9-11: A Survivor’s Tale

Author: Stephen F. Kern '75

While checking one of the cubicles of our officers on the 62nd floor of the World Trade Center's north tower, I found Rose, my secretary, on her knees under her desk. She looked up at me with eyes as big as saucers and fearfully whispered: "It's an earthquake!"

Her fear was understandable. The offices of the Claims Division of the Port Authority Law Department were shaking violently. Huge hunks of flaming metal and debris were falling down outside our windows and knocking against the walls of the tower. I am the chief of that division, and 13 people reported to me in our offices there. Nine staff members, including myself, were in the office by 8:45 a.m. on that gloriously sunny September 11th. At 8:46 a.m., as I was about to leave my office on my way to the elevator to get coffee, the building began to vibrate violently, knocking several of my staff off their feet. We could not fathom what had happened but knew it was serious. The towers were designed to sway at their peaks during high winds, but we had never experienced anything like this. I yelled for everyone to evacuate our offices and go out to the central hallway.

Once out in the central hall, the building no longer shaking, I directed my staff to proceed down the same stairwell in front of me, so I could be reasonably certain that if I made it out of the building, they would too. (I knew from the 1993 WTC bombing evacuation that with all the people entering the stairwell from every floor below us, we would not be able to stay together as a group.) I then decided to go back into our offices to make certain everyone had left. Dan, another staff member, stayed with me so I would have someone to assist me in whatever meetings would surely be held among top Port Authority staff once we got down (we had no idea at this point just how serious this would turn out to be). After I found Rose and talked her into leaving, Dan and I took a last look around and then followed.

Walking down the stairs, I looked at my pager, which provides short news headlines. I learned for the first time what had happened: A plane had hit the building. Not just one of the small planes that continually make their way along the Hudson River, but a commercial jetliner. Something about this was very wrong, but we still assumed it was an accident.

Remarkably, most everyone remained calm on the congested staircase, and we moved fairly quickly until we got to about the 20th floor. From there on, we had to walk single file because firemen were going up the stairs. Long periods of time elapsed when we were unable to descend any further, giving us time to think and dread. During such stops, I would check my pager again. That's how I learned that a second plane had slammed into the other tower — we had not heard it hit. Dan and I looked at each other in astonishment. There was no doubt now. We were under attack.

Occasionally we came across the unnerving sight of a person wearing a gas mask or other breathing apparatus. I assumed these were veterans of the '93 evacuation who had decided after that experience that they would henceforth be prepared for anything.

Near the 10th floor, water was pouring into the stairwell. For the remainder of the trip down, the stairway became a waterfall. Walking through the rushing water now made our descent even more hazardous.

It took us about 45 to 50 minutes to climb down the stairs from the 62nd floor. As we finally stepped out of the stairwell onto the Mezzanine of the North Tower and looked outside onto the Plaza (the street level open area between the towers), we realized for the first time the enormity of what had happened. The Plaza looked like a war zone, with flaming pieces of wreckage, debris and bodies scattered about. Despite this shocking sight, we still had no inkling of what was to come.

Police directed us to go from the Mezzanine down one level below ground to the Concourse; there we were soaked by sprinklers that had activated. The Concourse was an underground shopping mall that connected both towers with the entire WTC complex, which was made up of five buildings plus the two towers. People were being evacuated through the Concourse and up into the street, but I decided Dan and I should go to the Port Authority's police desk to see if we could assist in some way. The WTC police desk was located on a portion of the Concourse under 5 World Trade Center, one of the lower office buildings in the complex.

About eight of us were in the police desk area — Dan was in one office trying to find a phone while I was in the squad room in the back of the offices. We had only been there about 10 minutes when all of a sudden the lights went out, the building started to shake and pieces of the ceiling began to fall. We did not know it at the time, but the South Tower was collapsing. I ran as fast as I could up the long hall from the squad room to the front of the police offices and crouched under a doorframe until the shaking stopped. Dan and the others had all scrambled under the nearest desk or doorframe. Smoke and dust were pouring through the area. I knew we had to get out. We grabbed a police flashlight so we could see through the soot and debris, and soaked our handkerchiefs at the watercooler. (I had learned during the '93 evacuation how much easier it is to breathe through a wet cloth when there's so much smoke.)

We left the police offices and began to make our way through the debris in the hallway outside. Precious little light penetrated the choking soot and smoke. As we gingerly felt our way along the hallway, we came upon two people who were wandering around in apparent shock; they were dazed, disoriented and white with dust. We brought them along with us.

Eventually, we came to a glass door that I recognized as the inner entrance to the Borders bookstore located on the northeast corner of the WTC complex. I knew we did not have far to go to get to the street. Using an ax that one of our number had grabbed as we left the police desk, we pried open the door to the store and entered. Through the smoke I could see the eerie sight of thousands of books and CDs covered with soot and dust. Picking our way through more debris, we descended a small staircase and finally found an outside exit onto Church Street, which runs along the eastern perimeter of the WTC. At last, we were out!

Outside, the air was thick with dust and debris, and it was this odd tan color. We walked in a northeasterly direction and did not see the sun until we had gone about five blocks. "This must be what nuclear winter looks like," I heard more than one person remark.

Once out on the street, our goal was to find a phone so Dan and I could call our wives. However, the few public phones that were working had long lines, and cell phones in the area were inoperable. As we walked, I looked over my shoulder at the North Tower where my office was. The building had a huge gash in it and was burning a superheated red color. I could not see the South Tower but wanted to believe that this was because other buildings were in my line of sight; it seemed impossible — despite what we had just escaped from — that the tower could have come down. About six blocks due north of the WTC, as we waited on line to use a phone, I started talking with a woman who was concerned about her child, whom she had left at the WTC day care center earlier that morning (the children were all successfully evacuated). Suddenly there came a roar, a sound that to this day I cannot adequately describe. The North Tower — the building where I had spent so much time and where the fruits of almost 20 years of work were located — was collapsing. The ensuing scene was like something out of a 1950s Japanese monster movie: People were screaming and running from the WTC area, a huge cloud of debris and smoke chasing them.

I finally found a phone in an abandoned subway station at Canal Street, about 12 blocks from the WTC, and I managed to reach my wife, Rosemary. It was 11:30 a.m., almost three hours after the first plane hit. She, of course, has her own story to tell: how she handled that time between the first attack and my phone call. After picking up the kids from school, she arrived home only to find the phone "ringing off the hook" with calls from concerned family and friends. In retrospect, it was a small miracle that I was able to get through.

Words cannot express what we each felt at the moment I was finally able to get through.

I thank God that everyone in my division got out safely (although four of my colleagues in the Law Department perished). And on Friday, September 14, we were back "at work." Half my time those first few weeks after the disaster was spent attending memorial services for colleagues, an excruciating experience (the Port Authority lost 37 police personnel and 38 civilians). We also were faced with the unenviable task of trying to rebuild the Claims Division from scratch. In one stroke, all of our files were gone (except for one database which was backed up off-site). Almost all of the physical evidence of my work over the years was gone, as well as many personal items . . . credit cards, driver's license, car keys, cell phone — all gone. More importantly, all of my family photos that I had displayed at the office and all of the artwork from my children — gone. Diplomas and licenses can be replaced, but those works of love and innocence were priceless to me.

Our first set of temporary offices was located in a windowless space in Newark, New Jersey, that made my unfinished basement at home look good. Then we moved to a building in Manhattan, but we still had to double up in small offices. We have now moved to a third set of offices, this time to the Port Authority's temporary headquarters on Park Avenue South near 18th Street. In a few years time we will probably move back downtown to whatever is built in place of the World Trade Center. That's us: survivors, refugees, nomads.

I went back to the WTC site (Ground Zero, as it was dubbed by the media) in early November 2001 and took some photos. These pictures do not begin to convey the devastation or the emotions that hung in the air at the place, but you could see what was left of my tower and the remains of 5 WTC that housed the police offices. Much of 5 WTC remained standing (lucky for me or I may not have had an escape route), but the police squad room where I had been had been sheared away when one of the buildings collapsed.

The dress shoes I was wearing on September 11 are in the basement of my home, still covered with WTC dust. I will not clean them and I will never wear them again. They are an ugly reminder of what occurred. Yet I cannot bring myself to throw them away. I think that is because I know I was not alone in those shoes on my journey out of the devastation.

Steve Kern, his wife Rosemary (a Saint Mary's graduate) and their three children live in western New Jersey. Last June, Steve received the Port Authority's Civilian Commendation Award for his actions on Sept.11.