Anyone who lives or works in the greater New York area will always remember the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Many people saw the terrorist attacks unfold from a safe distance that day, while others watched the unbelievable drama unfold on television. A much smaller number, including Christine Gillies, experienced the disaster first-hand. What is more, Gillies, 27, 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 Inc., 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., a leading provider of solutions for managing e-business security. For its part, Thor develops solutions for corporations to help them ensure secure and regulatory compliant centralized management of IT resources when rolling out their e-business initiatives.
Building Under Seige
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 occupied 10,000 square feet at One World Trade Center. Most of the Thor employees had not yet arrived.
What sounded and felt like an explosion rocked the building. Part of the office’s roof caved in, and Gillies and her colleagues scurried under their desks while debris fell around them. Almost immediately, smoke filled the room.
Gillies called 911, but was put on hold. She tried reaching her husband, but to no avail. Meanwhile, outside the window, debris fell and jet fuel rained down on the asphalt below.
Choked on the smoke, the Thor employees left the office. They made their way 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.
“At times like these, people are in survivor mode, and you surpress your emotions,” Gillies said.
They eventually found their way to another door and stairwell. Walking slowly – Gillies estimated it took an hour and 10 minutes to get down the stairs – she encountered more and more people along the way. Some folks were making light of the situation, she said. One man who had been in the World Trade Center during the 1993 bombing quipped that it might be time to find another place to work.
Around the 40th floor, Gillies said there were some workers who seemed annoyed that their work had been disrupted. Still, everyone was calm. At the 30th floor, she encountered the first firefighters making their way up the stairs. She and others were amazed that could climb 30 flights in full gear, carrying oxygen tanks on their backs.
Gillies’ group eventually made their way down an escalator into the mall below the Trade Center. The fire sprinklers were soaking everyone. “We were instructed not to run,” she said.
Suddenly, the roof caved in and the building went black. The South tower had imploded. Gillies and others hit the ground, curled up and stayed there for what seemed like several minutes, waiting for the falling debris to subside.
Gillies’ co-worker had her shoes blown off her feet from the impact.
“It was pitch black, you couldn’t see your 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 station.
They finally exited at Vesey Street. When they reached street level, Gillies and her three co-workers ran north as fast as they could. Gillies briefly looked back and saw a chilling sight: the top of the North tower was 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 Ave. 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 they’re back in business. “What’s really important is going back to work and getting back into a routine and establishing normalcy,” Gillies said. “We’re operational again, rebuilding our business. Most of us are so delighted to work and focus on business. None of us are mourning the loss of anyone immediate. If we had lost anyone, I don’t think we could have had such a swift transition.”
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. For them, this is home.
Scenes From A Memory
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,” and that it was his job to make sure they got down safely.
She doesn’t know exactly who he was, but she remembers the face. It was the same face she saw on a poster last week, of one of the missing victims of the World Trade Center tragedy.
Ken Ryan can be contacted at: Kenneth.Ryan@tfn.com