September 11 Survivors Remember

***

Ronnie Clifford was still whispering the Lord's Prayer in Jennieann Maffeo's ear when the second plane hit. The whole edifice rumbled and groaned and swayed, then the floor beneath him buckled hideously and seemed to raise him off his feet. Pieces of the building were falling all around him. Ronnie knew then that they absolutely must get out.

"Jennieann," he said. "Can you stand up?"

"I'll try," she answered.

Ronnie removed his new suit coat and draped it over her front so that she wouldn't have to walk out of the building naked. A nurse who worked for the Marriott arrived with a bottle of oxygen and a mask, which she held over Maffeo's mouth as they shambled across the hotel's crowded lobby. Drawing closer to the door, Ronnie heard someone say, "A plane hit the tower," and then someone else say, "A second plane hit the other tower," which was the first time he had an inkling of what had happened. He was growing more frustrated and alarmed. The crowds weren't moving fast enough through the bottleneck at the door. Jennieann was in excruciating pain. Finally, Ronnie held her arm and pushed impatiently through the throng.

"Out of our way!" he screamed in a voice he did not know he had. "Make way!" When people turned to look, they shrank in horror, and suddenly Ronnie and Jennieann were able to file straight out the door, as though the waters were parting before them. "It was like I was taking Frankenstein out of the building," Ronnie says.

When they emerged out on the street, Ronnie looked up and saw a lady plummeting toward the ground, clutching her purse. "I keep thinking about that purse," he says. "I can't get the image out of my head. Why was she worried about her purse?"

Even in her state, Jennieann was self-conscious about her nakedness. Ronnie understood that his suitcoat wasn't enough. Then, out of nowhere, a huge gentleman appeared with a clean white tablecloth and gently wrapped it around Jennieann, like a shroud. It was as though he had foreseen her predicament. The man smiled and helped Ronnie get her down the steps.

A fireman was standing on the streetcorner , grimacing at the burning buildings, which were breaking apart. Ronnie could hear the sound of them cooking, the sound of rivets popping, glass shattering under pressure, the sighs steel girders make when they bend. With wild gesticulations, the fireman screamed at the lingering crowds, "Run, run! I'm telling you, just run."

"Can you run Jennieann?" Ronnie asked.

"I think so," she said. She looked at her feet. The rubber soles of what had once been her running shoes were melted to her feet.

"Let's try, then," Ronnie said. He took her arm, and in a tentative, shuffling gait, they ran.

***

On the seventy-eighth floor of the south tower - or, rather, what had formerly been the seventy-eight floor but was now an upheaval of fuel-splattered wreckage - Silvion Ramsundar tried to shake of the shock. The heat was intense, and flames were engulfing the mangled corridors. Is it over? he thought. Am I going to die right here? What happened just now? He peered through the thickening smoke and realized that the majority of the hundred or so people who had been waiting for the elevator were now dead. At least they weren't moving.

Silvion scanned the lobby for his friend Christine and spotted her some thirty feet away, stunned and injured but still alive. She had lacerations on her arms and face, and her left ankle was bleeding profusely. Silvion managed to stand. Picking his way among the bodies, he hobbled over to Christine. She slowly registered his presence. She saw the red stain blooming on his white shirt and said, alarmed, "You're bleeding bad."

"I think I can move," he said. "How about you?"

Christine nodded and struggled to her feet. Silvion remembered that there was a stairwell somewhere near the elevator bank. It was the only way out. They fumbled along the wall, blind, until Silvion grabbed what felt like a handle with his right hand. He gave it a jerk, but it wouldn't turn.

Now the black smoke was so dense along the ceiling that they had to creep on the floor. Not far from the first door, they found another. Silvion gave it a try, and this time the latch turned. The heavy firedoor swayed open - it was the emergency stairwell he'd been looking for. The buckled stairway was hot but relatively clear of smoke. Ramsundar brightened for a moment, then hesitated. He wasn't sure he could make seventy-eight floors. His breathing was shallow and labored, and he was growing weak.

For a brief moment, Silvion gazed back through the smoke. He heard choking, coughing, the cries of the injured. Seventy-five bodies, perhaps more, lay in a tangle on the fumy floor. He thought about his friend Charles, the security guard, and realized he must be dead.

Silvion turned back toward the stairs. He leaned against Christine, and they began walking down in the sodium glare of the emergency lights, on steps that were brightly marked with fluorescent tape. They settled into a pace that was comfortable for him, stopping occasionally so that he could catch his breath. More people filled the stairwell. Some were hyperventilating and removing clothing in response to the heat. Occasionally Silvion had to step around people who could go no further.

Somewhere in the high sixties, they reached a landing that was obstructed by a massive beam. Two large men managed to shift it just enough so that the file of evacuees could crawl through, then resume their descent.

As they walked, people could plainly see that Silvion was critically injured. One man applied his handkerchief to the wound as a compress. Later, a woman removed her slip and cinched it around Silvion's shoulder to stanch the blood. They kept walking.

Silvion kept his mind fixed on the numbers - sixty-two, sixty-one, sixty, fifty-nine - and tried as best he could not to consider his wound.

***

Will Jimeno had spent only nine months on the job as a cop, and although he had undergone an intensive six-month training course at the police academy, he was thoroughly unprepared for the situation in which he now found himself. He had spent most of his brief career on duty at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a vast and shabby complex in midtown Manhattan. Up until this moment, his most challenging situations had been a shooting incident involving an emotionally disturbed person and the case of homeless man with advanced AIDS who perished on a bus.

Now, the officers were down in the concourse, not far from the Gap, at a point almost equidistant from the two towers and just beneath the famous bronze globe, a sculpture designed to symbolize world peace through world trade. The concourse level was ordinarily a bustling shopping mall, but now it was desolate, and the tile floors ran cold with water from the firefighters' hoses.

The men opened an equipment closet and rummaged from gear: flashlights, crowbars, gloves, first-aid kits, and self-contained breathing apparatuses known as Scott Air-Paks. Their radios, tuned to Port Authority frequencies, blew a constant gale of staticky screams.

Among the group of cops, now numbering five, were a veteran named Christopher Amoroso and two other rookies, Dominick Pezzulo and Antonio Rodrigues. Pezzulo and Rodrigues were close buddies of Will's from his police-academy class. Thirty-six years old, Pezzulo was a funny Italian from the Bronx, a weightlifter who, Will says, was "built like Jean-Claude Van Damme." He had a beautiful wife and two kids, and loved to fish for blues in Long Island Sound. Rodrigues, who everyone called A-Rod, was a colorful bald guy with a thick Portuguese accent. A gifted artist, Rodrigues was always doing caricature sketches of the other cops.

The younger men never questioned Sergeant McLoughlin's judgment. A highly decorated veteran of the department, he had won a medal for his valor in the evacuation following thw 1993 Trade Center bombing. Will says, "If he asked me tomorrow, I'd follow him into that building again."

The five men tossed the paraphernalia into a canvas cart and hustled toward the north tower.