WTC Tragedy: September 11, 2001

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Paul Carris and Judith Toppin

An introduction by Paul Carris

Dear friends and neighbors,
I've been asked to share my experience from September 11, 2001. I work for the Port Authority of NY & NJ and was on the 71st floor of One World Trade Center on that morning. Judith Toppin, a new friend, whom I met for the first time that day, recorded our experience.

I started sharing our story outside of my immediate family after attending the funeral of a college classmate of mine (an FDNY Lieutenant), who died in the same building I escaped from. It was on that occasion that I learned how much his family, firefighters and my other classmates from around the country had a need to understand what happened inside the north tower. The story that follows helped acomplish that.

Before reading Judith's description of events, I have a few thoughts to place the story in context.
1.    I offer my heartfelt sympathy and ongoing prayers for anyone affected by the loss and tragedy of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Sharing this story is not meant to re-open any wounds from that day.
2.    Judith's story is more than just a description of what happened. It is truly a testament to faith in God.
3.    The beginning of the story refers to severe health problems Judith has struggled through over the last few years, including surgery to install a defibrillator in her chest.
4.    This story is not isolated. It is but one of many where civilians helped each other while maintaining an overall calm during our evacuation.

May the lord's peace be with all of you.

Paul Carris

Angels Walk Among Us
by Judith Toppin

In the summer of 1998 I learned how to have conversations with God. Prior to that year I prayed like I'd been taught to as a child. During that year I discovered that I needed to stop bargaining with God in order to have his blessings flow to me. I learned how to talk to Him and listen for my answers. This emergence of Spirit would be the strengthening of my soul. In the summer of 1999 I was again tested and while most people believed I was simply lucky to have survived, I knew that it was the power of the Spirit. My soul was even stronger.

On Tuesday September 11th of 2001, my Spirit and my soul became as one and now I fully understand the power and the glory of God, and the Holy Angels he has placed among us as instruments of His love and care.

I had just completed reading my mail about 8:45 AM when I heard a loud booming sound. I was located on the 71st floor, northeastern corner of 1 World Trade Center. Since my office was located along the windows, I immediately moved to the center of the floor and was facing east. To my horror I saw smoke, flames, and debris shooting down from above us. I felt the building shudder. Suspecting that a small plane might have slammed into the building, and trying to ignore the pounding of my heart, I started to move. I knew instinctively that I had exceeded the number of racing heartbeats permitted before my defibrillator would issue a jolt of electricity. It went off almost immediately and I desperately tried to fight off the terror I felt and remain calm so as to avoid another jolt. I doubled over and immediately several people came to my aid. While one of them was on the telephone trying to reach our medical department, the director of my division came hustling down the hallway demanding that everyone vacate the building. And so began my journey into my third test of faith and my recognition of angels.

I heard a gentleman say to the others who were hesitantly trying to determine whether they should stay to assist me that they should leave because "he had me". I was sitting in a chair desperately trying to maintain control and stay calm in order to prevent my defibrillator from going off. Here I was with a bad heart, bad lungs, swollen heavy legs, and the speed of a snail at best. I knew that I was going to have to be exceptionally strong in order to be able to walk all the way down to the street. All I could think of was "God, if this is the way you wish me to die, then Thy will be done, but please no pain". It was only then that I looked up into the face of a six foot, slender, young man whom I’d never met and what the man said to me was "stay calm, and get up, we are going to walk out of this building together". He said it with such confidence that I immediately felt such a sense of comfort as to enable me to move my heavy legs, and head toward the doors with him. When I asked his name he softly replied, "Paul Carris". I told him mine, and said to him that he might not understand but that he was my angel for the day. He simply smiled. Paul led me into the stairwell of the 71st floor, and instructed me to take hold of the railing with my right hand. He placed his right hand under my left arm and we started down the stairs. As we descended he would let me rest on each floor and let others behind us pass. My breathing was labored and I was having trouble walking, but Paul firmly pressed us along. I watched in horror as a woman I knew who worked on the 88th floor came crashing past us going down the stairs. She passed us in a flash but not fast enough for us not to notice that all of the skin on her back had been burnt off, and had rolled up to her neck like some macabre necklace. I pray that she’s alive and getting well. I began to realize that we were in an extremely life threatening situation.

Several times others stopped on their cascading journey down the stairwell to ask if he needed help with me. They rounded up a facemask and supplied us with water before continuing down. When Paul asked some firemen to supply me with some air, they did so and I was so thankful for the warmth and generosity of people who knew they were in danger but were still willing to help in spite of it.

We were on the 40th floor (I think) when some firemen and police officers moved us to another stairwell since the one we were in was too congested. As we walked across the hallways to get to the south side stairwell the stench of jet fuel permeated the air and a ceiling down one of the corridors had collapsed. Once within the stairwell, Paul allowed me to rest for a while and then we proceeded downward once more. My air passages were becoming constricted, and he encouraged me to breathe as fully and deeply as I could, yet taking slow and even breaths. He kept wetting my facemask to cool the air that I was breathing and I felt my lungs relax and knew that I could take another step.

Somewhere along the descent below the 30th floor, we felt more than heard another loud boom along with a terrific wind blast which made the building shake. Firemen began running up the stairs with more urgency, and I felt my defibrillator jolting at my heart. Paul drew me into him, in order to ensure that I did not lose my footing and fall since there were people trying to rush past us. He talked to me very quietly about remaining calm but I could feel his fingers tighten every so lightly around my arm. One of Paul’s co-workers tried to start a conversation about the cause of the loud blast, and out of the corner of my eye I could see him shaking his head, telling him not to say anything that I might over-hear. In my terror I thought that it was our building going down, but later learned about the evil which befell 2 WTC.

As we approached the 20 th floor some firemen came running down the stairs yelling for us to "move, move, keep moving". If there is such a thing as controlled terror then that’s what I felt. I knew that we were in danger but I didn’t really believe that we would die in the building. I could now feel the urgency in Paul’s steps and we were no longer stopping for me to rest. My left knee buckled and I was no longer able to bend it, and now my right leg became totally numb.

I saw the glimmer of gold on Paul’s left hand as he reached over to shield me from people rushing past us and I realized for the first time that he was wearing a wedding band. He was married and I suspected had a family. I asked him to leave me behind and save himself since he had a family and I was moving much too slowly. My words fell on deaf ears, as he instructed me to swing my left leg forward and drop my right foot to the next step. He assured me that he would never let me fall. At this point it felt as if we were floating down the stairs. When we arrived on the 10th floor Paul began counting down the floors, encouraging me by telling me how well I had done coming all the way from the 71st floor. Now, we could smell and see smoke and dust rising from the floors beneath us, and the trip became more arduous and even more urgent. The staircase was now filling with water and I could feel it dropping on us from above. My heart was thundering in my chest and I could barely fathom our success at arriving on the first floor.

When Paul opened that door and pulled me into the lobby of our building I was totally unprepared for what I saw even though I now fully realized that the building was under attack. There was broken marble and glass everywhere. What was once an atmosphere of sophistication was now rubble and ruin. I could hear water running like a gentle fall amidst the chaos and ruin. I had noticed on our way down the stairs that some of the women had taken off their shoes and left them in the stairwell on their hurried journey downward. Now I could hear cries of pain as they stepped on the glass with their bare feet. The saddest and most poignant memory was that of seeing people turn to the left as we came out into the lobby. Turning left was choosing death since it led into the concourse of the building and some of my fellow victims did so.

Paul urged us to the right, leading us out onto West Street. I could barely sustain my body on legs that had every muscle screaming in agony, yet numb at the same time. I looked at him with what I know was some assortment of both relief and terror at realizing that we had made it out of the building but were now standing almost alone at the base of a building which he knew to be unsafe, since he kept urging me to move so that we were out of its path. It was much later before my mind would let me accept that we had to stumble over some of the bodies of those who had perished before us. We turned and headed toward Vesey Street with me leaning heavily against him in order to support myself. It struck me as odd, when I saw someone taking our picture as we struggled down the street. Maybe looking at the emergence of one woman with a bad heart, bad lungs, swollen malfunctioning legs, a small cut on her right leg, and the imprint of an angel’s finger prints on her left arm, and one man with not an apparent scratch anywhere on his body was of interest to him. I could not understand how he could be interested in us while all around us there was such carnage.

Paul led me to an ambulance, which was parked on Vesey Street where a paramedic placed an oxygen mask over my face. Less than a minute had gone by before a fireman came running up to the ambulance yelling about the ground beginning to shake and the buildings around us probably collapsing. Paul immediately took the oxygen mask off of my face and urged me up Vesey Street towards the Hudson River - him, walking tall, and me leaning, limping and struggling. As we moved toward the next block west of West Street, I heard this loud rumbling noise and when I looked back I saw what used to be a place that I had always been in awe of and which some of us knew as well as our homes, come crumbling to the earth. We ran and made it to the corner of a building as debris, dust and smoke came crashing behind and past us. My heart bled for all the firemen, police officers, paramedics and other medical and rescue personnel as I remembered them running up the stairs as we were coming down.

A fireman yelled for us to get into the building on the corner that had just shielded us from the collapse of Tower One. As we got in, emergency workers followed us and began to set up a triage station for the injured rescue personnel. Men and women were running about taking care of their comrades and trying to get mud and dirt out of eyes, ears and mouths. Someone strapped an oxygen mask around my nose and I was breathing much more comfortably. Paul went over to get us some water and it was then that I realized that he was beginning to feel the effects of what he had just accomplished. No words passed between us but he looked into my eyes and I into his and I laced my fingers through his and I watched in the most comforting moment as the tears fell gently from the corners of his eyes. I have never been as moved as I was by anything as I was by that moment. But it was not over.

After about 10 minutes a fire marshal came running into the building screaming that the gas lines were exploding and that we had to get out immediately. We found out later, that there was a secondary collapse of Tower One. Gurneys began to roll, people began to move outward to the street where several ambulances were waiting for broken bodies. Paul and I were standing in the street uncertain about where to go. We were the only two civilians there as far as I could tell. A woman urged us to an ambulance where a man was already strapped in and in a flash we were moving down the street amid a second storm of dust and debris.

As divine intervention would have it the man on the gurney was a fire chief who according to the paramedic might have had a back injury. The paramedic was an off-duty policewoman from the 34th precinct and she refused to go to any of the downtown hospitals choosing instead to take us to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in the upper Manhattan, where we would be assured of immediate medical attention. We could not get off the exit for Columbia Presbyterian and wound up at an annex on West 220th Street and Broadway near the Bronx border. I am thankful to the driver who made the arduous journey weaving in and out of bumper to bumper traffic of people trying to get away from downtown Manhattan. When we arrived at the hospital and they wheeled us into the emergency room area, I was struck at how quiet it was. Usually rooms such as these are busy hives, but I realized that most of the employees were listening to the madness on television. The doctors and nurses in the emergency room were reassuring us that we were safe and that all would be well. I was grateful for the peace and quiet of the emergency room.

Paul remained in the hospital until he knew that I was being taken care of and then just as quietly as he had come into my life, he cleaned up in a bathroom and left the hospital telling me that he wanted to get home to his family. A little later a priest came into the room to comfort me and asked if there was anything he could help me with. I told him that for the past few years every time I had been brought out of a crisis through my belief in the living God, people would tell me that He had something special for me to accomplish on this earth and that I should find out what it was and do it. I had been very worried that I could not determine what that "something" was, and was extremely troubled. What he said to me was so simple that I am surprised that I hadn’t thought of it. Father Thomas simply stated that my strength, endurance and belief in Him and His power kept me alive. People when they looked at my struggles would see that there was a living God who has blessed us in many ways one of them being the presence of angels, and that this was probably what God wanted from me, nothing more than to live as a testament to what belief in Him could do.

I grieved for the many I knew had lost their lives, for some of the faces I could still envision even after a fleeting glance. I have been through many crises in my life and each time I’ve asked God to send me his angels to help me through the pain and trials I’ve had to face. He has never failed me. This time He sent me my latest angel, Paul. God sent me a courageous and caring man to lead me out of the destruction and carnage created by the cowards among us. A man who was guided by a presence that he could not see, but could feel as he made all of the right decisions at exactly the right times. It had taken us about 90 minutes to descend to safety and I would later learn that based on the timing, we were probably two of the last people, if not the last, to come out of the building before it collapsed. Thank you, Paul. You’ll stay in my heart forever. I am forever grateful.

During this madness and destruction came the angels who walk among us. Some of us they took to the comfort of the heavens while others were led out to complete their earth-bound tasks.

Judith Toppin

World Trade Center
Remembered ...

WTC Remembered 2005

[Memorial Service]
[Mr. Paul Carris Address]

WTC Remembered 2004
[Memorial Service]

WTC Remembered 2003
[Memorial Service]    [Karen Fels Photos]

WTC Remembered 2002
Candlelight Procession Start at [Kipp]
[Down Passaic to Circle]
[Service at Circle][Public at Service]
[General community photos]
[Middle School Patriotic Tribute]
Karen Fels Pics [Procession][Service]

WTC Remembered 2001
[Candle Light Vigil] at Depken Field 9/15
[CommunityPerspective][Community Photos]
[Karen Fels Perspective]
[Kristy Castora Perspective]
[Heights School Reaction]
Paul Carris Heroism [Angels Walk Among Us]

Neighbor lost in the attacks ...
Robert C. Miller Jr., 55, Anon Corp.

[Flag History- Rose Heck]
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