Note: We pause today to remember the attacks of 9/11 that claimed nearly 3,000 lives.
Jaime Vallecilla, a graduate of St. Raymond’s Boys High School in the Bronx and a classmate of many of the About Men Radio crew members, shares his harrowing account of being at One World Financial Center on the day of the attacks 14 years ago.
Fourteen years later, it is still difficult to recall the events of that day.
A single event transformed the lives of so many and changed the way we live our lives in the modern era.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I had recently started a new assignment for a mutual funds company based in One World Financial Center. After three weeks at the site, I was finally growing accustomed to my surroundings and was hoping for a lengthy contract.
I arrived at the office at 7:30 a.m. as was typical for me. Traveling from New Jersey, I liked to stay ahead of the height of the morning commute. It was close to 9 a.m. when I received a phone call from my wife and she told me that a plane had struck the World Trade Center.
I immediately thought a private citizen had lost control of his plane and had crashed into the tower.
Only two years before, John F. Kennedy Jr. had crashed his plane off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. A tragedy in either case, but I didn’t give it too much attention.
I continued working.
Just a few seconds later, I heard my coworker shout “Oh my God!” as he stared out of the office window. I ran to join him.
The scene outside was chaos.
I looked across the street and saw two Lincoln Town cars smashed together. The two drivers were just staring blankly ahead, probably trying to process what was happening.
The parking lot in the background had cars that were in flames.
A woman was shrieking in the middle of the road. I followed her body positioning and realized why she was screaming.
Strewn across the road in front of her were human remains. An ambulance arrived a few seconds later and covered the parts with sheets.
I then saw thousands of tiny pieces of paper floating from the building, each of them smoking or on fire. I could not believe how the fire continued to spread at the top of the building.
“What happened to the sprinkler system?” I wondered.
“Let’s go people!” shouted my manager to the group of us on the floor.
Pat was a retired NYPD veteran who had discovered a passion for information technology after his police life was completed. He was on the force at the time of the first World Trade Center bombing and his sixth sense was tingling.
We single-filed down the back staircase and exited the building through the basement door and onto the street.
The street was filled with people. The police were trying to set up a perimeter and keep people away from the building and the firefighters raced toward the building in their full gear.
I stayed close to my colleagues waiting for further instructions from our managers. After a couple of minutes, I saw some people pointing to the top of the building. A woman standing next to me exclaimed, “Oh, God no!” and started crying.
I adjusted my eyes and realized what they were looking at.
People were jumping from the upper floors of the building. One after another, some even holding hands and jumping together. I was horrified and couldn’t bear to watch anymore.
I walked away from the North Tower and toward the South Tower, trying to keep my colleagues in view. After a few minutes, I heard a loud, deep rumbling noise and I turned my head to see what it was.
The airliner was big and moving quickly but I thought that it was flying way too low. The unthinkable happened as it slammed right into the South Tower.
I thought for sure I would be hit with debris but the airliner was seemingly swallowed by the building and spit out on the opposite side.
There was a collective gasp from the crowd. I started running, and so did everyone else. A woman next to me kicked off her expensive high-heel shoes and took off running barefoot.
At this point I knew this was no accident and had no way of knowing what was coming next. I took out my phone and called home. I was hoping to reach my wife and just hear her voice, if just for one last time.
The phone connection never happened so I said a quick prayer and continued to run. I reached a point where I had to decide what to do: Should I run uptown or run toward the NY Waterway Ferry?
I ran toward the ferry.
There was a ferry already at the dock and I ran right onto it, past the ticket-taker who tried to grab my arm as I ran by him. Seconds later an announcement was made over the loudspeaker to load the ferry and leave the dock. A few more people boarded and the boat left.
It was a short boat ride across the river but long enough to observe the people around me. A woman across from me was lying across the bench in a fetal position, rocking and sobbing.
Others desperately asked around for a working cellphone but there weren’t any.
As we reached New Jersey, I tried calling home again but I still could not get through. I just needed to get home.
I went to the NJ PATH station, jumped the turnstile and boarded the train. It filled up quickly and the conductor got us out of the station.
I was in the last train car. As we emerged from the tunnel, I looked out of the little window facing the rear of the train car and I saw a large cloud of something but I couldn’t tell what it was.
The man sitting next to me had a portable radio and he was giving updates. He said the North Tower had collapsed. He also said the Pentagon had also been struck by an airliner.
Hearing this news just increased my urgency to get home.
Arriving at the Newark Penn Station train station gave me some comfort as I knew that I was closer to home.
The train car I boarded was full and it’s true what they say happens in times of crisis, your humanity kicks in and you try and help those around you even if they are complete strangers to you.
There were people covered in dust; people offered them tissues, water and whatever snacks they could find.
The passengers around me shared their stories with me and it was surreal how quickly people could bond over this traumatic event.
I was the first stop off the train and I said a quick goodbye to my new train friends. I rushed to my car and glanced around the parking lot.
I wondered how many people would never be picking up their car and returning home.
I sat in the car, took a deep breath and called home. My wife answered the phone and broke down when I told her I was fine and on my way home. I don’t really remember the drive home. I just remember pulling up to my house and seeing a bunch of cars in my driveway.
I walked into my house and embraced my wife. My house was filled with family members and neighbors, all lending their support.
For the next few hours I repeated my story to family, friends and neighbors and I was also riveted to the television, trying to understand the full scope of what had just happened.
I received a call later that evening from my contract employer to make sure I was accounted for. They said they would call me later in the week to discuss work logistics.
A week later I was asked if I was OK with working in Boston. With no income coming in, I readily agreed. Another week passed and I received another phone call letting me know that they couldn’t accommodate me in Boston.
I received two weeks’ pay and a “good luck to you” send-off.
With no work prospects in sight and social media yet to be invented, I said a lot of prayers and reached out to as many friends as I could for job leads. I was lucky to land another contract a month later, but it was in the heart of ground zero.
I walked along Broadway every morning and passed the wall of missing person signs on the fence of Trinity Church. A sea of faces smiling at you and tearing you up inside because you knew there would be no happy reunions.
I did that walk five days a week for eight months. The pictures remained; a makeshift shrine to the victims of that awful day. That charred, horrid smell lasted that long as well.
In the present day, I am forever changed because of the events of that day.
Every fire alarm that sounds in the building I take seriously. Prior to 9/11, I would just ignore them and keep working.
I have a heightened sense of awareness of the people and things around me. I am always looking to see what just doesn’t belong. I sometimes scour the skies to see if any planes are flying just a tad too low
For my son’s birthday this year he asked to spend the day in New York City and visit the 9/11 museum. My wife was a little apprehensive but agreed to go. As you entered the museum, the displays quickly bring you right back to that day.
I passed the room where there was a photograph of each of the victims who died that day.
I took my children inside to show them the friends I had lost that day.
Frank Schott (pronounced “shot”) was a coworker during my early days on Wall Street. He was a quiet, bright guy who was as conservative as they come. We would tease him by calling him “Money” Schott and we would ask him when his next feature film would be playing at the Globe Theater in the Bronx that specialized in adult movies.
He couldn’t help but laugh.
Frank never made it home that day.
JennieAnn Maffeo was another coworker who was a calming force in the sea of troubled IT projects. I don’t think I ever saw her without a smile on her face.
On Sept. 11, she was waiting for the shuttle bus to the NY Waterway ferry and was doused with jet fuel after the first plane hit. She was burned over 98 percent of her body and endured 14 surgeries over the next 41 days until her body could no longer fight that fight.
Alan Feinberg was a fierce competitor on the softball field and I always looked forward to facing his team. We had those classic back and forth matches that became trash talk fodder until the next time we faced each other.
It was no surprise that Alan raced to the World Trade Center as part of Battalion 9 to help those in need.
He perished along with 14 others from his firehouse.
John Burnside and Joe Kellett were my high school classmates.
John was a firefighter and Joe a stock trader. Both of them still had so much more living to do.
My children listened as I told some of these stories and they understood why I get emotional watching the 9/11 memorial telecasts.
I am working in the financial district again, my third tour of duty.
On the way to work, my bus passes the Freedom Tower and I silently pay homage to all those who were lost that day similar to the way Catholics make the sign of the cross when they pass a cemetery.
It’s a constant reminder that I will never forget, nor should anyone ever forget.