A few days after that terrible tragedy, I was going stir crazy, so I took a walk in the neighborhood. From where I lived in Sunset Park Brooklyn, lower Manhattan could easily be seen and served as a constant reminder. As I walked and pondered my life, I bumped into my friend Willie.
“Hey Jeff, what are you doing?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess I just needed to get out and clear my head. I have been having trouble sleeping also.” “Me too!” Willie said, “I couldn’t take it anymore in the house. I can’t stand watching it over and over again on TV. It’s driving me crazy. I can’t talk about it because they don’t get it. I wish I could go to work and get busy, but I guess my job is gone also, there is no work to return to.”
Willie worked in an office building adjacent to one of the towers. There was an atrium on his floor with a great view. At some point, Willie was instructed to make sure his floor was cleared out of the building. He would be the last one to leave. Quickly, Willie rushed everyone down the fire stairwell and reviewed the floor to ensure no one was left behind. Then he began to go downstairs.
Just as he was about to exit the building, one of his co-workers shouted, “Oh I left my cell phone upstairs! I need to call my daughter.” “No!” Willie shouted “forget the phone we have to get out.” She darted past Willie and began to run up the stairs. Willie followed, yelling at her to stop.
Finally, she arrived at her desk, Willie right behind her. She grabbed her phone when in an instant, a jumper’s body crashed on the glass right in front of her face. She fell to the floor unconscious, and Willie quickly scooped her up, threw her over his shoulder, and carried her down the stairs. He carried her out the building and made it about a block away when then Tower 2 collapsed.
He found himself suffocating and blinded in a cloud of dust. He tried to use his shirt to filter as much as he could as he tried to block out of his mind what he was breathing in. Willie eventually made his way to the Brooklyn Bridge which was bottlenecked with thousands of people trying to get across. He finally did make it home walking about 7pm.
After listening to Willie, my issues seemed smaller. Willie is an average young man, and that experience left him emotionally scarred. It took him a long time to come to terms with everything and recover balance in his life again.
Unlike firefighters and police officers, he had no training for dealing with emergency situations. Being your average office worker, he also was not conditioned physically to lift a body and run with it the way he did. Nothing could have prepared him emotionally to live the traumatic experience he had that day and see the things he witnessed.
All I can say is that in a moment in time Willie, an ordinary guy stood up and became a hero. He saved a women’s life, a mother. Humbly, Willie would never toot his own horn for what he did that day. He doesn’t consider himself a hero especially after pondering all the ones that lost their life that day trying to get people out.
No one knows how any one of us would really react at any given moment in an emergency. If it ever happens to me, I hope I can react like Willie.