NEW YORK -- If there's only one sight I'll remember from the destruction of the World Trade Center, it is the flight of desperation -- the headlong leap from the top-most floors by those who chose a different death than the choking smoke and flame. Some fell swinging their arms and legs, looking down as the street came up at them. Others fell on their backs, peering upward toward the flames and sky. They dropped like deadweight, several seconds, hopeless and unhelpable. Always the same end. Some crashed into the Plexiglas awning over the entrance to the North Tower. Others hit a retaining wall. Still others landed on lampposts and shrubbery. After the 80-floor drop, the impact left small puffs of pink and red drifting at ground level. Firefighters arriving on the scene ran for cover.
In the movie "Armageddon," the asteroid pierced New York buildings sending shrapnel out the other side. That, remarkably, is exactly what it looked like from the street, when the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade center.
The first warning was the sound of jet engines, flying low over the island of Manhattan. A second or two later, what seemed like a sonic boom.
From the sidewalk, behind the building that houses The Wall Street Journal's offices just across the street from the World Trade towers, I didn't see the first plane dive into its target. But I saw the result: an arc of debris, brilliant orange and aflame, coughed from the building southward, landing blocks away.
By the time I'd gotten to the ninth floor of the Journal building and taken a position at a window in the northeast corner, diagonally across an intersection from the World Trade Center, the conflagration was well underway. Great clouds of smoke pushed skyward. Intense flames were consuming higher floors above the crash site. Debris was falling onto the streets -- huge chunks of metal that echoed blocks away when they hit. Office papers littered the ground. Cars in a nearby parking lot -- a full two city blocks from the explosion -- were aflame.
I called our partner, CNBC, the business news television service, and began reporting the scene from inside our offices, beneath the burning structure. Then suddenly -- as suddenly as the first explosion -- I saw the second tower erupt in flame, sending more flame and debris crashing southward. This time, the television cameras, located in midtown Manhattan and pointed south, caught the image of a commercial jet veering into the second tower.
Evacuations were emptying buildings on both sides of the street, and more fire trucks, Emergency Medical Services and police cars were crowding the streets in front of the World Trade Center. Traffic was halted many blocks north and south.
Then, as the fires worsened, and the smoke got blacker and thicker, the first of the office workers began to jump. One at a time, a few seconds apart.
Unknown to the dozens of firefighters on the street, and those of us still in offices in the neighborhood, the South Tower was weakening structurally. Off the phone, and collecting my thoughts for the next report, I heard metalic crashes and looked up out of the office window to see what seemed like perfectly synchronized explosions coming from each floor, spewing glass and metal outward. One after the other, from top to bottom, with a fraction of a second between, the floors blew to pieces. It was the building apparently collapsing in on itself, pancaking to the earth.
This was too close. Uncertain whether the building would now fall on ours, I dove under a desk. The windows were pelted by debris, apparently breaking -- I'd never know for sure. The room filled with ash, concrete dust, smoke, the detritus of South Tower. It was choking, and as more debris rained down onto and into the building, the light of the day disappeared. I crawled on the floor and braced myself under a desk deeper in the office. But the air was as bad.
With my shirt now over my mouth in the blackout of the smoke, unable to do more than squint because of the stinging ash, and thinking that this is what it must be like on the upper floors of the Towers, I realized I had to move. I stood up from under the desk and began feeling the wall and desks, trying to orient myself in the now pitch-black cubicled world of our modern office. Disoriented, I twice passed by the entryway to this particular corner of the ninth floor. And then I was through, by accident, into a larger space, with more air.
The smoke had spread over the entire floor, which had been evacuated minutes before. In the emergency stairwell, still thinking that it was a matter of time before our building was crushed, I breathed in my first clear air. At ground level, though, it was a different story.
Outside on the sidewalk, the scene looked like Pompeii after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Inches of ash on the ground. Smoke and dust clouding the air. My throat stung as I worked my way past ambulances and EMS workers who had been caught outside when the tower collapsed. The emergency workers were trying to find colleagues. In the silence, as the ash fell like snow, radios crackled: "Steve, Steve, where are you?"
One fireman bashed through a door of a diner, and a handful of us took refuge from the outside air. We opened the restaurant's cooler, distributed water bottles, and took some outside to give to the ambulances. I asked what had happened to the people evacuated from the buildings, my colleagues. Did they get away? No one knew.
I stepped into one ambulance with water and asked for a surgical face mask. I was handed several, and later passed them to coughing, spitting emergency workers in the street. The mask would be my life saver.
Because as I walked down the street, getting my bearings, and moving closer to Liberty Street, which opened out onto the Trade Center compound, the second tower was weakening. I heard a pressing metallic roar, like the Chicago El rumbling overhead. And then the fireman next to me shouted: "It's coming down! Run!"
Run where? I had no idea, so I did the best thing at the moment: I ran after the fireman.
Four of his colleagues joined us, plus another civilian or two on the street. We sprinted behind the wall of a nearby apartment building as the North Tower collapsed two blocks away. "Stay away from glass windows" he shouted as we ran, but what he said next was drowned out by the roar passing right through us. We flattened ourselves against a metal doorway, this small group, trying to be one with the building, as chunks of concrete and metal fell from the sky behind us and roared up the street and into the building's courtyard all around us. Debris fell against the shirt on my left shoulder -- I couldn't push it any harder against the building.
After two minutes, we all went down, in a collective crouch, and tried to breath. The building had stopped falling. The roar had subsided. But the smoke and ash seemed as dense as tar, far worse than in the building when the first tower fell. We all were wearing the tight-fitting surgical masks which, with shirts pulled up over our faces, made the difference.
Hyperventilating from the sprint and the fear, the group concentrated on not panicking. Our leader, the fireman who warned of the glass, yelled out in the dark: "Is anybody hurt? Try to breath through your nose!"
In the blackness, he tried his radio: "Mike! Mike! Where are you?" No answer. Again, and no answer. My hand was on his trembling back, the better to brace myself, and I thought about asking him how long these blackouts and ash clouds could last. Then I realized the full ridiculousness of the question. How would he know? How often does a 110-story building collapse to the ground. I honestly wondered whether I'd survive long enough for the air to clear.
Mike finally answered the radio and was wearing a respirator. He also had a flashlight. And so eventually he found us. Blinded by the ash in our eyes, we stood up as a line, each put a hand on the shoulder of the guy in front, and let Mike lead us out of the darkness into the lobby of a building 20 steps away.
We poured water into our eyes, and shook ash from our clothing and hair. I looked for Mike to thank him, but he had already left to help an injured EMS worker on the street.
A young man in the lobby, apparently missed in the evacuation, held his daughter, a little blond-haired girl perhaps two years old. She was crying. An older man who had also sought shelter was raving uncontrollably nearby. We calmed the older man, and the girl stopped crying.