Remembering Sept. 11: Tualatin man escapes World Trade Center
Son of Tualatin family escapes World Trade Center minutes before collapse
Editor's Note: The following account was written by Chad Cooley and was printed in the Tigard Times on Sept. 8, 2002.
Cooley is the son of June and Craig Cooley, of Tualatin. Cooley was living in Chicago in 2001, but worked as a consultant for an insurance brokerage office on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center's second tower.
Brilliant blue sky poured in my hotel room as I pulled the curtains back. Such a beautiful morning would certainly lead into the perfect night for an outing. My team chose bowling, and I, as the latecomer to the project, was charged with picking a venue for dinner. I suggested the Blue Water Grill but continued my search when I found that the team had been there several times.
I always enjoyed the short commute to work. It offered fresh air and the opportunity to read the Wall Street Journal. I would walk from my hotel, across Union Square, down the stairs into the station, and board the N/R line southbound.
Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, front page, column 1: 'Police go Undercover/To Thwart Protesters/Against Globalization.'
Subhead: 'D.C. Is Not Going to Burn.'
Not going to burn - of course D.C. won't burn. Washington was in the midst of preparations for the upcoming WTO meeting and desperately wanted to avoid Genoa-like riots in the American capital. The local D.C. government seemed somewhat presumptuous about the capability of its police force -
But seriously, D.C. will be the last place on Earth to burn.
Another day in the World Trade Center.
A brief walk through the mall to the lobby of WTC 2, up an elevator to the 78th, across the hall and up another to the 92nd. I set my briefcase down at my cubicle in the northeast corner of the building and gazed across the breathtaking Manhattan skyline supporting a picturesque blue horizon. I walked back to my desk and zipped off a quick e-mail to my fiancée, in Chicago.
8:29 AM EST:
Hope your evening and morning went well.
PAPER AND DEBRIS
Curious, I walked through the office to the north windows. All I could see was paper and debris falling from above.
I as one of 40 or so refugees who found themselves on the 63rd floor of WTC 2 at 9 a.m. on Sept. 11. Watching others pick up random phones and dial out, I decided it was a good opportunity to do the same. I found a cubicle on the north side of the building, picked up the phone and dialed my fiancée's office number. I should have known she would not be at her desk: it was 8 a.m. Central.
'Valerie, this is Chad. Something has happened to the World Trade Center. Something happened to the other tower but I'm OK. I think a plane may have hit the other tower; I've never seen anything like it! Very scary, but I'm OK. I love you, sweetie and I'll call you soon.'
I left a similar message on my mother's cell phone and hung up, feeling at least a little better.
Not a minute later, I was fighting for my life.
I remember crouching. I don't remember the impact, but I remember crouching to retain my balance. Raw instincts took control before I could process what was happening. This time there was no gawking, no lingering. There was only the instant and unambiguous urge to flee.
The lights shut off, a wall buckled and tiles crashed into the cubicle where I had just stood; the building was coming down around me. Within seconds, black, fume-filled smoke began to seep through the broken walls and ceiling, filling the office space with intolerable air. Instantly I was down on my hands and knees gasping.
I couldn't see 10 feet in front of me but I clawed my way into the center of the building where I heard yelling and commotion.
'No! - the stairwell - it's ON FIRE!' someone desperately shouted from down the hall.
I kept crawling ahead, inhaling black smoke and dust, desperate for an escape.
THINK - THINK - go to the windows - break a window with a chair - or a desk - or ANY-THING! - need to breath... need fresh air...
My sphere of invulnerability was shattered at that moment. I was no longer in a marvel of human creativity and resourcefulness, I was no longer in a symbol of American and capitalistic power and pride - I was trapped in a glass coffin, with no entrance or exit, and had only seconds to live. I was utterly helpless.
I COULD JUMP! - Wait - no - I'm on the 63rd floor! How far is that? - THINK!
Please - please, GOD, help.
I SAW A STAIRWELL
I turned back into the commotion. There was movement nearby. Where are they? Where are they going?
A man's voice came from down a hall: 'OVER HERE, HURRY!'
I got up to a low crouch sacrificing valuable air for speed. I hustled toward the voice still frantically yelling into the smoke. I saw light shining through a doorway. My eyes burned, and through the tears, I saw a stairwell.
Smoke flooded the narrow passageway, but the fumes had yet to seep in. It was easier to breathe, and it seemed more able to sustain life than the black smoke I escaped.
I moved down an entire flight before realizing the passage was as hot as an oven. The intensity of the heat was suffocating. I could hear people in front and in back of me hyperventilating. Sweat poured from our bodies.
I found myself next to a graying, motherly woman, struggling physically and emotionally. The heat and fear were too much for her: 'I can't go on,' she said to me. 'I can't go any more.'
I lifted my hand and reached for her. Placing my hand on her shoulder, I was comforted. She radiated a maternal aura; she strengthened me. Likewise, I strengthened her.
I had overwhelming doubts about our chances, but I knew if I let that show, or if anyone around me started to panic, there would be no chance. 'We're gonna keep walking down these stairs until we're out. We've just got to keep putting one foot in front of the other, we'll be fine. We're all going to get out of here. All of us.'
For the first time that morning, I didn't feel alone. I was with others, the many others in the stairwell. We were all scared. We were all thinking about our families and our lives, and we all had one goal.
As I passed the doors to the 61st, 60th and 59th floors, I could feel the fire doors holding back flames.
Down five flights, and then 10, the procession patiently advanced. Others around me showed signs of skepticism and dread. I repeated,
'We've just got to keep moving. One foot and then the other - we're gonna be out of here before we know it.'
But the doubt endured.
The stairwell seemed packed to capacity, changes aren't good ... What if someone snaps - every-one will go mad, none of us will get out. What if the stairwell backs up, and we are helplessly trapped - someone will snap!
'We'll be fine...'
I couldn't let the worst get the best of me.
A muffled sound from my pocket averted my attention - my CELL PHONE! It was a blessing as I neared the 40th floor. The sound was almost completely foreign to the WTC - on a regular business day, standing next to the windows you could barely get reception - receiving a call now was truly miraculous.
I answered, and with an uncanny crystal clarity, the sound of a lifelong friend's voice penetrated the confines of the burning building.
'CHAD! You're OK!'
'JAKE, I'm on the 40th floor! I'm evacuating! You've got to call Valerie and call my mom. You have to let them know I am OK.'
'I'll call them! Hey, Rachel and I are going to be in Union Square tonight for a play - we've got to get together for a drink afterwards!'
'Absolutely, that sounds great.'
The 40s, 30s and 20s moved much faster than the upper floors of the WTC. As we neared the 20th floor, however the pace began to slow.
What if we are halted .. come to a dead stop ... my words of consolation will haunt us all.
YOU ARE GOING TO BEG
Reaching the 20th floor, the slow, methodic procession came to a complete halt. As soon as everyone's feet stopped moving, the tension in the stairwell spiked. The woman next to me looked over, as if for an answer.
Twentieth floor ... can I jump from here? A ladder maybe?
One man, in his mid-20s, wearing a suit and carrying draft tubes under his arms, had the nerve to yell, 'Move! Move or we're gonna die!' Coming to a complete stop near the 20th floor, after having walked down 72 flights and so closely avoiding disaster - this bastard was not going to preach my fate.
I started to retort when a large man a few steps above me barked:
'Dammit! - shut up or you are going to beg for forgiveness when that comes true!'
WHEN? - does this man know something I don't? WHEN? Albeit dreadful, the man's comment silenced the jackass.
The pause was short-lived and the procession continued down. Nearing the single digits, we could feel the life giving fresh air being pulled up the stairwell from the lobby, and the mood lifted.
'We are going to make it!' 'We are here!' 'I can't believe we did it!'
We emerged on the Plaza level of WTC 2, and, though shaken, briefly rejoiced for successfully navigating the fire escape - we were free.
I followed the procession through the center of the building toward the escalators on the north side of WTC 2, leading down to the ground floor. A line of people accumulated at the top of the now-motionless people movers, waiting to file through the bottleneck. As I waited, anxious to continue moving, I glanced out into the square between the two buildings.
Before me, just a few feet away, lay burning debris from the upper floors of both towers. File cabinets and desks were smashed into the concrete, waist-high piles of paper and ash were everywhere. A woman screamed as a body fell from the sky into the wreckage. I gazed on in silent disbelief.
Turning from the scene, I saw a serviceman waiving his arms from the ground floor of the WTC. He was attempting to avert our eyes from the courtyard and direct us out of the tower and into the mall. I made my way down the escalator, trying my best to be patient with the slow-moving crowd.
Once into the mall, the single-file line I had been in for the last half-hour dissipated. People were walking nonchalantly - as if the drill was complete and all was safe. Upwards of 100 police officers, firefighters and Port Authority personnel lined our path and attempted to hurry the melancholy crowd. We wound through the deserted passageways and, to the best of my recollections, exited on Church Street. It was 9:40 a.m.
The streets of the Financial District were congested with frantic activity - emergency vehicles packed the immediate area, and police officers were yelling through megaphones at the awestruck crowd. On the sidewalk, I came upon a motionless body, covered by a black blanket. Blood was running down the curb and accumulating in the gutter.
Dear God, what has happened?
I forced my way through a growing crowd and, once a block away, turned to look.
I saw two magnificent American marvels burning, side by side, as if someone had lit two giant Roman candles and stuck them into the heart of our nation. I saw Tower 2 burning from the 70th floor and up, more than 20 floors below where I had been just one hour ago.
The unfathomable reality of the experience overwhelmed me. I broke down and wept.
Not a second later, the over-powering need for familiarity - for connection - jolted me back into action. I needed my family - my fiancée, my parents, my brother, my friends - anyone!
I was still very close to the WTC and found myself pushing through the gawking crowd toward safety. Thousands of onlookers lined the streets - like Times Square at New Year's. No one was running, no one was fleeing, the crowd only budged for the occasional emergency vehicle coming down the street. Everyone stared in shock.
A few blocks away, I finally escaped the crowd and shifted my focus to other matters. I pulled my cell phone from a pocket and began to dial. Valerie and then my Mother, over and over again. I knew it was unlikely that I would get through, but I kept dialing. I spotted the occasional pay phone, but 10 or more people were lined up behind every one.
My hotel phone - I have got to get to Union Square!
RUMORS QUICKLY SPREAD
I asked a few people to point me in the direction of Union Square, but I received little help. I couldn't tell north from south and I was blindly making my way through streets of southern Manhattan. Miraculously, I found myself on Park Row; a street I knew would lead me north. Rumors quickly spread across the sea of people evacuating Ground Zero, conversations going on everywhere. 'There are other planes above the city - they are looking for more targets!' I looked up and scanned the sky for more planes. A short time later, the roar of jet engines overhead sent fear shrieking through my body. Sighting an American military aircraft, I was comforted for a brief moment.
I walked by a storefront and noticed a crowd of people gathered around a radio. A man was yelling, 'The Pentagon - they got the Pentagon!' D.C. was burning.
I had to focus - I had only two objectives in mind: flee the scene and get in touch with my loved ones. I was so intent, I barely registered the deep, ominous rumbling in the background.
At 9:50 a.m., just 10 minutes after I exited the WTC mall, building 2 collapsed. I had just passed City Hall, five blocks away.
I was far enough away to avoid the treacherous cloud of dust and debris that smothered southern Manhattan. My family and friends, watching the events unfold on television, did not know my whereabouts. They sat in their living rooms or huddled around televisions at work, some thousands of miles away, and watched a commercial jetliner collide into my building, causing its collapse.
10:07 a.m. Park Row and Pearl, I got through.
'CHAD YOU'RE OK!'
'DAD! I MADE IT! I MADE IT!'
'YOU'RE OK! HE'S OK!'
Emotion gripped me. I came to a stop on a busy street corner and broke down. I have, on rare occasions, seen my father tear up, but never, never had I heard him cry. He said to me, as his emotions overcame him: 'Chad, this is the best phone call I have received in my entire life.'
It was nearing 11 a.m. by the time I reached my hotel. I immediately headed up to my floor, opened my door and saw the massive clouds of smoke to the south. That morning I awoke to a brilliant blue sky and barely noticed the two magnificent towers. Now, both were gone.
After repeatedly trying and failing to get through to my fiancée in Chicago, I called the front desk to get the room numbers of my colleagues. One was just down the hall; I ran to her room, knocked and yelled, 'JENNY!'
She opened the door in tears. I was the first person to return to the hotel. Fatefully, she had called in sick that morning. After exchanging our stories I headed back to my room to attempt Valerie once again. It was not until well after 11 a.m., more than two hours after the first impact, that I finally got in touch with my fiancée.
The call was a blur of intense emotions. We were both sick with grief; the terrible thought of how life for Valerie would have changed was unbearable. No more wedding, marriage or life together.
Once I reached Valerie on the phone, we could not bear to hang up and be 'apart' from one another. Together we called everyone via conference call: my parents, Valerie's parents, my brother and so on. After some time on the phone, we decided to check the growing number of messages on my cell phone. One message after another, we listened to friends and family pleading for a return call. The thought of being able to make those calls had me in tears.
Occasionally I would go down the hall and get an update from Jenny. Three teammates were missing. An hour passed before another returned. He was the last to ever do so.
I took a break from talking with Valerie only to go to dinner with the remaining members of my team: a co-worker from the 92nd floor, Jenny and another who had been due to arrive at the WTC around 10 that morning. We ate at the Blue Water Grill.
I returned to my hotel room that evening and dialed Valerie's number, I lay in bed with her on the other end of the phone. We did not say much but we were together.
I was lucky. I would speak with my fiancée and my family on Sept. 11, Many I worked with did not.
I returned home to Chicago to a changed world. I have my fiancée, my family and my friends, all providing continuity but I am left with so many questions. There are questions where there once were answers and ambiguity where there was one was clarity. I must, once again, find my way.Add a comment