Three years ago today, Canadian CHRISTINE GILLIES cheated death by fleeing from the 87th floor of the collapsing World Trade Center and stumbling home to her American husband CRAIG DILOUIE. But the fallout from the harrowing event didn't end there. In this dual diary, the couple remembers what they went through on 9/11 and how it so changed both them and the city they loved that they had to leave it behind
That morning, I'd gone to work as usual - I'd been living in New York for more than a year, having married an American. Little did I know that soon my husband and I would need to change all of our plans for our future.
When American Airlines Flight 11 struck Tower One of the World Trade Center, bursting into a fireball upon impact and cutting through Floors 93-99, I was there, on the 87th floor, at my desk. We heard a strange buzzing sound, then the deafening impact. The ceiling was on fire, and had already begun to collapse over the main exit. I remember Fred, a co-worker, swaying drunkenly, trying to keep his balance, as if he were trying to stay upright on a boat in the middle of a storm. The Twin Towers, because of their height, had been built to sway and Tower One swayed now, still feeling the physics of the impact of a plane hitting it at more than 500 kilometres per hour.
Past Fred, I could see clear liquid running down the window. Whether it was water or jet fuel, I never learned. As we crouched under our desks and coughed on the smoke that began to fill the office, we already heard sirens, far down below on the street. We called 911. We called our families, but by then, the phones were all dead.
Surprisingly, I stayed calm, and would remain so throughout the entire ordeal of getting out of the burning tower. Call it survival instinct, or naiveté, I'll never know. We soaked napkins and breathed through them. The smoke became dense as the fire moved toward us.
We decided that help would not arrive in time, and we had to get out.
Later, everybody remarked on how beautiful the weather was. The temperature promised a perfect day, the sky was crystal clear and blue. It turned out to be the worst and the best day of my life.
When the phone rang with bad news that morning, I already knew something was wrong. I could hear the sirens. New Yorkers are used to strange noises; I often joked that the Martians could land in Central Park and nobody would notice. But this sound was dense, a constant wail.
I called Christine's office phone and cellphone, but got a signal on each indicating the line was out of order. I turned on the radio; a newsman reported a gaping hole in the North Tower and I approximated it to be right about where Christine worked. I called 911, and they told me that both towers had now been hit. After I hung up, the phone rang; the calls came flooding in, people asking about Christine, where she was, whether she was okay. I hurried them all off the line. At any second, I hoped, she might call.
I called her again, and again, and again, and got a dead signal.
A man on the radio said people were jumping from the tower to escape the flames, some of them holding hands.
Much of that morning comes to me now as a blur, fragments of indecision, powerlessness and despair as each minute that ticked by without a call from Christine removed a layer of hope. Should I try to get downtown somehow on foot, miles away through crowds and traffic? It would take hours to get there, and if the police let me get close enough to look, would I be able to find my wife? What if she called right after I left our home, and needed me?
It's hard to stay put when your family is in danger. It's even worse when you realize there's absolutely nothing you can do but wait.
We slowly moved down the stairs, stockbrokers and computer technicians, administrators and executives, marketers and technical writers, worried but relieved, almost giddy, as we joined the exodus of thousands on the stairwell. We were doing okay now, although just before, things had been touch and go. We had found a door locked in the first stairwell we had taken (leading to a transfer hallway), and had to go back up to the 83rd floor to cross over to another set of stairs. The fire, meanwhile, had been pursuing us, consuming half the corridor on that floor. A man tried desperately to keep it at bay with a fire extinguisher. Soon, however, we had reached the other stairwell and began the long descent that would take us more than an hour to complete. We had just begun to feel safe.
Hot and sweating, we joked about our situation to keep our spirits up and pass the time as we rounded the stairwell. Several men talked about how they had evacuated the building during the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.
We hugged the wall to let the injured pass us, people bleeding from cuts, being carried by men who showed me a few of the dozens of acts of bravery and compassion I saw that day. Several men brought down a disabled woman in an office chair.
But I also saw the absurd side of life; a woman huffed down the stairs carrying an armful of office supplies, intent on bringing them to safety. When we reached the 45th floor, the smoke finally started to clear as irritated businesspeople entered the stairwell complaining about the interruption of their workday.
"Yeah, it's nothing," a man said into his cellphone. He was not aware of how rare getting a connection was. "I'm just heading down the stairs now - so let's schedule Thursday at 10. I'll block you in. Where's convenient for you?"
While my husband and I had no luck reaching each other by phone despite repeated attempts, a few people had received text messages and passed the word that some type of plane had hit the tower. None of us imagined that a passenger plane had been intentionally rammed into our building. None of us knew that the South Tower had been hit, killing hundreds on impact.
A blind man walked by us, guided down the flights of stairs by his dog.
When we reached the 30th floor, we saw the firemen. About 20 of them lumbered up the stairs, each carrying about 90 pounds of gear, holding the handrails, already tired and drenched in sweat. We moved aside to make room for them. They met our eyes as they passed. We thanked them individually as they ascended. Some people broke into applause. The firefighters were headed to the one place we desperately wanted to get away from.
On the 20th floor, a man stood, touching each person's shoulder and telling them to take care and watch their step. People asked him to come with us, and he replied, "The Lord put some of us on this Earth to watch over others. This is my duty, I guess."
Finally, we reached the ground level. We cheered at the sight of daylight, then gasped at the damage to the area. It looked like a war zone. The windows were smashed. A massive sign reading "Welcome to the World Trade Center" hung crookedly from the ceiling. The ceiling sprinklers drenched us in cold water.
One of my co-workers said, "Hey, Christine! Looks like we made it!"
And: A hideous thundering sound, a colossal crack, an eruption, a tidal wind.
I didn't know it at the time, but Tower Two was coming down.
People around me screamed and ran as the roof collapsed onto us and we were caught in a swirling blackness. I fell to the ground, curled into a fetal position and covered my head as chunks of debris rained down on me, choking on the enveloping dust. For the first time that day I started to think about dying.
This is it, I thought. This is where it ends for me. Is this all I get? Twenty-seven years? No fair.
It seemed like an eternity before the crashing stopped. When it did, there was dead silence, then people began to stir. I couldn't see anything. Pitch black. The dust was thick. I could barely breathe. I spat grit. I lay there in the cold water and listened to the people around me coughing and crying for help.
The phone rang; it wasn't Christine. I don't remember who it was, I don't remember what I said to them. I do remember that I returned to my computer, where I had been instant messaging with some of Christine's co-workers who hadn't been in the office when the tower got hit, trying to learn as much as I could. I needed information; information would help me grasp the situation and get some measure of control. But I kept getting scattered, conflicting and wrong information, leaving me frustrated.
One of them typed a message to me. I read: "oh my god the tower collapsed!!!!!" I didn't understand what I had read. The tower collapsed?
When you were on top of the World Trade Center, you felt like you could see the curvature of the Earth. You felt like you were standing on the roof of the world. Your ears popped in the elevator. Few people understand just how high those towers soared into the sky, how big they were. It's hard to imagine. It was equally hard to imagine one of them falling to the ground in an avalanche of dust. I understood it intellectually, but I refused to believe it.
I called Christine, and got a dead signal.
I began to frantically pace the apartment, looking for something I couldn't find.
We crawled in a long human chain, through glass and water and debris and the ever-present dust. We had found each other in the dark, tracking each other's voices. This went on for what seemed like forever, but I felt confident again. We were moving, and as long as we were moving, I had hope that I would get out of this alive.
"Follow my voice! There is an exit over here! Follow my voice!"
We tracked the voice that called to us from a hazy, faint light in the distance. It turned out to be a New York City firefighter. To put it simply, the man saved our lives.
We emerged from the North Tower covered head to toe in white dust. The entire world seemed white. Everything was coated in a foot of dust consisting of papers, file folders and dust-like ash. I kicked off my shoes so that I could run. The dust under my feet felt soft.
What now? I wondered. Who's in charge?
I saw wrecked police cars, frantic police and firefighters. Nobody was in charge. They shouted at us to keep moving, to go north.
Yvette, one of my co-workers, and I were holding hands. Like me, she was barefoot - the forces of the South Tower's collapse had literally blown her shoes off. Together, we ran. We didn't know where we were going, we just wanted to go. We ran north.
Paramedics stopped us and, when they saw we weren't injured, gave us water to wash our eyes, and told us to keep moving. Reporters snapped pictures of us and asked us questions, but we ignored them. Farther on, onlookers burst into tears when they saw us.
As we ran farther north, however, people around us began screaming and we heard the grinding, thunderous sound again in the distance. Behind us, the North Tower, the building where we had worked and exited about 10 minutes ago, had begun to collapse, disintegrating from the top down and cascading to the ground in a colossal cloud.
I watched only for a moment, then turned and kept running.
This is the part where I say I just knew all along that Christine was going to be okay, but that would be lying. I had every reason to fear the worst, and I hadn't heard from her for more than three hours after the attack and an hour and a half since Tower One collapsed. I had spent that time waiting for a phone call that never came and bargaining with God. The towers were dust, and thousands had died, and thousands more had been injured.
I hadn't given up all hope, however. I decided to call all of the area hospitals, then the Red Cross. It was after noon when I started to make these calls. Then the doorbell rang.
My first response was actually rage. I knew the routine by now. I would hope it was Christine, but it wouldn't be. Couldn't be, I thought - Christine had her keys. I would answer the door, and find a neighbour asking if I had heard from her.
I opened the door. A lightning bolt hit me in the forehead. Christine stood there, covered in white dust. We fell to our knees and held each other for a long time.
This was when the worst day of my life became the best day.
I took a long shower while Craig, overjoyed, got an e-mail out to everybody we knew telling them that I was okay. I had made it out without a scratch, in fact. I did, however, inhale a lot of smoke and dust, and later learned that I had fibreglass in my arms. I would cough, spit and sneeze black dust for days afterward.
Craig and I don't watch television and we didn't have a cable subscription at the time. He told me everything he had heard on the radio - that it was a terrorist attack, that both of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon had been hit by planes - and I couldn't believe it. Strangely, in my mind, I was minimizing the entire event, still in survival mode. In my mind, the towers were still there and the world still made sense.
I asked Craig to get rid of everything I had worn and had with me when I was in the World Trade Center. I didn't even want to look at it.
After I had a long talk with my parents and my brother Cameron, who had feared the worst and were overjoyed to hear from me, Craig and I went to a local pub that had television sets. The street had no car traffic and was filled with a river of people who walked, quiet and subdued, in an almost eerie calm, just trying to get home. The World Trade Center seemed far away here, a different city, and yet weighed heavily in everybody's heart.
In the bar, we watched the plane crash into the towers again and again on CNN.
For the first time, it really hit me what had happened. It took Craig and me years to really understand it.
Christine felt restless, so we decided to walk down to Union Square in our old neighbourhood, the border of the East Village and Gramercy. The park was packed with hundreds of people holding a candlelight vigil. At ground zero, rescue crews frantically searched for survivors. Below 14th Street, martial law had been declared, and police, wearing many different uniforms, guarded the southbound arteries that led farther down to the World Trade Center. Christine found the vigil very soothing, and together we lit candles and put them on the ground.
We felt we knew how lucky we were that day, and that no matter what we had experienced, so many people had gone through worse, and were still going through it. We agonized for families all over the city who held onto thinning hopes that their loved ones might be found alive. All of us wanted to know: Why?
At one point, a group of firemen walked by the crowd, still in their uniforms, tired and dusty. Somebody clapped, which quickly turned into a roar of applause and cheers.
We walked north to get home, but were turned back by a flood of people heading south, some literally in their pajamas. A bomb threat had been called in against the Empire State Building, and about 10 square blocks were being evacuated in all directions - thousands of people. The lights in the Empire State Building were out and the building loomed pitch black against the dark sky. As a New Yorker used to seeing the top of that landmark building being brilliantly and colourfully lit every night, this somehow scared me more than the bomb threat did.
If the morning had brought terror, the night brought a thick fear: You felt as if you were swimming in it. It was contagious. As we walked, we talked to people and also heard them speaking to each other and to loved ones on their cellphones. Many people felt certain another attack was coming at any moment, and they would die.
The next day, the winds shifted north, enveloping New York in an oppressive burning smell. People wore surgical masks. Soon, fighter planes began patrolling the skies over the city. We watched them from our roof.
I spent the next two days on the phone talking to friends and family. We dropped by a hospital, swarming with volunteer doctors, so that I could get checked out. Then we went to the Lexington Street Armory to see the missing-person posters.
On Sept. 13, family and friends of the victims began to visit the armory to fill out missing-person reports. The street was closed to car traffic and masses of people had gathered. All of us were struck dumb by the thousands of posters plastered on the walls of the armory. The posters covered the wall around the entire block, from the ground to as high as one could reach, thousands of faces and names. Husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, relations and friends smiled at us from Xeroxed photos, surrounded by words frantically pleading for any information about whether the person had survived.
So much was unknown at that point. So many pieces had to be found and put together. The sidewalk at the base of the wall was covered with candles and flowers. There are some things you see that actually seem to have a physical weight to them in your mind.
That night, we visited with a couple, friends of ours in the city who lived downtown. The husband had seen the first plane hit Tower One and together he and his wife had stood on their roof with binoculars, close enough to see the looks on the people's faces as they clung to the building. They watched some of these people jump to their deaths.
For weeks, when people on the street heard a loud noise, they flinched. When planes began flying again, people winced at the sound. For weeks, seemingly for no reason, people would stop in the middle of the sidewalk and burst into tears.
From that day until the day we moved to Calgary, New York was never the same.
Christine and I both dealt with the tragedy very differently. She had stayed in survival mode when she needed to survive, and after she got home safe, opened up and cried and talked about her experience often, which helped her understand it. I guess you could say I'm a typical man. I went into survival mode as soon as she got home safe, since I became completely focused on keeping her safe, and went into a state of denial about what happened that lasted almost three years.
When we felt like we were back on our feet, Christine and I visited our neighbourhood firehouse, which had lost many of its firemen, and donated money to their families and other 9/11 charities. The front of the firehouse was heavily decorated with flowers. Christine noticed balloons, anchored by flowers, on which were printed the messages, "We miss you" and "Happy Birthday, Dad."
We wanted to do more. We needed to do more. Everybody felt helpless, and we were itching to do some good. Christine volunteered at the United Way and helped process thousands of Sept. 11 donations; about $30-million was given to the charity. I especially needed action, and besides that, I loved my city and country, and wanted to do something helpful for both.
Christine and I also had to visit the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service as part of the process of getting Christine recognized as a "permanent resident." The INS was located downtown. While waiting in line to get into the building, we smelled the stench of the fires that still smouldered in the rubble of the World Trade Center, while ashes rained down on us like a light flurry of snow. This was in October, more than a month after the attack.
There were army trucks and soldiers on the streets of Manhattan, and soldiers carrying M16 rifles in the subways.
Later, we visited ground zero and saw it up close for the first time since the attack. We marvelled at the emptiness. When you closed your eyes, you could see the towers exactly where they had been. When you opened them, they were gone.
When Craig and I first met, we joked that we would get married, live in New York for five years, then move to Calgary, my hometown, to buy a house and raise children. Because of 9/11, we decided to move up the schedule and, because I was still in the middle of the immigration process, we were considering a number of places to live, both in Canada and the United States.
The final straw came one night when Craig and I went out to see Catch Me If You Can, more than a year after the attacks. Near the movie's end, the lights came up, an alarm sounded, and a voice on a loudspeaker told us to exit the building. Before Sept. 11, New Yorkers would have responded to somebody cutting off the last 10 to 15 minutes of a movie by shouting and throwing popcorn at the screen. But this was after Sept. 11, and everybody meekly stood and shuffled quietly for the exits.
I felt electrified by adrenaline, my eyes wide, my mouth dry, my heart racing. We were scared, but less about our own safety than the idea that something terrible was happening somewhere in the city, and somewhere somebody was dying. Dirty bomb? Anthrax? Chemical attack? We had got a cable subscription after the attack, and were being bombarded each day from the TV with new threats, new ways for masses of people to die.
Outside, we were told that it was a false alarm and that we could go back in, but we decided to go home, feeling exhausted. This was clearly no way to live. That night, Craig and I talked about leaving New York, and together we began to visit cities where we might want to live.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service finally made the decision for us.
We had been struggling with INS bureaucracy for nearly three years, wading through a process and rules that were often incoherent. The situation reached a breaking point when, ironically, Christine inadvertently violated an INS rule by following the explicit instruction of an INS official. We faced a choice - we could live apart for a year and start the process over, or fight them in front of an immigration judge. The greatest irony is that in the months after the 9/11 attack, INS extended the visas of the dead hijackers, but wanted my wife, who had almost been killed by the hijackers, to leave the country.
We chose a third option - put INS, fear, the Iraq war, anthrax, George Bush, snipers and terror alerts behind us and move to Canada. We moved to Calgary in June, 2003. We had been through a lot, but the important thing was that Christine and I would be together. After surviving 9/11, we knew that as man and wife we could survive anything. I love my country and miss it, but I love my wife more.
Canada is a great country, and we're grateful for the opportunity to live here. After the long, strange trip we've taken over the past few years, we're glad to be able to relax and live life.
I hope that all Americans will be able to do the same soon.
When I came home to Calgary, people asked me, "How are you doing, Christine? I mean, how are you really doing?"
It was not an easy question to answer. I often felt a thousand things at the same time and yet, in a way, not very different at all. Right now, I'm feeling fortunate to live in Canada, where I feel much safer and more secure than I did in New York.
As a part of the quality of life, safety is hard to value until you've felt its absence. We have peace of mind here.
Most significantly, my experience on Sept. 11 caused me to appreciate the fragility of life. The people who died on that day were just like you and me. They were regular people who woke up to alarm clocks, grabbed morning coffee, brushed their teeth and headed off to work.
They were just people who went about their lives, like any other regular day. People just like you and me who never came home.
Sometimes, I realize how strange it is that it took such a catastrophe to make me sincerely appreciate the richness of my life. For the rest of my years, I will have a steady reminder to live life to the fullest, and always express my love and gratitude to family and friends. With hope, Sept. 11 will forever serve as a reminder to all of us to reflect on our lives and be thankful for what we have.
Christine Gillies and Craig DiLouie are at ground zero today for the commemoration ceremonies.