top of page
  • Writer's pictureCharles I. Guarria

The building was on fire two blocks away my 9/11 experience

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was standing on the subway platform in New York City. My train approached; it was jam-packed. The gentleman who stepped on before me barely squeezed in. There was just enough room for him to slide his sketchboard in behind him. I said to myself, ‘Ya know what? I’m already running late (I hadn’t slept well and got up late). I’m waiting for the next train.

The next train takes me downtown, stopping at the World Trade Center. I worked right across the street at 3 World Financial Center. I was a librarian working for Lehman Brothers.

I worked in the building with the greenish pointed roof. I was uptown, by Madison Square Garden, when this happened.

I get out of the train (underground). Everyone is running out of the mall that used to be right underneath the WTC. They were running back through the turnstiles that I want to go through, so you had this mass of people trying to get in, underneath the WTC and others trying to get out.

A lady is past the turnstiles on my right screaming. Though she could have been a religious zealot, there were a lot of those at this subway station.

I ask someone what’s going on, he says, "I don’t know, but it sounded like a gunshot." Thinking about it now, what he heard may have been a body or some of the building hitting the ground.

I am focused on how bad my commute has been, and based on what this gentleman had told me, I thought there was a police shootout or a crazy person with a gun in the WTC mall.

I try to call work at a pay phone but can’t get through; walked up the nearest stairwell, which puts me two blocks from the WTC.

Everyone is looking up. I look up, and the first building that was hit is on fire two blocks away from me.

The only way I can describe it, it seems like there was more fire than building, as if a fire just happened to have a building in it, not that a building was on fire, basically fire everywhere.

I ask the guy next to me, "What happened?"

He says a plane hit it.

I say, “A small plan?”

“No, a commercial plane,” was his response.

I don’t comment. Staring at the building, my first thought, as weird as it sounds, was there were people in that building; my second thought, there were people on that plane.

As bizarre as that may sound, I think I was just trying to wrap my mind around what my eyes were showing it.

Out of the corner of my right eye, I see stuff falling from the building. I think to myself that it was a person or chunks of the building. Either way, I don’t want to know; don’t look too hard at it so as to not figure it out.

Then someone steps into my view; the next few seconds are freeze-frame moments in my life.

I took a step to my left; a woman walks up to me asks, “What’s going on?” I assume she knows the building was hit and was asking for an update (looking back, maybe not the case), and I say, “I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.”

At this point, people are screaming, and a woman yells, “It looks like the building is going to fall.” (I found out later that the buildings were designed to sway if ever hit by a plane.)

I start running to get the hell out of there, thinking oh my God, if the WTC falls, it might topple over, hit the building I am running under, and I am dead. I was literally running for my life.

As I am running, I hear this noise. I reach the next street (Broadway), take a look back downtown and see smoke. I make the left to go uptown and ran another good five blocks until I felt safer.

Now I’m thinking, maybe this is the day of terror, finally happening, that the news would occasionally mention was a possibility.

How do I get home alive? What do I have to do? My whole focus was I need to get to Long Island, where I will be safe. Don’t go under the Empire State Building in case it blows up, don’t go on the subway, don’t stand on a manhole cover because if the subway blows up, the manhole covers will fly like Frisbee’s.

NYPD & NYFD are racing downtown; by now, I know we are under attack.

I purposely stare at a NYFD truck because I want the visual of at least one person racing downtown. What I saw was a white man with an overgrown mustache and a stern look.

One building goes down; I am far enough away to be “safe” and won’t look back to witness.

Cars were stopped with radios playing, and people had radios by their apartment windows, so I’m getting all the news as I walk back uptown.

I started thinking about the people I work with at Lehman. Did they get out alive when the buildings fell?

My ex, Carrie, had the cell phone because she had driven upstate New York to her parents, and I wanted her to have it just in case of an emergency.

I felt so lonely, not knowing if the people I worked with were dead and my family not knowing if I were alive.

I did have a calling card and finally found a working payphone. I hadn’t realized, but I was shaking so much that I couldn’t hold the card in my hand; it actually fell out of my hand and onto the street.

I calmed myself down, called my father, Leonard. I will never forget the sound of his voice when he heard me, the way he said my name; he thought I was dead; he thought I worked in the WTC, not across the street.

My father had been on the phone with my sister, Lisa. She kept telling him, 'I really think he worked across the street.' But when he saw the buildings go down, he thought I was inside the WTC. He thought he was watching me die, over and over again. Later, my stepmother, Fran, told me he was crying.

It was at that point when I started to cry, telling my father I was still alive. I didn’t have Carrie’s parent’s number, so I asked him to call her and to call Lisa so she could contact my Mom, Bertha, because I wanted to get home as quickly as I could.

He was telling me to calm down, to stop crying; his parental instinct took over, pushing his feelings aside to calm me.

I get off the phone, continue my walk uptown to Penn Station. I see some co-workers. Everyone got out alive of the building I worked in. In fact, only one Lehman employee died; he worked in one of the WTCs. We had a couple hundred that worked in them. I did not know him and can't find his name.

Long Island Rail Road trains were not allowed out of Manhattan as the tunnels were checked for bombs. I decided Penn Station is a pretty big target; I better get out of there.

I went to the bank across from Madison Square Garden to use the ATM (I still feel funny when I pass that bank) and saw, for the first time, the buildings falling, on the TV they had playing.

I milled about NYC until I could get home, talking to everyone; all pretenses were gone that day, everyone was talking to each other, trying to get information.

Fighter planes flying overhead, sirens going off, and emergency personnel were still racing downtown. Every time we heard a plane, we’d put our backs up against a building for fear it was another attack.

At one point, I was looking downtown at all the smoke coming up, telling people we have to fight like the Israelis and get whoever did this.

Finally, when I got home, I saw the timeline of events and realized that the noise I heard was the second plane hitting. I didn’t hear it approach, and it sounded more like an implosion than an explosion, like the building was absorbing the plane more than the building being blown up.

My story is not nearly as bad as those who were still downtown when the buildings fell, and I never want to be in the same group as them.

Thank God I didn’t get on that first subway train because had I, I most probably would have been right underneath the WTC when the first plane hit.

9/11 became the demarcation line of my life. I always keep in the back of my mind that I may die at any time, so there is a need to live for the moment, responsibly, and not to hold back feelings.

Please like, comment, and share.

You can sign up for exclusives and first-to-know news.

Thank you for reading.


bottom of page