Anyone who lives or works in the greater New York area will always remember what they were doing on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Many people saw the attacks unfold from a safe distance, while others watched the unbelievable drama on television. A much smaller number, including Christine Gillies, experienced the disaster first-hand. Thankfully, she lived to tell her story.
On that Tuesday, Gillies was on the 87th floor of the World Trade Center North tower, busily fulfilling her duties as marketing director for Thor Technologies, a venture-backed information security firm with 42 employees. Early that morning Thor, which is backed by Pequot Capital Management, had announced a technology partnership with Netgrity Inc., an e-business service provider. Thor develops technology for corporations to help them ensure secure and regulatory compliant centralized management of IT resources when rolling out their e-business initiatives.
But the normalcy stopped when the clock struck 8:48 a.m. that day. At the time, there were only four people in the Thor offices, which occupy 10,000 square feet of One World Trade Center. Most of the Thor employees were either traveling or had not arrived yet. Since most of their technical staff keeps late hours, employees generally don’t arrive before 9:30 a.m. or 10 a.m.
What sounded and felt like an explosion rocked the building. Part of a roof in the open-office environment caved in, and Gillies and her colleagues scurried under their desks while the roof and debris fell. Almost immediately, smoke started filling the room.
Gillies called 911, but was put on hold. She tried reaching her husband, but to no avail. Meanwhile, outside the window, debris was falling, and what looked like water was pouring down. It turned out to be jet fuel.
Choked with smoke, the employees left the office but not before Fred Marcano, a tech writer, grabbed some water bottles from the refrigerator and some napkins from the kitchen to ward of the smoke. Yvette Thompson, marketing assistant; and Joseph Potter, a senior developer, joined them.
They were led to a stairwell where a man unsuccessfully tried to put out the blaze with a fire extinguisher. At the time, no one knew a jetliner had plowed into the floors above them. They walked calmly down nine flights of stairs to a door that connected to another stairwell. But that door was locked. Someone tried using a fire extinguisher to bash in the door, but left nary a dent. He then tried smashing in the wall, but that was futile as well.
Another man with a walkie-talkie then came upon the scene and told them that they would have to walk up a few flights of stairs to get back down again. As they ascended the stairs, the fire was getting larger and the smoke more acrid.
But still, no great panic. “At times like these people are in survivor mode, and you surpress your emotions,” Gillies said.
The group was eventually led through a door and down a stairwell. Walking slowly – Gillies estimates it took one hour and 10 minutes to file out of the tower – she encountered more and more people along the way. Some folks were unknowingly making light of the situation, while others seemed put out, annoyed that their work had been disrupted. Still, everyone was calm. At the 30th floor, Gillies encountered the first firefighters making their way up the stairs. She and others were amazed they could climb 30 flights in full gear, carrying oxygen tanks on their backs.
“We all gave them encouragement,” she said.
Her group was eventually led down an escalator into the mall below the trade center. The fire sprinklers were soaking everyone. “We were instructed not to run.” she said. The group was near a Gap store, by an entrance to the 1 and 9 subway, when what seemed like a fierce wind arrived.
Suddenly, the roof caved in, debris crashing down on them, and the building went black. The South tower had imploded. Gillies and others hit the ground, curled up in a ball and stayed there, for what seemed like several minutes, waiting for the falling debris to subside.
Co-worker Thompson had her shoes blown off her feet from the impact. “It was pitch black, you couldn’t see the hand in front of your face,” Gillies said. For a time, they crawled along, navigating in the darkness among scores of others, until they found a dim area of light near what turned out to be a PATH subway station. “We heard a man’s voice who kept saying, Follow my voice, follow my voice, I know an exit.'” He led them to an exit leading to Vesey Street. When they reached street level, she and her three co-workers ran north as fast as they could. She briefly looked back at one point and saw the top of the North tower buckling.
Its employees all accounted for but with no place to call home, Thor Technologies found new office space three days after the disaster, signing a six-month lease for 4,000 square feet of turnkey space on the 10th floor of 455 Park Avenue. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but company officials said the price per square foot is roughly four times what the firm was paying at WTC, where rents were $40 to $45 per square foot.
But Thor was back in business. “What’s really important is going back to work and getting back into a routine and establishing a normalcy,” Gillies said. “We’re operational again, rebuilding our business. Most of us are so delighted to work and focus on business.”
Gillies, who is Canadian and has lived in New York for less than two years, said she and her husband, who is from New Jersey, have no plans to leave. This is home, and this is where they work.
But there are scenes from that fateful day that she will never forget. There were two men helping a large man down many flights of stairs. At one point, one of the men told the other to go ahead, that he would wait there to help others. She now knows that he perished. And then there was a man waiting on one of the stairway landings, comforting people as they descended, telling them “God bless.” It was the same man she saw on a poster the week after — a missing persons poster.