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Shaken survivors tell tales of luck and bravery

[AP photos]
Two women hold one another as they watch the World Trade Center burn. As night fell and the National Guard and police from nearby communities moved in, an orderly calm seemed to take hold.

By MARTY ROSEN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 12, 2001


NEW YORK -- The first plane to crash into the World Trade Center actually attracted the curiosity of some New Yorkers, who began walking south through Manhattan toward the scene.

After the second crash, that concern turned to fear.

But it was not until one of the towers collapsed that horror overtook the city.

Crowds that had gathered along Sixth Avenue immediately turned and began to run north, trying to outsprint the thick, gray dust that poured from the rubble.

"We came out on the street and it was black. It was soot. I heard people crying. It was like a fire," said Anna Loconto, 46, who works at 74 Trinity Place, near the World Trade Center and who evacuated just after the second plane slammed into the tower.

As the building collapsed, Detective Theresa Farello was two blocks from the World Trade Center, helping to coordinate the emergency response to the plane crashes.

She watched the building slowly come down. And she began to run.

"It was just billowing, the smoke was chasing us," Farello said. "You didn't know what was happening. We were running for our life."

Moments later, the second building toppled.

Survivors told stories of uncanny luck and uncommon bravery. As night fell and the National Guard and police from nearby communities moved in, an orderly calm seemed to take hold. The hospitals were jammed. The bloodmobiles and donation centers had steady, constant lines of people wanting to do anything they could to help after the most deadly criminal act in American history.

'They are all dead'

Michael Kilfeather, 35, was working in his offices at 3 World Financial Center, across the street from the World Trade Center, when his building shook and the windows concussed. At the time, he was on the phone with a man who works on the 110th floor of the first World Trade Center tower struck by a plane.

"When it first happened, it was just disbelief," Kilfeather said. The collision did not cut off the conversation, and, at one point, the man on the other end of the line told Kilfeather to let him know if he heard of a way to get out of the building.

His boss came over the intercom and told everyone to remain calm and stay put. But when the second plane hit, people panicked.

"When the second one hit, it was obviously an attack," Kilfeather said. "That's when people got scared and everyone headed for the door."

The scene outside was hellish, he said. People were spilling out of the World Trade Center on fire. Bodies were falling to the pavement from the upper stories.

Clemant Lewin, a banker who works across street from the twin towers, told the Associated Press that he saw people jumping from as high as the 80th floor, including a man and a woman holding hands as they fell.

Said Kilfeather: "I will have nightmares about this for the rest of my life. A lot of guys I'm buddies with, I'm pretty sure they didn't make it out. I think they are all dead."

Getting out

Frank Ufert, 67, was working at his computer in his office on the eighth story of 6 World Trade Center, northwest of the Twin Towers. Ufert, who works for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said that he and a colleague heard a bang. Ufert's colleague climbed atop a radiator and opened the blinds to see what had happened. They saw debris falling from 1 World Trade Center.

Ufert, who has been in a wheelchair since having a stroke last year, said that several colleagues collected him. "Get in the chair," they told him. "Let's get out of here."

They took a freight elevator to the basement and got out of the building. When they reached the street, they looked up and said, "Oh, my God."

Ufert and his colleagues began to go north when the second airplane struck. Ufert said he looked up and, "It was like it was wandering off course, and then it just disappeared into the building. It was just so unreal. None of us could believe it."

He said that he saw that the "whole top of the World Trade Center was on fire." He also saw that "at least 25 people jumped out of the building." He estimated that they were jumping from about the 60th floor. "To have to make that decision -- to try to decide whether you should burn up ..." -- he paused -- "or make a jump you know you will never survive...."

'Horrible, horrible'

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani arrived at Fire Station 24 in Greenwich Village just after the second of the two towers collapsed.

Giuliani was sweating heavily. He walked into the station and tried to use a phone. He could not get through.

He stepped outside and stared south on Sixth Avenue toward the dust. By now, thousands of people were streaming up the road, caked in gray as though they had survived a volcanic eruption. Giuliani stared at the cloud and his whole face trembled. He lowered his head and walked back inside.

"There were hundreds of cops and firefighters in the building when it collapsed ...," he said. "I don't know what the numbers will be. It's horrible, horrible."

Finding the culprits

As night fell, New York experienced an unreal quiet, broken only by the occasional roar from the engines of military jets on patrol. The talk in some quarters turned from the shock of the morning's events to finding the perpetrators.

Mike Bennett, 43, of Queens, is in Manhattan to make sure the elevators at New York University Medical Center keep working while the medical examiner begins hundreds of autopsies. He's ready to see the United States take the next step.

"I'll tell you the truth, we should go in and hit their bases," Bennett said. "Hit their bases in coordinated attacks all at the same time. And we know where their bases are."

Down the street at NYU, 22-year-old economics student Shuja Sohrawardy of Pakistan preached patience.

"I'm afraid of the ignorance of all the people who want vengeance," Sohrawardy said. "We shouldn't react blindly. We should prove that our process works. That our system works."

- Times staff writers Robert Farley, Stephen Buckley and Tom Drury and correspondent Ben French contributed to this report.

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