My surreal experiences on September 11, 2001

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September 9, 2011 (ten year anniversary) By Steven Greer, MD

No story told by a living person about September 11th, 2001 can compare to the events experienced by those who were on the hijacked planes that crashed into a Pennsylvania field, the Pentagon, or were trapped in the two World Trade Centers towers later to perish in gruesome deaths. Nevertheless, I would like to document my story before the memory fades.

For some reason, even though I write quite a bit every day, I have never sat down and written about my experiences. A relative called me today and encouraged me to do so for the sake of family history.

I suppose that I have been trying to pretend that the 10th anniversary was not approaching.

I recall vividly the morning of 9/11 because the sky was so blue. There were no clouds in sight, and the humidity was low. It was a perfect day. September was always my favorite time of the year.

I was on my way to the airport to catch a US Air shuttle to Washington, DC to attend a cardiology medical conference called the TCT. My flight took off around 8:00 AM and was uneventful. No news was announced by the cabin of anything being wrong.

I got off the plane at Reagan International and saw about ten people gathered around a terminal TV monitor looking up at it with extreme interest. The World Trade Center Tower 1 was billowing smoke. I tend to assume the least serious scenario in a crisis like that and assumed that it was just a freakish accident.

Minutes later, I was in the taxi line and heard that the second tower was hit. I knew then that it was terrorism, but no one panicked. We all got into cabs and went on our ways.

I recently found something extraordinary. I was able to open old Microsoft Outlook .pst files from 2001. I read for the first time in a decade my actual blackberry messages from that morning on September 11th.

I was receiving normal Wall Street research emails in the morning. At 9:03, my hedge fund boss sent me an email, “test”.

At 10:08 AM, my sister emailed, “What is going on? I can’t get thru on phone, all circuits are busy. Go home”. Strangely, I see no sent emails from me. The circuits might have been overloaded.

In the cab, I called my mother to tell her that I was safe because I was not in New York. Just a few minutes later, I saw the smoke from the jet-plane-bomb that struck the Pentagon.

I seemed to have been in the middle of both hot spots. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak.

My cab then got stuck in traffic as we got closer to Downtown Washington, DC. People were rushing to safety on the streets. So, I got out of the cab, took my luggage, and walked to George Washington Hospital’s ER thinking I might be of some help as a surgeon.

I called our hedge fund execution trader back in New York, Kevin. He was simultaneously on the phone with someone at Cantor Fitzgerald, which was located at the top of the WTC. I heard him say, “I gotta go”.

Kevin had heard on the phone the Cantor Fitzgerald line go dead. The WTC tower was collapsing and people were dying, but I did not know it at the time.

On the way to the hospital, I popped into the rundown lobby of a cheap hotel and watched the towers burning on a small TV.

This is how clueless I was. When the first tower collapsed to the ground, I recall thinking, “Oh well, it was ruined anyway and unsalvageable. They would have had to tear it down anyway.”

I had no idea that people were still inside and perished before my eyes. It seemed that hours had gone by. To me, certainly everyone had gotten out by then.

I reached the hospital and walked in. The head ER attending doctor managing the triage, a lady, I cannot recall her name, asked me in a concerned way, “Who are you?”. My luggage could have been a bomb in their minds. They cleared me through and I went to a back room and waited for the arrival of mass casualties.

No injured people arrived. The nature of the Pentagon plane crash and strong flames meant that most of the people had died instantly.

I stayed at the hospital for many hours. When it became obvious that I was just in the way, I left on foot to find a hotel. I had not planned on staying overnight and had no reservations.

The only hotel that I could find was the luxurious Four Seasons in Georgetown. I remember being upset with them because I felt they were price gouging.

I could leave this part of the story out and be more politically correct, but it is a true event. That evening, I ventured outside into the streets of Georgetown. I recall seeing a cafe with some Muslim men outside smiling, cheering, celebrating as they smoked a hookah pipe. I stared at them from across the street. They saw me and waved. I knew very little about jihad and the hatred of America that many Muslims felt. I was confused as to why they were celebrating.

I was stranded in DC for a few days since all air traffic was prohibited. A surgery resident friend of mine from NYU was in DC doing research at the NIH and we hung out a bit. I felt guilty being “stuck” at the Four Seasons while such tragedy was unfolding at home.

When I finally got a rental car and drove back to New York City, I recall first seeing the Manhattan skyline from about 60 miles away in New Jersey. The smoke from the smoldering Ground Zero was visible that far.

It burned for months, just like hell on earth.


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2 Responses to My surreal experiences on September 11, 2001

  1. Janet says:

    Thank you! There are so many untold stories; so many stories that need to be released; so many stories of unknown heroes; so many stories of terror; and also, so may stories of happy reunions. (for sure a reserve happiness, but nonetheless, joyous!)

    It has already taken 13 years and we have only heard a very small percentage. No one tires of hearing them…it’s still a healing process! So again, thank you!

  2. Swan says:

    Leslie M. Blake
    September 11 2001 @ 8:45 AM

    Amidst death and destruction, I found a Pearl

    It is a beautiful morning with a cool autumn breeze coming from the North. The sky is clear blue with a few fluffy clouds. The cool air feels wonderful after so much sticky heat, last week, so I have the windows wide open to capture the fresh air.

    I have dressed to walk, and while doing so, plan to head through he WTC to the post office. First, I Remember that have a few messages from one of my brokers, so call him. I joke that it is early, and time for him to start working. We discuss the convention and some minor details, and suddenly hear a loud sound which sounds like a missile in a war movie. I tell Dave that I have to go, that something Big has happened .

    I’m out to the lobby, thinking that something has happened on the river. The doormman says that the WTC is on fire. We can see it from the lobby. Flames are already pouring out of the upper floors, on the South and West sides of the building. Debris of paper and metal are in the air.

    I ran back to the apartment, and called Rural to tell him that the WTC is on fire. While talking, I hear an eyewitness report on TV, saying that it was a 747, a huge plane, which appeared to fly right into the building. Rural told some people at work and they were going out to look. I went outside, with an idea that I might be able to volunteer my help or apartment or something. I remember in 1993 that people were dazed and lost looking when they came out, and I thought I could help.

    When I saw the enormity of what was happening, I went into the chapel. When I walked in the Monsignor was coming out of his apartment. I said, have you heard what happened? He said, I am heading there now. I knelt and started to pray for help for those poor victims and began to cry uncontrollably.

    I am not usually a crier, so this may have been some sense of subconscious foreboding. I asked God to help those poor victims and said a little prayer to my Mother.

    I went outside and the flames had spread quickly. Several floors were engulfed. I moved back toward the water. It occurred to me that when the 1993 bombing occurred, my father had commented that if They had laid the explosives correctly, that they could have toppled the entire building, and if that happened, our apartment was close enough that the WTC could fall over onto it. As I thought of this, I moved back closer to the water. The sun had come further south in the sky, so I moved a few steps to the North, to get out of the sun.

    I met a lady from Columbia, who was crying. I asked her if she was OK and she hugged me and we both c1ied. She kept saying, this kind of thing happened in her country, but not in America. This is where she came to be safe. There were some men there, and one big mouth guy was blaming the Jews.

    Suddenly we started seeing people, mostly men, jump from the firey windows. Each time someone came into sight, the crowd was screaming NO, NO, oh God NO.

    Later, a neighbor told me that he could see a man, who had crawled out of a window, around the 90th floor, and was wedged into one
    of the grooves in the facade of the building, in a fetal position, waiting to be rescued. People began jumping more frequently, from the first tower, there were too many to count. Even one couple, a man and woman who joined hands and jumped together to their death. One man said, they had chosen their way to die, rather than wait for the fire, and that they flew open armed, like birds and that he thought they were at peace.

    We were looking up at the No 1 Tower and suddenly we heard the missile sound again, and it got very loud; as we watched a huge plane came from the direction of the harbor, traveling north into the South tower.

    Spectators began shouting, we are under attack, and we all began to run back toward the Hudson, and down the promenade to the South.

    The back entrance to our building was open, so I ran inside. The doorman, Filipe, said they were evacuating the building, so I ran into our apartment and grabbed my purse, keys, garage remote, work diary and cell phone, and headed back to the water.

    I headed down two streets, and sat on a bench with others. A neighbor, a lady in her eighties, I would guess,was standing in the middle of the promenade. I did not know her, but had noticed her walking in our courtyard many times. I got up and asked if she was OK. She said she didn’t know what to do. I asked her to sit with me. Her name was Pearl and lived in Gateway, near us.

    It Was quite chilly and I offered her my shirt, but another lady said No take my sweater, I have another underneath and I am too warm. I thanked her and took her business card so that I could arrange to return the sweater if we were separated.

    In a few minutes some Firemen began shouting for us to travel as fast as we could to the South. We began an exodus along the promenade, most people were running. Mothers with baby carriages, business men, women and children. Some pushed past us and nearly knocked us down, two young men stopped and asked if we needed help. I said no that we were all right.

    All I could think of was some big guy picking Pearl up in his aims and running with her. Within minutes, there was a huge hissing sound and we felt the earth shake beneath our feet. Within 5 seconds, we were covered with ash and soot, there was total blackness or more correctly, whiteness. We were walking in 4 inches of ash on the ground and it was falling so thickly, that we could only see as far as the feet of the person in front of us. I had picked up a shirt and jacket, which had been discarded, thinking that we might need them for something. I put one over Pearl’s head and one over mine and we could peek out and breathe through the cloth, protecting our lungs.

    It was so silent and eerie, no one spoke. I kept urging Pearl to walk as fast as she could. I knew that the promenade was unsafe for crowds, because it is built on landfill from the earth removed when the World Trade Center was built. We took the upper roadway through the trees, hoping that the soot and debris would be less dense. We found ourselves alone. Pearl kept saying to leave her and save myself, but I Just kept pulling her along. She later said that I had her running. She had a wonderful sense of humor.

    Soon we began seeing people wearing ventilators, which they could breathe through. I asked a man where he got it, and ran back to get them for us.

    They kept directing us to run to the south, keeping away from tall buildings, and head to the Staten Island Ferry. When we got to the bottom of Battery Park City, the soot was so thick that we could go no further. They told us to lie face down on the grass and cover our heads. I chose a place against a wall and settled down with Pearl. We suddenly heard the sound of jets overhead and everyone moaned, ”No, not again”. We assumed they were additional planes directed at other buildings in the area. We later learned that they were US Air Force jets, which had been sent to intercept the two hijacked planes, but were too late.

    Soon the earth shook and the earth moved under us, in a moaning death shutter. The sky filled with additional soot and debris. The second tower had imploded.

    In time, which seemed like an eternity, the wind began to push the soot toward the east and we could begin to see.

    There were injured firemen and EMS workers in front of us, being put onto a small feny. I heard one of the EMS volunteers say to another, “The captain says he will take some women and children, if he has room.” I told Pearl that I was going to get her onto that boat. She Kept telling me to leave here, that she was old and couldn’t get up. I told her that I was not going to leave her. She could not get up from the grass. I ran over and got a man to lift her, and we headed toward the boat. I got a hold of an EMS worker’s sleeve and said, “Sir, you have to take this lady, she is 85 years old and barely made it here” He said, “OK”, and they put her onto the boat. I shouted to her that I would see her on the other side. I knew they would not talce me, but she started yelling that she could not make it without me, so take her off the boat. They threw me onto the boat and pulled away and headed to Jersey City. I was the last person put aboard that first rescue boat.

    We were a shocked, sorry, sad mess of passengers, covered with soot, watery eyes and coughing from the smoke in our lungs. By the time we arrived on the other side of the Hudson, the wind had blown all signs of the soot from our clothes and hair.

    We landed at a dock and were lifted onto it and directed to the mainland, at the new Datek building. They had cots set up and medical staff, as well as social workers and counselors were there to assist those who needed it. They were very attentive to us and gave us cloths with ice to put on our face and neck, also water and fruit. After sitting there and trying to gather ourselves, we went inside the building. They had phone banks setup and we were allowed 2 calls each.

    Pearl and I needed the ladies room and were escorted upstairs. A nice young man up there allowed us to use his phone. I called my brother’s number, at my Dad’s home, he was there and in a panic. I told him that I was OK and to tell my Dad. I then called my husbands office and left the message that I was OK, and that I was going to try to reach my friend Brenda’s apartment and would meet him there.

    Throughout the day we had all tried, in vain, to use our cell phones. At one point, mine would connect and I could see that I had messages. Finally, around 3PM the phone banks were less busy and I tried to retrieve my voicemail messages. My daughter had called, in a panic, twice, several other messages, and finally my husband’s voice said, “I am on the east-side heading uptown with Steve and Ryan, We are going to 141h St and trying to get a ferry to NJ. I am heading to Alison’s” I heaved a sigh of relief and knew that the worst ·· was over for me.

    I had tried all afternoon to reach Brenda and Don and Alison, but could not get through. Finally around 4:30, I reached Alison, and she screamed, how happy she was to hear my voice. I told her that her Dad was ok, and that he was headed to her house.

    At this point we were with neighbors, Jeff and Marni, and Linda, who is handicapped, and carrying two large cats. We were being encouraged to leave the Datek building and had planned to go by Path, to Newark.Then Jeff, Marni, Pearl and Linda were going to Jeff s family in Teaneck, and being picked up by relatives. They could not come to our location, since it was cordoned off. Alison and I planned that she would pick me up at Newark Path Station.

    It was a long walk to the Path from Datek, and were could not get a cab or car. A nice gentleman who worked for Datek got a pushcart and loaded the cats and Linda’s medical machinery onto it and was going to walk with us to the Path Station. I knew that Pearl was pretty tired at this point, so I went up to a nice looking older policeman, and told him that we were desperately looking for a ride to the Path Station. He said he didn’t have a crniser but would find something for us. He got two officers to drive their car with Pearl and Linda, the machinery and cats, to the station. The second officer walked with us.

    We got onto the Path, after much difficulty, due to Linda’s slow movement. No elevators were working. When we got onto the Path, everyone knew that we had been through HELL, and were very sympathetic, and interested in what had happened to us. Jeff asked men to give up their seats to Linda and Pearl, and they did.

    When we arrived in Newark, there were two huge double stairways to walk down. No escalators were working. When we got to the ground floor, Linda was exhausted and sat on the stairs. At that point, the police came and told us we had to evacuate the building. When we got outside, we were hurried across the street and told there had been a bomb scare in the terminal.

    Due to the bomb scare, the area was cordoned off and Alison could not get to me. We talked on the cell phone and finally, she parked and walked to get me. Before she arrived Jeff, Marni, Pearl and Linda, machinery and cats were loaded onto a bus headed for Hackensack. Soon Alison arrived and the moment I saw her, I began to realize how close I had come to never seeing her again. It shook me to the core. We held each other tightly and said we loved one another and headed for her car.

    We drove through the city and onto the highway toward her home. During the trip, Rural called on my cell phone and we agreed to pick him up at Ryan’s house. When I saw him, I thought, how can a man go through what he has, and look so perfect and untouched? He is remarkable.

    We arrived at Alison’s and she fed her Dad some dinner. I had tea and an English muffin, and we sat and watched TV, waiting for Chris to come home. We showered and finally went to bed and spent a sleepless night, holding each other. We have been together for many years, and have never slept this close before.

    When morning came, the shock was still with us. I tried to call Brenda, but the circuits were still busy. Later in the day I reached Pearl, at her nephew’s home, and she sounded great. She said, “you won’t believe what I am doing, I am sitting in a beautiful garden being waited on. Just like yesterday”. With this, we both laughed and told her I was being served breakfast on Alison’s porch and the sky was beautiful and the birds singing.

    Soon we had some lunch and Chris and Alison drove us to our home on the Shore. The whole trip was surreal and was still in shock. Everything frightened me, every sound, and fear of someone coming into the house.

    TV announcers kept talking about the planes going back into the sky, and the mere thought of people getting onto planes, while hijackers were still out there, was unnerving me. Wednesday night, late, into Thursday,I Had a total meltdown. I cried and told my husband, that I had never thought that I would be afraid to be alive. I had loved NY all of my life and now I never wanted to go back, nor did I want him to do so.

    Many .friends have told me that I saved Pearl and that I could have left her.I Have often wondered what kind of person I am, and what I might do in a life and death situation.

    Would think, only, of myself, or would think of someone else, first. Now, have my answer. I am pleased at the way I behaved, but the trnth is, that while I concentrated on helping Pearl, I had to remain calm and could not panic. In this way, she helped me, and when the boat was going to pull away without me, her screams got me onto the rescue boat. Instant Karma. If there is anything positive to take from this experience, it is Pearl. She is a lovely lady, with a great sense of humor and I am honored to have met her.

    She is truly a Pearl.

    Leslie Blake, PhD,
    The Coach Approach, LLC
    BPC Resident

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