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Family Aid 2020
   Vol. 22 No. 30
Monday September 11, 2023

Escape From The World Trade Center

     Jim Larsen, Port Authority Head of Cargo walked down from the 65th floor of Tower One.
     As the 22nd September 11th since the World Trade Center tragedy in New York City is upon us, somber memorial services and recollections continue around the world recalling that terrible day.
     We remember being at home when the doorbell rang on September 13, and there stood our friend Jim Larsen, Manager of Air Cargo Business Development for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.
     We were so glad to see him, we hugged, and poured him a cup of coffee. After a few minutes he produced a manuscript of how he escaped from the 65th floor of the World Trade Center minutes before Tower One came crashing down.
     This FlyingTypers issue today tells Jim's epic story with some pictures of him in our kitchen September 13, 2001. Our podcast today FlyingTalkers allows you, the listener, a word picture and some extra observations.
     Jim, not only got out, but cool as a cucumber, he saved lives as well. It's a tale of courage and hope from someone who was inside sitting at his desk on the 65th floor when that first aircraft smacked into the side of The North Tower.
     Today Jim lives in Lakehurst, New Jersey. For years after 911, Jim would commute to the World Trade Center site and conduct tours telling his story from the inside out of that fateful day.

Jim Larsen

     The morning of September 11th could best be described as ideal. The sun was bright, the air was clear, and from the 65th floor of the World Trade Center I could look across, through New Jersey, almost to the Poconos in Pennsylvania. Just a few odds and ends to take care of and I would be on my way to JFK for a luncheon hosted by a cargo promotion group from the U.K.
     The office was quiet, waiting for the aviation department staff to filter in for the start of another day. Just another ordinary day. I was sitting at my computer and chuckling about a joke that someone had sent me via e-mail when it hit. It wasn’t loud; there was no explosion, no thunder, just a kind of whack. Then the building began to lean over. Things fell off the desk, furniture moved, and I made my peace with God convinced that the tower was about to topple. But miraculously it didn’t. It snapped back and slowly went the other way. Like in an earthquake, the building continued to shudder for what seemed a lifetime, but what in reality was most likely just a few seconds. There was a brief silence as debris started to stream past the windows, falling to the street below. An aircraft, I thought? But how could an aircraft collide with the building on such a clear day? No time to ponder that question, I thought, let’s get out of the building. I looked for people on my side of the building and saw no one, so I took off for the fire exit and the staircase that would lead me out of the building. Two women came out of the south side of the floor crying. I ordered them not to use the elevators. “Head for the stairs,” I said, “Everything is OK. The building is still standing so the worst is over. Take your time, it’s OK, we’re safe now.” At that point I honestly believed that was true. I also think that all the people in the stairwell thought the same thing. There was no panic, no screaming, no shouting. Everyone proceeded in an orderly manner; they kept talking to each other, they helped those who were having difficulty breathing because of the smoke, or difficulty walking for whatever reason. It was a slow walk down. We stopped every once in a while because of unknown delays below us, but all in all, the pace was fairly steady.
     As we got further and further down, I think we all knew that at any moment we would see rescue workers coming up the stairs. On the 27th floor landing we came upon a man in a wheelchair. On each side of him stood his coworkers, who were apparently waiting for the crowd to thin out so they could begin moving him down the staircase. We passed him, and I thought for a moment maybe we should try in some way to take him with us, but it still seemed like there was no immediate danger and that it would be best if he waited there until help arrived. I don’t know if that man and his loyal friends got out; I can only pray that they did.
     At one point while we were descending I thought I was succumbing to the smoke in the stairwell. I began to get unsteady on my feet; it was almost as if the building was swaying again but I dismissed the thought and shortly afterward I felt OK again. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized it was the impact of the aircraft hitting Tower Two that had made me feel that unsteadiness. Soon we came to a point at which we felt fresh air coming up from somewhere below us. Fresh air was only a few flights away. Firemen and policemen passed us and went up the stairs. Everyone was telling them about the man in the wheelchair on 27. When we got to the mezzanine floor rescue workers were shouting at us to move quickly. Why all the urgency, I thought. They seemed more panicky than we were. It’s all over, we are safe now, why are you shouting? Then the first in a series of realities set in. As we moved from the exit on the West side of the mezzanine to the escalators on the East side of the building we looked out on to West street and saw the tremendous amount of debris at the West Street entrance to the building. Glass was everywhere and I thought if anyone was out there they were probably dead or seriously wounded. We turned and headed East toward the escalators that led to the shopping concourse one floor below. At that point we stepped into Hades: rescue workers were shouting and urging us on; there was complete and utter chaos. We got our first look at hell. The glass partitions looking out over the WTC plaza were bloodstained, parts of bodies and what appeared to be wreckage from the aircraft littered the entire plaza. The debris was so deep that the concrete surface of the plaza was not visible anywhere. Still, harsh reality had not completely sunk in. It was more like we were all watching a disaster movie, like we were just observers. There was more shouting and more urgent calls to keep moving. We went down the escalator steps, through the shopping concourse and out on to Church Street.

Jim Larsen

     Being on the street was like coming to dry land after an ocean voyage; you almost felt like you wanted to kiss the ground. There was no time to stop, rescue workers continued to urge us on up Fulton Street toward Broadway. As we crossed Church Street we finally had a chance to look back and actually see the towers. At that point the adrenaline kicked in. The buildings were on fire; they looked like two candles standing in the sun. We began to head North on Broadway. I stopped to talk to the wife of a co-worker. She also worked in Tower One and was searching the crowd for her husband, to no avail. “Did you see him?” she asked.
     “No, but I’m sure he’s OK,” I said, “We had plenty of time to get out, he will be all right.” We continued North up Broadway, funny enough, I was looking for a cigar store. I haven’t smoked in a while but I had an overwhelming urge to have a cigar. For a moment the urge took my mind off what was happening and I was preoccupied with finding a cigar. We had planned to go to the City Hall subway station to get a train uptown but when we got to the station we were told there was no train service. They said we should go to 14th street, trains would be running from there. I was with two co-workers and both were not doing too well. One has a severe back problem and the other had forgotten her knee brace and was starting to feel the effects of our walk.
     We turned to look back at the towers just as Tower Two collapsed. It was amazing. This giant structure that we had come to regard as a fixture in our every day lives crumbled before our eyes, creating a giant dust cloud reminiscent of the films we saw of the eruption of Mt. St Helens. Panic filled the streets as the clouds advanced up Broadway. In front of it hundreds of people were screaming and running toward us. The only thing I could think to do was get the two girls out of the way of the crowd.
     “We can’t get hit with any debris; the worst we will feel is dust. But if we stay out here there is a chance that we’ll get trampled by the crowd.” I pushed them up against the fence at City Hall as we watched the dust cloud advancing. Miraculously it stopped about a hundred feet from where we were standing and lost momentum, settling to the ground.
     Safe again and blocks away, I looked back at Tower One. It was burning and there was no doubt that it was only a matter of time before it too would collapse. I didn’t know in what direction it would fall, but between us and the tower is the Woolworth building so I turn to my brave little group and urge them on North. “Lets get out of here, if Tower One falls and hits the Woolworth building we will be in big trouble.” We head for Canal Street with the hopes of getting a train that will take us away from the nightmare. As we keep moving, I constantly try to call my wife on a cell phone but I can’t get through. I want to tell her I’m all right; I also want to find out if anyone has heard from my son who works in the World Financial Center directly across the street from the towers. My thoughts go back to the last bombing of the World Trade Center and the fact that I couldn’t get in touch with her then either. On that occasion she ended up calling her niece, a waitress in a restaurant near Wall Street, to tell her that she didn’t know if I was OK. Her niece’s reply was, “He’s fine; he’s sitting here at the bar having a Gin and Tonic.” No such luck this time; I didn’t have a chance to sit with a drink until 6:00 p.m. that night.
     Soon there was a call on my cell phone. My wife asked if I was OK and told me that my son was on his way home. He never reached his office, saw the disaster and turned around. Thank God! Moving North, the fearless crew now numbered five- two going to the Bronx, one to Long Island, one to New Jersey and myself headed for Westchester. As we continued it was obvious that the two women with back and leg problems were not going along too well. The further we got, the slower we moved. We continued to get glimpses of Tower One in the distance. It was still standing but we lost sight of it as we passed a fairly tall structure that obscured our view. Then we see another dust cloud: One World Trade Center, my home away from home for the past 13 years, is gone. With it went many, many memories, and many coworkers whose fate at that point was unknown to me.
     On we went uptown, our little crew feeling more and more the effects of the experience and getting weaker all the time. Then, lo and behold, a banner stating the home of the Public Theater. I know someone who works there so I went to the entrance, but I was told that no one was allowed in. “Is she here?” I asked, and all of a sudden the way is opened and I’m escorted to her office. There I talked to the first person I had spoken to all day who was not directly involved in the disaster. Our crew is brought into the lobby, seated and served water and soda, and they rest to gather the strength to continue the journey. An oasis in the middle of Manhattan, I thank you for your hospitality Public Theater, and thanks to my friend for a hug and an understanding ear.
     Rested and on our way again, the group now numbered six (my friend joined us). When we reached 14th Street we found that there was no room at the inn: the subway was closed there too. Next stop Grand Central. I didn’t think the group was physically able to make it but we continued on. The next shock! Armed National Guardsmen were in the streets in front of what I later realized was an armory off Park Avenue. The realization that the roars we had been hearing in the sky were not low flying Helicopters but high flying fighters over our city, over New York, on a defense mission over American soil, was too much to comprehend.
     When I was a little boy during World War II, I remember air raid wardens knocking on windows at houses that had lights on. I remember the black window shades that hung in our railroad flat in Queens for years after the war was over. But that was only a drill, no one ever got to really attack America.      
     Sure, there was Pearl Harbor, but that wasn’t America. That was some island out in the middle of nowhere where our fleet was. Here, today was reality; a hostile force had made an air strike against the United States and had successfully destroyed two key locations.
     That aside, we were back in business moving toward our next goal, Grand Central Station. From there we hoped to get a train that would take the Bronx contingent home and possibly afford some transportation to Queens for the Long Island bound person in our group. Unfortunately, the group was running out of steam very quickly; back pains were becoming worse and the trauma of walking on a bad knee was obviously getting the best of the women. It was time to get some help. I walked out into the middle of Park Avenue to a traffic policeman and explained our problem, asking him if he could flag down anyone who could take the women to Grand Central. He was sympathetic and tried to flag down any emergency vehicle heading North, but of course they were on other missions and couldn’t divert. Finally we asked a gentleman in an automobile if he would consider taking some passengers for the ride, which was then about 20 blocks. He said of course, so we piled four of the group into his car and they departed for Grand Central with the plan that we, my friend from the Public Theater and I, would meet up at the station and go from there. Thank you to the gentleman in the car, you were a true New Yorker, willing to lend a hand when it was needed. I can’t say the same for the numerous taxicabs that passed us during our journey with their off duty signs on and their cabs empty.
     My friend and I reached Grand Central but found no trace of the rest of our group (who I later found out had made it home ok) so when a departure was announced for a train that would take me home to Peekskill, I opted to get on it, hoping that the rest of my group also made some sort of connection to their destinations.
     Our departure from the city was like leaving a bad dream behind. It was almost as though it hadn’t happened, and as our train headed north I felt the comfort of finally resting away from the terrible events of the day. That feeling overwhelmed me just before we reached Tarrytown, when as we gazed out the window at the smoke rising from the Trade Center, we saw a man standing in a small Hudson River park. The flag in the park was already at half-mast, and the man was quietly and casually watering the grass, as life went on.


     Arriving at the Peekskill station and into the arms of my wife was an experience that will live with me forever, but at that point the realization of just how close I had come to death's door was not yet real. During the course of the day's events none of us had actually seen the disaster in total. We hadn’t seen the TV coverage and heard very little of the radio broadcasts, so the harsh realities of what had actually transpired were yet to come. But there was another experience waiting: the immediate love that poured from friends and acquaintances began. By then I was ready for a good stiff drink and I proceeded to my favorite watering hole right there in the station. Genuine people, both casual and close friends, were on hand to greet me and to tell me how they had feared the worst, and how happy they were that I was there with them. I told them I was equally as happy to see them.
     On the way home, my wife related a list of calls she had gotten during the course of the day from people in the air cargo community, both here in New York, and abroad. The list seemed endless and I felt the camaraderie that we in our business know extends through all of us when we are in danger or in need. Those communications continued for the next two days, reaching from coast to coast and across the world. What a wonderful community we have, what a wonderful group of rough and ready people make up our cargo group.
     As I sat to watch the TV coverage it hit! People jumping from buildings, people crying, people desperately looking for their friends and loved ones. The tragedy unfolded before my eyes and I was overcome with the sights and sounds of that day. The man in the wheel chair on the 27th floor, so helpless and forlorn. The firemen and policemen who passed us on the staircase, brave men headed for what possibly was their demise. I remembered one in particular, a fireman, quite hefty, loaded down with gear and obviously a little out of shape. He stopped for a moment on the landing to catch his breath, then continued on up the staircase. I don’t know if he was ever seen again, but I hope he made it out.
     I remember my annoyance at the shouting of the rescue workers when we reached the mezzanine and feel guilty for feeling that way at the time. I now wonder how many of those good, brave, professional people made it out safely. Prior to this incident I took all those people for granted and thought, well, that’s their job. Now I think while we were running away from disaster, they were knowingly running into it without regard for their own safety. I will never take those services for granted again and I will never forget that one fireman on the stairs and the many others who we passed that day.
     The recollection of coming down those stairs, no panic, people giving encouragement and physical help to those who were faltering, is a strong one. “Its OK, we are going to be all right,” became standard and was the marching song as we moved closer and closer to safety. Afterwards I recall thinking New York excelled again, as restaurant personnel stood on the sidewalks in front of their establishments giving out bottled water. Some even brought out hoses so that people covered with ashes could rinse themselves off. “Our restrooms are open to pregnant women and the elderly,” read a sign in front of one of the establishments we passed, a small token but a good heart.
     As these days have passed I mourn for those who did not make it: coworkers, friends and associates who lost their lives in a senseless act of aggression. But on the other hand I fear for those good people who may be singled out because of their religious beliefs or because of the country they happened to be born in.
     We are good people. Those of us who survived this disaster have to keep in our hearts the realization that it was not the fault of an entire religion or an entire race, but the sickness in the minds of a relatively few individuals whose regard for human life does not stop with us. Their hatred goes far beyond our borders, and the people they hurt even number their own countrymen. If we succumb to the same type of thinking as the religious zealots, then we will never, ever see peace for ourselves, our children, or their children. I believe that, for those responsible, justice should be swift and final. But let us concentrate our hatred on those few, sick minds that are responsible, and on them only.
Jim Larsen

If You Missed Any Of The Previous 3 Issues Of FlyingTypers
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