Editor’s Note: Don Mathisen, retired to Oneonta after a career as a reporter for WNYC, New York City’s NPR station and other outlets, published “A Broadcaster’s Life” last month, primarily for his children and grandchildren, but a few copies are available at The Green Toad Bookstore, 198 Main St.
I ran for my life as the South Tower fell. I was just a few hundred feet away, standing in a crowd of people, many of whom had escaped from the building. Now we were all running for our lives, burning debris falling all around us.
The smoke and dust was washing over in waves, getting thicker and thicker. A woman tumbled to the ground in the mad rush to escape. A man helped her up as she kicked off high heals. Now she was running bare foot on the pavement thick with soot, busted glass and soon, her blood. The woman got cuts on her feet but kept running.
Sprinting east on Liberty Street, south on Broadway, east again on Wall Street the crowd was directed into a basement by custodians who worked at Two Wall Street, an office tower that now provided temporary safety to the panicked herd. The building has five sub-cellars. The custodians ushered the fleeing people first into the lowest level. As that basement level filled with refugees from the developing disaster, custodians began directing survivors to the next level up. I was parked on the third sub-cellar, about 30 feet below the street.
At that point I took out my cassette tape machine and microphone and began recording interviews with people who had escaped from Two World Trade.
Roberto di Matteo was on an upper floor of Two World Trade Center when the first plane struck.
“I felt a bad shudder on the whole building. I stepped out of my office and I heard one of the traders on the trading floor yell that a plane had hit One World Trade. So, immediately everyone started to evacuate the building. We just went straight for the stairs. We walked down the stairs and got to the lobby on the street level.”
Di Matteo and his co-workers disregarded announcements by building security personnel who urged occupants to shelter in place. Ignoring authorities’ advice probably saved their lives. In fairness, officials had no way of knowing a second plane was taking aim at Two World Trade.
“After looking outside, all we could see was a big mess, there was debris everywhere. It looked like pieces of a plane were on fire. It really was an ugly mess out there. Then we felt the second impact, it must have been the second plane that hit Two World Trade. After that everybody just started to panic, everybody started looking for the quickest way out. Everybody started to scream once they felt the second impact.”
Di Matteo made it safely out of Two World Trade Center’s lobby. He was standing on the street nearby when the building fell down.
“I was looking up at the top of Two World Trade, about to walk away, when the building collapsed. And again, everybody reacted with screams and looked for places to take shelter.”
Soon dust, smoke and the smell of death began to fill our subterranean refuge. The custodians were assuring us that the building was safe. It was not on fire. They said they had gone to the roof to check for fire. They said smoke was entering the building from outside via the ventilation system. They were working on a solution to the problem.
I believed those brave men who rose as leaders of this panicked crowd. However, I needed to get out of the building. I wanted to see what was happening at Ground Zero. I had a story
to report. I walked up the stairs looking for a way out of Two Wall Street. I found a door, walked out into a surreal world of dust, smoke and destruction. I found chaos, confusion, death and wreckage all around.
I watched a man die while an Orthodox Greek Bishop prayed over him. The prayers failed to stop the victim from writhing in pain on the lobby floor of Stuyvesant High School, an emergency triage center hastily commandeered after students fled to safety.
Only death brought stillness to his body.
Here are transcripts from my on-the-scene radio broadcasts.
“I saw the impact of the second plane hitting the South Tower. While I was looking up, there was a loud bang, it was an earsplitting crack followed by a fireball coming out of the north face of the building. There was a great deal of smoke and debris falling. People started to run, screaming and shrieking. A few people fell on the street, no one was trampled, as folks helped them get up.”
Then the course of history was altered.
“I saw the South Tower collapse. There was a rumble and a banging, pancaking noise. The top of the tower started to lean toward the northeast. There was so much debris and dust flying around. I was in a large group of people, at first we thought we were safe, but it quickly became apparent that we were not.”
Almost 3,000 people died that day, most of them killed in the Twin Towers. On the streets surrounding the World Trade Center, survivors and bystanders were fearful, but for the most part they remained in control.