NEW YORK | The collapse of the two towers of the World Trade Center sent walls of dust and debris more than 10 stories tall surging down the narrow streets of lower Manhattan, and people fled in panic.
“People were falling down,” said Timothy Jackoboice, 37, a trader on the New York Stock Exchange, who was walking on the street when he saw one of the towers collapse from a block away. “It was a stampede. It was terrible. It was engulfing everything. It was coming right down the street, just like any bad movie you’ve seen.”
Then everybody started running away from the cloud of debris.
Realizing that he could not outrun the cloud, Jackoboice ducked behind a large green trash container and climbed on top of 10 other people who already had sought shelter there. Dust and debris fell on them as the cloud passed overhead, and it turned pitch black, he said.
Some had broken down in tears as they ran.
“People were literally running for their lives,” said Keith Lane, 38, a television cameraman who was caked in gray ash. “You could see it in their faces.”
Soon after the other tower collapsed.
Angela Gilchrist, 62, saw the first tower collapse from the window of her 11th story apartment two blocks from the World Trade Center. “I saw sheets of the building sliding off the side,” she said. “Then, all of a sudden, the building was imploding. It just sank down.”
When the cloud passed by her apartment, it was so dense that she could not see the edge of the terrace outside her window. She walked down the stairs to the lobby of her building where other residents had gathered. Some headed for the basement.
After the second building collapsed, another wall of debris swept through the streets.
“You could see nothing across the street,” said Gilchrist, who was watching from the building lobby. “It filled the whole area.”
A 41-year-old office worker who gave only his first name, Brian, was in his 64th floor office in the first tower after it was struck by the airplane, before it collapsed. He looked out and saw debris falling. Then everyone headed for the stairs. It took half an hour to get out. Streams of workers came onto the stairs at every floor, but it was calm, he said.
“I thanked God for my life,” he said, a light coat of ash on the shoulders of his suit jacket. “There’s no reason the people who died today shouldn’t have been me. It’s something we’ll be talking about for the rest of our lives.”
Before the towers collapsed, people lined the streets, craning their necks to watch the fire. They looked shocked. Many could not see the second plane hit the other tower, and there were cries of disbelief when they saw a fireball explode out of the side of it about two-thirds of the way up the side of the building.
As calm returned, a light wind carried a huge black cloud of smoke and ash eastward over the East River to Brooklyn. The skyscrapers of lower Manhattan were shrouded in a dense, fog-like cloud.
Jackoboice, the stock trader, sought refuge with some others in a bank office, looking for clean air to breathe. Others inside were vomiting and bleeding, he said.
Outside Gilchrist’s apartment, the light gray ash lay three inches deep on the street, she said. “It’s like walking through snow,” she said, a thin layer of dust on her shoes and legs as she walked around the area.
She had picked up and saved a couple pieces of paper blown out of the building: a traffic accident report from an Ohio police department; an unused envelop of a U.S. Export-Import Bank regional office; a blank piece of paper charred brown around the edges.
The wind deposited a thin coating of light gray ash over an area of several blocks, all the way to the South Street Seaport tourist district on the East River. Vehicles, some coated in ash, stirred up clouds of ash as they turned corners.
With the subways closed, a mass exodus on foot began out of lower Manhattan. Wearing white masks over their mouths, or using paper towels or the edge of their shirts to cover their mouths, a steady stream of workers headed north for blocks, almost like a stream of refugees, where they hoped to find a way home. They stamped their shoes to shake the ash off. Many walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to Brooklyn.
By noon, the normally bustling streets of the financial district were mostly deserted. Stores and offices were closed, and residents were told they could not stay in their apartments overnight.
(c) 2001, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.