Joe Dittmar was attending a meeting in a windowless conference room on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center’s south tower when the lights flickered at 8:46 a.m. The day was Sept. 11, 2001. The skies over New York City were clear and sunny when a Boeing 767 crashed into the neighboring north tower. All Dittmar saw was a flicker of lights. He and the 54 people with him at the meeting had no clue what happened or what would happen next …
The two World Trade Center towers were twin bastions of wealth and commerce, each boasting 110 floors and a combined population of around 50,000 people at any given time.
One of those people burst into Dittmar’s conference room with an important message.
“Rick Blood of the AON Corporation came into the room and told us he was responsible for making sure people were leaving that floor and he wanted all of us to do so, so that he could leave as well,” Dittmar said. “Rick guided every one of the 54 of us out of that room that day and I can attest to that since I was the last guy out. He guided us to the nearest fire stairwell on the 105th floor and sent us on our subsequent trip to safety. When we got to the top of that fire stairwell, he then proceeded to tell us that we were going to walk down 105 flights of steps. Oh yeah, what a bunch of happy campers at that point, right?”
Many reached for their cellphones only to find they had no signal.
“You see, the main cell tower for all of southern Manhattan was on top of the north tower ...,” Dittmar told the congregation at Holly Springs Baptist Church in Broadway Sunday. “We had no clue.”
Signs in the stairwell reminded people not to exit until the bottom floor, in case of an emergency, but the door to the 90th floor was propped open. The exit party left the stairwell.
“I followed everybody out onto the 90th floor. I didn’t know the building. I thought maybe I had to get to another fire stairwell,” Dittmar said. “I was hoping that somebody in front of me knew what they were doing.
“I can tell you that when I got out of that fire stairwell and walked out there, I experienced the worst 30-40 seconds of my life. You look out these windows to the north and you see this building in an incredible state of duress — huge, gaping black holes through the sides of the building, smoke grayer than any gray I had ever seen, flames redder than any red I had ever seen before, licking up the side of the building beyond the top level ... ,” Dittmar said.
“… I remember being able to see through that smoke, through that fire into those huge black holes and seeing pieces of the fuselage of a large plane lodged inside the building. And I kept thinking to myself, ‘My God, how did this pilot not see this building? How did he miss?’”
The horrific scene invoked a sense of panic and Dittmar found himself longing for the safety and security of his mother’s arms.
“I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to go home,” he said. “I took a minute to gather myself, think about what I was going to do. I asked the Lord to give me some kind of guidance, some kind of direction of what to do and there were people on that floor and they were screaming at the top of their lungs. They seemed to be frozen. Whether they were frozen in fear or mesmerized by what they saw through those windows …, I knew for me this wasn’t an Xbox game, this wasn’t a made-for-TV movie. This was reality and I had to go.”
Dittmar spun around and bolted into Rick Blood.
“Rick … was an All-American middle linebacker. He was a huge man and when I turned around I almost knocked Rick over with my stubby little body because I was in such a hurry. And he put his big giant hands on my shoulders and he said, ‘What are you gonna do, Joe?’ I said, ‘I’m getting out of here. What are you gonna do?’ He said, ‘You know what, I think that’s a good idea, but before I go, I’m gonna go’ and he’s pointing over to the restroom …,” Dittmar said.
The two went separate ways.
“I got to the top of the fire stairwell,” Dittmar said, “and they’re announcing over the PA system, ‘The event has been contained to the north tower. The south tower is considered safe. We suggest that if you work in the south tower, return to your work station. If you are a visitor, we suggest you stay where you are until further notice. If you feel you do need to leave, please proceed with caution.’”
The south tower’s lights were still on. Its elevators were still working. Dittmar could have stayed, but chose to leave.
“… And I started down those steps with no hesitation,” he said.
He made it to the 78th floor — the building’s sky lobby level — and saw the woman who invited him to the meeting, now motioning him to join her on the elevator.
“… She’s waving to me frantically, ‘Joe, Joe, Joe, come with me to the elevator. I’m not walking down 78 flights of steps in these shoes. I’m taking the elevator.’”
He gave her a polite wave and returned to the fire stairwell.
“… I was somewhere between the 74th and the 72nd floor when the second plane plowed through our building,” he said. “Folks, I have never felt anything like that in my life and I hope to never, ever feel anything like that again. That fire stairwell that we were inside, this concrete bunker, starts to shake so violently from side to side, the handrails breaking away from the wall, the concrete spiraling out, the steps like waves in the ocean undulating underneath our feet; and we feel this heat ball blowing by us and smell this jet fuel and this thing just keeps rocking back and forth and back and forth.
“It felt like forever.
“Maybe it was seconds,” Dittmar said. “Maybe it was a minute. Then, it finally settles and you would think that there would be this massive pandemonium and yet there was nothing in that stairwell, but a stunned, stunned silence. We all did the same thing again. We all grabbed those cellphones and you know what, thank the Lord, that he didn’t let those things work that day. There was a reason for this. Sometimes ignorance truly is bliss. What you don’t know, can’t hurt you. And this was one of those moments. We had no chance to find out what was going on, we still didn’t have a clue so all we had to do was concentrate on one thing — getting out. And we proceeded to do that. …”
Then, Dittmar saw something profound.
“… There were people coming out on wheelchairs, coming off on crutches, casts on their leg. There were people that were on canes. There were people that were just freaked out because of what was going on and they didn’t understand what was going on,” he said. “Human beings just like you and me … began to aid those people, to help those people, physically and emotionally. I have never seen such love of humankind at one place in one time.
“It was incredible. Everybody became teammates, everybody,” he said. “There was no black or white. There was no Republican or Democrat. ... We were all God’s children at the same time, all helping each other in the same way with that great love and it was a thing of beauty. …”
Abandoned high-heeled shoes and laptops littered the landings as the teammates ventured onward. Words of encouragement became their chant.
“… ‘Go, go, go. We’re gonna get out. We’re gonna get out.’ And everything was pretty cool and no one was going in the other direction until the 35th floor,” Dittmar said, stopping to fight back a flood of tears that swelled his eyes. “And that’s the chance we had the first time to encounter the cops, the firefighters and the paramedics from New York City and Port Authority — just the looks in their eyes … they knew. They knew. They knew that they were going up those steps to fight a fire that they couldn’t beat. They knew they were going up those steps to try to save lives that they couldn’t save. They knew that they were marching into the bowels of hell and they knew that they were going up and … that they were never coming back. …”
A cry for help
Dittmar heard a voice chirp through on the cellphone radio of a maintenance guy beside him.
“‘We’re on 83, we can’t get down. We don’t know what we’re gonna do.’”
The maintenance man turned to go back up and Dittmar asked him what he was going to do.
“He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know, but I’ve got to go save my friend.’”
Dittmar continued his long descent and heard another voice floating up from the 15th floor.
“… We encountered him at (floor) 18 because he had an electronic bullhorn. And this man, who was a security guy for the building, he’s singing, and he’s singing ‘God Bless America’ and he doesn’t even know all the words. He had a voice that only a mother could love on pay day … ,” Dittmar said. “But he’s singing and he’s keeping people relaxed. … He was keeping people calm. … He was making people laugh. And I wonder how many lives he saved that day while giving up his own.”
Dittmar made it to the lobby level and looked out of the arching glass windows of the main floor to “see what looks like the vestiges of war, crumbled steel, crushed concrete, red, red blotches and markings on the ground and you knew what that was,” he said.
The exit party was ushered down into the tower’s concourse level, beneath the first floor, where Dittmar had rode the train in.
“And when we got down there, that was the first chance we had to see people in real, real need. People with gaping wounds, missing limbs, true blood and guts stuff,” he said.
A host of police, firefighters and paramedics were tending to the wounded.
Dittmar followed a crowd through a maze of corridors, hoping whoever was leading them knew where they were going.
“… There was a young man in the front of our little herd and he yelled, ‘Hey we want to get to the northeastern end of this complex. It’s the furthest away from these two buildings,’” Dittmar said. “… We’re winding our way through these corridors. We’re about to make our final left to get to that northeastern end of the complex and there it is folks — Starbucks. It’s open and there are people in line. I kid you not. …”
Onward and upward
Dittmar ventured onward and ascended the non-operating escalator steps to the ground level -— a catastrophic ground zero.
“… And all the uniforms are yelling at us, ‘Run, run, run. Do not stop.’ And you get across the street in front of St. Paul’s Chapel and you have your Sodom and Gomorrah moment,” he said. “You stop. You turn around. You look at these two bastions of business now being relegated to a ticker tape of concrete and steel and bodies.”
A fellow insurance broker offered Dittmar a place to stay and they headed off on foot to his home more than 100 blocks away.
Eight blocks away from the towers, Dittmar hears a broadcast from a news station, proclaiming “this was an on-purpose terrorist attack.”
“Our jaws just dropped to the ground. Not here. This doesn’t happen here,” he said.
Then, he heard the tower he was just in minutes earlier, come crashing down. The roar was echoed by the sound of “tens of thousands of people all on the streets of New York, all screaming the same, blood-curdling scream all at the same time,” he said.
Dittmar survived to see it, hear it, feel it, live it.
“… There’s no doubt the Lord had a plan for many of us and as a result of all of the things we encountered and all of the decisions we made and all the things we did on that horrific and historic day, he granted people just like me a second chance,” Dittmar said.
He will never forget.
Emily Weaver can be reached at email@example.com or at 910-230-2028.