Noe Valley Voice December-January 2001

My 9-11: A Personal Account of Escape from the Twin Towers

By Jim Campbell

Editor's Note: Within days of the terrorist attacks, Noe Valley resident Jim Campbell wrote this account of his harrowing escape from Tower Two of the World Trade Center. In an e-mail to friends and family, he described the piece as a "dump of my experience during the past week.... Not to address it may cause problems that will fester and become worse. I can and need to tell this story."

San Francisco Airport, 1 p.m.
Sept. 10, 2001

It was a typical business trip. As president and CEO of Ventaso Inc. [a San Francisco software company], I was flying across country to a meeting at Morgan Stanley in New York. Prior to boarding the plane, I bought a copy of One Day in September, the story of the 1972 Munich Olympics, where the PLO massacred 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team. The flight was uneventful, and the book was interesting.

When I reached my room at the Embassy Suites across from the World Trade Center Towers, I didn't feel like sleeping...that damn west-to-east travel thing. My roommate, Nate Bride [a business development manager with Ventaso], was working, so I also decided to work for an hour before going to bed. My appointment with Morgan Stanley was at 8 a.m., so I would need to wake by 6:30 or so, but if you can't sleep, you can't sleep. After sending roughly 50 e-mails, I retired to my bed and continued to read about Munich.

The book was insightful in that it showed how a normal day and night could turn into the nightmare of nightmares. There were heroes, innocent bystanders, and pure evil. Little did I know that within eight hours I would witness the same.

7:45 a.m., Sept. 11, 2001

After coffee and a bagel in the mall attached to the WTC, I made my way through security...and what security it was. After I provided my license and received clearance from Morgan Stanley, I was given a pass card that allowed me to go up to the 64th floor. Two sets of elevators later, I was escorted to a conference room on the northeast corner of Tower Two. The view was amazing. To the north was the skyline of Manhattan, with Tower One, the north tower, to my left. To the east was a beautiful view of Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Bridge. As I enjoyed the sights for the next 10 minutes, I thought how lucky people were to have such a view of the world.

The meeting with Sandy Mostuesky and Liz Witt at Morgan Stanley was collaborative as we defined ways to move our business relationship forward. We talked about the really important things, such as going one step at a time. The three of us were taking lots of notes and my confidence in making it work increased as we went along.

Everything changed at 8:48 a.m.

Impact -- Tower One

The sound was one of a loud, whirring jet engine streaking past our window, impacting, and then exploding -- three distinct sounds that lasted approximately one second each. We looked at each other and Sandy said, "What was that?" I immediately got up and looked north at the view I was admiring 40 minutes before. Everywhere in the air were papers, papers, papers...the sky was full of 81/2-by-11 paper. In Tower One, about 25 floors above us, were approximately 15 broken windows with flames coming out of most of them. I sat and watched in amazement.

"Everybody, out now!" Sandy was screaming around the office to make sure everyone was moving. I looked around and found myself alone in the conference room on the 64th floor. Not wanting to be left alone, I picked up my bag and walked out the door. I noticed on my way out that both Sandy and Liz had left their notes regarding our future business relationship sitting on the conference table.

I now know that an American Airlines plane had hit the north side of Tower One and that we were viewing only a piece of the real damage. But at the time, I could have easily stayed in Tower Two, pulled up a chair, and watched from 30 floors below the action. I also realize that if Sandy had not acted with authority and urgency, my personal outcome might have been very different. I owe her something I can never repay.

Down the Stairs

Following Sandy and Liz towards the stairwell was like any fire drill. We moved through the door and joined the multitudes making their way down in a methodical fashion. There was much talking as floor by floor we moved towards ground level. Sandy jokingly mentioned that if she survived I would get their business. Occasionally we would pass someone standing in a doorway watching, but everyone was moving in a crisp yet unhurried fashion. At 9:01, the first announcement talking about a fire in Tower One was broadcast. The guy behind me bitched about it taking 13 minutes before we heard any news about what was going on. Due to the noise level in the stairwell, many of us only overheard that a fire was in Tower One and that no problems existed in Tower Two. That was about to change.

At 9:06 a.m., Tower Two was punched with the second plane. Those of us snaking our way down the stairs were immediately thrown to one side, and many fell or sat down. The building swayed left and then right with a diminishing frequency that lasted approximately five seconds. The guy with the watch screamed, "Let's go. We have 25 floors left. Let's move."

The urgency multiplied in everyone. The fear in the air and on people's faces was tangible. The march towards the ground was now faster and a bit more erratic. Two men were helping a woman down, and I waited for my turn around this group. That was the last I saw of Sandy and Liz, as they were moving quickly downward. The guy with the watch was getting impatient behind me, but everyone was respectful and did the right things on the way down.

A War Zone

When we got to the Plaza level, I walked towards the windows as we were making our way towards an escalator. It still hadn't hit me what was going on, but the smell of smoke was in the air. Out on the Plaza it was a war zone -- there was a pair of shoes, lots of paper, and a piece of insulation that looked similar to things I'd seen in airplane crashes on TV. It looked like it was snowing. My eyes were drawn towards a large mound of ooze about three feet high. It was the remains of something or somebody. I quickly headed back towards the escalator.

Below, we were guided by people every 50 feet or so. Police or Port Authority personnel were making sure we didn't run but still moved quickly in the right direction. They saved many people by keeping us orderly, but in return gave their lives. I still remember many of their faces. Outside, people were gathered about 100 yards from the buildings, near an old cemetery. All were looking up at the twin candles as they burned. Someone next to me said that she saw an American Airlines plane fly directly above her floor, the 44th, and hit the building. Prior to that, I had assumed missiles had struck the buildings.

I quickly realized the need to contact my wife. Over and over again I tried to call, but at the same time people were saying to not use cell phones and to reserve them for the emergency workers. Everywhere I looked someone was trying to call home. I gave up and decided to make my way to the Village and find a phone there. I walked 50 feet and stopped and watched. An F-15 streaked across the sky circling the towers. The crowd made a noise as if to warn that plane number three was coming our way. A bit late, but it was calming to see a friendly in the sky.

For some unknown reason, I looked down at my phone and noticed [colleague] Joe Terry's number...he was calling me. Picking up, I told him to call my wife now. Fifteen seconds later we were disconnected. Thank God for Joe Terry for sending the message that I was fine. I continued to walk north, stopping every 50 feet and watching. Then there was a jumper, and the crowd moaned. I had had enough.... I stopped being a voyeur and made my way north.

The Buildings Collapse

Three blocks north, I turned left around a corner on the strange notion that I would head back to my hotel, across the street from WTC One. Foolish. Heading west towards West End Drive in a counter-clockwise circle around the WTC, I went into a store and purchased a coke to alleviate my thirst. Inside, as I filled my glass with ice, the building roared and rumbled. This was not the natural rumble of an earthquake that either rolls or jolts you. No, this was unnatural, chaotic. Running outside, I was told WTC Two, the building I was in a half hour before, had fallen down. The dust cloud moved primarily south and east, as the wind was from the north that day. At the next intersection, I stood with 50 people and looked at the 110 floors that were now a pile of steel and people 60 feet high. I thought of Sandy and Liz's notes....

I continued in my fantasy world, heading west towards the water, towards my hotel. Reaching West End Drive, I found the staging area for the FDNY, the New York Fire Department. Dressed like warriors, they were walking single file towards the behemoth of fallen debris from Tower Two and the still standing Tower One. The bravery and image of these men at that time will never leave me. Everyone was running away from the carnage, and they walked forward, determined to do their job. Amazing people. Amazing courage. I continued to stroll southward towards my hotel until the rush of people told me that moving forward was unrealistic and...foolish. Since the cell phones were not working, the lines at payphones were huge. I hopped in a phone line and watched Tower One burn.

Then the end began. The antenna on top of the building tilted ever so slightly and the building came down. It was fast, lasting only 10 seconds. People were racing past me as I watched -- watching as if the action were miles away and MSNBC was on the scene. The panic and fear in people's faces flashed by me as they sprinted past. At one point, a sliver of the building was standing above the rubble below like a defiant finger to whoever had done this. The sliver was no more than 10 feet across, but it soared 25 stories above the rubble...and then it too fell.

Refuge in the Village

I slowly made my way north hoping to find security and peace in the Village. I walked and walked, stopping only at the occasional car, with doors open, radio playing loudly. At each car, 40 people stood and listened. The Pentagon. Gasp. Two planes. Gasp. I finally sat down at a park and just...well, sat. I noticed that the park was commemorated to the Stonewall incident where gays had fought back against the police. I was now in the Village.

I got up and walked east and sat my butt down in a bar named Barney Macs. I finally had a home -- with two phones, two televisions, company, and as much beer as I could consume. Calling Kathy, I checked in again and asked her to locate Nate, my traveling companion, to inform him of my newfound home.

The rest of Tuesday was spent with Nate, drinking beer trying to forget the day, anxiously locating a hotel room, and finally eating our first meal. Nate had been at the Embassy Suites when the attack started, but had gone outside and seen the second plane hit. He and I ended up staying awake till 4 a.m., after a restaurant owner took us in, fed us, filled us with alcohol, and in essence held us until we could sleep.

Wednesday morning started at 7 a.m., after a restless three hours' sleep. Turning on the television, I began to see new videos of the planes hitting the WTC. One specifically, showing the second plane striking our building around the 65th floor, hit me especially hard. I could easily have stayed on the 64th floor and watched the action....but Sandy had gotten everyone out. I lost it.

The previous 24 hours had had no real impact on the outside, but inside I was a mess. On the phone with Kathy again, we both cried and shared our desire that I was home and far away from New York City. The next 24 hours, Nate and I were in survival mode, finding clothes, toiletries, chargers for our cell phones, and my credit card, which I had left at the restaurant. On Wednesday night, we ate a steak and drank a bottle of Silver Oak...trying to appreciate the fact we were still alive. Now it was time to get our butts home.

The Drive Home

Thursday morning, Nate made plans to get to Boston, where his family lives. He would take a train to Hartford, and his mother would drive him home. I later found out that Nate had the luck of sitting next to a psychologist on the train. He just talked and talked.

Myself, I needed to get out of the city. Two friends, Karen Curro and Sue Edelman in New Jersey, were my next destination. By bus, through a shaking terminal and some erratic bus-driving, I made it to their front door. On the way, I only lost it twice. Most people who take you in after a disaster want you to stay, so they can take care of you. Sue and Karen allowed me to do what I needed.

I had decided on the drive to their house that I needed to get control of my life again. I needed to make progress towards home. I needed time to process all this in order to get my shit together. Sue, Karen, and Susan Sullivan (another friend) supported me and gave me food, blankets, liquids, CDs, toilet paper -- everything I would need. They also procured a brand new Cadillac from National Car Rental, with no mileage, no drop-off. They showed me the love I needed at the right time. By Thursday at 3 p.m., I was on my way home.

The drive home was a cherished event for me, not only for the times I talked to people -- and at times I really, really needed to talk -- but also for the time I spent alone. I found the mornings were the hardest. I cried for at least an hour every morning. The thought of the number of people and families that were torn apart was agonizing. Why them? Why not me? I feel for those people and their families more than I can ever express.

I also found the spirit of America. Town after town had flags on every pole, on every Main Street. The firehouse at Notre Dame was draped in black, and I talked about the spirit of FDNY to two firefighters until all three of us were in tears. I found solace in the basilica at Notre Dame and at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Both I found to be spiritually healing in their own way. I found that Jolt Cola is equivalent to cocaine in a bottle. It should be outlawed.

It took 80 hours for me to drive (and sleep) the 3,060 miles to my family and my home. But in those 80 hours I grew years. I know it will take Nate and me time to understand what has happened, but like everyone else, we are committed to turning this ugly event into a personal positive.

I will read about post-traumatic stress syndrome (one of the key cures is to talk and share your story). I will continue to share, to make sure nothing is hidden away that will come back to haunt me. But most of all, I will appreciate my time here, my friends and my family. Thanks for listening, and God bless America.

Jim Campbell is pleased to report that his associates at Morgan Stanley -- Sandy Mostuesky and Liz Witt, both residents of the New York metropolitan area -- also escaped the World Trade Center safely.