At 8:48 on the morning of September 11, Michael Wright was a thirty-year-old account executive working high in the World Trade Center. Two hours later, he was something else.
Originally published in the January 2002 issue.
UP TO THAT DAY, I’d had a Brady Bunch, cookie-cutter, beautiful life. I now know what it’s like to have a 110-story building that’s been hit by a 767 come down on my head. For better or for worse, it’s part of my life. There are things I never thought I’d know that I now know.
It was as mundane a morning as you can imagine. Tuesdays are usually the days I go out to see clients and make sales calls. I get to my office at a quarter to eight, eat a bran muffin, drink a cup of coffee, and get my head straight for the day.
I was actually in a good mood. A couple of us were yukking it up in the men’s room. We’d just started sharing the eighty-first floor of 1 World Trade Center with Bank of America, and they’d put up a sign telling everyone to keep the bathroom clean. “Look at this,” one of us said. “They move in and now they’re giving us shit.” It was about quarter to nine.
All of a sudden, there was the shift of an earthquake. People ask, “Did you hear a boom?” No. The way I can best describe it is that every joint in the building jolted. You ever been in a big old house when a gust of wind comes through and you hear all the posts creak? Picture that creaking being not a matter of inches but of feet. We all got knocked off balance. One guy burst out of a stall buttoning up his pants, saying, “What the f***?” The flex caused the marble walls in the bathroom to crack.
You’re thinking, Gas main. It was so percussive, so close. I opened the bathroom door, looked outside, and saw fire.
There was screaming. One of my coworkers, Alicia, was trapped in the women’s room next door. The doorjamb had folded in on itself and sealed the door shut. This guy Art and another guy started kicking the shit out of the door, and they finally got her out.
There was a huge crack in the floor of the hallway that was about half a football field long, and the elevator bank by my office was completely blown out. If I’d walked over, I could’ve looked all the way down. Chunks of material that had been part of the wall were in flames all over the floor. Smoke was everywhere.
I knew where the stairs were because a couple of guys from my office used to smoke butts there. I started screaming, “Out! Out! Out!” The managers were trying to keep people calm and orderly, and here I was screaming, “The stairs! The stairs!”
We got to the stairwell, and people were in various states. Some were in shock; some were crying. We started filing down in two rows, fire-drill style. I’d left my cell phone at my desk, but my coworkers had theirs. I tried my wife twenty times but couldn’t get through. Jenny had gone up to Boston with her mother and grandmother and was staying with my family. Our son was with her. Ben’s six months old. It was impossible to reach them.
The thing that kept us calm on the stairs was the thought that what happened couldn’t possibly happen. The building could not come down. After a while, as we made our way down, we started to lighten up. Yeah, we knew something bad had happened, but a fire doesn’t worry you as much when you’re thirty floors below it. I even made an off-color joke to my buddy Ryan. The intent was for only Ryan to hear, but things quieted down just as I said it, so everyone heard. I said, “Ryan, hold me.”
He said, “Mike … I didn’t know.”
I said, “Well, we’re all going to die, might as well tell you.”
Some people were laughing, but not the guy in front of me. “I really think you should keep that humor down!” he said. I felt lousy. In hindsight, he may have known more than I did. Even though I’d seen physical damage, what I can’t stress enough is how naïve I was at that point.
Some floors we’d cruise down; others we’d wait for ten minutes. People were speculating, “Was it a bomb?” But we were all getting out. I didn’t think I was going to die.
At the fortieth floor, we started coming in contact with firemen. They were saying, “C’mon, down you go! Don’t worry, it’s safe below.” Most of them were stone-faced. Looking back, there were some frightened firemen.
When we got below the thirtieth floor, they started to bring down injured people from flights above. There was a guy with the back of his shirt burned off, a little burn on his shoulder. One woman had severe burns on her face.