A firefighter travels to the North Tower and climbs 54 stories in the same amount of time it takes Judy Colfer to descend only one story.
In a very unusual account, she says rescuers directed her into a dark subbasement, then up a ramp to the shopping plaza level, where true theatrics overlaid her building exit.
Colfer says she left the tower only five minutes before the first collapse, even though people 38 stories higher up also made it alive.
I can walk five city blocks in five minutes, but she was still close enough to be caught up in the first collapse and enveloped in "a total whiteout," where "some people she couldn't see grabbed her hands" and helped her to safety.
Her New York City taxi cab story is unlike anything I've ever heard of before.
She out ran death
Sunday, September 16, 2001
By L.A. Johnson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Waking up at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday in her Wall Street district Holiday Inn hotel room, Judy Colfer began another day. She showered, slipped into a business casual long black dress and pink blazer and made arrangements for a shuttle to LaGuardia Airport later in the day. After a breakfast of blueberry muffins and melon, she walked two long New York City blocks in high heels to a day-long seminar at the World Trade Center.
As the Twin Towers erupted in flames and then collapsed, there was panic in the streets as onlookers and rescuers sought cover from the thick smoke and debris. (Suzanne Plunkett, Associated Press)
"The morning was gorgeous," said Colfer, 49, of Greensburg. "Blue sky. No clouds. It started out as a wonderful day."
After going through security checks, she took two different elevators to the 55th floor of One World Trade Center for her 8:30 a.m. seminar on shipping goods to Mexico.
"We weren't 15 minutes into class when the building rocked," said Colfer, acting logistics director for Mine Safety Appliance Co., based in O'Hara Township. "It was like you were in an earthquake, but you're in New York City so you know there aren't earthquakes."
Desks and tables jumped up off the floor. Chairs shook. Books flew across the room. Glass and papers swirled around outside.
"Get out! Get out! Get out now!" someone screamed.
WTC guards escorted people to a door leading to a stairwell. It took a while to get the door open, but eventually Colfer and a couple dozen others huddled on a stairwell landing on the 55th floor.
"You could see fear in people's eyes, but there was no panic," she said. "Everybody knew something had happened. You just didn't know what."
People grabbed their cell phones, but cell phones weren't working. Two landings below, Colfer heard the beep, beep, beep of a man's pager.
"A plane hit the building! A plane hit the building!" the man yelled out seconds later.
WTC guards told Colfer's group they had to move people on lower floors out first before they could get them down. Time seemed to stand still. So did they. They'd move three or four steps, then stop for five minutes. They were in the stairwell single file because police, firefighters and emergency technicians were heading up.
The firefighters -- exhausted, sweating and breathing hard -- carried heavy gear including air tanks, sledgehammers and thermal imaging cameras, which Colfer's company happen to make. One firefighter, a lieutenant whose name she never learned, reached out and touched her arm.
"Lady, what floor did you come from?"
She had moved one story at that point and was only on the 54th floor.
"What did you see? Was there smoke? Was there flames? Was anybody injured? Did everybody get out?" he asked.
She looked into the lieutenant's face, noting his serious demeanor. At that moment, she feared she wouldn't make it.
"It will be OK," he said, touching her arm again, as if he'd seen the terror in her eyes.
"I know this man didn't get out," she said, her voice cracking.
Some 15 to 20 mintues later, though she admits time was difficult to gauge, Colfer made it to the 40th floor, still thinking: "I'm not getting out of here."
She thought about her husband, Gene, her two boys, Brian 13, and Brenden, 10, and how she had to see them again. She thought of her deceased parents and how she'd been named after St. Jude, the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes.
Colfer and others in the stairwell heard firefighters smashing steel doors floors below them. Doors to each floor were locked and firefighters needed to check each floor. They broke through one door, then smashed open the vending machine to get bottled water, which they handed to people in the stairwell.
"Pass it. Pass it. Pass it," the firefighters said.
They gave them paper towels, too, and told them to wet the paper towels then put them over their faces so they could breath amidst the smoke. The procession stopped for a time on the 40th floor as firefighters, police and emergency technicians carried down injured people -- a blind man with his seeing-eye dog, a pregnant woman, and two other bleeding and badly burned people. Single file, they continued to inch along.
"I thought I was never getting out of there," she said. "Finally, I got to the 10th level and I was thinking, 'I've made it this far!'"
When the group reached the third floor, rescuers told them to be careful of the water. The sprinkler systems had been activated and gone haywire. Water was flowing out underneath the door into the stairwell and there weren't any safety strips on the painted steel stairs.
"When I got to the bottom, where the subway ran through the building, there was five inches of water on the floor," she said.
Rescuers told Colfer and the others they were going to open a set of doors and then guide them through.
"They threw open the doors and it was dark, but you saw one small light," she said.
Once her eyes were acclimated to the darkness, she saw concrete slabs where the walls were on the floor and that the concrete ceiling above had collapsed.
"It was like a bomb had exploded," she said. "I thought, this structure has this much damage and I'm on the bottom. What does the rest of the building look like?"
Colfer and the others felt their way up a ramp, which brought them back up into the shopping mall level of the WTC building. At that point, the time for calm and order was over.
"We're going to throw these doors open and we want you to run!" rescuers told Colfer and the others.
"They threw open the doors and it was all this brightness and we did," she said. "We just ran."
Colfer ran as fast as she could. She wasn't out of the building five minutes when One World Trade Center collapsed.
"It was just totally unbelievable," she said. "It was so unreal.
"You're coming out of that building, police and firemen everywhere and thinking, 'Why are they screaming at you to run and they're still standing there?' "
As Colfer ran, she thought of that fire lieutenant's serious face and how she was lucky to be alive. She cried for him and the others five minutes behind her who didn't make it out. Suddenly, a giant light gray cloud of dust and debris hit her like a gale wind.
"It was like being in some horrendous blizzard, a total whiteout."
Then, all the noise and screaming were gone. Silence. Disoriented and covered with glass and concrete dust, Colfer kept running, though she wasn't sure where she was or where to run.
"Put out your hands," a woman called to her.
She did and some people she couldn't see grabbed her hands and they all kept running. When the dust finally cleared, she saw fire trucks, ambulances and the Brooklyn Bridge. Police on the bridge were trying to make a path in traffic for emergency vehicles. A cab screeched over to where Colfer and her two nameless companions were standing.
"Get in! Get in! You're going to get killed on this bridge," he said.
The three jumped into the back of the cab. He told them the twin towers had been hit and had fallen. They heard about the plane crashing into the Pentagon over the radio. The cabbie stopped to pick up another young man, who slipped into the front seat.
The couple that ran with Colfer got out on the other side of the bridge. Colfer wanted to go to the airport. The cabbie told her he couldn't take her there. Instead, he took her to the home of the man in the front seat, a Mark Figueroa from Elmhurst, N.Y.
"I'm safe," Figueroa assured her. "You can come home with me. My girlfriend is at my house."
During the drive, Colfer saw people crowding street corners and just staring -- as if they were in some trance -- in the direction of the city.
"When all this was happening, I felt like I was in a movie -- like you're watching this movie on a screen," she said. "You're seeing it, but you're not [feeling] a part of it. Your mind just wasn't comprehending the horrible circumstances."
When they arrived at Figueroa's house about 11:30 a.m., his girlfriend offered Colfer clean clothes and a towel so she could shower. She just wanted to call her husband, but Figueroa's phone wasn't working. They even drove down the block to a pay phone, but still no luck. She finally got through to her husband's office about 12:15 p.m. and left a message on his voicemail.
"I'm alive. I just want you to know I love you. I love the kids and I'm alive and I'll keep trying to reach you," she said.
Colfer and Figueroa and his friends drank Jack Daniels with Coke and ate pizza and watched CNN into the night.
Colfer's company helped get her home. An MSA salesman in the city delivering emergency equipment to the rescue site picked her up. He took her to another Holiday Inn, this time in Totowa, N.J., where people from the corporate office drove her back to Pennsylvania Thursday.
She met her husband in New Stanton. After lots of hugs and kisses, he whisked her home, where close friends and family waited. The trees that lined their driveway were festooned with yellow ribbons and streamers. The moment she walked through the door, her youngest son ran into her arms.
She plans to return to work on Monday, though she hasn't been able to sleep. She can't forget the faces of the men, especially that fire lieutenant, who unselfishly gave their lives to help her escape. She never thought something like this could happen in America.
"Now, it shows that it does," she said. "I'll never feel safe again."