September 11 Survivors Remember

***

Running from the buildings, Ronnie Clifford and Jennieann Maffeo found an ambulance beside a green knoll across West Street, near the World Financial Center. He spirited her, still wrapped in a Marriott table linen, into the hands of the paramedics and gave them the notes he'd scribbled that described her vital facts. Then the ambulance took off for the Weill Cornell Burn Center, uptown.

Ronnie called Bridgid, his wife, from a pay phone. "I'm all right," he told her in a voice that she would later describe as "close to panic." There was a long pause. "I've just gone through something terrible," he said. "I'm alive. I'm ok. I love you."

Ronnie hung up and tried to get his bearings. He turned to look again at the towers. The infernos were raging even more fiercely than before. People were still occasionally leaping from above, while firemen were marshaling in large numbers and marching into the buildings.

He tried to call his sister, Ruth, in Connecticut, but couldn't get through. Ruth lived in an old mansion beside a lighthouse on Long Island Sound. But then Ronnie remembered that she wouldn't be home. She was on a trip to Los Angeles to take her four-year-old daughter, Juliana, to Disneyland and to attend a seminar led by the New Age self-help author, Deepak Chopra. Her best friend, Paige Farley-Hackel, was coming along. Ronnie was sure they were in California by now. Whatever Ruth was doing, he hoped to God she wasn't watching CNN.

Ronnie wasn't sure what to do next. He felt he ought to help people evacuate the building, or volunteer at a hospital. Then he thought about Monica, his daughter. He remembered that it was her birthday and that they'd planned to have a celebratory dinner that night.

She was turning eleven.

***

Dusted in gray flour, Silvion Ramsundar and his friend Christine shuffled out of the south tower around 9:50 A.M. Christine needed stitches for multiple lacerations, but the paramedics were gravely concerned about Silvion's condition. They went to work on him immediately. His left lung had collapsed, his pulse was faint, he'd lost a dangerous amount of blood, he was dehydrated, and he was in shock. A photographer for the New York Post snapped his picture, a portrait that would become one of the more arresting images of the day. His wound had become unbearable. "My body sort of relaxed," Silvion says. "I had a sense of relief - ok, I made it, seventy-eight floors. And that's when the pain really kicked in."

It was only when Silvion was hurtling toward Saint Vincent's hospital in an ambulance that he learned what had happened. "A second plane?" His mind reeled at the implications. The plane had struck the very floor where he had been standing; the gas he'd smelled was jet fuel. It couldn't have been an accident. He was having trouble absorbing this. But by then, the morphine had begun to take over.

***

Reversing his course from earlier that morning, Ronnie Clifford boarded the ferry to Hoboken. The ferry operators weren't even bothering with tickets; they were simply ushering people aboard. During the ride across the Hudson, Ronnie stood at the stern of the boat and watched the buildings burn. His begrimed jacket was slung over his shoulder, a sordid memento of a business meeting that was not to be.

Then, at 9:59, just as he reached the creosote piers of New Jersey, the south tower collapsed. In a terrific, thunderous implosion, the eleven became a one.

***

The Port Authority officers were directly beneath it all. Within seconds, Will Jimeno and his four partners were assaulted by concrete, tile, marble, and a hail of glass shards. There was a tremendous snarling roar, which Will could feel more than hear. Sergeant McLoughlin pointed toward a safe place, behind a massive concrete pillar. As they dashed toward it, the tower came down on them. Will momentarily lost track of everyone else. He ran until the world became dark and close and his body could no longer move.

He couldn't catch his breath. He couldn't see. It felt as though someone had poured hot sand down his through. His who left side and his right foot were pinned down by something large, as if the weight of the tower was bearing down on him. He was coated in a puree of insulation, Sheetrock, fabrics, fibers, papers, paints, plastics, wiring - all the substances of society, the mingled grounds of the modern would. It got in his ears, his lungs, his mouth. Even now, six months later, Will can smell it. He calls it "the smell of the World Trade Center."

Finally, the cloud began to dissipate, and tiny shaft of light slanted in. Will couldn't see the sky, but there was just enough filtered light for him to make out shapes. He was in what amounted to a tiny cave, trapped by a piece of an elevator shaft. Various fires flicked in pocked and folds all about him. His radio was out of reach.

Will called for Pezzulo. "Dom, you all right?"

"Yeah, I'm here." Pezzulo was also pinned. He lay only a few feet away from Will. Once the dust settled a little more, they could see each other.

They heard McLoughlin somewhere in a void below. The sergeant was gasping in pain, trapped in the fetal position. H couldn't see a thing, nor could the other men see him. By the sound of things, the sergeant was in worse shape than Will. "Somebody relieve the pressure!" McLoughlin yelled. "I can't stand it."

"A-Rod? Chris?" Will called out for the two other, but he got no response.

Then they were assailed by a horrible chirping sound, incessant and shrill, like a dozen car alarms going off. It was the Air-Paks, strapped to the men's backs. An Air-Pak has an attached motion detector; if its wearer doesn't move within one minute, an alarm is triggered. The signal is incredible harsh and loud so that rescuers can located a fallen or trapped comrade. But now so many Air-Paks were sounding off all around the World Trade Center that there was little hope of locating any one. The alarms were canceling each other out by their sheer numbers. It sounded like a field of crickets.

***

Ronnie Clifford took the commuter train home from Hoboken. Next to him sat a lady who was deep into a bottle of booze. The cars were overcrowded with people on cellphones balling to their spouses. Someone nearby had a Blackberry, a wireless internet device, and was receiving chilling updates on the tiny screen. Another one's hit the Pentagon. Another one's gone down in Pennsylvania. Another one's heading for the White House.

As the train hummed and clacked west toward home, Ronnie's thoughts drifted back to Jennieann. His heart went out to her. It seemed she had saved his life, just as he had saved hers. If he had remained in that building much longer, perhaps helping other people, he'd be buried now. If the horrified crowds in the lobby hadn't instantly made way for them, he might still be trapped. In the queer way fate had worked, Jennieann had been his ticket out. He prayed for her.

***

Just minutes after the south tower fell on Will Jimeno, his buddy Dom Pezzulo managed to free himself from the rubble. Pezzulo thought about crawling toward the hole to seek help, but decided to try to extricate his friends instead. It soon became apparent that the cause was hopeless, but he clawed at the debris with his bare hands for about a half-hour, struggling with blocks of concrete ten times his size. The Air-Paks shrieked relentlessly.