It was loud the first time, but this time it was ear-splitting, bone-chilling, knee-trembling… every-damn-body-part-shaking, all multiplied by about a million. And this second blast was topped off by a frightening wind, so I suppose it was hair-flapping as well.
The resulting storm of noise was so far beyond loud there needs to be another word coined to describe it. If there is such a thing as exponential noise, of sound and fury that increases by uncountable multiples – beyond comprehension, beyond registering – then this certainly qualified.
… The wind seemed just shy of gale force, and I learned later it was caused by a mountain of compressed air tumbling down the tower as it buckled in on itself, and as it came roaring, ripping towards me I knew what was coming. This, I’m thinking, was the worst part of the rumbling stampede, the fact that I knew what it meant. There were guys in that stairwell who still had no idea the south tower had come down, who likely had no time to process the sudden wind and noise for what it was, and for them, I suppose, these next moments were unsettling without also being terrifying. But not for me. It was 29 minutes after ten o’clock in the morning, not a half-hour since the first tower had fallen, and I suppose if I hadn’t just lived through the same muted roar across the plaza, and learned of the destruction that had come with it, I would have saved myself a few seconds of complete anguish and fear. As it happened, though, I knew. In a split second, I knew. And I knew for certain. There was no mistaking these sounds for anything else. There was no mistaking the sick rush of wind. There was no mistaking the violent, all-over shaking. It was all terribly, terrifyingly clear. I even found time to give these thoughts voice, I learned afterwards, because as it registered what was happening, I blurted out, ‘Oh shit, here it comes!’ Not exactly the most memorable parting phrase in the history of last words, but I said it without thinking. In fact, I don’t even remember saying anything, but a couple of guys told me later they could hear my voice where they stood, on the sixth floor or the fifth – and for the most part they had already come to the same conclusion.
… At a time like this, when the end is pretty much certain, we do what we have to do. We do what comes.
Me? I ran. I bolted down those stairs, between the seventh floor and the sixth floor, like my life depended on it – which, in a very basic way, I guess it did. It wasn’t a logical move, but it was a move. It was some way to take action, something to do. …
I was on the landing between the seventh and sixth floor when it hit. At least, that’s where I place myself in recollection. I could have made it all the way down to the sixth, but I seem to recall pulling up on the return landing, about to zag back down the next half-flight. All along the building had been shaking, rocking like crazy, and here it was shaking so hard it was an effort to keep my balance. Beams started falling. Big chunks of concrete. All kinds of shit, just raining down on me, like a friggin’ plague. Raining down on us, I should say, because I wasn’t the only one on those stairs. Even now, at the very end, I didn’t stop running, hurtling down those stairs with everything I had left, making the turn on the landing. I pressed on, until finally a beam or a plank or some blunt object hit me on the head and sent me reeling. Knocked my helmet off, too. Whatever it was had whacked me pretty good, and I was down and thinking that would be it.
But that wasn’t it. The noise kept coming. The debris kept falling. The building kept shaking. And I was still breathing, and conscious, and alert to the whole damn thing.
I tried to stand, but stumbled before I could right myself, and in the stumbling I cursed the fact that I was still alive. Really, I was pissed. And afraid. I should have been dead by now. I’d hoped I’d be dead by now. So much for praying it would be quick. I’d thought it would be instantaneous, however it was gonna happen, but this was taking way too much time. This was torture.
All of this unfolded in a blip. The south tower had taken ten seconds to come down, and this one would take only eight seconds, according to published reports after the attack. Once again, eight seconds doesn’t seem to cut it, in my estimation. It had to have been longer. Three or four times longer. How else to explain these runaway thoughts, these stops and starts as I made to escape, these twists and turns? But I suppose there’s no explaining it, this stretching out of time.
I did manage to stand, finally, only as soon as I got to my feet the landing fell away. Like a trap door. It was there, and then it wasn’t there, and as it fell I moved with it. The weird thing is, I don’t really recall hearing any noise at this point. Either it was so deeply ingrained and so much a part of this harrowing scene it had quickly become like background music, to where I no longer noticed it, or it had become quieter. This last makes sense, when I think about it, because by this point much of the wreckage had settled into the sub-basement and surrounding area; by the time it reached my little landing between seven and six there was hardly any noise left to be made. And you know how it is at the silent end of a great racket. There’s this eerie hollow, this audible emptiness. This giant nothing-at-all where there had only recently been everything, and too, too much, and it was into this space that I fell as well.
Please, God, make it quick.
Actually, it was more ride than fall, more slide than drop, because as the landing gave way, the rubble it became kinda cascaded and skated along, bumping up against walls and stairs and railings and beams and whatever the hell else was in its path. I was a big piece of debris, hurtling through the shell of that stairwell. There was a brief stomach-dropping falling sensation, mixed with all kinds of banging and tumbling, and then a descent in slow motion, and the reason it felt like slow motion, I later figured, was because it wasn’t a sheer drop. It was slow motion – sort of. Anyway, it was slower than I would have thought. It was like being on the rough end of a relentless rockslide. …
At some point during this wild ride, the lights went out. I didn’t notice them going, and it’s possible I had my eyes closed to what was happening, but when I opened them there was nothing to see. Just blackness, all around. Nothing more. The kind of blackness you need to raise your arms against, to cover yourself, for protection, because you’ve got no idea what’s coming, or from what direction. But there was nothing coming, nothing still falling. There was no more noise.
… And here’s another weird piece: I didn’t land. There was no big trauma, or impact, when the falling stopped. It just stopped. I had my bunker gear on, which offered some degree of padding and protection, but no way was I impact-proof; I was getting whacked and paddled and smacked around pretty good, and then all of a sudden the whacking and paddling and smacking sort of stopped. It lasted for a few good seconds, and at the other end there was nothing. …
Another Excerpt from Last Man Down ~~09:59am~~
Another Excerpt from Last Man Down ~~10:00am~~