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Stories of September 11

Contributed by: Aaron David Brensel
Contributor's location on 9/11: World Trade Center (North Tower) 30th floor NY, NY 10048
Contributed on: August 15, 2002

I was on the 30th floor of the North Tower. I had arrived at work about 7:30 AM. That particular morning, I had already accomplished a lot of work. All of a sudden, there was this dull thud, and the building shook, back and forth. There was absolutely no prior warning. I was at my desk, and was knocked out of my chair. I looked out the window, to the east (the plane had hit the tower on the north side), and saw flying debris falling all over the place. Some of it appeared to be floating. I could not imagine what had happened, but I remember thinking how eerie it was. Then I thought, it was an earthquake. Someone yelled out ?What was that? Then, ?the fire exit.? Almost immediately, we were in the stairwell. For me it was like a reflex action. I did not even think to take my briefcase, which was right next to me. We began walking down. Then we were off loaded onto the 27th floor.

People were crying, some visibly shaken. Although I did not show it, I was one of them. Everything was in disarray. I wanted to call home. I went over to several telephones, but none were working. After a while, we were allowed to go back to the stairwell. I do not even know if it was the same one. I never looked at my watch while I was in the building. The hallways were cloudy, but it was not thick smoke. There was a strange odor. I am told it was jet fuel vapors, but I do not know. I just remember that it smelled bad and I was very nervous.

Back in the stairwell, we began to walk. More than once we were again stopped. Some people, including myself were holding handkerchiefs to their mouth. By this time the word had been passed along that the building had been hit by a plane. There was no hint, at least to me, that it was intentional, and there was no mention that the other tower had also been hit. I was getting more scared. particularly when movement stopped. I remember thinking that I hope and pray that I get out alive. During this entire time, there was calm and a feeling of cooperation to help one another. I wished that someone would have expressed their fear. Maybe it was selfish of me. I was so scared, but did not want to be the first to say so.

Then I saw firefighters. It was around the 15th floor. This is the first time I felt safe. As we were walking down, we kept getting direction to keep to the right. We were in a single file, going down, and in the inside lane, the firefighters were going up, carrying their equipment. There were hoses. Each firefighter had a heavy container on his back. The firefighters were going slowly, stopping every few steps. One of them said to the one behind, something like ?how you doin?? The reply, which I will never forget, in light of what happened, was ?I?ve been better.? Then there were shouts from above to stand to the right. A burn victim was being escorted down. She had her arms wrapped in what looked like white cloth. Once she passed, we again began our decent. It was slow, but steady.

About the 6th or 7th floor, there was water in the stairwell. It came almost up to the knees. I remember holding on to both railings, for fear of slipping. By now this group of firefighters had passed us. We moved toward the center. We were able to go down more quickly. Also, water was now dripping from the ceiling. I was soaked. As we went down, I remember hearing someone say, one more flight to go. I think it was one of the building engineers. I just remember how good that sounded. Sure enough, he was correct.

After the last flight of stairs, we entered the shopping mall at the Trade Center, where the Duane Reade drug store was located. I could not believe how it looked. It was like a war zone. There was no electricity. There were police officers on either side, forming a corridor, as a straight continuation of the stairwell. I tried to go to a telephone, but the officers, would not allow it. They were shouting to keep walking. I made my way to the escalator, by the Borders bookstore. I was finally in the street. My feeling now was one of elation.

Outside, the first thing I saw was an endless number of fire engines, as far as the eye could see, in every direction. Also, the sound of sirens was enormous. I walked towards Vesey Street. Among the crowd were two of my coworkers, who had also been on the 30th floor. These were not my teammates, whom I learned later, had different escape routes. Looking back, both buildings were on fire. After staring for a couple of minutes, and without a plan, I began to walk away. I went east on Vesey street, next to the cemetery of St. Paul?s Chapel, where I went from Church Street to Broadway, at Park Row.

What was on my mind was to call my wife Stephanie, to tell her that I was okay. This turned out to be no small task. Every street telephone had a long line. So I kept walking on Park Row. I kept turning around to look back at the burning buildings. It was an unbelievable scene. Everyone was just staring, heads up toward the sky, with opened mouths.

I walked some more and saw another amazing sight. I was at the NYPD Police headquarters. In front of the building, were about 15-20 officers. Each had on a helmet, and nightstick in hand. They were in formation, single file, running on the double towards the burning buildings. Like the firefighters, they were going towards the danger, while we were all going in the opposite direction. This is something you expect to see in a movie, but I was watching it right in front of my eyes.

I walked halfway on the block (I think it was Spruce Street), and went into one of the Pace College buildings. There were public telephones in the lobby. And there were only a couple of people waiting to use them. Here is where I decided to wait. I called Stephanie, to tell her that I was okay. I was so glad to hear her voice. She was on the line with my daughter-in-law Mindy, in Florida, when the call waiting interrupted that call. Mindy, knowing that I worked in the Trade Center, had called my company office in Albany, and had been told that we, the New York City employees, were not alright. I later learned Stephanie was crying, and that Mindy was trying to determine how to tell Stephanie what Mindy had heard from Albany. Stephanie knew I worked in the World Trade Center, but not what tower, or which floor. She used to tell folks, my husband works in the Trade Center. I used to tell her all the time that I worked in the safest building in New York. It had already been a target once, and would not be again.

At this time I had no plan, and told Stephanie that somehow I would get home. She asked me if I had had anything to eat yet and I said no. She suggested that I get something. I would need this for energy. I left the Pace building and went east to the corner, which was Gold Street. There was a food stand, but no one in sight, so I just kept going. I went across the street and stood outside the Verizon building. There were many people outside There were radios and we just listened. This is where I learned about the plane crashing into the South Tower, and that it was terrorism. I also heard about the Pentagon.

What will be with me the rest of my life is the sight of people jumping out of the World Trade Center. I saw several of them, and it was just horrible. First we thought it might be debris, but then it became very clear that it was people. Days later I saw pictures in the magazines of people hanging at the windows. This is one of the worst things that happened that day. I can not get those pictures out of my mind. After being there a few minutes, something else terrible happened.

From where we were, we could not see the South Tower, because it was being blocked from our vantage point by another building that was almost in front of us. We heard this roar. This was the South Tower coming down, but we did not know it at the time. Because none of us knew what was happening, almost in unison, we all began to run, in the opposite direction from where the noise was coming. I must have run about two blocks before I even stopped. I was completely out of breath, and my knees were buckling. By now I was at the Brooklyn Bridge and running toward the East river, on Frankfurt Street.

The way I would describe the noise is to imagine a thousand heavy carts, all with metal wheels, rolling over a metal surface at high speed, accelerating the whole time. I had no idea what was happening. I thought it might be a bomb. None of us, not me anyway, were in a position to even hear a radio description, because we were all running. Where we were, there was no actual cloud of dust and smoke, the way it showed on television, but we were all running just like the people on the TV.

When I finally stopped running, I began to walk back to Gold street. On the radio, I then heard what had happened. It was unbelievable. We just stood around for a few minutes, not knowing what to say. I hardly knew what to think. But then I began thinking about what I was going to do. How was I going to get home? I decided not to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. I had run towards it, out of desperation, because that was where I was when the South Tower collapsed, but I felt that the Brooklyn Bridge was too famous a target, and I was not going to take a chance. I did not want to be on the bridge, fearing that it too might be destroyed.

I began to walk away from the East River. I really did not know where I was, but I was heading in the general direction of Chinatown. Along the way I found a telephone. There was still a bit of a line, but not like earlier. When it was my turn, I called back Stephanie, to tell here where I was then. I would call her several times during the day, to let her know how I was doing.

I also called my sons Bruce and Paul, who both live in Florida. They knew that I worked in the Trade Center. I was unable to get through to Paul, either at his office, or at home (where his wife Bonnie was, with their children Amanda Lily, age 4 ? on 9/11/01 and Joshua Andrew, born March 6, 2001). Before Paul moved to Florida, at one point he had worked in the South Tower. Paul?s present company in Florida also had offices in the Trade Center. In January 2002, Paul was sent to New York, as part of a team, to help relocate the people in his company that were in the Trade Center. He was here for almost two weeks, working downtown near the site.

For some reason my call to Bruce (Mindy?s husband) was successful. It was so good to speak with him. I know he felt good hearing my voice. We talked for a few minutes. He was very perceptive. Almost immediately he made the comparison between The Trade Center and Pearl Harbor. Our family has a Pearl Harbor survivor.

After the phone conversation, I continued my walk, and stayed on a street, while we all clustered around a car radio. It was here that I witnessed the collapse of the North Tower. I did not comprehend it at that moment, but later that night I began to realize that I had been in that building earlier in the day. It was chilling. After a few minutes, I continued my walk, and soon found myself at the Manhattan Bridge. I decided that I would walk over the bridge into Brooklyn, where I would have Stephanie pick me up.

Walking over the Manhattan Bridge was difficult for me. I was on the upper level. It seemed like the bridge was all uphill. I was already very tired from the walk down the stairwell, and the running. On the bridge I kept stopping every few minutes to rest What was on my mind now, as also on Stephanie?s, as she told me later, was that my doctor had advised not doing any exercise, until I lost some weight. Looking back at the New York skyline, all that was visible was the black cloud of smoke over the entire area. I could also see the people walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. Occasionally, an emergency vehicle was coming toward Manhattan, and we had to move to the side. I finally got to the Brooklyn side of the bridge. Here people were giving out drinks. This was very much appreciated.

On Flatbush Avenue, I walked towards Myrtle Avenue, and went again to a telephone, but here the wait was too long. I wound up sitting on a chair outside a grocery store. I was there for some time. I needed to rest. Eventually, I went back to Flatbush Avenue and began to walk. I was going to keep walking until I could get away from the crowds and traffic. This way it would be easier for Stephanie to drive.

I was feeling very warm. The traffic was at a standstill. There was this city bus, and many people were getting off. I decided to get on, to at least get into the air conditioning. I got a seat. We started talking. I said that I was in the building, on the 30th floor. The person next to me mentioned that his father works in the World Trade Center, on the 30th floor. I asked him who his father was. When he said Joe Cavanna. I could not believe my ears. I know Joe for more than 25 years.

Meeting Joe?s son, who is also named Joe, was one of the best things that happened to me. He stayed with me for the next several hours. As we made our way through Brooklyn, I knew I was slowing him down, and I told him so, more than once. He should not feel obligated to stay with me. Joe stayed with me the whole time. Joe navigated us through this area in Brooklyn, unfamiliar to me. He gave me bottled water. We talked about many things. He had heard from his dad, and knew that he was safe.

We remained on the bus until we got to a transfer point to take another bus, but that was not to be. We waited over an hour, as more than one bus came, but did not stop. They were packed. When I now called Stephanie I found out that the Verrazano Bridge was closed, in the Brooklyn direction. I told her that I will have to get into Staten Island, where she would be able to pick me up somewhere.

Then Joe and I decided to walk. The bus that I needed to get to Staten Island was on 92nd Street. We walked, and walked, and walked some more. Along the way I went into a grocery store to get change, for more telephone calls. That is when I learned about the plane crash in Pennsylvania. We passed many streets, with names. Bergen Street, Union Street and many others. Then we got to 1st street. Thinking about 92nd street, I thought I would never make it.

Hoping to be able to get a different bus, Joe and I walked from 5th Avenue to 3rd Avenue. The avenue blocks are much longer that the streets. Each avenue block is equivalent to about three or four streets. It sure felt that way. At about 15th street we saw a sign on a store down the block It said Car Service. This was like an oasis, but as we approached, we saw that the store was empty, and there was a ?for rent? sign in the window. A very big disappointment.

We continued to walk, until we approached the Gowanus Parkway overpass. We had heard vibrations on 4th Avenue, and thought that might be the subway, which had been shut down. There was a police officer. We asked him about the trains, and he said the trains were running again. Now back to 4th Avenue, at the overpass. At the closest station we got on the train, and stayed to the last stop, at 95th street. There I was able to get the Staten Island bus. Joe was already near his destination in Brooklyn. Again I need to say thank God for Joe. He was a lifesaver. We shook hands. I wish I had hugged him.

I finally got on the bus. That day there were no fares collected and we used the back, as well as the front door. The ride took over two hours. Except for initial conversation before we began to move, the ride was mostly silent. It was reminiscent of another ride home, the evening of November 22, 1963. Near the end, there was some talking. People were asking for directions of how they should direct their families to pick them up in Staten Island, from New Jersey.

The bus finally got to the last stop, at the Staten Island Mall. This is five minutes from my home. Here I would go in and call Stephanie. The Mall was locked down. I had to walk to the next shopping center for a phone. This normally would have taken just a few minutes, but by now I was exhausted, and my legs were in bad shape. Finally, I made it to a phone and minutes later, Stephanie and I were together again. There had been a time in the stairwell when I thought I would never see her again. It was about 7 PM when Stephanie got me home. It was only then that I began to realize what had happened, and what could have been.

In the following days, we spent a lot of time with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law Donna and Joseph Messina, as well as with friends and neighbors. In a couple of weeks Stephanie and I flew to Florida. This trip had been planned much earlier. We always go to Florida for each grandchild?s birthday, and it was Sarah Frances?s second birthday October 11 ? Bruce and Mindy?s daughter). I needed to hug my family, each and every one of them. I needed to hold my grandchildren. They are too young to understand now, but some day, I want them to know that on September 12, 2001, by the grace of God, they still had two grandpas.

Although we were very nervous about flying, we were not going to cancel the trip. The airport was a new experience. Everything was different. Everyone was staring at everyone. While waiting to board, somebody had left their carryon unattended. Several of us told an agent. The person had just gone to get a newspaper. On the plane there was one person who did not put the seatbelt on quick enough. We thought he might be getting ready to jump up and do harm. Stephanie alerted the flight attendant. The night we flew was the first time that the National Guard was on duty. In Fort Lauderdale, we thanked them for being there. They had automatic weapons and looked very young, but we were so happy to see them.

Not too long after September 11, there was the Anthrax scare, at the American Media building in Boca Raton. My son Bruce works just down the road. Also, we had heard from news reports that some of the terrorists had been living in Delray Beach. As it turns out, they had been just around the corner from where we have our place. I felt like I was being followed. Also, I live very close to the landfill in Staten Island. This is where the Trade Center debris was being brought. Anytime, we left our house, we immediately saw the searchlights, 24 hours a day. It was impossible to forget about it. This went on for months.

Usually when we go to Florida, I stay about ten days and then fly home, to go back to work. Stephanie remains for a couple of weeks. This time I caused her a problem. A day or so before I was to return to New York, all over the TV, there were announcements that the terrorists were going to do something else. I had a panic attack, and wanted Stephanie to return home with me. I was afraid of everything, especially being alone. She rearranged her trip and came home with me. Stephanie was wonderful. My entire family, each and everyone, is so supportive.

In New York and Florida my behavior was different. It was noticeable to me, and others. I had little tolerance for small things that used to not matter. My temper was short. It was like I was angry all the time. There was an exception. I was very happy the day the United States started bombing Afghanistan. Bonnie and Mindy, both health care professionals, spoke to me about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Stephanie suggested that when I return to New York, I utilize my company?s counseling service benefit. I promised that I would do that. Now my problem was overcoming my fear of getting back on the plane, to return to New York. Bruce and Paul?s in-laws, Annette and Carl Greenwald (only one set of in-laws, as Mindy and Bonnie are sisters) were great in giving me the nerve to fly home. I did go for the therapy, and it was most helpful.

The reason I mention names is because I want anyone who reads this to know that there are people that really make a difference in my life Everyone has such people in their own life. Please, do not wait for a crisis, or even a special occasion to tell them how you feel. Tell them today. Do it often.

Not too long ago, in a newspaper article, I learned that when my company (Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield) was supposed to move to the World Trade Center, we were to occupy floors higher than the 100th . That did not happen because two executives decided otherwise. One did not want the employees to have to change elevators, to get to the office. The other felt uncomfortable being so high. I am very mindful that because we went to the lower floors, others wound up on the higher floors, and most lost their lives. This is very, very sad. It is incredibly sad for everyone who died that day, and for their families. My company lost nine employees. I knew some of them.

I carry the newspaper article in my wallet. It is a daily reminder of just how lucky I am. It makes me philosophical. I think about timing. Decisions made months earlier sometimes effect thing that happen in the future. Some who got into an elevator became trapped. That could very easily have been me. It was timing that allowed me to meet Joe Cavanna on the bus. My first call to Stephanie, hearing my voice, before she might have been told that I was not okay. I can not begin to imagine what that would have been like. One of my teammates, Ravi Thakur was seconds away from having the fireball from the South Tower land on him. Ravi tells me that almost a year later, he still sometimes feels the heat.

Talking about that day to someone who was there, versus someone who was not, is a completely different conversation. Both have been helpful. In the days and weeks after,
I have been advised by some that I should not watch the news, and all the documentaries. I have found that I can not not watch. I am driven to it like a magnet. I did however come close to turning off the recent HBO special.

As the first anniversary approaches, I have mixed feelings. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a serious student of history. I have a large collection of commemorative stamps, books and magazines for all kinds of events ( NASA, World War 2, Elvis). But this one is different.

I watched the 6 month anniversary, and I will be watching on September 11, 2002. When I do, I guarantee one thing. My eyes will not be dry.

God Bless America.

Cite as: Aaron David Brensel, Story #1027, The September 11 Digital Archive, 15 August 2002, <>.
Archival Information: 4383 words, 22584 characters
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