Our 9/11 Story from the World Trade Center

Here is our story of being in the World Trade Center on 9/11. After all these years, it still gets traffic. The story has not been changed since then.


[Note: The first three pages of this story were written in September, 2001, not long after we got back to Cleveland. The story was up on my private web site, intended for family and friends to read. Since then, I’ve learned quite a few details, from various other accounts, TV specials and the like. I’ve decided to add those, and also to move the story over to my company web site, which is public. I’ve also had to add some explanations of some people and places, to account for the broader audience. – Bruce Kratofil  11/2001]

Next Time, No Ring-side Seat

I’m the webmaster for the National Association for Business Economics (www.nabe.com), and we were holding our Annual Meeting at the Marriott World Trade Center from September 9-11. The Marriott was World Trade Center #3, and it was a 21 story building that sat between the Twin Towers.

The morning of the 11th, I was at a breakfast meeting where the president of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Robert Scott, was speaking on the future of the financial services industry. Since I take pictures of the speakers to post on the NABE web site, I was sitting at a table up front, in front of the podium. I wasn’t paying particular attention to the speech, the topic wasn’t of crucial importance to me.

escape route
Our escape route from the World Trade Center. From a picture from The Plain Dealer

The first thing I noticed was the lights flickering. I looked up at them- the banquet room’s lights had hundreds of glass prisms hanging down below the lights, and they were swaying back and forth. At first, I’m thinking earthquake, and then I heard the booms from the explosion. It was then that I thought “I’m at the World Trade Center- this is a bomb and not an earthquake.” I found out later that one of the booms that shook the building was the landing gear from the first American Airlines 767, which detached from the plane, went through the North Tower, and landed on the roof of our hotel. On one of the specials that focused on the New York City firemen, they interviewed firemen that were briefly on the roof of the hotel. One of them said “It looked like it had rained body parts.”

There were probably 200 of us in the banquet room, which was at approximately X on the picture, maybe 50 yards from the base of the North Tower, which was the first one hit. Some people were yelling “Get out, Get out” but there was no real panic, although we were moving fast. I remember grabbing my briefcase, and hugging the wall as I left. The room emptied out into a foyer, which in turn emptied out to the main hotel lobby, which faced west out to West Street.

Hotel staffers were not letting us out onto West Street, where we could see debris raining down. At this point, I didn’t know what it was- another bomb in the parking garage, a truck bomb, or what. (The 1993 truck bomb at the WTC went off in the underground parking garage, almost directly beneath our hotel. Subsequently, a lot of structural work was done to the hotel structure to make it stronger.) Most of us headed south (along the red line leading from X in the photo above) through a hotel restaurant that had an exterior door south onto Liberty Street. Once out, I headed west across the street to a plaza. I remember a policewoman trying to keep the lane in front of the hotel clear for fire trucks, and I remember a utility worker already heading down a manhole, presumably to shut off a gas line. There were already sirens everywhere.

As soon as I got across the street, I got out my cell phone, to call my wife Sharon’s cell phone. She and my daughter Rachel, 13 at the time, had come with me on the trip for a vacation. They were going to get an early start sight-seeing, and I didn’t know if they were at the hotel, down in the WTC Concourse having breakfast, out on the plaza, or already far away on a sight-seeing bus. According to cell phone records, the first call was at 8:49- I only got her voice mail.

It was only then that I turned around to look at the hotel and WTC, and that is when I saw the hole and smoke in the North Tower. Since I was standing at the opposite side from where the plane hit, the hole was small, and the flames at this time weren’t bad. I called Sharon’s phone one more time at 8:51, but then decided to keep the line open for her to call me. I was standing at point B on the photo above.

I was only there another minute or two. Many of the NABE people were there, and quite a few maids and staff from the Marriott. Suddenly I hear “Dad, Dad!” and Rachel comes running through the crowd to me, with Sharon right behind. They hadn’t left our room yet, which was at A in the photo above, which was on the extreme south end of the hotel, on the 18th floor of the 21 story hotel. Ours was one of only two rooms on each floor that faced south. They were as protected as you could be from the first plane (although our room couldn’t have been more than 500 yards from where the second plane hit, facing the same direction. I’m sure that impact blew out the windows in our room.) They left the room immediately- there were stairs almost right outside our room, and they ran down the 18 flights. These stairs ended at the hotel’s second floor, which had exits east out to the plaza level of the WTC. Sharon remembers seeing chunks of concrete out on the plaza. They then were directed down to street level, and went out the same door I did. They recognized NABE people with the convention name badges, went to them, and that’s how they found me.

After the first plane hit. Photo by Bruce Kratofil

Once we were together, we moved a little bit farther west. That’s where I got out my camera and took this picture. At the bottom of the picture you see the dome from the building directly across the street from the hotel.

It was sometime while standing at this plaza that we heard it was a plane. Thinking that we were looking at the plane’s impact, and that it wasn’t a huge hole, we thought it was a private plane. At this point, I wasn’t sure if it was a terrorist, or a really stupid pilot (thinking back to the Empire State Building in the 40’s). As we watched, the flames steadily got worse, coming out of multiple holes in the tower. A small plane wouldn’t have enough fuel to do that, unless it was packed with explosives, so I started thinking exclusively of terrorists- but I’m still thinking it was a small, private plane.

There was a heavy chemical smell, vaguely familiar. Sharon was thinking it was natural gas- but later I realized that it was burning jet fuel, smelling something like the jet exhaust I used to smell out on the ramp while working for United Airlines. We thought maybe we should get even farther away, out to some open ground. The nearest open ground that we knew of was Battery Park, so we went all the way to the Hudson, and then started south, following the red line on the picture.

The Second Plane

We had gotten to approximately point C on the picture, walking along the water, when both Rachel and I heard a plane. Looking over the southern tip of Manhatten, we could see the United jet roaring in, just skimming the tops of the buildings. Normally, when you see a jet that close, it is taking off or landing and is moving relatively slowly. This one was at full throttle. I remember yelling something like “What’s he doing there?” but it went quickly behind us and was blocked from view by the buildings along the water. We didn’t see the impact, but we could hear it and feel it. Much later, when looking back I phrased it as thinking I was in the middle of Pearl Harbor, only I was being bombed by United Airlines. At the time, however, you didn’t know what to think. Before the second plane, we were shaken, but we didn’t know it was a jetliner that hit the North Tower. Because I thought that the first plane was a small private plane, It was a situation I could still think about. After the second plane, though, I didn’t know what to think — war, terrorism, the end of the world with planes dropping from the sky.

We linked arms, and rapidly started heading south. Now we are thinking- Manhattan is being attacked- we have to get off this island. Sharon didn’t want any path underground, so we headed for the Staten Island Ferry.

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