Delay meant death on 9/11

The right reaction was panic. To survive the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the right thing to do was to follow instinct, not procedure. Don't wait to find out what is happening. Don't go back for your briefcase. Don't heed announcements that the building is safe. Don't take the stairs; take the elevator.

For the 1,400 people in the top 19 floors of the north tower, there was no escape after the first jet smashed into the 94th through 98th floors at 8:46 a.m. But the people on the top floors of the south tower still had the chance to run, and for them, delay meant death.

They had just 16 minutes before a second jet, United Airlines Flight 175, would tear through the 78th through 84th floors of their building. In that brief window of time, 2,000 people from those floors and up faced a critical choice: stay or go. They didn't know what was coming, but if they moved quickly enough, they survived.

Fourteen hundred people fled from the top floors of the south tower to the safe zone below the 78th floor.

Six hundred did not.

USA TODAY talked to more than 300 survivors of the attack and victims' family members, including more than 100 from the south tower. The newspaper examined floor plans of the building and videos and photographs of the attack, analyzed the newspaper's database of the 2,803 people who died or are missing at the Trade Center and studied official investigations of the buildings' collapse and of the response by firefighters and police.

It cannot be known what those who died in the south tower that morning were thinking or precisely what kept each of them from reaching safety. But the newspaper's examination of what happened in the 16 minutes between the first and second attacks reveals that four significant factors were at work — often in combination — in determining who on the top floors of the south tower got out and who did not:

Within five minutes of the last announcement — time in which express elevators could make two trips to the lobby and carry hundreds of people to safety — the United jet hit the south tower. In almost any other situation, such an announcement — stay inside to avoid dangerous conditions outside — would have been good advice. Not this time.

The people inside the south tower were forced to make life-or-death choices, cut off from outside communications, with far less knowledge of what was happening to the World Trade Center than the millions who watched the attacks on television. As the survivors tell their stories, it is clear that for many it is still a sad burden to realize how little separated their fate from that of friends and colleagues who were lost that day.

Seeing first crash was decisive

When Flight 11 smashed into the north tower at 8:46 a.m., the explosion sent a ball of flame rolling past the south tower like a terrifying comet.

On the south tower's 87th floor, Bernie Dadario, a customer service representative for Corporation Services Co., was shooting the breeze with a co-worker when they heard a loud whoosh.

It reminded Dadario of the propane torch he used doing summer roofing jobs as a kid. He looked across to the windows, 10 feet away, and saw the fireball streaking by his building. Window by window it advanced, until all that could be seen was a wall of flame outside the south tower.

The heat was so intense that Dadario started sweating. Then the fire was gone, and in its wake, papers fluttered in the air. "What the hell was that?" Dadario asked.

Tom Sullivan knew.

In his office at Fiduciary Trust on the 97th floor, the portfolio analyst had just told his boss, Anthony Ventura, that his wife was expecting twins. Then, he recalls, something out the window caught his eye: a jet streaking south over Manhattan. He had just enough time to yell "Get away from the windows!" before he dived to the floor as the jet crashed into the north tower, 40 yards away.

Sullivan, 30, an Army Reservist and an assistant fire warden for his floor, ran out of the his office and yelled at colleagues to hit the fire stairs. He didn't stop to take anything, not even his wedding ring lying by the keyboard.

In other areas of the south tower, the noise of the explosion next door was muted. It sounded like a heavy file cart rolling across the floor upstairs, or the air conditioning coming on with a bang.

In the New York state tax department, on the 86th and 87th floors, deaths were heavy in the offices where employees could not see the north tower. In the southeast corner of the 86th floor, farthest from the burning north tower, five of eight employees in the revenue crimes bureau died. One floor up, in the southeast corner of the 87th floor, the tax department's mediation services bureau lost six of the seven employees who were in the office.

Rajwant Walia, 56, a clerical worker for the mediation bureau who was in the Trade Center's underground mall when the first jet struck, called her colleague Yvette Anderson, 53, and urged her to leave. But Anderson had heard public-address announcements telling south tower workers that they didn't need to get out, and she couldn't see the north tower in flames. "They just announced the building is safe," Anderson replied.

Walia fled the mall to safety; Anderson died.

In interior conference rooms on the tower's one-acre floors, people saw and heard nothing.

Of about 50 participants in an Aon Corp. insurance meeting on the 105th floor, just six escaped.

Joe Dittmar, 45, an insurance executive from Chicago, had arrived at the meeting early enough to catch its leader, Aon executive Mary Wieman, polishing the conference tables.

At 8:46 a.m., the lights flickered briefly. "We laughed: 'Oh, what now?' " recalls Elizabeth Parisi, 36, an Aon employee who was to run the audiovisual presentation.

Then Richard Blood, 36, an Aon insurance broker, walked into the meeting and told the group there had been an explosion in the building next door and everyone had to leave. Parisi bolted from the room before he finished speaking.

I hope I don't get in trouble, she thought as she ran to the fire stairs in her high heels.

The insurance executives grumbled. Many had come from out of town to hear Wieman pitch them on writing insurance for Pfizer, the pharmaceutical maker. But Blood was politely persistent. " 'I'm the fire marshal for the floor. I can't go until you go, and I want to go. So come on, everybody,' " Dittmar recalls him saying. "And he said it with a smile."

The group walked down the fire stairs. As they approached the 78th floor, Dittmar saw Wieman and others from the meeting head into the elevator lobby. It was the transfer point from local elevators serving the highest floors to the large express elevators to the ground.

"I don't know what's going on, but I'm not walking down all those steps," Dittmar heard Wieman say. She died there, in an elevator lobby crowded with people, some of them her colleagues, wondering whether to stay or go.

Mike Dunn, 29, a consultant with Chicago-based Keane Consulting Group, and his colleague Suzanne Kondratenko, 27, were in a meeting with six Aon insurance executives on the 92nd floor. None of them felt or heard anything in the windowless interior conference room until commotion and screaming outside interrupted their conversation. The group emerged to find people headed for the fire stairs. The air smelled like smoke: The south tower's ventilation system was sucking in smoky air from outside.

Dunn ran into an adjoining conference room where his colleague Darya Lin, 32, was teaching a computer class to Aon employees.

"You need to leave," Dunn told the group. "There's a fire in the building next door."

Andrecia Douglin-Traill, an Aon employee in her mid-20s who had started with the company only a week before, was in the class. She ran out to a nearby cubicle and called her husband's Midtown office. Screams erupted from people around her. "What's going on?" she asked. She turned to look out the window and caught a glimpse of what seemed like debris falling from the north tower. Then she realized it was not just debris. Desperate people were jumping to their deaths. She slammed down the phone and ran for her life. She survived.

Workers on the high floors of the south tower were level with those who were forced to jump from the north tower, close enough to see their faces and their clothes, close enough to see that they were choosing their fate.

Their deaths saved lives in the south tower. The terrifying sight sent hundreds of people in the south tower racing for the exits.

Joe Dittmar, walking down from the 105th floor meeting, stopped on the 90th and left the stairwell to go to the windows, drawn to the sight of the gaping wound in the north tower. Then Dittmar realized what else he was seeing.

"I turned around, I couldn't look," he says. "I saw what I saw. I knew what I saw. And I said, 'I'm getting out of here.' "

Living — and dying — in groups

During those 16 minutes of uncertainty and fear, people in several south tower offices took their cues from the boss. In many cases, that meant they got out quickly.

However, at two financial firms, Sandler O'Neil on the 104th floor and Keefe Bruyette Woods on the 89th floor, the CEOs stayed.

At Sandler O'Neil, 66 people died, including the two top executives who were in the building; just 17 escaped. At Keefe Bruyette, 67 people died on the 89th floor, where the CEO and the firm's trading floor were located; 14 lived.

The head of Keefe Bruyette, Joseph Berry, took the obvious action to protect his firm after the north tower was attacked: He asked the head of accounting, Mike McDonnell, to call the building's fire command center to get instructions on what to do. Stay put, they were told.

The traders did, as a group. Nearly half the deaths in the south tower, 284, were at firms that had trading operations: Sandler, Keefe Bruyette, EuroBrokers and Fiduciary Trust.

"We were from a Wall Street mentality," says Bill Henningson, a Keefe Bruyette vice president who was among the few who escaped from the 89th floor. "You're a trader. You're tough. You don't leave until the firemen order you to go. You don't leave the floor for anything, not even to go the bathroom."

Just five of 45 people on the trading floor left immediately and survived.

Some executives died because they stayed to help evacuate their offices. At Fuji Capital Markets, three managers who saw the explosion in the north tower raced through the 80th floor trading room, where no one had seen anything. "It's a bomb! Get out! Get out!" Keiji Takahashi, 42, screamed. The trading floor emptied, and its 120 employees survived, but Takahashi and the other managers were not seen again.

Clyde Ebanks, 36, an Aon insurance executive based in Dallas, was in a meeting in a northwest-corner conference room on the 103rd floor. Sitting with his back to the window, he watched horror spread across his colleagues' faces and turned around to see the tip of the wing of a jet disappear into the north tower. Immediately, his boss, Chris Gardner, a top executive with the company's global risk services unit, ordered everyone to leave.

"I started packing my briefcase with my laptop and my files and stuff, and he stood there. He kept yelling at me. I was the last one to leave the room. He wouldn't leave until I left," Ebanks says.

Gardner was last seen running toward his office, yelling at colleagues to get out.

The 87th floor was split between Corporation Services, where Bernie Dadario worked, and offices of the New York state tax department. All 60 Corporation Services workers made it out; the senior executives ordered them to go and then left themselves. The tax department, where no evacuation order was given, lost nine of an estimated 20 people on the 87th floor, including two of its three senior people.

John Pelletier, one of the senior executives in the Corporation Services office at the time, gave the order to evacuate. Dadario and his colleague Lou Giaccardo did a sweep of the floor. Pelletier called headquarters in Delaware to tell them the office was evacuated, then locked the door, got in an elevator and escaped the building.

Across the hall, Manny Urzi, 59, an investigator for the tax department, was in the morning coffee klatch with Charles Mills, 61, and William Pohlmann, 56, when he saw the first jet speeding toward the towers. "Charlie, that plane's too low!" he yelled. "That plane's going to hit us!" He dived to the ground.

The clear skies and the way the jet appeared to be under control convinced him immediately that the crash was a terrorist attack. But the fire was in the other tower, and he decided the south tower wasn't in danger.

One floor below, Virginia Urzi, 56, Manny's wife of 35 years and an auditor for the tax department, thought just the opposite. There were people who had never been happy working a two-elevator commute up in the sky, in a building that had once been bombed, no matter how great the view. Virginia Urzi was one of them.

If anything ever happens, she had long told her husband, meet me on the 86th floor at Stairway C, because I am not leaving this building without you. That morning, she ran to the rendezvous spot, crying, her knees buckling, expecting him to come down.

He didn't. The fire was in the other building, and it was safer to stay inside, he thought.

Then two colleagues came up from the 86th floor. You have to come down and help us deal with your hysterical wife, they told Manny Urzi. He did. He bowed to her fears, and they escaped.

"She saved my life," he says.

But Mills and Pohlmann, the two men drinking coffee with Urzi and the top tax department officials present on the floor, died.

Announcements caused deaths

Some people — it's not clear how many — returned to their offices after announcements on the building's emergency loudspeaker system said that it was safe to stay in the south tower. The loudspeaker system had been added to the buildings after the 1993 bombing.

The exact words of the announcements are unknown. "The building is secure" are the words remembered by nearly all survivors. That was followed by a statement that it was safe for people to return to their offices. Some survivors remember the announcement as an order to return; others say returning was an option. Some recall the announcements telling them they could leave if there were fumes or smoke in their offices. Two announcements, possibly three, were made after the first jet crash and before the second.

The announcements were most likely made by a retired New York firefighter who worked for OCS Security, which held the fire safety contract for the World Trade Center under the Port Authority's supervision. That's the recollection of the fire safety directors — those in charge of the twin towers' fire command centers and evacuation preparedness — who survived. However, because several OCS employees died in the collapse of the towers, it is not possible to be certain who spoke into the microphone at the fire command center in the south tower lobby.

Fire safety directors were trained to read scripted announcements from a loose-leaf binder at the fire command center. But on Sept. 11, the announcements varied from the script, probably in response to the unprecedented nature of the event, says Mike Hurley, the Port Authority's fire and safety director at the World Trade Center.

It's not known who decided to make the announcements. They were clearly aimed at keeping the south tower's occupants inside, out of the way of falling debris from the north tower. They were made with no knowledge — and no way to know — that a second jet was hurtling toward the Trade Center.

Nonetheless, the announcements changed the current of the evacuation. Some people who had made it out of harm's way returned to their offices, or started to. Others stopped to discuss what to do. The crowded 78th floor elevator lobby — where the left wingtip of Flight 175 hit at 9:03 a.m. — was filled with people heading in both directions.

Juanita Mendez, who worked in the Washington Group marketing department, was having a smoke with a colleague outside on Liberty Street when the first jet hit. They returned to their 91st floor offices in the south tower and were told to evacuate. Then the two women rode back to the 78th floor elevator lobby, where they could transfer to express elevators to the ground floor, with two managers, Bob DeAngelis and Frank Moccia.

When he heard the announcement, DeAngelis chuckled. Moccia made a "for-Pete's-sake" gesture. The women got on an elevator, headed for the ground floor and safety. The men turned to go back to work. And to their deaths.

Some people turned back just as they made it to safety. Three top executives of Fuji Bank rode two elevators from the 81st floor to the ground with Stanley Praimnath, 44, a loan officer for the bank. There, they were stopped by building staff. They were asked: Where are you going? The building is safe, and you are better off inside than out, they were told.

"Maybe now is a good time to relocate," Praimnath joked to Brian Thompson, the head of human resources. The four men headed back up in the elevators, and Praimnath returned to his desk to call a colleague in Chicago. He looked up at 9:03 a.m. to see Flight 175 headed for his building. Of the four, he alone survived.

Praimnath crawled through rubble to Stairway A, the only intact fire stairs, and escaped. Just 17 other people who were above the 77th floor when the second jet hit survived.

Mixed lessons from '93

The World Trade Center had been attacked before. On Feb. 26, 1993, terrorists detonated a truck bomb in the basement parking garage. Six people in the underground levels died and thousands of workers spent hours walking down dark, smoky stairwells to evacuate the buildings; the elevators had shut down.

Since then, employees designated as fire wardens had been issued red baseball caps and whistles. At Fuji Capital Markets, employees had red evacuation packs hanging from their chairs, a constant reminder of the possibility of attack. Inside were a smoke hood, a glow stick and a bottle of water.

Like Virginia Urzi, who urged her husband to leave, there were others who had been in the building then and had awful memories.

At EuroBrokers, on the 84th floor of the south tower, Charles Veneziano, 34, vice president of technology, didn't even hang up the phone after the first jet hit the north tower. He threw the receiver on his desk and ran.

Agnes Francis, a tax department secretary, fled immediately from the 87th floor. Since 1993, she had not once eaten lunch at her desk: The '93 attack had occurred at 12:18 p.m.

While many people who remembered 1993 were quick to leave, some survivors say the earlier incident offered a different, tragic lesson: There was no need to hurry to get out. In 1993, it took as long as four hours to walk down the stairs to safety, but everyone made it. Some workers didn't leave their offices until firefighters climbed all the way up to their floor, as much as two hours later.

On Sept. 11, the evacuation stairwells were free of smoke and the lights stayed on, unlike in 1993. Jeannie Pagan, an Aon employee on the 99th floor, heard people saying: "I was here in '93. This is nothing." Most were on their way out of the building nonetheless.

The 1993 bombing "made people more blase," says Anne Foodim of Fiduciary Trust, who escaped from the 90th floor. In 1993, "very few people were affected, and everybody came to the rescue."

It also taught people who were there that they might not get back into their offices for several months. So some people delayed their departures until they collected their belongings.

Delay was a killer

It doesn't take much to miss a 161/2-minute window.

Finishing a phone call with a client, as an Aon executive did. Answering the frantic phone calls wondering whether everyone was OK, as the receptionist did at Baseline Financial Services.

At Fiduciary Trust, while Sullivan yelled at everyone to get out, his boss, Ventura, went to find his wife's mother, Felicia Hamilton, who also worked for Fiduciary. It was the last act of a good son-in-law. Both Ventura and Hamilton died.

Tamitha Freeman, 35, an Aon employee and mother of a toddler, ran back to get her purse. She told her colleague Marissa Panigrosso, "I have my baby's pictures in it." She died.

No one knows better than the survivors how easily they could have made the wrong choice.

Amy Weintraub, 23, and Brian Moran, 32, were with two Aon colleagues in a stairwell when the announcement came. They stopped and wondered whether they should go back. "Ah, I need a cigarette," Moran said, and the group kept going down. All four survived.

Steve Miller left his desk at Fuji Capital Markets on the 80th floor the instant that his boss came running through the trading floor. He walked down to a floor in the 50s, where he got onto an elevator that was headed back up. For no real reason, he stepped back out before the doors closed. He wandered into an office; people there were watching the carnage in the north tower and screaming in horror. A moment later, the building shuddered and dust flew around the room; the second jet had hit more than 20 floors above. Miller found a stairwell and hustled down and out of the building.

"The conclusion that I've come to is: I think I acted smart, and I think it had almost no bearing on the fact that I survived," he says. "If you ran away, you survived. Everybody who ran away survived."

For many survivors of Sept. 11, their last image of colleagues is one framed by the closing doors of an elevator. Some people simply hesitated, unsure of what to do, just long enough to be lost.

Mike Dunn and Darya Lin, the computer training consultants from Chicago, were in the crowd milling around in the large elevator lobby on the 78th floor. With the announcement that the building was secure, the level of urgency dropped.

By then, word had filtered out that it was a plane that had struck the north tower. "I definitely heard it was a twin prop," someone said.

People lined the windows to look down at the street. Can you imagine what it's like down there? Dunn heard someone say. "I'm going to take an elevator down and see what's happening," Dunn said.

"All right," Lin replied. "Just be very careful."

Dunn's elevator made it to the ground-floor lobby in a minute. He stepped out, and as he turned to leave the building, the second jet hit. Just 16 minutes had passed since he poked his head out of the 92nd floor meeting room at Aon to see what was going on. Eight people had been gathered around the conference table.

He was the only survivor. (USA Today, Martha T. Moore and Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY, Data analysis by Paul Overberg. Contributing: Staci George and Nafeesa Syeed)

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