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Reliving the Birth of a Second Life, a 9-11 Story

Ten years have passed since New York witnessed the terror attacks that claimed three thousands lives at its wake. Many still live with  the memory of that fateful day when their loved ones, dear friends and co-workers perished together with the iconic Twin Towers in Downtown Manhattan. 

Here's an account of  Joe Valdez, a Filipino-American of Ilocano lineage, who barely made it today. Let us follow him as he relives the birth of his second life and pray that this tragedy may never happen again to people of any race, nation and political or religious convictions.

Photo from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1249885/New-World-Trade-Center-9-11-aerial-images-ABC-News.html

Opening up to others about this day sometimes relieves the anxieties that remain.

On the eve of 9/11, I found myself working past midnight in my 73rd floor office in Tower 2. The following morning, I woke up late. As I rushed from the Wall Street subway station towards the World Trade Center, I did not notice the buildings were on fire. The blaze was above my field of vision and the large crowd running in every direction was normal for that time of the day in that part of the world. Fortunately, a police officer stopped me and that was when I looked up and saw the damage. Awe-struck, I made numerous attempts to call my co-workers to warn them to evacuate the building. Through all the chaos, I heard a thunderous crack from above immediately followed by someone yelling out; "RUNNNNNNN". When I faced up, I saw the building descending upon the crowd I was standing with. I was so close to the falling tower, I knew I was not going to make it and at that moment, I accepted death.

I simply stared at the massive structure collapsing above me. A lot of things were happening but it all felt like a dream in slow motion. My senses were completely numbed, I heard only silence and I could not believe what my own eyes were telling me. As much as I wanted to run away, I was simply mesmerized. I finally snapped out of it when someone else running away bumped into me and knocked me down to the ground. As I turned to sprint, I saw another horrific sight, a stampede of people trampling over each other for survival. You probably will never see images of it on TV but I witnessed a lot of innocent people, mostly women, thrown to the ground.

Before I had a chance to run away, I was suddenly engulfed in thick black smoke and visibility turned to zero. I was not able to see my own hands. I was knocked down a second time and when I picked myself up, I did not know what direction I was facing and which way to go to avoid running into the towers. I quickly remembered that I was on a one way street, so I used my hands to feel for the front of the parked vehicles to give me a sense of direction. From the start of the collapse to this point of the story took less than 20 seconds.

After I figured out which direction to run, I was faced with another challenge. The thick black smoke was also full of debris and particles from the building. My nose and throat had clogged and breathing became impossible. Suffocating and desperate, I had to put my hand in my mouth and down my throat to dig out the toxic debris that I inhaled and swallowed. But every time I heaved for oxygen, more of the debris would block my throat. So I unbuttoned my shirt and pulled my undershirt in front of my face and over my head to filter out the smoke. As I managed to walk a block down the street, I found a man trying to kick down a window of a building. I knew he was just trying to get in the building for safety and cleaner air. He was not able to knock down the window with repeated attempts but we were able to break it together. As he ran in through the window, he was nearly killed by large falling glass crashing from the top of the window frame. I followed him into the lobby and we felt a sense of relief. However, that sentiment did not last long.

 Within less than a minute of stepping into the building, other people from the outside also forced themselves in. Because of the openings in the windows, the lobby quickly absorbed the thick smoke we were all trying to avoid. So those people rushed to vacate the lobby. I somehow found the rotating exit door and I recalled that rotating doors were designed to keep air in and out of the building. So I parked myself in one of the slots of the rotating door and was fine for a while. Then some people ran into where I was hiding and forced me out. Once again, I found myself in the darkness outside the building. I ran across the street to try to enter another building. However, as I looked in from the outside, the building lobby was crowded beyond capacity and I was disturbed when they made no effort to open the door for me. My banging on the door was ignored and those inside all had the same blank zombie-like faces. As I stood there in utter silence, I heard faint cries for help in the distance and a frantic man’s voice behind me. The only words I was able to decipher from them were; “I can’t breathe”.

With many others, I struggled to walk down the street and breathing remained a battle until I finally found a delicatessen. I rushed in to grab a bottle of water and poured it down my throat, not caring that I was also swallowing the black silt that suffocated me. I noticed a young lady employee handing water to everyone who labored past her store. She was such an angel to so many people. Rejuvenated, I grabbed as many bottles of water as I was able to hold and ran back towards the towers. I found some people crawling or fighting to move on and quickly handed them water.

After I gave away all the water, I raced towards the Brooklyn Bridge and that was when I heard another low flying plane rapidly approaching. Once again, everyone around me scattered as fast as they can and the horror I was already feeling quickly multiplied. My mind just told me to run and do not stop. I was relieved when I realized it was a military jet fighter sent to secure the area.

However, the intensity of that morning was unforgiving. Standing less than half a mile away, I turned around to see the second tower collapse. From my perspective, it was a remarkable sight. As the rumble turned to silence, standing there motionless, the magnitude of the series of events that just occurred finally struck me with full force. Convinced that all of my coworkers and friends in the towers were dead, I collapsed and fell to my knees. This time, it took me a much longer time to pick myself up.

 I found myself walking through Chinatown when I felt the need for some water and I was amazed when the stores refused to offer their water for free especially to someone who clearly just went through hell. Desperate and disgusted, I threw all the cash in my pocket at the clerk for a small bottle of water. As I staggered on, I saw a clear reflection of myself on the side of a glass building and the only part of me that was not black was my eyes. I eventually walked over six miles to the Upper East Side to meet my mother, who had no idea if her only son was still alive.   The journey back home required another long walk to Queens with the largest migration on the Queensboro Bridge I have ever seen.

Three months later in my office, my coworkers found me in a random state of shock in front of my desk with tears running down my face. I had a number of sessions with a psychologist... Until now, I deal with the psychological damages from that day.

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Republished with permission.