If You Want To Humble An Empire

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LYLE OWERKO / POLARIS

(3 of 20)

The survivors of the first plot to bring down the Twin Towers, the botched attempt in 1993 that left six dead, had a great advantage over their colleagues. When the first explosion came, they knew to get out. Others were paralyzed by the noise, confused by the instructions. Consultant Andy Perry still has the reflexes. He grabbed his pal Nathan Shields from his office, and they began to run down 46 flights. With each passing floor more and more people joined the flow down the steps. The lights stayed on, but the lower stairs were filled with water from burst pipes and sprinklers. "Everyone watch your step," people called out. "Be careful!" The smell of jet fuel suffused the building. Hallways collapsed, flames shot out of a men's room. By the time they reached the lobby, they just wanted to get out — but the streets didn't look any safer. "It was chaos out there," Shields says. "Finally we ran for it." They raced into the street in time to see the second plane bearing down. Even as they ran away, there were still people standing around in the lobby waiting to be told what to do. "There were no emergency announcements — it just happened so quickly nobody knew what was going on," says Perry. "This guy we were talking to saw at least 12 people jumping out of [the tower] because of the fires. He was standing next to a guy who got hit by shrapnel and was immediately killed." Workers tore off their shirts to make bandages and tourniquets for the wounded; others used bits of clothing as masks to help them breathe. Whole stretches of street were slick with blood, and up and down the avenues you could hear the screams of people plunging from the burning tower. People watched in horror as a man tried to shimmy down the outside of the tower. He made it about three floors before flipping backward to the ground.

Architect Bob Shelton had his foot in a cast; he'd broken it falling off a curb two weeks ago. He heard the explosion of the first plane hitting the north tower from his 56th-floor office in the south tower. As he made his way down the stairwell, his building came under attack as well. "You could hear the building cracking. It sounded like when you have a bunch of spaghetti, and you break it in half to boil it." Shelton knew that what he was hearing was bad. "It was structural failure," Shelton says. "Once a building like that is off center, that's it." "There was no panic," he says of his escape down the stairs. "We were working as a team, helping everyone along the way. Someone carried my crutches, and I supported myself on the railing."

Gilbert Richard Ramirez works for BlueCross BlueShield on the 20th floor of the north tower. After the explosion he ran to the windows and saw the debris falling, and sheets of white building material, and then something else. "There was a body. It looked like a man's body, a full-size man." The features were indistinguishable as it fell: the body was black, apparently charred. Someone pulled an emergency alarm switch, but nothing happened. Someone else broke into the emergency phone, but it was dead. People began to say their prayers.

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