WTC Tragedy: September
Paul Carris and Judith Toppin
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
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
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.
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
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 Id 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 shes 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
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 Pauls 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 thats what I felt.
I knew that we were in danger but I didnt really believe that we would die in the
building. I could now feel the urgency in Pauls 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
Pauls 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 angels 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 hadnt 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 Ive asked God to
send me his angels to help me through the pain and trials Ive 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. Youll 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.