Before making his way down the burning, crumbling North Tower, Srinath Jinadasa stopped to water his begonias.
It was the sort of calculation an engineer would make, an attempt to maintain rational thought in an irrational circumstance.
For the Port Authority engineer, the emergency had a sense of déja vu: He’d been working in that same office eight years earlier when a bomb went off in the basement of the World Trade Center.
Back in 1993, the biggest inconvenience was a few hours spent waiting for the smoke to clear. When he was able to return days later, his plants had withered and died.
So when the building shook and started to smoke, “It was a bit, ‘Here we go again.’ ”
After watering the flowers on the windowsill by his desk, he grabbed a pair of flashlights, a jacket and wet paper towels.
By the time Mr. Jinadasa and a couple of colleagues started down from the 74th floor, there was only a smattering of stragglers in the stairwell.
George Sleigh, a naval architect with the bureau of shipping, was among them. After his 91st-floor office collapsed around him in a shower of ceiling tiles and flying books, he paused to grab his briefcase before heading down. “It just had my phone book and my lunch, I think.”
Once at the ground-floor concourse, Mr. Jinadasa came across his colleague, Joseph Kelly. He remembers passing bloody clothing and red-stained windows, but didn’t stick around.
They barely got a few metres closer to the exit when they were overtaken by a roar and a cloud of dust as the adjacent tower collapsed.
Enveloped in darkness, ankle-deep in debris, Mr. Jinadasa pulled Mr. Kelly’s foot free of fallen tiles and they headed out of the building.
Sprinkled with water and coated in dust, they just kept walking – past emergency responders, ambulance stations and onlookers.
All they could think about was getting away from the rubble. So the phalanx of photographers at the corner of Broadway and Fulton was just one more gauntlet to run as they headed instinctively north.
“They were just shooting away,” Mr. Jinadasa says, but they barely registered. “I thought, ‘Uh-huh, people are taking photographs. … Let’s get out of here.’ ”
He feels foolish when he recalls the shell-shocked logic that propelled them uptown.
“It was confusion. … We didn’t want to go near City Hall, because we thought that might be a target. I stayed away from the Empire State Building.”
It took an attentive cop hustling Mr. Sleigh into an ambulance to jar him into noticing his leg was gashed, his pants soaked with blood.
“We just walked out,” he said. “We just kept going. There was no conversation.”
In the days that followed, both he and Mr. Kelly headed back to work in hastily improvised office space nearby.
“I was on edge for a number of weeks afterwards. I couldn’t sit. I had to pace about,” Mr. Jinadasa says. He has had no choice but to confront the World Trade Center almost daily for the next decade. As one of the Port Authority’s engineers, he’s part of the effort to put the place back together.
He’s helping design the new structures going up at the site, including a specially reinforced foundation and deep concrete basement. He’s had a front-row seat to political wranglings over what to do with the site.
“Engineers get things done. The president says, ‘Let’s go to the moon,’ and they went to the moon, basically, in 10 years,” he says. “It’s been 10 years, and still, we’re only partially out of the ground here.”
For the past decade, he’s had the photo of him and his fellow survivors hanging in his hallway, where he passes it daily.
“It’s a talking point for friends, and people who visit,” he says, laughing. “I think most people have seen it now. Maybe it’s time to take it down. The 10th anniversary might be a good time to do it.”
BEHIND THE LENS
Anniversary drew photgrapher Phil Penman back to Ground Zero
Phil Penman had been hoping for a day off.
After working for months with no down time, the professional photographer was sleeping off a late-night celebrity photo shoot when the phone woke him. A plane had hit the World Trade Center. “You should probably go check it out,” he recalls his editor at Splash News suggesting.
He was there on his bike minutes later, shooting the towers as they splintered in front of him.
“All you could see were just people walking, wounded, walking towards me. And obviously at that point it’s going through your brain: Can you do this? Can you take the pictures? But it’s my job. So I started taking pictures.”
Through the dust and debris he saw three figures heading north up Broadway near Fulton. Coated head to toe, bits of paperwork hanging off them like ticker-tape, they looked like office-bound ghosts.
“They were walking apart from each other, just walking away,” Mr. Penman says. “You could see they weren’t in good shape.”
After they passed by, he kept shooting for the rest of the day and was out again at dawn for European publications. The next year was non-stop 9/11 coverage.
“It takes a lot out of you. All you’re hearing is horror stories. That can’t not get to you.”
These days, Mr. Penman, now a freelance photographer, doesn’t make it down to the site very often. A 10th anniversary shoot in August is the first time he’s been in a while, and he was surprised to see the barbershop near where he sought refuge a decade ago is still in operation.
“After it happened, I would be going down there all the time – for every feature you can think of. It was very depressing,” he says.
“I still don’t think I ever really realized the magnitude of the situation. … I don’t think it’ll ever hit home.”
Anna Mehler Paperny