Escape from the 91st Floor (9/11)

American Bureau of Shipping staffer Claire McIntyre describes her dramatic flight to safety from the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center. The date: Sept.11, 2001.

By Alison Bate

Office manager Claire McIntyre was checking her e-mail when she first heard the plane.

Her office was on the 91st floor of one of the two massive World Trade Center towers, looking out toward Upper Manhattan.

“I was working at my computer and first heard this horrendous roar of a jet engine,” she recalled.

“I thought it couldn’t possibly be here this close. Then I saw the wing and tail of a plane.”
She jumped up immediately, screaming, and ran out her office to alert the rest of the staff.

Claire is a long-time employee with the American Bureau of Shipping – the international classification society.

Her office was in the northwest corner of the building, and she didn’t know if anybody else had seen the plane.

“I thought: ‘Oh my God, all my people’ . I ran out into the hallway and just screamed: ‘Everyone, get out now.’

It was around 8:45 a.m., Tuesday Sept. 11, and American Airlines Flight 11 had just slammed into the building a few storeys above her head. All 92 people on board died when the hijacked Boeing 767 plane hit the building.

Claire had no idea at the time that this was a terrorist attack. “I thought it was an accident,” she said.

In the reception area, they quickly discovered that all 11 ABS staff working that day were present. Electricians working in their office also joined them.

One of the staff members got hold of some paper towels and began wetting them in case they ran into smoke. Claire even had the presence of mind to grab her pocketbook and a flashlight.

She wasn’t in the building the day terrorist bombers struck the World Trade Center in 1993, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000 others. But she’d heard about the chaos and darkness that followed that attack.

The colleagues then began their long escape down 91 floors of one of the world’s tallest buildings.

“The first two flights were dark, with no emergency lights, and water was pouring down the stairs,” said Claire. “We could barely see and I put my flashlight on. Then the emergency lights came on, and water was still flowing down.”

Fellow office worker Emma “Georgia” Barnett slipped and slid down three flights of stairs. She got up but then tripped over a hose, damaging her knee. She carried on, nevertheless.

When the ABS staff started out, the fire exits weren’t too crowded, but they became clogged with people as they descended. There was no panic though.

Colleague Steve McIntyre (no relation) checked other stairwells at intervals to see if there was a quicker way out.

Several of them crossed over to another stairwell that was moving faster and worked their way down floor by floor.

“In the 60s I was thinking: ‘How much more to go?’ ” said Claire. “I remember getting to 22 and saying: ‘Oh my God, we’re almost there’.

They emerged from the stairwell at the mezzanine level, and were greeted by emergency services people, who were rushing everybody out.

Then came the worst part. Claire choked as she recalled the moment. “As we passed the Plaza, I got to see bodies and body parts.” Some desperate workers still trapped inside had thrown themselves out of windows to escape the blazes.

Claire met up again with Georgia, and they finally reached the street, exiting on the east side of the complex.

TOWER START TO COLLAPSE

But their ordeal still wasn’t over. Claire was helping Georgia toward an ambulance when the neighboring south tower started to collapse.

Shortly after 9 a.m., as smoke still poured from the north tower, a second hijacked plane had slammed into the south tower, sending up a huge fireball. All 65 people on board died when United Airlines flight 175, also a Boeing 767, hit the tower.

As it began collapsing around 10 a.m., Claire, Georgia and Steve started to run up the block.

“We thought: ‘We made it down 91 flights of stairs and now we are going to die,’ ” said Claire.

Just as they realized they were safe from debris, a huge cloud of dust came at them, reaching them halfway up the block. “We were in total blackness and couldn’t breathe at all.”

Claire and Georgia held on together, feeling their way up the street, and pulling their shirts over their faces for protection.

Gradually the dust cloud lessened, and they ran into the Chase Bank, next to the Millennium Hilton Hotel. They stayed for about 15 minutes until the air cleared enough to go outside.

As they walked toward Broadway, their faces covered with dust, they met a TV crew and gave a phone interview about their escape.

Claire also called her sister and ABS office headquarters in Houston, Texas to let everyone know they were safe. “It was very emotional, of course,” she said.

ABS has held offices in the World Trade Center for about 10 years, but downsized when the corporate headquarters moved to Texas two years ago. The New York office normally staffs 22 people, but only 11 employees were actually in the office that day. Miraculously, all escaped.

Georgia was now also able to get some medical attention for her injured knee.

FIANCE IN SECOND TOWER

Throughout the ordeal, Claire feared for the safety of her fiance, Danny Franco, an elevator mechanic working in the south tower. “We both thought each other was dead,” she recalled.

Cell phones weren’t working well, and it was 11:30 a.m. before Claire could leave a message for him. It was another hour before they learned each other was safe.

She heard Danny was having coffee on the 44th floor of the south tower when the first plane hit her building. He saw a fireball come out of the building, and had made it to the lobby when the second plane hit his building – just 20 minutes later.

Later that day, Claire went to her brother’s house on Long Island. The roads were closed so she stayed there overnight.

It was Wednesday evening before she got to go home to Union Township, New Jersey and to meet Danny again.

Since then, Claire’s been crying a lot. “I feel up and down, but I am fine,” she said.
Claire and Danny also have practical matters to deal with. Both lost their cars, which were parked at the World Trade Center, and are dealing with insurance issues.

“We’re trying to get our life back in order.,” she added.

© Marine Digest, October 2001

A similar story ran in Lloyd’s List on Sept 17, 2001

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