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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.
"Relax, we're going to get out of here," Ramirez said. "I was telling them, 'Breathe, breathe, Christ is on our side, we're gonna get out of here.'" He prodded everyone out the door, herding stragglers. It was an eerie walk down the smoky stairs, a path to safety that ran through the suffering. They saw people who had been badly burned. Their skin, he says, "was like a grayish color, and it was like dripping, or peeling, like the skin was peeling off their body." One woman was screaming. "She said she lost her friend, her friend went out the window, a gust sucked her out." As they descended, they were passed by fire fighters and rescue workers, panting, pushing their way up the stairs in their heavy boots and gear. "At least 50 of them must have passed us," says Ramirez. "I told them, 'Do a good job.'" He pauses. "I saw those guys one time, but they're not gonna be there again." When he got outside to the street there were bodies scattered on the ground, and then another came plummeting, and another. "Every time I looked up at the building, somebody was jumping from it. Like from 107, Windows on the World. There was one, and then another one. I couldn't understand their jumping. I guess they couldn't see any hope."
The terror triggered other reactions besides heroism. Robert Falcon worked in the parking garage at the towers: "When the blast shook it went dark and we all went down, and I had a flashlight and everyone was screaming at me. People were ripping my shirt to try and get to my flashlight, and they were crushing me. The whole crowd was on top of me wanting the flashlight."