Sunday, September 4, 2011

8- Escape

Inside the vast caves of steel and glass, people yelled and screamed. Most had heard and felt the explosion, but unless they were on that side of the South Tower that looked out onto the falling debris, they had little current news except to know that one plane had struck the North Tower and a short time later, a second plane had hit the South Tower as well. In the South Tower, which would collapse first despite its later hit, people fled, repeating the madness already taking place in the North Tower. People felt their way down smoke filled ways, not yet choking on smoke, but of tears and terror. Although the stairs had lights -- an improvement from conditions some had witnessed during the 1993 attack -- most people clung to the rails as they descended.
The farther down they went, the more the mass of people they encountered as well as encountering firefighters making their way up, grim-faced portrayals of determination loaded down with heavy equipment. These firefighters found many doors locked and many of these heroes never made their way out of the South Tower alive.
Linda Gaccione remembered the loud them of their boots on the stairs.
"Several of them stopped to breaking into a water machine," she recalled. "They poured the water over their heads to cool down."
Gaccione had been on the 50th floor of the South Tower when the second plane struck -- one of those incredible twists of fate that saved her life. A few weeks earlier, this Secaucus resident had led her company's move from the 80th floor. She was sent down early to help set up Fuji Banks new offices on the lower floors. Most of her coworkers were still on the 80th floor when the plane struck. Most of them had not escaped.
Unlike some of the other workers in the South Tower, Gaccione decided to leave the moment news reached her of the first strike on the North Tower. She was in a panic over her kids. Whereas most mothers and fathers employed at the World Trade Center had their kids tucked safety away in the suburbs, Gaccione had her kids right in the same building complex as where she worked, housed in a daycare center under the looming shadow of the Twin Towers. While she was certain the caretakers would not leave the kids inside one of the other buildings, Gaccione could picture them in the plaza between the building amid a rain of debris and bodies.
She kept reminding herself of how competently the staff had handled a report of a subway fire previously, and assured herself that the staff had evacuated the kids from World Trade Center seven the same way. But that did not keep her from pausing in her flight to give the center a call -- just to make certain.
"I got an answering machine that told me they had already evacuated the children," she said. "But I was still afraid."
Others fleeing the burning North Tower reported hallways filled with smoke and elevators thick with trapped people crying to be let out. Sprinkler systems spilled water to put out fires that did not exist on lower floors, crating a cascade down the stairs that flowed around people's ankles as they ran. Gaccione had an easier time of it, reaching the bottom before a similar madness began in the South Tower. But any thought of making her way towards the plaza between the towers ended when Gaccione got to ground level and found the way blocked by police. In the confusion, she thought she heard someone say the daycare people had taken her children uptown.
"It was a powerful dream," she said, "and scary."
It got worse.
Until then, no one knew for certain that the country was under attack. But as she exited the South Tower and made her way towards the West Side Highway, Gaccione heard the roar of a second jet and saw it strike the building she had just exited. Debris from the crash rained down around her as the envelope of fire exploded out from the side of the building.
"It was like I was in a bad movie," she said. "When that second plane hit I knew we were under attack."
As with many other people around her, Gaccione grew convinced she would die, envisioning a scene from Pearl Harbor where combat fighters strafed people on the ground.
"I thought we were going to get shot by machine guns," she said. "I felt as if I was a target. I was standing right out in the open in the middle of the highway."
Gaccione jointed the throng heading north out of the disaster zone so was well away from the South Tower when it finally collapsed. Those still close to the foundations recall people screaming and other people shouting, "run, run," after which came an eerie flood of debris, a crazy cloud fueled by the vanishing tower. Some said the cloud seemed to rush at them at 100 miles per hour. Those who failed to outrun the cloud found themselves struck by hundreds of particles -- and surrounded by an artificial darkness in which it was impossible to breathe. Some people fled into stores to escape the storms. Others dove under cars. Still others -- less lucky souls -- were crushed. When the cloud cleared, those who survived were covered in dust, stumbling out of hiding as if in shock.
Not long later, the collapse of the North Tower send a second deadly plume through the narrow streets around Wall Street, leaving death and destruction in its wake.
Few scenes seemed so alien to modern Manhattan than the lines of refugees making their way north in the hours after the two towers collapsed. Nor could anyone before Sept. 11, 2001 have imagined such as flock as these wearing dust-covered suits and ties rather than the rags so stereotypically portrayed from films of Bosnia or Iraq. Perhaps only science fiction films like "Independence Day" made such scenes seem plausible, but never on CNN or Fox News Network.
Gaccione struggled on, one humble figure among the many, calling out into the crowd of staggering, frightened, shocked people for news of her children, and the fate of the daycare center in whose charge she had left them.
Had anyone even heard of Children's Discovery?
Weariness and desperation played tricks on her. She kept seeing the faces of the center's teachers in the crowd, each instance proving a false hope.
She prayed for her kids, but didn't even know if they were still alive. Gaccione knew nothing of the hurried evacuation that had transpired in the center after the first plane struck. Teachers grabbed their students and fled with the flock -- but not all to the same place. The teachers were conscientious enough to keep their charges close, yet so caught up in the panic, they fled anywhere safer than were they were.
Still thick in the haze of shock, Gaccione found herself on 39th Street where some kind soul assisted her into a police station. Someone else thrust a can of soda into her hands and sat her down.
One of the police officers there, following the jumble of news reports on a Walkman radio, reported hearing some rumor concerning Children's Discovery.
"He kept saying kids from Discovery were at Saint Vincent's Hospital," Gaccione recalled. "So I called my husband and had him put 1010 WINS radio on."
This was the first news her family in New Jersey had of her. Her husband and neighbors had feared her dead. After a short time, her husband confirmed the radio report.
Back she went, defying the flowing flood of dust-covered humanity the way she might have a steady stream, swimming against that tide from 39th Street to 12th Street where the hospital was located.
Saint Vincent's Hospital became an anchor of hope for hundreds of people seeking news of loved ones. Family members clamored for news as harried hospital workers consulted clipboards making or breaking people's hearts with a nod or shake of their heads.
Mixed blessings greeted Gaccione as she learned that only one of her two children was there -- Amanda. John Jr. had not come away with the same group from the daycare center. So he was not listed on Saint Vincent's charts. Hospital workers -- after several hurried calls found John Jr.'s name listed on charts at Saint Claire's Hospital, forty blocks uptown. Although this was magnificent news, Gaccione faced the daunting task of getting there. With no cabs or buses yet in service -- not to mention the shutdown subway system -- Gaccione did the only thing she could, she walked.
It was 4 p.m. Gaccione had stumbled through cavernous mid and lower Manhattan for hours. Her legs ached. Her spirits flagged. She had been through a roller coaster of emotions since the first plane's impact at 4:46 a.m. Yet somehow, still clutching the child she had recovered from Saint Vincent's Hospital, she managed the trek to Saint Claire's to recover her second child. This part of her family reunited for the first time since their parting early that morning, she now faced the monumental task of getting them back to New Jersey.
She found a telephone and called home to her husband, asking him for advice or suggestions. In the hours since he first heard word of her at the 39th Street police station, John Sr. had not been idle. He had scrambled on the Jersey side to find allies who might help his family in what now seemed like a very remote Manhattan.
A prominent Secaucus citizen, Richard Ricco, managed a delivery service in Manhattan. A few calls over dubious telephone connections concluded Ricco was still at work, seeking to recover his fleet of trucks, many of which serviced the Twin Towers.
Ricco remembered Gaccione arrive at his 19th Street truck terminal pushing a shopping cart into which she had dumped her kids.
"I don't remember where I found it," she said later. "But it seemed a good way to get my kids around."
Gaccione had pushed that rickety vehicle for several dozen blocks, up and down curbs, across streets thick with potholes, along sidewalks thick with cracks. Each bump added to her weariness and her worry.
Ricco, who knew the family from Secaucus, almost didn't recognize the tattered figure that shoved the cart into the terminal -- her hair ragged and her expression desperate.
"She looked shocked and scared," Ricco recalled.
Ricco, a bearded, cigar-smoking tough guy from old Hoboken's waterfront days, wasn't going to let any national disaster keep him from delivering that woman and her kids home. So he pulled his car up, packed the family into it, and made his way through the shocked city towards the won remaining crossing over the Hudson River to New Jersey: the George Washington Bridge.
Gaccione, sagging into the luxury of the vehicle's passenger seat, thought her ordeal had ended, and looked ahead to greeting her husband back in Secaucus.
"We were five cars from getting onto the bridge when the police stopped traffic," Ricco recalled.
Ricco did not know what the holdup was -- although lines of cars testified to the mass exodus from the city. Ricco got out of the car and approached a police officer.
"I hold him that Linda was almost a victim at the World Trade Center," Ricco said. "The officer told me that if he let us onto the bridge, she might become a victim there. Someone had threatened to blow up the bridge."
Gaccione, however, said she had ceased to worry any more.
"I kept thinking if we were all going to blow up, I would be like that woman in the movie, Titanic -- at least we would all go down together," she said.
During the wait for the bridge to reopen, the faces of people she knew flashed before her eyes.
"I was seeing a colored negative of every face I knew," she reported. "It was like looking at a colored year book."
Then at 8:02 p.m., the Port Authority reopened the bridge and Ricco's vehicle -- locked into the most dramatic traffic jam in New York City's long history -- inched its way across the river, finally breaking out of the pack when it reached Secaucus.
Ricco pounded on the car horn when he reached Gaccione's block.
"Everyone came out to greet us," Gaccione recalled. "All of my neighbors were there."

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