Emerging alive from
World Trade Center tower
September 29, 2001
By Christine Gillies-Dilouie
Special to The Cambridge Reporter
Christine Gillies-Dilouie is a Calgary native who was working in
the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 where she's director of marketing for Thor
Technologies, a software company. The company has now relocated its headquarters
to Park Avenue in Manhattan. In reply to family and friends who asked her
about the experience, she wrote this detailed e-mail.
poses for a photo with her husband Craig in Central Park on their wedding
day, Sept. 30, 2000.
Please forgive the impersonal
nature of this group e-mail blast, especially since each of you took the time
to contact me directly with messages of concern, love and support since Tuesday,
I can hardly believe that
it was two weeks ago that the World Trade Centers collapsed. In some ways
the attack feels like it happened months ago, yet I don't really know where
the last two weeks have gone. All I do know is that I am feeling stronger
with each day that passes.
You will be happy to know
that all 43 employees of my company survived the collapse. It's a miracle.
Only four of us were at work at the time of the first hit. We were on the
87th floor of Tower One, an estimated five to eight stories below the plane.
I have seen posters of missing persons from the 92nd floor and up. Most
of the floors above 95 were wiped out completely with no survivors.
Why were there so few people
at work at the time the first plane hit at 8:45 a.m.? Well, a few lucky reasons:
1) Most of the company executives
were out of the office travelling;
2) People in New York City
typically start work later, around 9 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. (except for the nerd-o
early birds :-);
3) As a software company,
over half of our employees are programmers who work whacked-out nocturnal
Many people have been asking
me what it was like when the plane hit the building and what it was like in
the stairwell on the way down. Here is the entire detailed story.
At 8:45 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept.
11, I sat at my computer checking my e-mail. I worked on the 87th floor of
the North Tower, the first one hit, the second tower to collapse. There was
a very loud crack and crash, like an explosion, or a bomb. With the tower
shaking and swaying, I yelled to Yvette, my co-worker, to get under her desk.
The roof had caved in on one half of the office and smoke and fire was coming
from the same area. The office filled with smoke very quickly. I looked out
the window to the north, which overlooks Manhattan and saw a snow storm of
debris diagonally whipping past the window.
"What happened," asked Yvette.
"I don't know. Maybe a bomb,"
I speculated, remembering the 1993 bombing in the World Trade Center.
Although the plane's impact was very
powerful and loud, at the time I would not have guessed it was a full-size
passenger airline hitting the building. The explosion we felt simply didn't
seem that destructive.
Fred, another colleague of
mine, yelled frantically to make sure that we were not hurt. Then, Fred told
us that there was water running down the windows on east side of the building,
which we would later learn was jet fuel.
Within seconds after the crash,
we heard dozens of fire engine and police sirens, which mildly calmed both
Yvette and me.
"At least they know something's
happened up here," Yvette said.
I picked up the phone and
dialed 911, but was put on hold due to the flood of callers. I waited on the
line for about a minute and then hung up. I tried to call my husband Craig
at home to tell him that something had happened, that I was OK and to send
him my love. This time, phone was dead and I couldn't get through.
Our eyes started to burn and
we were coughing. I asked Fred to get each of us a bottle of water stocked
in the fridge. We placed wet napkins over our mouths to prevent smoke inhalation.
The smoke was getting thicker as the fire started to creep further towards
"We've got to get out of here.
Let's get to the stairwell," yelled Fred.
All four of us fled the office's
side door. Fortunately, the office had an alternate exit as the collapsed
ceiling and fire blocked the main entrance. In the hallway, a brave man
was fighting the fire with an extinguisher. I assume he was the floor's volunteer
fire warden. He was an employee of May Davis, a brokerage firm that occupied
the other office space on the 87th floor.
Apparently, Joseph, the fourth
Thor employee at work was right behind us, but I don't recall seeing him.
Once in the stairwell, we
hurried down the stairs quickly. Both Yvette and I were wearing clunky sandals,
which slowed us down somewhat. Then, at the 78th floor we hit a dead end
- a locked door.
We banged on the door and
yelled at the top of our lungs: "Open the door. Open the door."
People behind us were queuing
up shouting at us: "Open the door."
"We can't. It's locked," we
A large burly man grabbed
a waist-high steel fire extinguisher and started ramming it repeatedly against
the door. With all his might, he slammed the steel canister into the door
in an attempt to break it down. Foam from the extinguisher sprayed all the
people behind him. The door was so robust that he couldn't even make a dent
in it. Then, he tried to smash in the wall next to the door so that we could
crawl through a hole in the wall, but after a few attempts, it was clear that
the concrete wall wasn't going to give either.
Just as I started to panic
over being trapped, a building maintenance worker with a walkie-talkie shouted:
"We've got to go back up to get down."
Everyone followed behind him,
walking up the stairs to the 83rd floor and exiting the stairwell into an
office. Half of the corridor was blocked by a caved-in wall and electrical
fire. Another brave man was trying to extinguish the flames. As we scurried
over the soaked carpet, past the flames, we felt the heat of the fire and
the spray from the extinguisher. I remember wishing I hadn't worn a polyester
shirt that day.
Once in the second stairwell,
the descent toward the lobby was fairly calm, but very slow. Many times, the
line stood completely still. The further we got down, the worse the traffic
became as dozens of people evacuated into the stairwell.
For over an hour, we slowly
moved down the stairs. Around the 40th floor, the smoke cleared significantly.
People were composed, nervously joking with each other to pass the time
and stay upbeat. It was very hot and sweaty.
A couple of men told us of
their experience during the tower's bombing last decade. Another woman from
the 89th floor told us that the roof of her floor had also caved in, but all
of her colleagues had escaped without harm.
I asked a couple of people
in the stairwell whether they knew what happened. A man told me that he heard
on the radio that a plane hit the tower. After brief speculation, we all
agreed that it must have been an accident with a small two-seater plane or
a traffic helicopter or something incidental.
My colleague Fred suggested
a terrorist attack. I dismissed the comment and suggested that he was a conspiracy
We were asked to stand to
the side and make way for injured people.
"Clear left. Clear left,"
shouted the people who escorted a couple of injured folks passed us in the
Although it was a little frightening
to see these people bleeding, the injuries appeared to be minor.
An abandoned wheelchair was
left in the stair well. Down one floor ahead, I could see a woman who was
being carried down the stairs by four other men. A man supported each of her
four limbs and carried her very slowly; stopping for rests along the way.
She told them to go ahead and leave her behind. They refused. I later found
out that this woman got out of the building safely.
We also encountered a couple
of very overweight people who had trouble making it down the stairs. One obese
man was being carried down the stairs by two strong men. I later learned
that these men were from May Davis, the trading firm from our firm's floor.
I overheard the May Davis
guys encouraging the heavy man to keep moving. He was resting on the stairs.
"Aren't we safe here? Can't
we just stay here," he puffed.
Around the 45th floor, the
smoke started to clear. The stairwells were hot and clammy, but everyone had
removed the handkerchiefs from their faces. We started to feel safer. People
entering the stairwell were nonchalantly conducting business and seemed annoyed
by the interruption to their tight schedules. A man in a suit talking on
his cell phone entered the stairwell saying: "Yeah, it's nothing - I'm just
heading down the stairs now . . . so, let's schedule Thursday at 10. I'll
block you in. Where's convenient for you?"
Many people have been surprised
by the fact that everyone inside the building was so calm. We didn't really
have a reason to be panicked. We knew the fire was upstairs, we were on
our way out to safety and the firefighters were on their way. Also, I think
that seeing how relaxed the people on lower floors were, helped to lift our
A lot of people in the stairwell
were trying to use their cell phones. I kept trying to call Craig as Yvette
tried to reach her sister and parents. We knew that our families would be
worried about us and we wanted to let them know that we were OK.
At the 30th floor, we were
instructed to make way for the firefighters who were passing us up the stairs.
About 20 firemen, fully dressed in 90-pound fire suits, and carrying tanks
on their backs, pulled themselves up the stairs with the handrail. They were
exhausted and drenched in sweat. We met eyes with many of them; thanking
each one individually as they ascended. People in the stairwell broke into
applause and cheered the men up the stairs.
At the 20-something floor
a tall, thin Hispanic man with a mustache, stood at the stairwell entrance,
touching each person's shoulder.
"Take care. Be safe, now.
God bless. Watch your step," he said to each person passing him. We thanked
him and smiled.
"Come on. Why don't you come
with us and get out of here," asked a man behind me.
"The Lord put some of us on
this earth to watch over others. This is my duty, I guess," he replied with
a warm smile.
I later saw this selfless
man's photo on a missing poster in Grand Central Station.
As we neared the ground floor,
the stairs were pooled with water as the sprinkler systems had been operating
on the lower floors. The stairs were quite slippery and a couple of people
lost their footing and fell down the stairs on their rear end.
Finally, Yvette and I hoorayed
over the sight of daylight at ground level. The stairwell exited at the main
plaza where the copper globe fountain had been. I gasped with shock as I
caught a glimpse of the unrecognizable area. It looked like a war zone covered
in two feet of gray debris and dust.
"What the hell happened down
here," I asked under my breath.
A fireman standing at the
top of the narrow escalator, directed us to walk down the stationary escalator
and out through the mall. It was a longer route out of the Trade Center,
but we trusted it was safer than exiting near the plaza area.
The World Trade Center lobby
was a mess. All of the windows were smashed and the signs hung crookedly from
the ceiling. The lobby was floating in four inches of water. The ceiling
sprinklers drenched us with cold water causing Yvette and I to scurry a
"Don't run. Don't run," the
police yelled at everyone who was rushing along.
Yvette and I held hands and
walked quickly through the showering mall. We were soaked.
"Hey Christine," yelled my
colleague Fred from over my left shoulder, "Looks like we made it."
But before I could reply,
a huge thunder and cracking erupted from behind us. Then, a strong wind swept
toward us. People started to scream and run. Within seconds, the roof collapsed
and debris fell all around us. Then blackness.
"Get down," I yelled at Yvette
pulling her hand to the ground.
We curled together in a fetal
position, clinging to each other. I covered my head. Store windows smashed,
roof chunks dropped and debris crashed around us. It felt like a tornado.
"This is it," I thought to
myself, "This is where it ends for me. Is this all I get? 27 years? No fair."
The first tower was collapsing,
although we didn't know what was happening at the time.
I prayed. I never pray. I
pleaded with God to either take me quickly or let me survive unharmed. I didn't
want any in-betweens. I feared being pinned down by a falling beam or getting
badly injured and unable to move.
It seemed like an eternity
before the crashing stopped. When it did, there was dead silence followed
by coughing and cries for help. I couldn't see anything. The smoke was so
thick - it was difficult to breathe. I spat the dry grit from my mouth. It
was pitch black. We sat in the cold water in the blackness and I could feel
the cold water on my rear end.
"Are you OK," I asked Yvette.
"I think so. Are you," she
"Yes," I replied.
I wondered how long we would
wait before being rescued. Then I wondered if we would be rescued. Did anyone
know to look for us?
"Help me. Hello? Help me.
Is there anybody there," cried a woman in front of us.
"Yes. We're here, we're right
next to you," I told her.
"Reach out to me. Where are
you? Can you reach out to me," she yelled.
We fumbled around with our
hands extended until our arms touched. She crawled closer to us tripping over
the debris that surrounded us.
Many people were shouting
to each other: "Hello? . . . Help . . . Hello?"
In the darkness, the people
responded to each other's cries, while panic, confusion and chaos grew with
each second that passed. Everyone waited for the voice of authority, the voice
of direction, someone who was coming to save us.
A man next to us lit his cigarette
lighter so that he could see. At least three people shouted simultaneously:
"No. No. Put that out. There could be gas in here."
"Yvette, we've got to get
out of here," I said, "Let's crawl."
Determined not to lose each
other in the dark, we formed a human chain on the ground with each person
clutching the ankle of the person ahead. We crawled over the glass and debris
toward a faint light that turned out to be the 1/9 subway entrance.
We stood up, but were unsure
of how much clearance we had to stand. A few people stood in the doorway looking
for help. The smoke and dust was so thick that I couldn't see the faces of
the people standing right in front of me - only featureless figures.
When we realized that there
was no exit through the subway, we turned to move in the opposite direction.
We started walking very slowing, tripping over broken debris.
"My feet. Ouch. I can't walk,
I have no shoes," cried Yvette.
I heard a man in front of
us and asked if he could carry my friend who had lost her shoes. He whipped
off his laptop and tossed it to the ground. I felt the thud as it hit the
ground and reached down to pick up his bag. He lifted Yvette to give her a
"Girl, what have you been
eatin'," he joked with her.
A cluster of six or seven
of us moved around in the dark. I don't think any of us knew where we were
going. A few seconds later we heard a man's voice in the darkness . . . "Follow
my voice. There is an exit over here. Follow my voice."
We moved toward the man's
voice; toward a hazy faint light. At the bottom on a small stairwell, two
firefighters argued with each other over whether the exit was safe and clear
"I just took a dozen people
out this way five minutes ago," one fireman insisted as he gathered us together.
"Come on. Let's move," he
Once we were outside, I barely
recognized Vesey Street. The street was littered with smashed up cars with
The man carrying Yvette put
her down and gave her a hug. I handed him his laptop bag, which he accepted
with a pleasant surprise. We thanked the man and both hugged him. I kissed
his soot-covered cheek. All of our faces were caked with gray soot. I don't
think we'd ever recognize each other again, although I would like to thank
Everything was coated in a
foot of debris consisting of papers, file folders and dust. I kicked off my
shoes so that I could run. The debris under my feet felt soft.
I looked around for someone
to help us or tell us what to do. Where do we go? Is there a central check-in
station? What now? I began sensing how chaotic the situation was. No one was
in charge. Even the policemen were frantic.
They shouted at people to
keep moving. We ran north. We didn't really know where we were going, but
we knew that we needed to flee the area. We ran and ran and ran.
A few paramedics stopped us
to ask if we were injured. They handed us water and told us to wash off our
faces, but to avoid getting the soot in our eyes. The streets were filled
with spectators watching in horror and fascination. Yvette and I kept running
hand in hand and didn't look back.
Reporters frantically snapped our photos and asked
for comments. We kept moving without response.
people started to scream when the second tower started to crumble. I looked
back for a split second, but couldn't watch. We just kept running.
burst out crying in terror as we passed her in the street. Perhaps she saw
how badly we looked and she knew someone in the building.
Yvette to her sister's work on Houston and 8th Avenue and made my way home.
I hitchhiked a series of three rides home. That may be the one and only time
I hitchhike in New York.
rang the doorbell and Craig opened the door, he collapsed to the ground with
sobs of relief. He held me, grabbing my flesh to make sure I was real. He
had been going crazy for hours, knowing that I was in the building, but not
having heard from me since I left the house that morning.
so happy but told me to call my parents immediately. They too, had been calling,
wondering if he had heard from me. After a number of attempts, I finally reached
my mother in Calgary, whose reaction of relief matched that of Craig's.
people had told me what happened, I wasn't really able to comprehend the facts
on that day. I was still in shock with adrenaline racing through my system.
In fact, I didn't really start to process the terrorist attacks until the
now been 12 days since the disaster. Each day I feel better than the day before
and I'm getting stronger with each night's rest. Craig and I have been attending
memorials and candlelight vigils, taking walks in the park and trying to
establish routine and normalcy to our lives.
11, 2001, was the worst day of my life and it was the best day of my life.
It's a miracle that I escaped.
you very much for your thoughts and prayers over the last two weeks. I have
booked a trip home to Calgary for the week of Canadian Thanksgiving and can't
wait to see my family and friends. Hugs will be issued to everyone!
Take care and stay close to
your loved ones.
Love to you,