Los Angeles Times, September 16, 2001
Survival: How three office mates, amid thousands of
others, fled for their lives through a very tall trap.
By SCOTT GOLD, Times Staff Writer
Adam Mayblum enjoyed the storms that rumbled off the Atlantic. As they
lashed his windows and strafed the steel beams, Adam would scoff: You
think that's power? I'm on the 87th floor of the World Trade Center.
During the worst storms, the cords on his window shades would appear to
sway a few inches, but it was an illusion. They actually hung straight,
held steady by gravity. It was the tower that swayed, to absorb the
When Adam felt the first rumble Tuesday morning, he glanced at the cords.
They were oscillating like a pendulum, 3 feet in either direction.
He shot from his desk, turning his back on breakfast and e-mails to face
the Statue of Liberty. Outside, pieces of paper fluttered through the air,
"gently," he would say later, "on a breeze." He looked down at the tiny
people staring up at him from 876 feet below and offered them a New York
"What're you looking at?"
They were looking at terrorists ripping apart the World Trade Center.
It was 8:45 a.m., and American Flight 11, bound for Los Angeles, had just
torn into the north side of Adam's building, the trade center's north
tower. At 9:03, United Flight 175 would strike the south tower. At 9:50
a.m., the south tower would collapse. The north tower would follow at
Adam Mayblum would find out all that much later.
For 103 minutes, he was one of thousands cast into an extraordinary
purgatory. As many as 15,000 found their way to safety. Perhaps 5,000 did
For many, it was a matter of chance.
On the 87th floor of the north tower, one worker left his office and went
to the bottom of the building to get a muffin. He lived. Another went to
the bathroom. The roof collapsed on him, and he died.
Window washer apprentice Fabian Soto, three weeks on the job, low man on
the union hall totem pole, was dispatched early Tuesday to wipe the
nose-prints of tourists from the observation deck glass atop the north
tower. He would not be seen again.
The confusion inside Adam's office at May Davis, where he is the managing
director, lasted just seconds. He knew he needed to get out. The phones
were still working, which seemed odd, and he called his son's nanny, told
her to page his wife. There was a bomb, he said, but he was on his way
He took off his Van Heusen dress shirt, then ripped his T-shirt into
pieces, soaked the pieces in water and gave them to some of his 13
colleagues to cover their faces. Among them: Harry Ramos, the head trader
at the investment firm. Adam had worked with Harry off and on for 14
years. They were casual, beer-after-work friends.
Adam, 35, a native of Queens, put his shirt back on, grabbed his laptop
and raced for the stairs through bright white smoke. Sparks bit at his
ankles. He missed the stairs on his first pass. It was the World Trade
Center. No one took the stairs.
After bolting two flights down, he realized that his partner and close
friend, 46-year-old Hong Zhu, had been left behind. Adam went back
upstairs and reached the office, now filled with smoke and burning jet
There was no sign of Hong, a quiet, private man, unmarried, devoted to his
work and good at it.
He didn't make it out through the smoke, Adam thought.
He raced back down and made it to the 78th floor, a transfer lobby where
one set of elevators and stairs ended and another began. He saw a stranger
bravely staving off a wall of flames with a fire hose.
People were collapsing from the stress. Others tried to give comfort,
stuffing a shirt under the head of the fallen before racing for the
Adam found Harry, wading into the pandemonium to help panicked workers
into a safe stairwell. It was a reassuring sight, and a typical one. The
trade center could be a competitive, back-stabbing workplace. But there is
not one person, Adam said, who has ever said a bad thing about Harry, a
father of two, a tall, handsome man.
Adam found another stairwell and began walking down again. His heart was
beating faster and faster, and the muscles in his calves were contracting
On the 53rd floor, Adam came across a heavyset man whose legs just
wouldn't move anymore. The man was sitting on the stairs and said he
needed help. Adam knew his bad back would make it hard to carry him, but
he offered anyway. The man hesitated.
"Do you want to come, or do you want us to send help?" Adam shouted.
The man asked Adam to send help. Adam said he would.
The hijackers did not strike either tower with their wings level. Instead,
they hit at an angle.
Twelve employees of the American Bureau of Shipping, a nonprofit group
that promotes safety and property protection at sea, were on the 91st
floor of the north tower when the first plane hit almost exactly at their
But they were on the northwest corner of the building. The bulk of the
plane's fuselage entered the building about 100 feet south of them. The
plane's left wing, banked toward the ground, wiped out the east side of
the floor. But the plane's right wing, banked toward the sky, sliced
through the office above them.
George Sleigh had been at work at ABS since about 7:30 a.m. He was in his
cubicle, surrounded by technical shipping manuals.
"I heard this unusual sound. A roaring sound," he said. "As I looked up I
saw the plane. I thought: 'This guy is really low.' "
A wing flashed past his eyes, followed by the plane's smooth belly. Then
the world caved in. Down the hall from ABS, an office was obliterated.
Above them, Marsh USA Inc., an insurance and risk management firm that
occupied the 93rd through 100th floors, was hit badly. It would later
report as many as 400 workers missing.
Sleigh, who occupied the easternmost desk in the ABS office, was buried
under a pile of ceiling tiles and bookshelves. His colleagues were fine,
as surprised they were still alive as they were that a plane had just
crashed into their building. They dug Sleigh out, and they all escaped.
"I can't believe that I'm alive," Sleigh would later say. "I don't know
why I was spared."
Tom McGinnis, a 41-year-old broker for Carr Futures, was on the 92nd floor
of the north tower for a business meeting when the attack began. He called
his wife, Iliana, his high school sweetheart and the mother of 4-year-old
daughter Caitlin. He told her he could see people jumping from floors
"This doesn't look good," he said. "There's no way out of this room. . . .
I love you. Take care of Caitlin."
"Don't hang up," Iliana said. "Don't hang up. You are coming home."
She would not hear from him again.
Hong was alive.
He had been behind Adam in the stairwell the whole time, but in the noise
and the smoke and the sparks, Adam didn't know. They had apparently passed
each other on stairwell A, Hong running down, Adam running up to rescue
When Hong got to the 53rd floor, he came across Harry Ramos. Harry had
stopped to help the heavyset man--the same man Adam met earlier. "I'll
give you a hand," Hong said.
Together, Harry and Hong helped the man down one more flight. They found
an office, a securities firm, where the air-conditioning was working.
While they tried to get a dose of cool air into the heavyset man's lungs,
Hong found an elevator.
"No! No!" a Port Authority official screamed. "Don't take it!"
Hong and Harry tried to send a magazine down in the elevator. In the
confusion of the moment, they reasoned that if the elevator came back, and
the magazine was still inside, it would be safe. That was what passed for
logic at the time. They pressed the "down" button, but the doors didn't
close. So Hong decided that he would be the guinea pig instead.
He stepped inside, and the doors closed behind him.
In the center of each floor of the twin, 110-story towers at the World
Trade Center, the hallways converged in a spot employees called the
The path down began at that spot. In many cases, escape depended on
choices--left or right, up or down, stairwell A or B, stay or go.
Roko Camaj, 61, had cleaned the windows of the World Trade Center since it
opened in 1973. He was on the roof when the first plane struck, hanging
the rigging for the machines that scrubbed the windows. He began racing
down the stairs but was told on the 105th that he should return to the
He called his wife on his cell phone and told her he was heading up to
wait for a helicopter. Then she heard a scream. The line went dead. She
wouldn't hear from him again.
Arlene Charles had a choice too.
An American Building Maintenance employee, she had started her shift at
5:45 a.m., turning on the elevators that had been shut down for the night.
Then, filling in for a vacationing co-worker, she headed to her assignment
on the 78th-floor sky lobby and began saying "Good morning," in her
Grenadan drawl, to the arriving executives. A group of visitors was headed
to a breakfast conference at the Windows on the World restaurant.
The plane struck the north tower, just above her, about 15 minutes later.
"I squeezed between the desk, put my head down and put my jacket over my
face," Charles said. "I was so scared to look up, but when I started
peeking, I heard a lady screaming."
It was Carmen Griffith. They had worked together for 20 years, swapping
stories as their children grew from toddlers to teenagers. Now Griffith,
who had been standing nearby when a glob of burning jet fuel burst through
the elevator shafts, was crawling toward her. Charles looked at Griffith's
hands pawing at the floor. Skin was peeling from her fingers.
People sprinted past toward safety, but Charles refused to leave without
her friend. With the help of an executive who stopped, she soaked Griffith
with water from a nearby office, then picked her up and began a slow walk
down 78 flights of stairs.
"She was crying," Charles said. "She was burning."
Charles' walkie-talkie crackled with static and voices all the way down as
other workers with radios urged them on.
"I'd say: 'I'm on the fortysomething floor, on the twentysomething floor,'
" Charles said. "They said: 'Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!' But I said: 'I can't
hurry. I have to help Carmen.' "
Around the mid-40s, two men sprinted past them, then doubled back to help.
Together, they made it out after 90 minutes, 15 minutes before the
collapse, Griffith alive but with burns on 60% of her body.
Adam was progressing steadily toward freedom, stopping occasionally to
counsel people from his office, to usher a few of them into the line ahead
His cell phone rang. It was his parents, calling from Delray Beach, Fla.
Adam was nervous but betrayed little of his fear. They were hysterical.
"Get out," his father said sternly.
"Relax," Adam said. "I'm fine."
And he was, in a way. He wasn't hurt. He was making good progress. He felt
oddly bored. He couldn't believe it himself. But he was.
Harry and Hong, meanwhile, were in trouble.
Hong took the elevator down to the 44th floor, the next transfer lobby. So
far, so good. He pressed "52," went back up and collected Harry and the
On 44--halfway down--Hong, Harry and the heavyset man got off the elevator
and stumbled across the lobby toward the last bank of elevators that would
take them all the way down.
Hong pressed the "down" button again. Nothing. They would have to take the
Harry and Hong each took an arm of the heavyset man and draped them over
their shoulders. "One floor at a time," Hong said. "One step at a time."
They had been trying to get out for an hour and five minutes. They were on
the 39th floor when they felt the south tower collapse.
"We really have to move," Hong said.
The rumbles of the collapsing tower next door seemed to sap the heavyset
man of his last gasps of energy. He sat down again.
"I can't move my legs," he said. "I can't do it anymore."
In both towers, the stairs were a lifeline that grew increasingly frayed
as time passed.
It takes a long time to walk down 90 flights of stairs.
"It was not designed for quick evacuation," said Thomas A. Humphreys, a
Brown & Wood attorney who escaped once from the firm's 57th-floor offices
after the 1993 car-bombing at the trade center, and then again Tuesday.
"You had to get everyone in our building out in 90 minutes. That's tough."
At first, even in the upper floors, the exodus was calm and orderly.
Someone had time to break into a vending machine and pass out grape sodas.
Someone made a joke about how the water from sprinklers and fire hoses was
ruining their shoes.
"I was at the tail end of the crowd," said Humphreys. "You wait. People
are orderly. It's crowded and it's slow. You go down a few steps and it
would stop. Some of the stops were five minutes. You don't know why."
As time passed, the stairs became increasingly crowded. Heat began to
build, dust poured into the stairwells and the water was around their
All the while, the building was coming apart. Walls creaked and then
"It seemed we were walking down very calm, very orderly . . . and all of a
sudden you felt like the ground was falling out from under you," said
Claiborne Johnston, who escaped from the 64th floor of the south tower.
"You knew the structure had been altered severely, and the rest of the way
down you could feel that."
Veterans of the 1993 bombing knew that stairwell B--there were three in
all, A, B and C--was the widest and could accommodate the most people.
On most passes of most staircases, there was room for two people to stand
side by side, but that didn't last long. From the top, the injured were
being carried out, and those who could walk were forced to step aside.
Near the 40th floor, workers began encountering the firefighters coming
up, many of them carrying heavy gear and sweating profusely.
Receptionist Dianne DeFontes took to the stairs from her law office on the
89th floor. After walking down 50 floors, she ran into the first wave of
firefighters, their ruddy faces peering up the stairs.
"You're going to be all right," one of the firefighters said.
"I thought, they're going up there and they may not come back down," she
said. "The night that I came home I couldn't sleep. Every time I closed my
eyes I saw a face. I thought, they may not have wives or girlfriends, but
they all have mothers, and they're going to be devastated."
Hong was screaming at the heavyset man to move.
"You don't have to move your legs!" Hong shouted, as Harry waited with
him. "Just move your butt. Slide down, one at a time. He moved two steps,
and that was it. He couldn't go on. 'Let's go!' I shouted."
A firefighter ran up to them. Hong expected that he would join in to get
the heavy man to move. Instead, the firefighter turned to Hong. The
firefighter knew what they could not: For the stragglers, it was too late.
"Who the [expletive] are you, screaming at him to get out?" the
firefighter shouted. "You get out!"
"I wanted to help," Hong said. "But at that moment, I didn't see how we
Hong looked at Harry, who was still standing with the heavyset man.
"I'm coming down with you," Harry told the man. "I'm not going to leave."
"I left," Hong said. "Alone."
Adam was nearing the bottom. Still trudging down the stairs, he told
everyone around him to link hands. They ended up at a courtyard where a
pleasant fountain had been just an hour earlier. Now it was a pile of ash,
dust, gnarled metal and body parts.
His cell phone rang as the group headed toward Houston Street. It was his
wife. Adam fell to his knees.
"Hong is alive," she told him.
Yesterday, the skies cleared over New York, a bright and chilly fall day.
Just over the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan, a small group
gathered at the tree-shaded home of Owen May, one of the May Davis
presidents. They lit the barbecue about noon.
Adam was there. Hong was there too. Micky Ramos, Harry's wife, was there.
And there was one guest with only the slightest connection to the
Adam, like many survivors, had grown weary of telling his story to his
friends and relatives. So he sent them an e-mail describing the ordeal.
And they sent the e-mail to their friends and relatives, who sent it to
their friends and relatives.
At 2:50 a.m. Saturday, his phone rang. The e-mail had made it to San
Francisco, where it was read by someone who knew a woman in New York named
Rebecca Ward--and knew that Rebecca's husband, a heavyset man, was
missing. The San Francisco man got in touch with Rebecca Ward, who called
Adam. The heavyset man was her husband, Victor.
On Saturday afternoon, Rebecca Ward came to Owen May's house to learn how
Victor was comforted in his last moments, how Harry refused to leave him
Harry's wife was walking around with a floor plan of the World Trade
She questioned everyone who had been inside the north tower, convinced
that somehow, Harry--the only May Davis employee still missing--is alive.
She developed a picture of his escape, learned that Harry was on 87 when
the plane hit, that he stopped to help on 78, that he met up with Hong on
But as hard as she pushed, as many questions as she asked, the picture
began to fade after that.
And finally, on stairwell A of the 36th floor, it went dark.
Times staff writers Lee Romney, Nicholas Riccardi, Geoffrey Mohan, Solomon
Moore, Doug Smith, Abigail Goldman, Carla Rivera, Henry Weinstein, Ted
Rohrlich, Steve Berry, John L. Mitchell, Kurt Streeter, Mimi Avins,
Jeffrey Rabin, Robin Fields, Patrick J. McDonnell, Jocelyn Y. Stewart and
Massie Ritsch in Los Angeles, and Jill Leovy in New York contributed to