One week later: A St. Thomas journalism grad shares his memories of the New York tragedy

(Editor’s Note: The author of the following article, Niles Randolph, is a 2000 graduate of the University of St. Thomas and was editor of The Aquin in spring semester of 2000. A journalism major at St. Thomas, Randolph now works for the Wall Street Journal Online in New York. The Bulletin Today thanks him for taking time to share his story with the St. Thomas community.)

By Niles Randolph

My story pales in comparison to others’. But the sights, sounds and stories I took in will burn on my brain forever.

I was home, safe on East Fourth Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan, about 20 blocks away, when tragedy struck the World Trade Center. Only three weeks before, I would have been working at the time of the catastrophe in World Financial Center One, which is right across the street from the World Trade Center.

They often show my building now on TV, connected to the remaining skyway, its windows blown out. I’m a copy editor there for the Wall Street Journal Online.

Three weeks before, I would have been at work at the time of the crash, but my start time had just changed from 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. On Monday, as every workday, I got off the subway at around 1:30 p.m. and walked through the throngs of people on basement level of the World Trade Center. The Friday before I stood in line with my mom and dad to get discount tickets for "The Lion King" in the south tower of World Trade Center.

When I first arrived in New York, I went to the bar at the top of the north tower. I would regularly eat lunch in the plaza between towers. But on that terrible day, I would be nowhere near the madness. My co-workers would.

My roommate Seth banged on my bedroom door at 9:15 a.m., yelling repeatedly that planes had hit the World Trade Center. Still under a veil of sleep (I had stayed up until 3 a.m.), I flung on my shorts and leaped up the one flight of stairs to our roof to see smoke billowing from burning pits on the towers.

I froze at the sight and cursed in disbelief. It was like a bad big-budget disaster movie, one I probably wouldn’t go see. I honestly thought it was a dream because I was still groggy from sleep. I kept asking Seth, "Is this real?" There were other people on our roof and bunches of people on surrounding roofs, all taking in the madness.

I tried to call my mom to tell her I was all right, but my cell phone wouldn’t work because everyone in the city was using theirs at once. But she knew I worked at 2 p.m. and she knew what building I was in, so that was some consolation.

We stood up on the roof for a few minutes speculating that it was a terrorist attack and who it might be. We thought the madness was over, that the fires would soon go out. I thought of the people, instantly killed, and I felt helpless and sad.

We went downstairs to learn the hard facts on CNN. As we were watching, Seth said he was impressed the building stayed up. But at 10 a.m. we saw some chunks falling from the south tower. We had our TV on, but also we could watch the top one-fifth from our window. We started yelling when we saw the horrible clouds coming from the collapsing tower. We ran to the roof where we caught the tail end of the building falling. A woman on the roof who was crying, buckled over and yelling "all the people!" As a man walked in front of me, he looked at me and said "all the firefighters."

I couldn’t respond, I stood there paralyzed, with my mouth open, unable to speak. I could not wrap my mind around this. I kept looking over at my roommate. A piece of the skyline, gone. Unfathomable. The people inside — horrible!

Eventually we went back down to learn more on TV. Around 10:30 a.m., newscasters said they thought the north tower was leaning. We noticed on television and out the window when it started crumbling. We were yelling, standing on our couch to see out the window. We went to the roof where we talked with complete strangers in angry tones about massive retaliation.

Meanwhile, my co-worker, a reporter from Minnesota, ran out of the office to interview witnesses right after the first plane struck. She got past security and walked across the skyway over West Side Highway that leads to the street level.

There she saw luggage on the sidewalk, papers on fire, fruit carts overturned. She saw body parts, including a woman’s head. She saw remains of people strapped into airplane seats. She ducked behind a building when the second plane hit and frantically made her way south, then east. She met up with three other of my co-workers, who had all evacuated after the second plane hit.

When the first tower fell, they ran for their lives. They hid in a building under construction, then moved to the shore of the Hudson River. Later, many of my co-workers would say they
didn’t know what was going on at the time. Eight from my department were there.

Amid tears, one would say she ran for her life, never looking back. One woman yelled she couldn’t run any more. Others encouraged her on. Some co-workers were covered with the white soot. Some covered their mouths with a wet towel. Many of them saw people jumping from the World Trade Center. My co-workers got on a tugboat, which took them to New Jersey. Women and children were told to board first. All, in the end, were safe, though very shaken, and permanently scarred.

Back at my place, I still wanted to contact my mom and let her know I was OK. Repeated attempts on the cell phone produced nothing. So I went down to Second Avenue to find a payphone on the street. There were lines at each phone. People were very anxious to call their loved ones. I called my mom and told her I was OK, that I was at home and safe, but couldn’t talk right now because of the line of people.

I became very emotional then. I almost cried when crossing Second Avenue, as it was the first time I was not with my roommate. I thought about all of the innocent people who had nothing to do with our foreign policy toward the terrorists.

Finally, when cell phones were working again, I called work and no one responded, so I assumed they evacuated. I took a shower and wept.

The touching thing was the outpouring of friends, family and former classmates who e-mailed or called to see if I was all right and offer their support and prayers. From across the nation, phone calls and e-mails came. Thank you for your support. It made this horrible time easier.

We can’t go into our building maybe for a year or two, our boss told us the other day. Most of the windows on the north and east side are blown out. Our lobby is destroyed, covered in the white soot, and looks not unlike the submerged Titanic. All of our possessions are still there at the office. The skyway my reporter co-worker walked over was twisted, its mouth destroyed.

On Wednesday, they had us take a train to South Brunswick, N. J., where Dow Jones is based. News never stops, especially at a time like this, so we couldn’t either. They put us up in hotels and bed and breakfasts in the quiet town of Princeton, N.J., away from the Manhattan atmosphere of madness and fear.

The people who had run from the collapsing building were clearly still emotionally affected and I would spend a lot of time listening to their stories.

On our second day back at work I saw a co-worker and friend, Lisa, whom I hadn’t seen yet. "Where were you when it all happened?" I asked.

"At home," she said quietly, not looking up. There was an awkward silence.

"Were you awake for everything?" I asked, wondering if I should proceed.

"My mom called me after the first plane," she said quietly. She started crying.

"Oh my God, did you know anyone … ?"

"My brother works in the World Trade Center … ."

"Oh my God, I’m sorry. Oh my God … ."

"But he was flying on business that day."