklers. At this point I was somber. Did my wife know where my life insurance papers were?
In the end we finally came out to the mall in front of the GAP store. The floor was like a war zone. It had muddy water and the sprinklers were still on. I had my Metro North monthly in my shirt pocket. Didn’t want that to get wet. I looked at my friend, thinking we should go to the trading floor in WFC to tell people there would not be any IT support for them. As we took a few more steps into the lobby, we came across a cordon of police officers. It was the first time I recall when they said, “Run, there are many people behind you”. So we ran. Still inside, we ran up the escalators, past the Borders store in 5 WTC and stepped in an area near Church Street. The time was 9:45 AM. I turned around to look at my building, speechless.
My building was on fire! No one inside the stairwell had a clue, or there would have definitely been major panic. I turned around and looked at the South Tower. That building was on fire too! What was happening? My sister worked on the 72nd Floor of that building! My friend Sanjay looked at my face and asked me what’s wrong. When I told him, he said, not to worry because the fire seemed to be above the 80th Floor. He had actually done a quick calculation and figured it was closest to 75th, but didn’t want me to lose my mind. We walked briskly towards Church Street and Fulton, still surrounded by police who were asking us to hurry. I looked at the people outside who were standing there and gawking, thinking they were crazy. I took out my mobile to call my wife but couldn’t get through. A policewoman yelled at us, saying not to use the mobile, as they needed the bandwidth. There was a long line in front of the public pay phone. In my mind, I had a plan to make my way to my sister’s house on the Upper East Side as quickly as possible. My parents were there and I didn’t want my dad to do anything crazy and end up coming downtown to look for us. Sanjay and I decided to walk towards the subway stop at City Hall and catch the 4 or 5 Uptown. As we passed a deli, I saw the guy behind the counter in the back of the store on a landline phone, so we walked in. I told him I would pay to use the phone, but I desperately needed to call my wife as we had just come out of the WTC. He quickly wrapped up his call and handed me the phone and I called my wife. She worked for Pepsi and was watching all the events unfold over the TV in the gym in her building. There was always someone waiting for me to call, at her desk. Luckily, she picked up, her voice taut with tension. I told her I was fine, and was heading uptown. I also asked her to call my parents and the rest of the family. I hung up and handed the phone to Sanjay. He lived in Princeton, and unfortunately, he couldn’t get through. We eventually gave up, and headed back out.
We entered City Hall station. On the PA system, they were asking anyone who was heading to work at the WTC to head home. Thankfully the trains were running. We boarded an uptown express. I would transfer to the 6 at Grand Central. Within a few minutes at the next station, the train stopped in the middle express track of that station. The time was around 10:15 AM.
The train was not moving. People were planning to pry open the doors, trying to make it to the platform. After an hour, the train started to move again, but very slowly. No one knew what was happening. The train stopped at 14th street, and after a few seconds of hesitation, we decided to get out and make our way uptown by cab. Turned out the trains were going to be shut down. The significance of that moment would only be revealed much later.
Sanjay and I got into a cab at 14th Street and Union Square. The cab was moving nowhere fast. They had closed down all roads south of 14th Street, creating a gridlock. We gave the cab driver a few dollars and got out. It was time to walk uptown.
Still oblivious to everything, we kept trying to make a phone call again. Finally at around 22nd Street, we found a phone that worked. Sanjay still couldn’t get through. I then got through to my dad. He told me that my sister was fine and that she was already near 52nd street walking uptown. Turned out she came out of the subway at Fulton around 9AM, saw the building on fire and was trying to contact me. She ran when the first building collapsed, with debris falling behind her.
Before hanging up, I gave my dad Sanjay’s number and asked him to keep trying Sanjay’s family. I learnt later that he eventually got through. I knew my dad wouldn’t give up so easily.
Finally I was able to relax. My sister was safe. We went and bought a bottle of water from a deli and continued to walk uptown. Around 12:45, we walked into my sister’s apartment on 70th Street and York. My mobile rang just as I entered the building. It was my wife. And she had no idea where I was. When I had called her the first time, she had no idea where I was calling from…all of that happened before the buildings had collapsed! At least now she could truly relax.
As we sat down for lunch in front of the TV, the story started to sink in. The Twin Towers were gone. Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center on purpose. Seeing all those innocent people, injured, burned, all in critical condition…and all that time, we were in one of the very buildings that was being destroyed, and did not realize it. I replayed the events in my mind, still trying to comprehend what had just happened. No words can describe what I was feeling. But one thing was for sure: nothing would ever be the same.
Ashok Kalyanswamy is the CIO at Nomura Bank in Hong Kong and a Life Member of India Center.
I have received the following video in my whatsapp.