I’m a 9/11 survivor
Janine Deane remembers standing still for almost a half-hour in the stairwell — with the pungent smell of smoke and jet fuel everywhere. Some people around her lost their composure and broke down in tears.
Deane was one of thousands of people that day trying to evacuate the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. It was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Surviving awful events of that day
“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t think we’re going to get out,’” said Deane, who also recalls looking at the faces of those stuck in the stairwell with her as they tried to leave the building.
“Just sad memories,” said Deane, who at the time was a 31-year-old actuary working for Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, which had just relocated into a new office space on the 31st floor of One World Trade Center.
Deane, now 49 and a mother of three teenagers — all born after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — willingly shares her story of surviving the awful events of that day that launched the nation’s still-ongoing war on terrorism.
The toughest thing for her is to talk with someone who lost a loved one that day. Almost 3,000 people were killed. Two colleagues who worked with her on the same floor never made it out of the tower. In total, her company lost 11 people.
“Every time you’d reconnect with a coworker for the first time after it happened, it was very emotional,” said Deane, who is a member of Legatus’ Newark Chapter with her husband, Brian.
Like most Americans who were around on 9/11 — especially those in and around downtown Manhattan that Tuesday morning — the day’s events are seared into Deane’s memory. Her story, though, actually begins on the previous Friday, when she missed her morning train into Manhattan.
Missed train, and stunned escape
“And then on Monday, I missed the train again, and I was so mad, because I had run so hard to catch it,” said Deane, who normally worked from home on Tuesdays. But when her boss asked her if she could come in to the office that day, she resolved to catch the morning train early.
Deane made it to the World Trade Center around 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 11. By 8 a.m., she was at her desk. Her boss and a coworker stopped by to chat. They were all standing in a doorway when the first hijacked airplane crashed into the tower’s 96th floor at 8:46 a.m.
“The impact of the plane was so powerful,” Deane said, adding that some of her colleagues thought it was an earthquake. She and a coworker stood in the doorway, holding on to each other for several minutes.
“Imagine a plane hitting your building,” Deane said.
Outrunning the collapse
The impact was such that Deane and her colleagues immediately grabbed their bags and went to the center stairwell to evacuate the tower, which was noticeably buckled. They got into the stairwell and slowly moved down the stairs for the next 45 minutes.
The floors were filled with smoke and parts of the ceiling were falling off. Deane said she could smell jet fuel. For a while, everyone in the stairwell was confused about what had happened, but someone with a small pocket radio turned on the news and relayed information as it was coming in.
“I was very scared. I was praying in my head,” Deane said, adding that the stress was just too much for those who broke down in the stairwell. “I just remember thinking, all I can do is remain composed, because there was nothing you could do. You were just standing there.”
Deane said she had been standing in the same spot for nearly 20 minutes when she heard the news about a plane hitting the second tower. She and everyone else were barely moving at all when a group of New York City firemen came up the stairs.
“People were very kind to them,” Deane said. “A lot people were touching them, saying, ‘God bless you. Good luck.’ That’s a sad memory to think about.”
Those in the stairwell slowly made their way to the 15th floor, at which point the line began to move faster. A large amount of water was rushing down the stairs as Deane and the others continued their journey to safety.
Eventually, Deane made it out to the front lobby, which was littered with debris. She was in complete shock.
“I thought, ‘All I can do is stay out of everybody’s way,’” Deane said. “I’m not a nurse. I’m not a fireman. I have no equipment. All I can do is stay composed.”
She and other people were escorted through a shopping mall under the tower and got out through an adjacent bookstore. Outside on the street, colleagues were crying when they saw one another and shared their stories.
Deane and her boss ran to Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. Her boss wanted to stop there, but Deane said they had to keep moving until they “got to the water.”
After making it to Penn Station, Deane found that the trains in and out of the city were shut down. She and her boss walked to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, but bus service was also halted.
Strangers helping each other
Deane and her boss jumped into a cab with people they didn’t know, who brought them to their home near the George Washington Bridge, which was closed at the time.
Meanwhile, Deane made several phone calls until she was able to speak to her husband and her parents. Her father had gone to church to pray for his daughter, and he fell to his knees crying when he got home and heard her voice on the answering machine.
When the George Washington Bridge reopened, Deane and her boss took a cab. The bridge was lined with vehicles and people offering rides to those who were headed in the same direction. Deane said she got into a car driven by “a very nice woman” who lived in New Jersey. Deane stayed at that woman’s house until her husband went there to pick her up.
Mourning those who didn’t get out
“When I got home, I’m thinking about who I worked with who didn’t get out. That part was so painful,” said Deane, who added that her company for several days after the attacks had “roll calls” where everyone was required to call in and be accounted for. A month later, her company gathered together in Secaucus, New Jersey.
“It was so emotional” said Deane, who went to church a few days after the terrorist attacks with her husband. The church was packed, and the priest asked the congregation to yell out the names of friends and loved ones who had died or were still missing.
“Everybody was suffering so much,” Deane said, adding that her Catholic faith has helped her to cope and process the events of that day. After staying at home to raise her children for a few years, Deane returned to work. She is even working again in downtown Manhattan, on Water Street.
She has also since taken her children to the National Sept. 11 Memorial on the spot in lower Manhattan that has become known the world over as Ground Zero. She described the complicated emotions of being in that spot, watching the waterfalls that line the footprints of where the towers once stood.
“I just walked around, quietly, looking at all the names of those who died,” Deane said. “It’s just so sad.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.