By Rudy King, Media Relations Staff
As a 9/11 World Trade Center survivor, there have been few days throughout the past 15 years that I haven’t been reminded of the impact that dreadful day had on my life. But rarely did I discuss it.
For the last two years, I had an opportunity to work with New York Times bestselling author, Judith Dupré, as she wrote One World Trade Center: Biography of the Building. It turned out to be a project that changed my life.
On the morning of 9/11, I never made it to my desk. I was later than usual because a food delivery guy ran into me with his cart on Tobin Plaza outside Tower 1 (North Tower), injuring my ankle. I had just made it to the Sky Lobby in Tower 1 when the first plane hit. I heard a deafening roar and then boom. Suddenly everything shook with the intensity of 20 rollercoaster rides all at once.
Like everyone else exiting the building, I went into survival mode. Once outside, I witnessed unimaginable horror: bodies, debris and fuel raining down on the plaza, people jumping from the tower and hitting the ground. I made it to a phone behind a kiosk in Tower 2 (South Tower) to warn my coworkers on the 68th floor of Tower 1 they needed to get out.
Shortly after my call, the second plane struck Tower 2. I heard the sounds of the floors collapsing above me, the building shaking like an earthquake, the emergency sprinklers activating and everything going dark, the steel of the towers grinding like the sound of ships hitting against a pier. I felt like I was on a movie set, as if this couldn’t really be happening.
Emergency personnel told everyone to clear away from the towers and head toward the bridges. As I made my way up Dey Street, I heard the city scream, and suddenly a strong gust of loud and hot smoke filled with debris and glass came barreling towards us. The force of its wrath moved cars, knocked people down and snatched me off my feet; shards of glass pierced my scalp; I couldn’t breathe; I hit the ground, and I asked God to make this as painless as possible.
I survived, but my life was changed. As I crossed over the Manhattan Bridge, I watched the last tower collapse in slow motion, its antenna slowly disappearing from view. Later, as I walked home up Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn, battered, bleeding and emotionally drained, a barefoot homeless woman, with a shopping cart and many bags, walked over and gave me a hug. She said, “You are God’s child and you will be alright,” before continuing on her way.
A decade later in 2011, and after 13 years of service to the Port Authority, I was promoted to the position of Public Information Officer and began working on the World Trade Center (WTC) portfolio. Although pleased with my new assignment, I worried about how I would handle being at the WTC construction site on a regular basis — a place where I’d nearly lost my life.
In 2014, I began working with Judith. My initial role was helping to arrange interviews and access images for the book from the Port Authority. I became so immersed in the work that sometimes it felt like I alone was managing the entire project, although 25,000 workers raised the tower and dozens of others were contributing their talents to the book.
My anxiety about being at the construction site was overwhelming at times. For many years following the 9/11 attack, noises, planes or helicopters flying overhead sometimes would trigger flashbacks and frightening panic attacks that I could not control. There were times I could hardly breathe. There was a recurring nightmare too: I’m in a dark room with only one light switch, and I have to find it.
I recall as a teenager growing up in NYC during the 80s seeing shell-shocked war veterans drop to the ground or run for cover after hearing a sudden loud noise. I used to think this was humorous.
But after 9/11, I knew firsthand the psychological confusion and trauma that happens when people experience a near-death event. I kept my struggles a secret and soldiered on because I had to function and take care of my family.
There are many people like me, the Port Authority faithful, who have not missed a beat since that beautiful morning turned deadly. Many PA staff stayed in hotels and worked 10-12 hour rotations for months after the attacks.
During the book project, I had many intense conversations with Judith about my survivor experience. She shared her vision of a book that captured one of the most complex collaborations in human history—and also acknowledged the site’s rebirth. We became friends.
I arranged interviews for her with some of the world’s best engineers, builders and top executives. I observed her work and determination to get the story right. I was excited to be smack dab in the middle of something that would uplift and help so many people, as it did me.
In the end, the process of helping her on the book freed something in me that had been caged since 9/11. I’ve begun to let go of some of the fear and negative energy that I have carried for years and feel more comfortable sharing my experience with others who weren’t there, but who feel connected.
The events of 9/11 touched the world. I feel blessed to now be able to share my story. Thank you Port Authority and thanks to Judith Dupré. It’s been both healing and an honor to do my job.
The video below details the vision behind the iconic One World Trade Center.