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Jim Gartenberg, 35, a commercial real estate broker with an office on the 86th floor of 1 World Trade Center, kept calling his wife Jill to let her know he was O.K. but trapped. "He let us know he was stuck," says Jill, who is pregnant with their second child. "He called several times until 10. Then nothing. He sounded calm, except for when he told me how much he loved me. He said, 'I don't know if I'll make it.' He sounded like he knew it would be one of the last times he would say he loved me." That was right before the building turned to powder.
The tower's structural strength came largely from the 244 steel girders that formed the perimeter of each floor and bore most of the weight of all the floors above. Steel starts to bend at 1000[degrees]. The floors above where the plane hit each floor weighing millions of pounds were resting on steel that was softening from the heat of the burning jet fuel, softening until the girders could no longer bear the load above. "All that steel turns into spaghetti," explains retired ATF investigator Ronald Baughn. "And then all of a sudden that structure is untenable, and the weight starts bearing down on floors that were not designed to hold that weight, and you start having collapse." Each floor drops onto the one below, the weight becoming greater and greater, and eventually it all comes down. "It didn't topple. It came straight down. All floors are pancaking down, and there are people on those floors."
The south tower collapsed at 10, fulfilling the prophecy of eight years ago, when last the terrorists tried to bring it down. The north tower came down 29 minutes later, crushing itself like a piston. "I know that the rescue people who were helping us didn't get out of the building," said security official Bill Heitman, who worked on the 80th floor. "I know they didn't make it." And he broke down and sobbed. All that was left of the New York skyline was a chalk cloud. The towers themselves were reduced to jagged stumps; the atrium lobby arches looked like a bombed out cathedral. "A huge plume of smoke was chasing people, rushing through those winding streets of lower Manhattan," says Charlie Stuard, 37, an Internet consultant who works downtown. "It was chaos, a whiteout. That's when people really started to panic. You could see it coming. A bunch of us jumped over a rail, onto the pilings on the East River, ready to jump in."
The streets filled with masked men and women, cloth and clothing torn to tie across their noses and mouths against the dense debris rain. Some streets were eerily quiet. All trading had stopped on Wall Street, so those canyons were empty, the ash several inches thick and gray, the way snow looks in New York almost before it hits the ground. Sounds were both muffled and magnified, echoing off buildings, softened by the smoke. You could hear the chirping of the locator devices the fire fighters wear, hear the whistle of the respirators, see only the lights flashing red and yellow through the haze.