After the World Trade Center buildings had fallen, the fires burned out, and thousands of Americans successfully streamed like refugees through the streets of Manhattan to the relative safety of places like Battery Park, it was New Mobility’s privilege to interview John Abruzzo, an accountant and C5-6 quad who, in tandem with 10 of his fellow office-workers, escaped from the 69th floor of One World Trade Center.
“It felt like the building was punched,” said Abruzzo. "My desk faces north ... the side the airplane hit. Paper was just coming down." The building swayed in one direction, and Abruzzo knew it was time to leave.
Abruzzo and his 10 coworkers carefully picked their way down all 69 floors separating them from safety. Nine of his coworkers took turns maneuvering his evacuation chair, while the 10th, who couldn’t help physically, acted as a scout, alerting his colleagues when they had to cross over into a different stairwell somewhere around the 40th floor.
Near the 30th floor, Abruzzo’s crew moved aside as firefighters rushed up the stairwell. "We saw them carrying hundreds of pounds of equipment — axes, hoses — and they were trying to catch their breath, they were exhausted," Abruzzo said.
Finally the group made it to the lobby, carrying Abruzzo over chunks of fallen concrete. Damage and debris had made the exit impassable, so they lifted Abruzzo through a knocked-out window onto the sidewalk.
They looked up and saw fire engulfing the top of the tower. "A fireman said, 'Get out, GET OUT!,'" said Abruzzo and so the crew squeezed into the mob streaming up the streets away from Lower Manhattan, taking turns pushing Abruzzo, still in the rescue chair. At one point they stopped to look back. "It was like Christmas, everything covered in white. Except we saw debris coming down," said Abruzzo, "and bodies falling."
The lessons of 9/11 for our nation, painfully, are many. But forever, for me, the lessons of 9/11 are the ones Abruzzo’s story teaches. First, when threatened by the unspeakable, let us not leave each other alone, but rather let us band together and face it as one. Second, let us never forget it is important to do whatever is realistically within our power to rescue our fellow human beings.
For the second lesson, I don’t mean just Abruzzo’s crew.
I am haunted by the image of brave firefighters, men and women struggling to breathe, streaming past the fleeing workers up into hell itself in the hope of possibly doing some good. Forever they rush upward, straining under the weight of life-saving equipment, may their memories always be blessed and may they be immortal in our hearts.