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September 11: Escaping the South Tower and a Framework of Surviving an Infrastructure Disaster

The survival bridge connects the side of danger and death to the side of safety and life, but this bridge covers a great chasm of dangers.

Kevin Laub, a former employee of a financial services firm, and now a high school English teacher for almost 20-plus years in Northern Virginia, sits in his home virtually sharing his experience of escaping the South Tower of the World Trade complex on September 11, 2001. However, he’s not talking to a classroom of high school students, but rather mid-career professionals within several U.S. intelligence agencies and military services who are taking a graduate course in Infrastructure Vulnerability Assessment at the National Intelligence University (NIU). The course is part of NIU’s master’s degree in Science and Technology Intelligence but is also available to students through NIU’s Homeland Security Intelligence certificate program.

Two years after September 11, 2001, then student-teacher Kevin Laub spoke to a class of juniors regarding his experience. These students had been high school freshman on that horrific day and were old enough to have understood what was occurring and many had parents who worked at the Pentagon. As he described his experience many of them openly cried because they too had experienced that day, and it impacted them. Over the years, the average age of Kevin’s students became younger and younger, and the last academic year of any student alive on that day was in 2019, according to his student roster. Despite that, on or about each September 11 anniversary, Kevin shares his firsthand account of escaping the South Tower to classrooms of students.

For several years now, Kevin has also been speaking to NIU students. The course instructor, the author of this article, uses Kevin’s experience to illustrate a key aspect of infrastructure vulnerability, which are the people that utilize it, work within it, and maintain it, and who must survive it when things go bad. The author of this article uses Kevin’s experience to greatly expand on a framework of survival discussed by Amanda Ripley in her 2008 book titled “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disasters Strikes – and Why.”[1] She speaks of a “survival arc” of denial, deliberation, and decision. However, the author’s military, survival, human behavior, and infrastructure training and expertise expanded this “survival arc” to a more comprehensive nine-step survival bridge comprised of Detect, Deny, Deduce, Debate, Decide, Do, Drive, Deliver, and Divulge. In essence, the survival bridge connects the side of danger and death to the side of safety and life, but this bridge covers a great chasm of dangers trying to stop those from saving themselves consisting of non-beneficial human behavior, poor training, poor decision making, poor messaging, poor luck, poor timing, uncertainty, confusion, chaos, fog, and countless other circumstances and factors. The following is Kevin’s experience, in the context of this nine-step survival bridge.

September 11: Escaping the South Tower and a Framework of Surviving an Infrastructure Disaster Homeland Security Today

Prologue

In 2001, Kevin was in his late 20s and had worked for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter for 5 years and was working as a manager maintaining client accounts. At the time, his company was one of the largest financial services firms in the world. In the World Trade Center complex, the company had almost 3,000 employees spread across the 59th to 74th floors of the South Tower and was the largest tenant of the complex. Kevin liked to point out that the South Tower was the one that didn’t have the “stick on it” or tall antenna on the roof. To him, the towers also served as the landmark from which to vector off from. If he could find the towers on the skyline, then it was easy for him to figure out where he was and how to proceed if turned around in the city.

Kevin loved New York City and he was especially proud of being able to work in the World Trade Center. Kevin was single and shared a modest apartment with an apartment mate on East 92nd  Street. Several days prior to September 11, Kevin decided to answer a phone call from his college ex-girlfriend, Stacy, who was calling to speak to his apartment-mate, as they were still friends. Kevin and Stacy’s college relationship had ended ugly, and they had not talked in years. Stacy was in her psychiatry residency at a veterans hospital in Washington D.C. Kevin saw her phone number appear on the caller ID and a tinge of wanting to talk to her rolled over him. Kevin decided he wanted to put the past aside and he answered the phone and the resulting conversation lasted over three hours. At the end of the call, they decided to be friends again.

South Tower World Trade Center, 62nd Floor, 8:46 a.m., September 11

Kevin was sitting at his office desk on the west side of the South Tower. His office encompassed three of the floor-to-ceiling windows and his back was to the windows, which faced toward New Jersey. The window shade immediately behind him was partway up with the other shades fully closed on either side. As he sat clearing out his email inbox, Kevin heard an extremely loud explosion matched with a deep rumble he felt through his desk and chair. He immediately turned his chair right and looked out the half-drawn window over his right shoulder and saw a collection of fiery debris, paper, concrete, and other miscellaneous detritus moving from upper-right to lower-left past his window. Unbeknown to him, American Airlines Flight 11 had struck the North Tower from the north between the 93rd and 99th floors. Kevin experienced the first step of the survival bridge which is to “Detect” danger, but he wasn’t completely sold it was life threatening. Many who do not detect danger as it occurs, or do not detect danger as it grows, often become causalities of such disasters as they don’t even step on the survival bridge.

Kevin immediately recalled a memo from the previous day regarding air-handling equipment repairs being conducted floors above him, and he assumed that an accidental explosion had occurred. This type of rationalization isn’t uncommon because when things occur out of the ordinary, we try to place them into known or previously experienced context. Kevin was now on the “Deny” step of the survival bridge. As Amanda Ripley illustrates in her book, many at this critical step try to rationalize away the danger or even deny what is occurring which leads to delay; undoubtedly, there were those who had the ability and time to escape the towers but chose or failed to because of their denial or self-imposed delay.

Kevin’s life’s experience and working in a building that had just 8 years prior been the target of a terrorist attack allowed him to “Deduce” that the explosion might be an indication of something worse than an equipment failure. He stood up and stepped into the hallway and looked to his left. Two offices down, a fellow co-worker was looking at him and they both wore an expression of “What was that and what should we do?” This is a common human response of coming together to “Debate” what action to take, which is the next step on the survival bridge. Amanda Ripley refers to this step as deliberation, but the author of this article feels this word is too formal as it implies that all facts are known and being weighed, like a jury deliberating the facts of a case. Whereas the term debate implies a discussion of opposing views, at this moment for Kevin it was an internal debate of what to do based on his context.

Kevin could hear a senior supervisor, his boss’ boss, in a corner conference room to his right loudly say on a speakerphone, “Something hit the other tower, everybody is leaving.” The senior supervisor, a large man, barreled out of the conference room and bellowed, “Everyone needs to leave now!” In essence, higher approval for evacuation was given, but more fundamentally, a decision had been made, a step that Amanda Ripley includes in her survival arc. In many hierarchical settings or within peer groups, people don’t want to ostracize themselves or look foolish by bucking the common norm of a group and taking an action no one else was taking. Luckily for Kevin, the time for more debate had ended with the evacuation order, which was the “Decision” step on the survival bridge.

If not for that senior supervisor decision, Kevin and many of his co-workers might have begun to figuratively wring their hands and debate what to do while also being concerned about overreacting. This is a dangerous step on the survival bridge as people waste valuable time denying what occurred or the danger they may or may not be in, deducing various causalities of the situation, and debating what courses of action to take if any. These behaviors can cause a circular trap of Deny-Deduce-Debate, resulting in indecision and wasted time. In some firsthand accounts, some people seemed to delay because they wanted to be part of the storyline.

This senior supervisor who bellowed for people to evacuate made a critical decision and his gravitas influenced those around him to respond, thus breaking the possible circular trap of Deny-Deduce-Debate. Likely not appreciated at the time for Kevin and others, this moment was a tipping point on his survival bridge from danger to safety. But why, with little to no information regarding the causation of what was occurring, would a senior supervisor be forced to make such a snap decision? This senior supervisor had lived through 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which undoubtedly led him to this quick decision. But many beyond his voice didn’t have his shared context. Fortunately, the Morgan Stanley Dean Witter employees did share a common experience of frequent company-wide evacuation drills and what to do in a disaster, thus making it easier for them to “decide” the best course of action, which was to evacuate.

Following the evacuation decision, Kevin turned around and stepped into his office and grabbed his backpack that held his tennis shoes, portable radio and headset, keys, and some other belongings. As mentioned in Amanda Ripley’s book, this is a classic gathering behavior that people demonstrate with their belongings, and not unlike the behavior during a fire alarm drill where people collect their coat, car keys, purse, etc., before the mock evacuation. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis, many people within both towers that day who were below the impact zones made telephone calls, shut down computers, or gathered up personal belongings before evacuating.[2] In the few photographs taken within the stairwells of the towers that day, people are seen holding bags, purses, books, cell phones, jackets, backpacks, etc. One man is even holding open his reading material.

Due to his evacuation training, Kevin’s muscle memory and location of the stairwell kicked in and he readily admits he doesn’t recall the walk from his office to the stairwell. Kevin just recalled arriving at the evacuation drill marshaling point and then simply proceeding to evacuate by the stairwell. Kevin was very familiar with the stairwell because employees often used them to go up or down to other parts of the company. Even though the South Tower had not been struck at this point, using the elevators was not even considered because they had been conditioned that in an emergency you evacuate down the stairwells.

A common mistake in disasters is a herding behavior in which people follow someone they think knows how or where to escape. If that lead person is incorrect, then this mistake has an escalation factor leading to many casualties. Due to the repetitive evacuation drills and culture of preparedness and self-responsibility drilled into the psyche of the company, visitors or those company employees who could not recall in the chaos of the moment ended up following those to the stairwells.

Kevin recalls opening the stairwell door and being shocked at the amount of people flowing down from floors above after less than 1-2 minutes, many of which were from his company. He merged into the crowd moving downward with slower people on the right and faster people on the left. The stairwell width was not wide, but a 1993 bombing lesson learned added fluorescent painted stripes on the treads and landings. People were calm and he recalls some chatter about a plane hitting the North Tower. In aviation terms, September 11 was considered a “severe clear” day across the entire United States which was contrasted by the prior day of dark storm clouds across lower Manhattan. Kevin was executing the “Do” step of the survival bridge in that a decision to evacuate was made, and Kevin was in the process of doing. Making a decision but not executing it in a disaster can be fatal. In many disasters, indecision can be more of an indiscriminate killer than executing a bad decision.

Many around Kevin were eager to get out of the building, but despite that he did see many during the descent step out of the stairwell onto a floor. Some perhaps doubted their need for evacuation, some perhaps wanted to call a loved one, or perhaps some simply were unable to physically continue or needed to rest. Undoubtedly, many of those who stepped out of the stairwell and delayed further did not survive.

September 11: Escaping the South Tower and a Framework of Surviving an Infrastructure Disaster Homeland Security Today
Coast Guard crewmembers patrol the harbor after the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. (USCG photo by PA3 Tom Sperduto)

South Tower World Trade Center, ~27th Floor, ~9:00 a.m., September 11

During the descent, the stairwell speaker system came on, which happened to be another lesson learned and an addition following the 1993 bombing and evacuation. The speaker said an incident had occur in the North Tower but that the South Tower was secure, and that employees should return to their offices. A woman in the stairwell near Kevin asked out loud if they should return to their offices and everyone made a firm and loud “No!” response as if in unison.

The unison response was undoubtedly the culture of preparedness and self-responsibility that had been instilled deeply in those people around Kevin which were likely mostly from his company. Kevin at this point had solidified his personal “Drive” to escape, which is the next step on the survival bridge. At this point, Kevin had a firm resolve to get out of the building.

South Tower World Trade Center, 25th Floor, 9:03 a.m., September 11

Kevin had descended from the 62nd floor to the 25th floor in approximately 16 minutes, a decent of 37 floors, when the South Tower was struck by United Airlines Flight 175 between floors 77 and 85 above him. He vividly recalls hearing a roaring sound and explosion and he knew immediately they were under attack. The building swayed a foot from left-to-right three times before stabilizing as he hung onto the stairwell railings on each side. A woman in front of Kevin hadn’t been holding on to the railings and she dropped and was sitting on the step when she began what he described as a “full-throated” constant scream. As the swaying stopped a man in front of her turned and grabbed her and yelled “We have to leave!” and he helped her up. The human behavior of panic in most disasters is not contagious but often a brief and short-lived response to fear.[3] In fact, Kevin was witness to many people who exhibited calmness, kindness, and support for each other. The man’s response to break the woman’s panic worked and she stopped screaming, stood, and resumed her descent. For most in the stairwell, the impact to their building had renewed their drive to escape, a key step on the survival bridge. At this point, Kevin’s resolve and drive to escape the building reached a new high as he just kept thinking that he had to get out of the building.

Following the impact to the South Tower, the columns of people in the stairwell picked up pace and descended faster except for firefighters who were moving up. The stairwells were not wide, and people had to move against the outer wall to allow firefighters to pass. Kevin recalls seeing the faces of these men and was thankful that there were people willing to move toward danger for the sake of others, a strong sentiment he holds today. As Kevin existed the stairwell onto the mezzanine level, Kevin looked out the north side windows to see falling debris between the two towers and recalled how surreal it looked. Debris was everywhere and it looked like a film set of a disaster movie or the aftermath of an urban battle. He made his way down to the ground level and was being directed but ended up existing the east side of the building.

September 11: Escaping the South Tower and a Framework of Surviving an Infrastructure Disaster Homeland Security Today
Ground Zero, formerly the World Trade Center, New York City, N.Y., Sept. 14, 2001. (Photo by Master Sgt. Mark Olsen/177th Fighter Wing – NJ Air National Guard)

South Tower World Trade Center, Outside on East Side of Tower, ~9:15 a.m., September 11

Now outside, Kevin saw people on the other side of police barricades, and he headed that direction. Kevin was undoubtedly ushered away from the building, but he doesn’t clearly recall. Kevin had achieved the step of “Deliver” or of getting to the safety side of the survival bridge. As Kevin walked southeast from the building, he saw his supervisor, whom he approached. Interestingly, Kevin’s supervisor was also a survivor of the 1993 bombing and evacuation, and on September 11, the moment he stepped out of the elevator on the 62nd floor in the South Tower, was when the North Tower was hit.  His supervisor immediately went to the stairwell and existed the building before Kevin had reached the ground floor as he was several minutes ahead in the evacuation. Once again, this supervisor, someone with prior experience and context, was able to step through the nine-step survival bridge and escape the tower without hesitation. As Kevin began to convey to his supervisor which people were in the office that morning, the step of “Divulge” on the survival bridge, his supervisor held up his hand in a “Stop” gesture. Pausing, Kevin’s supervisor said, “Kevin, look up.” Kevin looked up and saw the South Face of the South Tower with smoke and flames emerging beyond the South Face was the North Tower also bellowing flame and smoke higher up.  Kevin described it as the blackest smoke and reddest flames he had ever seen and that it looked like an upside-down waterfall as it flowed out and up. Soon standing with him and his supervisor were three or four other people from their company, and they all began to walk South away from the World Trade Center towers.

In all, it’s estimated that it took Kevin approximately 25-30 minutes to escape the South Tower after the initial impact on the North Tower. In the course of that time, Kevin covered the entire survival bridge from danger and death to safety and life. He sensed a danger while at his desk (Detect), he initially tried to place the situation in context as a possible accidental explosion (Deny), he deducted that perhaps the incident was more severe and walked into the hallways seeking others (Deduce), he looked at his co-worker and they internally debated what had occurred and what action to take (Debate), he overheard the senior supervisor who then made an evacuation order (Decide); Kevin collected his things and began his evacuation down the stairwell (Do); he continued his descent and following the impact to the South Tower he showed even greater resolve to evacuate (Drive); he emerged and got clear of the building (Deliver); and he spoke to his supervisor about those in the office from an accountability perspective (Divulge). If that was not harrowing enough, circumstances were soon going to force Kevin through all those steps again, but not over a course of a half-hour but in mere seconds that morning.

As Kevin was walking away from the World Trade Center complex others, he and others from his company speculated when they might be returning to work. An incident then occurred that Kevin’s mind would block until later that day when he was getting ready to put something into his backpack. In stressful situations, the mind can block highly stressful events as a coping mechanism.

As they walked south his co-workers peeled off and Kevin continued south toward Battery Park at the very southern tip of Lower Manhattan. He was heading to One New York Plaza, which was the former location of Goldman Sachs where his mother and brother worked. As he walked, cell phone service for those who owned them at that time was overwhelmed, and the many pay phone banks had long lines of people desperate to check in with family and friends. Arriving at One New York Plaza, Kevin found that it had been evacuated and his mother and brother had likely taken the ferry to Staten Island. He found a phone and called home realizing his mother and brother had left. His recently retired father answered, and Kevin said it was him and his father immediately put him on hold and switched over to Kevin’s sister who was on the other call waiting line. Kevin was a little dumbfounded having just escaped the South Tower that had been hit by a plane to have his father put him on hold. His father returned, and at the end of the brief call Kevin’s father told him he loved him. Despite being a loving parent, his father was of a generation very reserved in the use of that term and Kevin admitted he couldn’t think of a previous time his father ever told him those words. The irony of hearing such a sentiment on such a tragic day was not lost on Kevin because ultimately that was all that really mattered. Little did Kevin know that his father had become the central phone exchange for his family and friends all eager to know of Kevin’s fate.

No longer living in New Jersey, and no desire to ferry across the river to Staten Island, Kevin decided he would walk north and east of the World Trade Center area, to his apartment on East 92nd Street. He determined this would constitute a two-hour walk, so he sat his backpack down and pulled out his tennis shoes. When taking off his dress shoes he realized there was blood all over the left toe of his shoe. His mind then recalled walking with his co-workers away from the South Tower when those around him gasped and yelled out not to step in the pool of blood on the ground. He can recall a woman walking on his right reacting and him partially stepping into the pool of blood with his left toe before he recoiled it back and moved to the right around it. He still wonders if his mind would have ever recalled that incident if he had not seen the blood on shoe. Not knowing what to do, he wrapped his dress shoes in newspaper and placed them into his backpack and donned his tennis shoes. He placed headphones on his head and began walking north listening to a radio talk-show host who was discussing the day’s events. He continued to head that direction and soon found himself approaching the intersection of Exchange Place and Williams Street about a block away.

September 11: Escaping the South Tower and a Framework of Surviving an Infrastructure Disaster Homeland Security Today
Recovery efforts at the World Trade Center following the terrorist attacks in New York in September 2001. (FBI photo)

Near Intersection of Exchange Place and Williams Street, 9:59 a.m., September 11

Kevin suddenly heard the radio talk-show host say that the South Tower was collapsing. Not being able to place this in context, Kevin assumed that the building was falling like a tree at its base toward his location and he began running toward the intersection. There was a man, who undoubtedly heard the news of the falling tower, running about a half-dozen paces ahead of him. As this man entered the intersection, he looked up the street, skidded to a stop, turned around, and began running toward Kevin. As they approach each other in full sprint, the man pointed in the direction he was now running and screamed “Run!” However, Kevin’s forward momentum carried him into the intersection as he skidded to a stop, and Kevin then looked up the street in the direction of the World Trade Center area many blocks away and saw a gray tidal wave of opaque debris, dust, and smoke as tall as the buildings billowing his way down the street with great speed. Kevin described the debris cloud as having a rumbling sound like a train car blowing through a subway station.

Kevin turned around and began to run back the way he had come. Knowing the debris cloud would catch him he ran toward a building’s internal parking garage on his right. Looking over his shoulder as he ran toward the garage, he saw a woman who stood frozen in the intersection he had just left as she looked up the street at the debris cloud barreling toward her. Freezing in a stressful situation is another unique human behavior as the senses are overwhelmed and the mind and body become paralyzed. Kevin’s drive pushed him forward toward the garage and he dared one last glance over his right shoulder before he entered the garage and saw the debris cloud envelope the frozen woman. Kevin says that one moment she was there, and the next moment she wasn’t. He reached the back of the parking garage for refuge and turned around as the main body of the debris cloud passed by but didn’t have the energy to reach him on the side street in the back of the parking garage. Kevin watched three to four more people stumble in and building workers were using hoses to clean the debris off their faces. In total, from where Kevin stood in the back of this parking garage, it took approximately 56 minutes from when he stood up from his desk and to begin his escape from the South Tower to when the South Tower collapsed.

In a matter of mere seconds, Kevin covered the entire survival bridge from danger to safety with respect to the debris cloud. He sensed a changing situation (Detect), he recognized the threat of the falling tower but didn’t try to rationalize it away (Deny), he realized he had to take immediate action (Deduce), he unconsciously weighed many options of which there were few (Debate), he decided to turn and run (Decide), he ran (Do), he continued to run despite the growing threat (Drive), and he reached a place of safe refuge (Deliver). Kevin saw other survivors directed inside by the building workers but despite being well spent from the day’s events, he set to memory what had occurred (Divulge) albeit later.

Inside Garage near Exchange Place and Williams Street, ~10:00 a.m.-11:00 a.m., September 11

Kevin found himself in a utilitarian area in the back of the parking garage that had many doors. He had escaped from two harrowing ordeals in less than one hour. Kevin admits he doesn’t know how long he spent in this space, but the second adrenaline surge of the day was now likely causing him to crash. At one point in a daze and likely a state of shock, he walked past two men who were guarding an outside double door. Kevin walked past them and pushed open the right-hand door and stepped into the flowing debris cloud outside. Instantly, he closed his eyes from the burning debris, and he gasped slightly causing his mouth to be filled with what he described as hot “dirty cotton balls and razor blades.” Analysis a year later determined that the debris cloud was composed primarily of pulverized “glass fibers, gypsum [common material of office walls], concrete, paper, and other miscellaneous materials commonly used in building construction.”[4]

One or both men reached out and pulled Kevin immediately back in and closed the door and chided him for not listening to them and going outside. It is suspected that Kevin had stepped into the second debris cloud of the North Tower, which collapsed at 10:28 a.m. Other than perhaps a sense of needing to leave, Kevin doesn’t know what prompted him to go outside, and he has no recollection of the men warning not to leave. In stressful situations the mind can slow and prioritize key senses at the expense of other senses as experienced in countless combat and other firearm engagements. Other than some initial bouts of clearing his mouth from the experience, he didn’t suffer any immediate consequences of his actions like gaging or excessive coughing.

After a period of time in the back of the parking garage, the debris cloud from the North Tower collapse settled out and Kevin could hear movement and people leaving. Kevin stood and walked with others through a set of internal doors into the building’s lobby, opposite the parking garage, which opened up on another street. It is estimated that Kevin had spent up to 45 minutes to an hour before he left this place of refuge. Kevin stepped out in what could best be described as a new world, both literally and figuratively.

September 11: Escaping the South Tower and a Framework of Surviving an Infrastructure Disaster Homeland Security Today
The skyline of Manhattan is pictured early September 15, 2001, with smoke billowing from the wreckage of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. (Chief Brandon Brewer/U.S. Coast Guard)

Near Intersection of Exchange Place and Williams Street, ~11:00 a.m., September 11

Kevin described the aftermath of both tower collapses as the stillness after a major snowstorm where everything is coated and quiet. The sky was gray, but the landscape was almost unrecognizable, and Kevin began walking in what he thought was a northerly direction. He saw others coated in whitish-gray soot walking like ghostly apparitions.

Walking north toward the vicinity of the Brooklyn Bridge, Kevin came upon a police officer shouting at a newsstand owner as the man scurried about trying to figure out what to take. The police officer just kept shouting at the man to “Leave it! Leave it! Just walk away!” Kevin approached the police officer and asked which way was uptown as this was the direction toward his apartment. The police officer shook his head and said “No, everyone’s going across the bridge [the Brooklyn Bridge]” as he pointed in that direction. Kevin responded that there was nothing for him in Brooklyn and he had to head uptown. The police officer rolled his fists by his sides and Kevin felt that he might get struck. The police officer then uncoiled and pointed in the direction of uptown and wished Kevin the best of luck in an agitated tone. It had been an unfathomable day for first responders.

After two harrowing escapes, Kevin soon realized that walking to his apartment at this point was unrealistic. He decided to stop at an apartment where his two friends, a couple, lived on East 30th Street. When he arrived, the lobby door stood open, so Kevin headed straight to the elevator as the elevator door was closing. Seeing a spot at the very front of the elevator car where he could stand, Kevin stuck his arm into the closing elevator, causing it to reopen. As he stepped into the crowded elevator, those on the elevator reeled back to the walls. Thinking this strange, Kevin turned to face the closing doors directly in front of his face. As the highly mirrored elevator doors closed, he paused as he viewed himself for the first time. He was not unlike the ghostly apparitions he had seen earlier. His dark plum-colored dress shirt was covered by dust to include the rest of him. Getting off on the third floor, he walked down the hallway and knocked on the apartment door and his friend answered. She let out a scream and hugged him in the hallway and then they were joined by his other friend and the three of them shared a group hug. The two friends were overwhelmed assuming he had died. In fact, his one friend had stood on the roof of his building and exclaimed that a good man, Kevin, had died that day. Kevin changed into some borrowed clothes and placed his dress shirt into a clothier plastic bag, which he still has today in the same bag, and he can’t make himself part with it. Kevin spent the remainder of the day sending emails and making phone calls telling people he had survived. At one point, his friend came over and poked his arm just to ensure he was real and not her having a dream. This was repeated at his sister’s wedding a couple of weeks later when close and distant relatives simply wanted to hug him or shake his hand, basically to ensure in their mind that he was real.

The total number of people who perished on September 11 in New York City from the attacks was 2,753. There were 2,969 employees of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in the World Trade Center that day, and all of them but 13 people survived, according to their website. Even though the company’s office was below the impact zone of the South Tower, this is still an astonishing survival rate considering the fog of misinformation, general confusion, and a cacophony of circumstances and factors that should have resulted in a higher death rate. Clearly, the culture of preparedness and self-responsibility in the face of an unfolding disaster was a critical factor of survival.

Not to diminish the severity and loss of what occurred, but as bad as September 11 was in lower Manhattan, it could have been much worse. As pointed out in Amanda Ripley’s book, but also described in other post-analysis pieces, on that Tuesday morning many New Yorkers had delayed the start of the day to vote in a mayoral election; the New York Stock Exchange had not begun trading, meaning many financial service companies in both towers had not yet been fully manned for the day; the observation deck on the South Tower, scheduled to open at 9:30 a.m., was not full of tourists above the impact zone; and finally, due to the lack of full manning of the towers that morning, the insufficiently designed capacity of the stairwells for a full evacuation did allow those below the impact zones an ability to escape. Despite the astounding loss of life that day, fate had saved many other countless lives.

September 11: Escaping the South Tower and a Framework of Surviving an Infrastructure Disaster Homeland Security Today
Responders to the 9/11 attacks (lower right) work in the shadow of debris from the World Trade Center towers in New York City. (FBI photo)

Epilogue

One of the lessons learned following the 1993 bombing was that Kevin’s company maintained an office space in New Jersey in case of an emergency where a floor of their offices in the South Tower could be reconstituted elsewhere. Prior to September 11, Kevin had been designated as an “Emergency Preparedness Officer” to ensure continuity of operations if there was ever another terrorist attack or calamity impacting his area within the company. This role required him to take a physical box, containing a snapshot of client accounts, to this empty office every quarter where he placed it on a closet top shelf. Following September 11, the total loss of office space within the towers made this office space in New Jersey grossly insufficient.

Within days after September 11, Kevin returned to work in a makeshift warehouse in New York’s City’s Chinatown. The building used to be a publishing house and the irony was that his father had worked in that same building in the 1960s. This building was now being turned into an ad-hoc financial services office as his company tried to put the pieces back together using contingency of operation materials such as Kevin stowed away for his company. Kevin vividly recalls customers who would call complaining about some detail regarding their account or portfolio and when Kevin told them they were doing their best as their headquarters had been in the South Tower, the callers would often become silent and/or very apologetic.

In the months that followed, Kevin and Stacy talked more and more as he struggled to cope with anxiety and grief from his experience and the emotional pallor that settled over New York. Kevin said that despair was everywhere. People would openly sob on the subway or be hugging others on the street. Stacy urged him to return to ground zero within the first month so that this terrible day “wouldn’t own him” the rest of his life. Kevin did and when he surfaced from the subway, the view of the towers being gone was too much and he broke down, but it helped the healing process. In the coming weeks and then months, Kevin struggled sleeping and he would follow a ritual of falling asleep watching Mystery Science Theater in front of the television. During the waking hours, as soon as he felt a degree of normalcy or happiness he would be reminded of the tragedy and then feel guilty for feeling better. When Kevin saw a missing person poster, black bunting on a firehouse, a child’s “I miss you daddy” drawing, people crying, or countless other remembrances, he would experience a crushing cycle of up-and-down emotions. His work became less important, almost irrelevant, and pointless in his mind, and he questioned what he wanted to do with his life.

In the weeks and months that followed, Kevin realized he had to leave the city he so absolutely loved if he was going to survive. At Stacy’s urging, Kevin moved to the Washington, D.C., area to pursue a distant passion to become an English teacher that she suggested. Later, when moving out of his apartment, his apartment mate found the pair of dress shoes with the bloody stained left shoe wrapped in newspapers under Kevin’s bed. The shoes were discarded. About a year after September 11, Stacy discovered Kevin still had the dust covered plum-colored dress shirt he wore on that fateful day. He said he’d “never throw away” that shirt as that dust represents everything that was the World Trade Center Complex to include those lost. She relented and let him keep that one token item. Kevin is so grateful at the second chance at life that Stacy provided him and he openly admits in a broken voice each time he speaks to students that “She saved my life.” They dated and later married.

Kevin likes to share a story about the birth of first child as he was talking to a class of high school students years after 2001. One of his students with a reputation of asking inappropriate or joking questions raised his hands. Many of this student’s peers urged and pleaded for Mr. Laub not to call on him. Kevin cautiously smiled and called upon the student. The student asked if he had ever thought that if it wasn’t for Osama bin Laden that he would not have had a kid. The class roared in disapproval regarding the nature of the question and ribbed the student. Kevin quieted the class down and said that as he held his daughter the first time, that this was the exact thought which had crossed his mind. The point is that the course and the fate of countless lives and generational impacts occurred on September 11, 2001.

Barely a day goes by that Kevin isn’t reminded or thinks of September 11. He tells his experience because its therapeutic for him and he feels it honors those who died and are still impacted by that day. In essence, Kevin is still on the “Divulge” step of the survival bridge by sharing his experience through this article, which hopefully ensures that a new generation of people not born or too young to remember that day have a firsthand account and appreciation of what happened. When he’s done talking, he always tells the students they have a homework assignment which is to go home and tell those close to them that they love them. Today, Kevin lives quietly with his wife and two children in Northern Virginia, living his life and sharing his experience.

September 11: Escaping the South Tower and a Framework of Surviving an Infrastructure Disaster Homeland Security Today

Final Note

Kevin’s story is one of many, as there were an estimated 13,000-15,000 people below the impact zones of both towers who successfully evacuated that morning.[5] Sadly, those above the impact zones could not escape, others delayed or simply didn’t make it out, and others went into the towers to try to make a difference. In New York City, 2,606 people were killed in the World Trade Center towers or on the ground from falling debris, and in total between New York City, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, a total of 2,977 people died, not including the 19 hijackers.

September 11th, 2001 stands as of this writing, the deadliest terrorist attack against the United States of America to have ever occurred.  May we never forget, may we honor those lost lives, and may we learn so as not to repeat history.

 

The author is responsible for the content of this article. The views expressed do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the U.S. Intelligence Community, or the U.S. Government.

 

[1] Ripley, Amanda, “The Unthinkable – Who Survives When Disasters Strikes – and Why.” Crown Publishers, New York.  2008

[2] Center for Disease Control (CDC), “Preliminary Results from the World Trade Center Evacuation Study – New York City, 2003.” September 10, 2004.  As accessed on June 29, 2022, at Preliminary Results from the World Trade Center Evacuation Study — New York City, 2003 (cdc.gov)

[3] Bayat, Navid, “Panic and Human Behavior in Fire & Emergency Situations.” CITF, International Associate of Fire and Rescue Services. July 10, 2018.  As accessed on June 29, 2022, at https_ctif.org/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fctif.org%2Fnews%2Fpanic-and-human-behavior-fire-emergency-situations

[4] U.S. Geological Survey, “Environmental Studies of the World Trade Center Area After the September 11, 2001 Attack .” August 30, 2002.  As accessed on June 29, 2022, at Environmental Studies of the World Trade Center Area After the September 11, 2001 Attack | U.S. Geological Survey (usgs.gov)

[5] Center for Disease Control (CDC), “Preliminary Results from the World Trade Center Evacuation Study – New York City, 2003.” September 10, 2004.  As accessed on June 29, 2022, at Preliminary Results from the World Trade Center Evacuation Study — New York City, 2003 (cdc.gov)

Mitchell Simmons
Dr. Mitchell E. Simmons, Lieutenant Colonel, United States Air Force (Retired) is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Program Director in the Anthony G. Oettinger School of Science and Technology Intelligence at the National Intelligence University in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Simmons oversees three departments consisting of five concentrations—Emerging Technologies and Geostrategic Resources; Information & Influence Intelligence; Weapons of Mass Destruction; Cyber Intelligence; and Data Science Intelligence. He teaches courses in Intelligence Collection, National Security Policy and Intelligence, and Infrastructure Assessment Vulnerability, the latter course being part of a Homeland Security Intelligence Certificate program popular with students from the Department of Homeland Security. Dr. Simmons has over 25 years of experience in acquisition, engineering, and program management within key agencies to include National Reconnaissance Office, Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), and multiple tours with the Defense Intelligence Agency. His technical expertise includes physical and functional vulnerability of critical infrastructure from conventional explosives, nuclear, ground forces, and asymmetric threats, such as infectious disease. Dr. Simmons’ niche expertise is the exploitation of hard and deeply buried targets and he has personally collected intelligence in dozens of strategic facilities. Dr. Simmons is widely published in the classified and unclassified realm and his products have seen diverse readership, to include the national command authority and combatant commands. He is the author of the definitive DoD manual, published by DTRA, “Hard Target Field and Assessment Reference Manual” used to educate those on this strategic target set. Dr. Simmons holds a B.S. and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Ohio University, a M.S. from Central Michigan University, and a Ph.D. in Engineering Management from The Union Institute and University.

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