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September 11, 2001: The South Tower

By Bill McKeon

At 8:46 a.m. a man's voice bellowed through the downtown office of insurance-giant Aon Corporation: "Everybody out!"

Janet Behrens was at her desk and jumped to her feet. There was no mistaking the urgency attached to her manager's words. Sensing something awful, Behrens resisted the urge to look out the window. Still, from the corner of one eye she could see what looked like an orange-red fireball.

Terrified and confused as events unfolded quickly, she followed other stunned office workers to the stairwell exit. Her downward climb started on the hundred and fourth floor of the World Trade Center's South Tower. It was Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

Also working in the South Tower was Mel Houston, a money market broker with Euro-Brokers, Inc. "Mel" was a nickname his eldest brother had tagged him with as a kid--at work he was Charles or Charlie. Houston was aware of the pitfalls of living with a nickname--something he and his wife, Linda, would need to discuss as they moved closer to finalizing their adoption plans.

Houston felt his eighty-fourth floor office shake when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the Trade Center's North Tower. His first instinct was to evacuate the building, and he started down the stairs. But unlike some of his co-workers who continued down and out of the building, official announcements convinced Houston the building was safe, so he turned around and went back up to his office.

By the time Houston's mother caught the news reports on television and called her son, Houston was back at his desk. Their conversation was about Houston's sister, who worked for a law firm in the North Tower. Houston assured his mother that the impact--and the fire that was burning--was 40 floors above where his sister worked. He made the case that his sister's chances of getting out were very good.

On the ninety-eighth floor of the South Tower, Sean Canavan was working on an office renovation for employer, Installation Resources. His tools were arranged in a rugged, mobile tool-chest that traveled back-and-forth with him on the subway. Other company workers were busy on the ninety-second floor. Canavan was working alone on 98.

Content in his work, Canavan was a member of Local 608, of the New York City District Council of Carpenters. During his off-hours he enjoyed spending time with family. He liked to brag about his two cousins, both acclaimed soccer players in Ireland. In June he had been part of a big celebration in honor of his infant nephew. Family had been plentiful on September 9, when he celebrated his thirty-ninth birthday.

Shortly before 9:00 a.m., Canavan called his sister. He told her that a plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He described to her what he saw from the window--people jumping from the upper floors of the flaming tower.

 At about that same time, Behrens emerged from the South Tower stairwell. She had arrived at the seventy-eighth floor sky-lobby. Announcements within the building were assuring people that the South Tower was secure. Workers were being told that they could safely return to their offices. Several Aon employees were gathered off to the side, deciding whether or not to go back upstairs. As Behrens considered her options, a co-worker standing with her said: "Let's keep going." A half-empty express elevator carried them down to the first-floor lobby.

 Behrens rushed from the elevator and out onto Liberty Street. It looked like the street was on fire. Insulation and debris were burning everywhere. Glass, papers, and women's shoes were scattered in the street. Again her friend urged her to go on. Together they reached the south side of Liberty Street at 9:05 a.m., just as United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower and exploded. A construction overhang shielded them from the shower of falling debris.

It was now evident that the Twin Towers were under attack. But arriving firefighters had no time to consider this. Two of the world's tallest buildings were burning out of control and thousands of people were still inside.

Fire companies from around the city were being called into service. When the alarm reached Engine Company 235, veteran Firefighter Larry Veling was one of the men on duty. His Bedford-Stuyvesant firehouse was a Brooklyn landmark, and just a stones-throw from downtown Manhattan.

 As a teenager, Veling ran on the neighborhood track team. Later he became the co-owner of "Steve & Larry's," a neighborhood delicatessen. Along the way he married Diane and together they had 3 children. These days Veling worked a second job to provide extras for his family.

 Veling was one of six men on the truck when it left the fire station. Radio reports said the Brooklyn Bridge was clear, but Engine 235 turned onto the Manhattan Bridge when the driver realized that the span was all but void of traffic. They made excellent time getting to the towers.

 Veling and four other firefighters got off the truck at the corner of West Street and Vesey Street. Veling had last minute words of caution for the men: "Guys, this is where firemen get killed. Let's be careful." With orders to report to the South Tower, the five men marched into the fray while the driver moved the truck to a more strategic location on Murray Street.

 In the borough of Staten Island, Fire Lieutenant John Orloff--known to other firefighters as "Buffalo"--was attending routine job training. On any other day he would have been closer, working out of Engine Company 201, in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn. On hearing the news, Orloff boarded the Staten Island Ferry. The 20-minute trip across New York Harbor was the fastest route to the southern tip of Manhattan. As he made the crossing, thick smoke blocked his view of the Trade Center. He had no way of knowing that four of his men had entered the South Tower.

Still caught up in the panic, Behrens was now on Church Street. She tried to stop to rest and drink some water--but there wasn't time. A police officer ordered her and everyone else out of the area, telling them to hurry and run. Behrens ran south on Church Street, in the direction of the ferry terminal.

 At a distance from the towers that felt safe, she found a phone and made two calls to relatives. Moments later a sea of people were running in her direction--running for their lives. It was 9:59 a.m. and the South Tower of the World Trade Center was crumbling.

 Propelled by the collapse of the building, a cloud of concrete-dust and ash some 20-stories high, was rolling in Behrens' direction. She scrambled over a brick planter and ran across a construction site. Two men reached down from an overpass and lifted her over a concrete traffic barrier.

 As a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, Behrens was very athletic. She could run faster than most of the boys. Now, 40 years later, the long-time office worker was running for her life.

 As part of a crowd trying to flee the scene, Behrens was told by police to head for the Brooklyn Bridge. At 10:28 a.m., as she approached the on-ramp for the bridge, the North Tower of the Trade Center collapsed. Smoke and debris swept over the bridge; visibility was reduced to zero and people struggled to breathe. Behrens ran again, this time to escape the mob trying to exit the bridge.

 Eventually Behrens made her way along the FDR Drive and hiked over the Williamsburg Bridge to safety. She was one of the fortunate ones. She would later find out that thirty people she worked with were dead, including the man who called out the initial warning. Aon Corporation would eventually mourn the loss of 176 employees.

 When the ferry from Staten Island docked in lower Manhattan, someone had to tell Lieutenant John Orloff that four of his men had been buried in the collapse of the South Tower. Following a succession of fruitless twelve-hour days spent digging for survivors, Orloff answered the question: "How many men did you know who died?" His answer: "Forty."

New York City would later report that 343 firefighters had lost their lives when the towers came down. John Orloff--known for his lust for living, his jokes, his ridiculous Christmas hats--would now also be known as one of the lucky ones.

 On the morning of September eleventh, all of the trade workers on the ninety-second floor escaped from the South Tower. No one knows why Sean Canavan did not get out. It was only his second day working in the World Trade Center.

 On the morning of September eleventh, Mel Houston was still on-the-line with his mother when the phone went dead. Although his sister made it to safety that day, Houston did not. Houston would have turned 42 on October eighteenth.

 On the morning of September eleventh, Firefighter Larry Veling marched into the jaws of death. Neither he nor the four men with him ever came out. Veling would have been 45 years old on October twenty-ninth.

 The September eleventh terrorist attack on the World Trade Center killed more than 2,800 people. After the collapse of the two 110-story towers, all that remained was a million-plus tons of twisted rubble and dust. Thousands of documents that were jettisoned skyward by the force of the collapse were later found as far away as south Brooklyn, home to many of the dead.

 Soon after the disaster, the City of New York presented simple wooden urns to the relatives of the victims. Each polished, cherry-mahogany urn contained ashes from the ruins of the World Trade Center. The lone engraving on each urn: 09-11-01.


Last changed: September 10, 2002