‘It’s Just Like a Movie’

TARA NELSON'S MOST VIVID memory of her former office building at One World Trade Center is not of smoke, flame, rubble, or disaster. Instead, the most striking image is the one she saw each day as she got off the subway. “I remember walking up the block and wanting to look up at the World Trade Center, but not wanting to seem like a tourist,” says Nelson ’01, who graduated last spring with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. “I used to sneak a peak because both towers were so magnificent.”
      Nelson began working in July as an event coordinator for the New York Society of Security Analysts on Tower I’s 44th floor. On September 11, she was at her desk composing an e-mail when she heard a loud sound and felt the building tip to one side. “I thought it was a bomb,” says Nelson, who was aware that the building had been hit in a 1993 terrorist attack. “I was terrified.”
      Once the initial movement stopped, Nelson ran to a colleague whose office was closer to the windows. “My co-worker was saying, ‘We’ve been hit by something! We’ve been hit by something!’” Nelson remembers. That’s when she saw falling shards of glass and metal pieces reflected in the windows of the neighboring World Financial Center. Nelson and three colleagues immediately headed for the stairs, where they encountered thick smoke and the inescapable smell of jet-engine fuel that burned their eyes and choked them. “My legs were shaking,” she says. “I was scared out of my mind.” She raced down the stairs, trying to remain calm and all the while thinking: “Something really bad is happening, people on the floors above us are dying, dead, or suffering.”
      Forty minutes later, Nelson escaped the building and took her first look at the destruction above her. “It was surreal,” she says. “There were flames shooting out the side. There was a cut in the building where the plane hit. From there up, it was black billowing smoke. That’s when I saw the first person fall, or jump, or get pushed out by the fire.”


      All Nelson could think about was getting to her Fairfield, Connecticut, home. Too frightened to take the subway after learning of the strikes on the second tower and the Pentagon, she began walking, then running toward Grand Central Station. There she endured two evacuations of the station before boarding a train for home. Her family’s tears of terror melted into sobs of relief when Nelson finally picked up a signal for her cell phone three-and-a-half hours after the plane hit her building.
      Thinking back to the events of that day, she says: “I have a hard time processing it in my mind because it’s just like a movie.”
      Today, Nelson is focused on the future, concerned about settling the company into a new space and reconnecting with its 8,000 clients. The attack didn’t alter her plans to move to Manhattan, and she feels strongly that the towers should be rebuilt. “I’m nervous about the idea of biological warfare, but we can’t let them stop our daily lives,” Nelson says. “The terrorists can do this, but it’s not going to shatter us completely.” —Margaret Costello


The Orange Shield

NEW YORK CITY FIREFIGHTER ERIK SMITH ’98 had only been on the job at Engine 81 Ladder 46 in the north Bronx for a month when he was thrown into the largest rescue effort in American history. “I was anxious to get to the site because six of my classmates from the academy were missing,” Smith says. “When I uncovered a helmet with the orange shield of a first-year firefighter, I knew it belonged to one of my friends.”
      Two days later Smith worked at the World Trade Center for 50 straight hours. He thought his training had prepared him to deal with any disaster, but nothing could have prepared him for the destruction at ground zero. “There was more devastation than you can imagine,” he says. “Fires were raging out of control, and we had to search through a pile of debris 10 feet high. Large pieces of the World Trade Center were imbedded in surrounding buildings, and a cavern 50 feet below street level opened up, creating large voids. I helped search the voids for survivors. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any.”

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Main Home Page Contents Chancellor's Message Opening Remarks
Reflections In Memoriam Time of Terror Lessons of Hope
Future Impact Voices

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