My 9/11 Escape from the World Trade Center
A native New Yorker recounts her experience evacuating 2 WTC on 9/11 -- and how that day changed her life.
Glykeria Manis is a New Yorker through and through. I became good friends with her when I lived in New York a number of years ago. Glykeria was born on the far Upper West Side to Greek immigrant parents. She grew up near the Cloisters of Manhattan, went to high school at The Dwight School, graduated from Columbia University and Hunter College. On September 11, 2001, she was 22 years old and working as an assistant to a railway engineer at the Washington Group International, an engineering firm that occupied the 91st floor of 2 World Trade Center. When American Airlines Flight 11 hit 1 World Trade Center, she was making copies in an interior room. This is her account of that day and her experience in the aftermath.
"I was in the copy room for two minutes and when I came out, I saw a bunch of people at the windows. Where my desk was located, we had a perfect view of the first building. There were a bunch of coworkers gathered around my desk, watching in a sort of trance, in shock. The first thing I saw was a hole in the east side of the first tower that was growing. The steel of the building was peeling off like a banana and falling. It started getting bigger and then everything started getting sucked out of the building: papers, CDs, computers and eventually people.
"This one guy had his nosed pressed up against the window. You could feel the heat emanating from the glass. When the first man jumped, I watched my coworker as the body dropped. He was following the guy with his eyes. He may have seen the guy fall completely. I was standing a few feet from the window and couldn't see all of the way down. It was at that moment another guy in the group said, 'Lets' get the f**k out of here.' Everyone scattered.
"A coworker was next me, a Chinese man, mid-50s, an engineer with a very calm personality. I looked at him and said, 'I don't know where the stairs are. Can I walk with you?' He said sure. I grabbed my sweater and purse, he came with his briefcase and we started toward the stairs.
"On a normal day, for me to get down to the lobby, I had to take the local elevator from the 91st floor to the 76th floor, and then transfer to the express elevator to lobby. When we got into the stairwell, I realized I'd have to walk all the way down. As were getting lower, more and more people started entering the stairwell.
"People were acting completely random. Women were going down the stairs in stilettos. I thought, 'Why don't you just take off your shoes? Everyone could walk more quickly that way.' One guy started pushing people to get down faster. This other lady was reaching over my shoulder to grab the woman in front of me. I figured they were friends, so I asked her, 'Would you like to step in front of me?' I thought that was easier than reaching over my shoulder and risking all of us taking a tumble down the stairs. Why didn't she think of that?
"At one point it hit me really hard: 'I have to get out NOW!' It hit me in my heart, in my chest. When I looked up, it said Floor 76. I pulled myself out from the stream of people, reached through the crowd, grabbed my coworker's hand, and pulled him out.
"I said, 'OK, I think we should take the elevator but I'm scared.' "He said, 'Ok, we'll open the door, and if it's safe, we'll go out.' "We didn't know what kind of hell we were going to see. I wanted to get out of that stairwell, but I was scared, and I knew I was taking a really big risk. I had a coworker tell me later that he had been in the elevator and as soon as they got to the lobby, the second plane hit. We decided that if it didn't look safe, we wouldn't go through the door.
"We opened the door, and there was not a single person on the floor. Normally there were security guards. But it was so quiet, it was eerie. I looked to the left, and out the window the only thing I could see was blue. Clear sky. Peaceful. It was so beautiful and peaceful that it scared the s**t out of me.
"All of sudden I heard 'ding.' Directly across from us, the elevator doors opened. I hadn't even seen them. We went in and immediately the elevator filled with people who followed us. It was jammed packed in there and it was silent. Nobody was speaking. You could feel the tension in the air; it was so heavy. All I kept thinking was, 'Is this elevator going to make it down?' I knew there was a chance I could die, but I also thought that if I had stayed on the stairs, I would die. I believe that if I hadn't been with my coworker, maybe I would have stayed on the stairs. Maybe having another person there who was calm helped me make that decision.
"When the elevators finally reached the bottom, I thought, 'Let's go let's go let's go let's go let's go.' We wanted to exit through the south doors, but the fire department redirected us. I went out the east door because that was the next closest doorway to me, but some people went north toward the plaza. I didn't go out toward the plaza. Later, people said that it was a sea of blood and body parts, the whole plaza had turned red. When I opened the door to exit on the east side, I looked at my feet stepping out onto the concrete. I took a huge breath of air, my lungs filled with it. I couldn't believe I made it out. 'I'm out!' I thought.
"I was standing with my back up against the door I had just exited. It was all open in front of me. I felt like I was in a war zone. I wondered, 'Where do I run? Where do I go where it's safe?' Even though I wanted to get away from what was behind me, in front of me was open space. If I ran out, I'd be exposed. Maybe this is why some people lingered. People told me later they didn't know where to go.
"In front of me there was a couple, they were looking at the building and the girl was pointing. I could see the look on her face was pure terror. I told myself, 'I'm not going to look. If that's what's going on behind me, I'm going to keep going forward.' I put my hand over my head in case there was flying debris and I said to myself, 'Just go!' "In the moments when I was at the door and crossing the street, there was a surreal, slow-motion quality; everything felt like it was taking a lot longer to happen. It was like a movie where you could see things, but you couldn't hear them. Maybe it was two or three minutes, but it felt like half an hour. Time was different. Space was different. The fact that it was surreal might be why people were unable to respond. When something is outside your normal experience, you don't know how to respond, you don't have a point of reference.
"I crossed Church Street along the east side and got to the northwest corner of Cortland and Church Street. I ducked under the overhead in front of the Brooks Brothers. When I got there, I felt it was safe to turn around. I saw my coworker going up the street. He was already going somewhere else, off in another direction. I saw the chaos growing and more debris was falling out and the hole kept growing. I remember this one man who fell from the first tower. When he fell, it looked like his body was a piece of paper floating down. It was doing this left-to-right 'U' motion. Maybe by that point, he had already passed out. It's like his body had no life already. I didn't look to see if he landed. I couldn't look at that. I turned away. People were taking pictures. A guy was videotaping from Cortland, and I thought, 'How can you be videotaping this?' "I walked east along Cortland, toward Broadway, and I was less than halfway up the block when I heard the second plane, the sound of its engine revving up for more speed. It was so loud, it felt like it was exactly above my head, and it forced me to look up. I remember seeing the silver underbelly of a plane. I followed the sound and the silver light toward the building.
"So this is where it gets confusing in terms of what happened. Afterward, everyone said that the plane was going south and made a U-turn and hit the south side of the building traveling north. But I experienced it differently from where I was. I thought I saw it enter the building from the east.
"All of a sudden...BOOM! There was a huge explosion. I never saw anything so red in my life. It was red like blood, like anger. It felt like it was coming through me, it was so powerful. I had just been sitting where it hit. If I hadn't evacuated when I did, I don't know if I would have made it out. I thought the whole building was going to explode and land on top of me, and I threw myself to the ground. Once that explosion happened, everyone just started running in every direction. People were screaming and mayhem broke loose. Prior to that, people were panicked, but it seemed like a slow-motion panic. After the second plane hit, it was like somebody hit the PLAY button and the speed of everyone on the street changed. Once I realized I was okay, I got up and continued walking.
"I thought we were under attack. I thought that more buildings were going to be hit. The fact that it took a few minutes between the two attacks, I thought that more planes were on the way. I was trying to figure it out. I started strategizing if I were attacking New York, what would I hit next? Landmark buildings and sites? But then I thought, 'No, they're going to hit the bridges, isolate Manhattan and then bomb it.' "So I decided to head for the Seaport. I wanted to get away from the buildings. I thought if they bomb the bridges, I'll jump in the water. I was prepared to swim to Brooklyn. On the way, a woman asked to use my cell phone but there was no reception. She said she was a freelance writer for the New York Times. We walked together to the Seaport. I asked her, 'What are you going to do?' She said she was going to Queens and had to take the Queensboro Bridge. I said, 'I'm not getting on any bridge.' "The Seaport was completely deserted. As I approached, I saw a guy sitting on a bench on South Street. He had his headphones on and was bopping his head to the music and getting into the song. I stared at him, stunned. I tried to use a pay phone but I couldn't get through to anyone. It wasn't connecting. I left and started walking north up the FDR Highway. As I was going north, I saw black cars with black-tinted windows speeding down the highway. They were CIA or FBI or something. It was really weird because it was just car after car and there were no other cars on the highway except them and it was like a parade of black-tinted cars. I also passed a police precinct on my left with a big group of officers out front. They must have been getting instructions before heading down to the site."
Eventually a friend of Glykeria's reached her on her cell phone and they met at 59th and Lexington. Together, they rode a bus that was going uptown. They took it to 190th Street and stayed with Glykeria's parents.
"I remember the first night I could not fall asleep. I was afraid that something might happen during the night. I slept only a couple of hours. I woke up gasping for air, like in a panic. I was telling myself, 'Hurry up. Open your eyes!' When I did, I saw it was blue, I thought, 'Thank God another day.' But then I wondered what had happened and if we would continue to get bombed.
"A week later, I took the A train to 42nd Street. I was going down to a meeting for work. It was the first time since that day that I was going to be reunited with all of my coworkers. When I was on the train, everyone was looking around at each other and you could feel how somber the mood was. I hadn't realized how much it had affected so many people.
"When I got above ground, I looked south and the buildings weren't there. I had fond memories of going to the World Trade Center, to Windows of the World, before I ever started working at the Towers. That was my favorite spot in all of New York. The view from Windows of the World was the most immaculate view of the city. No matter where you were in the city, you could always see the Towers. On that day, they just weren't there. I started to cry.
Like everyone closely associated with the events of those days, Glykeria has had ten years to reflect. She has participated in at least one study that used MRIs to analyze the brain activity of people who experienced trauma on that day, and she has registered with the WTC Health Registry, which tracks illnesses and recovery related to the events. Recently, she was interviewed by Greek artist Despina Meimaroglou for a sound and video installation that is being displayed in Washington D.C. for the 9/11 Arts Project. I asked Glykeria if she suffered any side effects, such as flashbacks or survivor guilt.
"One time, I was driving and coming off of a ramp that made a three-quarter turn. It was sloping down in almost a circle. There were patches of green on the other side. As I was turning and facing the opposite direction, a plane was over my head and it looked as if the plane was coming at me nose-to-nose. It was right above me and facing me. I was near an Air Force base, and they were doing exercises and the planes were low to the ground. I screamed and veered off into the grass. Afterward I was fine, but it was almost as if I had a flashback. It wasn't that low. At the same time, I thought it was going to find me and hit me. That was a very strange little incident.
"I don't know how much survivor guilt I have. Sometimes I think if I would have stayed, I might have been able to help. It was a miracle I got out and walked away with just a scratch. I do think there was some divine intervention that told me where to go. It was too perfect. It was like somebody was showing me how to get out.
"Also, my thought process changed. Something shifted inside me and life had new meaning. I believe that other people who experience life-and-death situations might experience the same feeling.
"For example, when I saw people arguing, I would wonder why they were wasting their life having an argument. I would think, 'It doesn't mean anything. Just move on. There are so many things to do.' "Another time, I went to the supermarket, I was just staring at a tomato and thinking it was the most perfect piece of art I had ever seen. It was red, it had this beautiful green stem, it was not too hard, not too soft, a beautiful smell. It had a thin film of dirt or something on it, and I thought 'It's okay, I'll wash it off.' "It made me recall the memories of picking fresh vegetables on a farm in Greece when I was a child and, simultaneously, of the time I ran through a glass door that damaged the right side of my body and left a scar on my forehead. I had to laugh to myself. It was the most amazing tomato I have ever held in my hand! At once, it brought all these images into my mind, and I realized I was replaying my life in an instant as a way to remember and hold onto and savor every moment. I also realized that my life would not be the same, not if I didn't take the time to appreciate everything as a new opportunity. Holding that tomato allowed me to reflect and to ponder the mystery of life's turns. Yesterday I was ready to swim to Brooklyn in the East River, and today I am holding the most beautiful tomato I've ever seen and holding it in my own hand.
"Every single moment contains so much meaning if only we could take the time to absorb it, to internalize it, respond and give back to the world. Being in the moment and appreciating life -- I understood it in a completely different way, and that is something that never left me."
Today, Glykeria Manis lives in Brooklyn and works as a social worker in Manhattan. In her free time, she dances Argentinian tango.