A year after the second attack on the World Trade Center, Phyllis Colon could not go back to work.
As an employee for the Port Authority, she was on the 65th floor of the North Tower when the first plane struck. Unlike 75 of her fellow PA workers, she survived.
She didn’t need her boss or anyone else to tell her that the total loss of PA suffered that day remained unequalled for a single day by any single department in U.S. history.
Few horrors equaled that morning in her memory as when at 8:48 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, the whole building began to shake – shake so violently in face that some witness near to the event mistook the event for an earthquake.
Debris fell outside the window. Many people on her floor rushed to the elevators only to discover these no longer worked. They then faced the grim task of descending 65 floors via the stairs.
They had not gone far when smoke billowed down the stairwell from the floors above. To remedy this, people around her clutched handkerchiefs around their mouths, struggling to breathe. Other people, good Samaritans, handed out wet napkins.
Not long later, dirty water tricked down the stairs soaking their feet and telling the fleeing masses of survivors that fire fighters and sprinkler systems battled the blaze high above their heads.
In the confusion, some peered down at the water still not making sense of what went on.
On the 65th flood which Colon and the others had abandoned, a fire fighter radioed to his commander some unsettling news. The floor had collapsed due to the extreme heat.
No one yet realized that this would within a short time cause the concrete blocks upon which each floor was built to begin falling down on the one below in a chain reaction that would cause the inevitable collapse of the tower.
“Dealing with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks at my place of employment has taken its toll not only on me but the rest of the world,” Colon recalled a year after the event.
The Port Authority counted 84 people among the dead including Executive Director Neil Levin, as a result the attacks. More 700 staff members required counseling later. Some like Colon just could not get over the memory to go back to work a year later.
Nancy Perez and Arlene Babakitis, Colon’s fellow workers at the PA, had not survived. Babakitis, according to her missing persons poster was last seen on the 25th flood, but according to her sister, Karen Reoch – who investigated the situation later, Babakitis may have made it to the ground level only to have the building collapse on top of her.
“There were conflicting reports,” Reoch said.
Babakitis and Perez apparently came down from the PA offices together. One report said they were seen on the 25th flood, another on the 20th, a third had them spotted on ground level.
Perez, who lived in Union City, had been in the World Trade Center during the 1993 attack. Friends said she never recovered from the fear of the earlier attack. Following the 1993 attack, she appealed for a transfer to the Jersey City offices where she remained for a long time. A recent promotion, however, had sent her back to New York.
Reoch said Perez and Babakitis were close friends, and Babakitis had moved to New Jersey only just prior to the attack on the recommendation of Perez.
Babakitis grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where most of her family lived until after 9/11. She worked for the PA for more than 30 years. Her last position dealt with bridges and tunnels, although she also help coordinate the East Pass program.
Reoch searched for her sister for weeks after the attack, putting up posters everywhere within eye sight of the towers. She did not give up hope in finding her sister, and if there was a vacant place she could put up a poster she did, on the off chance someone might have seen her somewhere and could report it.
Reoch started looking even before the smoke of the falling building had blown away, walking to every possible place in the city where her sister might have gone.
A year later, when it was clear her sister was among the dead, Reoch is bitter, holding the airport and other authorities accountable, saying they simply failed to do their job.
“The terrorists didn’t just get on those places. They had to pass through security and if security had been adequate, none of this would have happened,” she said.