Patriot Files: that day in September | Part Three: Despair

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
The stairwell was dark as rescue workers cautiously made their way through broken chunks of concrete and twisted metal that jutted out and made the passage look like an open wound.

Suddenly, the radio crackled to life as the New York Police Department's aviation unit reported that large pieces had begun to fall from the top of the World Trade Center's South Tower, the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

"We continued walking down the stairs," said Dianne DeFontes, one of the North Tower survivors who described her descent from the 89th floor. "No one felt panicky until you were in the dark somewhere. The stairways were always lit - the panic started little by little. I remember the worst time was, when everybody was really afraid, was when the other building went down."

She continued, her voice growing softer.

"We didn't know exactly," she said. "But when we were going down the stairways the lights flickered - this tremendous roar, and the stairway shook. I've never been in an earthquake. But I can imagine that's what it's like. And that building was down, and we're holding onto the bannister, and the building is shaking and no one said a word. It was silence until the noise had stopped, and that's when we were very afraid."

It took a full 10 seconds for the South Tower to collapse, as the world watched. The dust cloud from the wreckage covered lower Manhattan like a thick fog.

"Every year I see those faces - covered in ash," said Manuel Fajardo, who saw the South Tower fall on the news from a classroom at Bayonne High School, New Jersey. "I see the firefighters, I see the little kids, I see the people running away from all the destruction. Every year it all comes back to me on the anniversary."

Even 14 years later, Fajardo still remembers the feeling of helplessness and despair as he watched a sea of ash-covered faces aimlessly wandering through the smoke and rubble. At the time, he said he began feeling numb as events continued to unfold. The crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, and the collapse of the Pentagon's outermost offices - both only minutes after the South Tower came down, seemed to pass by in a daze for Fajardo and many others.

"We focused on the mission as much as we could," said U.S. Air Force Col. Kevin Cullen, 501st Combat Support Wing commander, who was deployed to Egypt in support of Operation Bright Star when the attacks happened. "We really built up a number of bases. Eventually the exercise restarted, and then what happened was the exercise kind of transformed into the opening stages of Operation Enduring Freedom."

Although Cullen was able to focus on the mission, he said his thoughts never wandered far from the people suffering through this ongoing tragedy. As rescue workers continued to fight fires, clear debris and search for survivors, people turned their attention toward the North Tower - as its southwest corner began to buckle and lean.

"Well, it was probably a half hour later that I heard the same rumblings coming down," said NYPD Officer David Brink, who described his attempted evacuation of the North Tower. "I said, 'aw geeze, here we go again.' I said, you know, 'what's the chance of me surviving another collapse. I don't know - not too good.'"

Brink said his initial reaction was to run down the stairwell he was sending evacuees through. However, he knew the impending collapse would happen before he could escape - so he found a small landing, grabbed the nearby wall and hoped for the best.

"This time it seemed like the collapse lasted forever," Brink said. "The whole ground was shaking. Nothing was on fire by me, but still, the blinding smoke. But I was at the base of the smoke, I couldn't run anywhere - the smoke was all around me, and the debris and the cloud of dust. It was choking. It was the closest to dying that I'd ever thought about."

What began at 10:28 a.m., and lasted only a few seconds, seemed like hours to Brink. When it was all over, the once great monolith lay in ruins, strewn with the bodies of 1,400 people who died when the North Tower fell.

"We were all at Andrews [Air Force Base] at the time, just sort of sitting around," said Lt. Col. Monty Baker, 423rd Medical Squadron Mental Health flight commander. "I think we had all gathered around a cafeteria, and there were TVs in that area. We were all just sort of shocked, you know. It was kind of surreal. This was actually, truly happening."

Baker, who had only recently joined the Air Force as a second lieutenant, said a call came down for volunteers to travel to the Pentagon and assist people who had lost loved ones in the attack. Without a second thought or a moment's hesitation, he raised his hand and went where he was needed.

"I thought, 'maybe I can make a difference,'" Baker said. "It really defined my role and made me realize what I could do to help others."

The feeling of wanting to help, of needing to do something, was not unique in Baker. Across America, people rallied together and looked for ways to help. In New Jersey, Fajardo said his mind was conflicted between wanting to stay safe and needing to act.

"Everybody was saying, 'don't go out, there might be collisions in the air,'" Fajardo said. "But there was a calling in the newspaper asking for people to donate blood - so I left my house and went to a shelter. It was all I could do."

Fajardo said he felt humbled giving blood, but at the same time a sense of despair followed him as he realized how many people were affected by the attacks.

"It wasn't enough," Fajardo said. "I had to do more."

Editor's Note: This story is the third of a four-part series that conveys the memories and emotions of people impacted by the Sept. 11 tragedy. Information from the National September 11 Memorial & Museum was used in this story.