New York

'I Saw Bodies Falling Out -- Oh, God, Jumping, Falling'

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2001

NEW YORK, Sept. 11 -- Valerie Johnson stared, transfixed, at the inferno a thousand yards to her south and west. Tears streamed furrows through a film of ash on her face. Her mind tried to grasp what her eyes beheld: a blazing gash across the tower of wealth that symbolized New York for her all her life. The fire marched downward, floor by floor, windows bursting out ahead of the flames.

Then Johnson screamed a guttural, wordless wail. A sound like nothing she ever heard -- low as thunder, but louder and longer -- pressed in on her chest for ten seconds or more, resounding through Centre Street at Foley Square. The northern tower, the taller of the two, was gone. It was 10:29 a.m., an hour and three quarters after the first of two jetliners ripped through New York's twin emblems of global prestige.

"Oh God, oh God, my niece works in that building," Johnson breathed. "Oh God."

Where we stood there now came a roiling cloud -- smoke and ash, ten stories tall, building speed as they reached the canyons of Manhattan's southern tip. Survivors streamed, choked and gagging, behind the cloud. Among them, stumbling blindly toward the fountain at Foley Square, were Elizabeth Belleau and Melissa Morales, strangers grasping hands with all their might as they ran. Belleau plunged her head into the cooling waters and retched, coughing out ash and phlegm. The fountain enclosed a sculpture: "Triumph of the Human Spirit."

Belleau had been running for nearly two hours. Her morning commute on the BM-3 bus had stalled, then transformed to horror as the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel filled with smoke. The panicked driver abandoned the bus, and firefighters directed passengers to a makeshift triage station on Greenwich Street, just south of the burning towers.

"I saw bodies falling out of the World Trade Center -- oh, God, jumping, falling, glass and smoke," Belleau said, heaving at the image. Then Tower One collapsed, and the world turned black. No sign of the triage station remained, nor of most of the emergency workers who guided her there. Belleau linked hands with five strangers, but lost them all. Later she found Morales, a voice in the dark.

It had taken a fistful of cash to a limousine driver, followed by a hitched ride on a Harley Davidson, to bring me this far south from upper Manhattan. A walk further down through the financial district, bypassing police barricades, revealed a hellscape. Within minutes of the first collapse, ashes were ankle deep for block after city block. Nearer the spot where the towers had been, the ashes were knee deep and higher. Hundreds of small fires blazed.

Here and there stood survivors, in all the myriad displays of human shock.

Elaine Greenberg, a retired teacher, could not get over the broken vista, not at all as she felt certain it ought to be. "The Woolworth Building is the high building down there," she said, astonished.

Others could speak only of the jumpers, desperate beyond comprehension, leaping to certain death from the 80th, 90th, 100th floors.

"Look, mommy," 2-year-old William Watt had said, pointing to the tiny figures plunging down. Strangers grappled his 5-year-old sister aloft in her wheelchair and ran toward evacuation boats on the Hudson River. Monica Watt looked back, then held William tighter and turned her face away. She had no words to answer.

Jet A, the standard aviation fuel, is rated to produce 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Not much of a skyscraper's flesh and bones is supposed to burn, but the towers served for chimneys as floors collapsed into shafts. "I don't know what it was like up there, but it must have been hell," said firefighter Paul Curran of New York Fire Patrol 3, covered in a thick coat of gray ash outside a makeshift command post in the Gee Whiz restaurant at Greenwich and Warren streets. "There were a lot of jumpers. I saw bodies hit the upper level concrete of the second floor overhang of Tower One. Others were falling into West Street."

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