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View from Tower One: A Survivor's Tale

Rutgers spokesman Greg Trevor escaped Tower One of the World Trade Center 11 minutes before it collapsed. A decade later, he discusses the minutes, the months and the years that followed.

Greg Trevor drove into Manhattan earlier than usual to beat the Holland Tunnel traffic to his office in Tower One of the World Trade Center. The night before, he and his colleagues had given members of the media a tour of Kennedy Airport and took a Port Authority vehicle to his Highland Park home for the night. The Public Information Officer for the Port Authority of New York normally worked the 10-to-6 shift, but arrived at his office by 7:15 a.m.

Trevor started the day by returning a few phone calls and emails, then stretched out his bad back and admired the view to the south from his new office on the 68th floor.

“The Statue of Liberty was so bright that morning; it was very striking,” he said. “It was 8:46 a.m. when the first plane hit so it was right before a lot of people started getting in when everything started. I was standing behind my desk, the plane came in and I remember the force of the impact knocking me to the floor.”

Trevor said the towers were originally built to have about 18 inches of sway in any direction, which he experienced with high winds from Hurricane Floyd in 1999. But the impact of this plane caused the tower to sway 10 to 20 feet in all directions by his own estimation.

“Then I saw this flame come past my window and then all this paper and glass flew by. Then silence, except for a lot of car alarms going off,” he said. “So then I got a few calls. One was from a Fox 5 reporter, asking if I could confirm that a plane had hit the building, while I was still in the building. I said, ‘what is your source of information?’ He said, ‘about 200 people on their cell phones.’”

After a phone call from his immediate supervisor, Peter Yerkes, who observed some type of an explosion at Tower One while riding on the ferry, they put two-and-two together and concluded that it was a plane causing the explosion. Trevor also received a call from an old friend of his, making sure he was okay.

In the next 10 minutes, Trevor and his boss, Kayla Bergeron, gathered together their staff members and prepared to evacuate the building. But then the Port Authority offices received two more phone calls.

“I pick up the phone and say ‘Greg Trevor here,’ and this man on the other end says ‘Hi, I’m with NBC National News. If you could just hang on for about five minutes, we want to put you on live for an interview and I said, ‘No, no, we’re evacuating the building.’ And he goes, ‘This will only take a minute,’ and I said ‘No, no, we’re leaving right now.’ Then he kind of stopped, paused and he goes, ‘But this is NBC National News.’ I said ‘Sorry,’ and hung up.”

The Port Authority was very conscientious about evacuation drills and employees were required to attend the two held each year.

“They were very aware of the situation we were in on a daily basis and we drilled for it,” he explained. “Everybody had a flashlight, everybody had those glow sticks that you can use if your flashlight didn’t work. We gathered everyone and one-by-one, people got into the stairwell. I think I was the last person off the floor before we left. An evacuation like that takes about a minute per floor because you have a whole stream of people who are, you know, trying to get out.”

Trevor said the evacuation was very orderly. As he descended with thousands of other people who worked in Tower One, he received updates on his BlackBerry from his colleague, Pasquale DiFulco, who was at home and watching updates on CNN.

“People were going down two at a time. If a firefighter or a rescue worker was coming up, we would all move to the right, let them go through, and that’s how it proceeded until we got until about the 4th or 5th floor, which was about 9:59 a.m.”

Trevor said he felt a strong rumbling, which was caused by Tower Two collapsing. But neither Trevor nor any other individuals in the stairwell, evacuating Tower One, knew that Tower Two had even been hit by a plane, let alone collapsed. The force of the collapse threw Trevor from the right side of the stairwell to the left, causing him to hit his back on the banister.

“I looked up and saw all the smoke and dust coming down on my face. And then it was dark,” he said. “It was very dark, it was very smoky, it was very dusty and then this other thing happened.”

Trevor said the collapse of Tower Two ruptured pipes in Tower One, causing water to rush down. “It was probably 3 to 4 inches deep on the stairs so the way I’ve described it was it felt like walking through a dirty river, on a very dark night, in the middle of a forest fire. So it was very difficult.”

Trevor said someone yelled, telling everyone to put their right hand on the right shoulder of the person in front of them so they could continue their descent. But then someone yelled out, “Oh shit! The door is blocked.” Trevor said he believes the force of the collapse of Tower Two jammed the exit they were all heading toward.

“So you had this situation where the door out is not moving, the people at the bottom are being told to go up, you still have people coming down and again, it’s dark, it’s dusty, it’s smoky and there’s this water. There were emergency lights, but the smoke was so thick that it was very hard to see. And at that point, it’s fair to say there was some panic building.”

Trevor said there are two things he specifically remembers that he did next.

“I had a cotton, knit tie on and I put it over my mouth so I could breath," he said. "I used it as a filter. Other people were trying to breath through their jackets or things like that. And the other thing I remember was thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to get out of here,'" he said. "I closed my eyes and I made a mental picture of my wife and our two sons, Gabriel, who was going to turn 5 on Sept. 12 — he's about to turn 15; and Lucas, who was just under 2 so they were very little. I said, ‘Oh Lord, please let me see my family again,’ and then I made sure that I had this memory of their faces. I thought to myself, Their faces will keep me calm and if I die, they will be the last thing on my mind when I die.”

Just then, the rescue workers at the bottom of the stairwell pried open the jammed door. But from this, another dilemma arose. How do you quickly get people to turn around and begin descending again?

“There was a Port Authority Police Officer by the name of David Lim, who I knew very vaguely before this. He had the presence of mind to start shouting, ‘Down is good!’ He said it over and over again, ‘Down is good! Down is good!’” Trevor said. “I turned around over my shoulder and shouted it, ‘Down is good!’ Then, I could hear it. It was almost like an echo. You could hear people yelling it in the stairwell. At that point, we just turned around and as quickly as we could, got out of that stairwell.”

Trevor and his colleagues exited onto the concourse where all the flags of the nations were flying.

“It felt like I was in the middle of this dirty snow globe that somebody had just shaken because there was all this dust. You had the light and these windows, this glass and all this dust,” Trevor said. “So we were walking through that, I’m still breathing through the tie, and then that’s when we walked out.”

Trevor and his colleagues exited by Six World Trade, the US Custom Service, where rescue workers were there waiting.

“I didn’t know why they were doing this, but I found out later. They put us underneath an awning and had us wait. Then someone would look out past the awning and then say, ‘okay, it’s clear,’ and we would go along the building. They were worried about falling debris and at that point, there were people [falling too].”

As the group headed north, Trevor said he recalls looking over his shoulder, seeing the smoke billowing out of Tower One. He didn’t realize, at that time, that Tower Two was already gone.

He soon received a BlackBerry message from his boss, asking where they should go.

“I said Holland Tunnel because I knew there would be Port Authority Police there and they would take us off Manhattan and get us to Jersey City. So we started walking north toward the Holland. I remember there were people all over the place; people were trying to hand us water, we were covered in dust. The camera crews said, ‘do you want to talk?’ We kind of waved them off. But as we were walking north, we heard this rumbling and I remember looking into the face of this NYPD officer who said, ‘run for your lives.’”

Eleven minutes after Trevor and his colleagues evacuated, Tower One collapsed at 10:29 a.m.

“So we started running north and it felt like we were outracing this cloud that was coming out,” Trevor explained. “By the time we had outraced the cloud, we were about a block from the Holland Tunnel and I saw a coworker of mine, a gentleman named John Toth. He was limping and had a bloody knee, and I said, ‘John, are you okay?’ He said, ‘They’re gone, Greg.’ And I said, ‘Who is gone?’ thinking that somebody he knew had died. And he said, ‘No, the towers… they’re gone.’ And that’s when I looked up and saw this hole in the sky. It's the only way I can describe where these buildings had been, where my office had been, an hour earlier.”

The Twin Towers were a landmark and were a point of reference for many, Trevor said, so it was very disorienting to see nothing there where they used to be, particularly if it was a place you went every day for work.

Trevor said he and his colleagues made sure everyone they had evacuated with was accounted for, and they all embraced one another, and cried. They soon piled into a Port Authority Police Car that took them to the offices in Jersey City, where they set up an emergency communications center.

THE AFTERNOON AND NIGHT OF SEPT. 11, 2001

Trevor said he and his staff worked the rest of the day out of the Jersey City offices, answering, to the best of their knowledge, the first questions about what happened, when the tunnels would be reopened and when the airports would reopen.

Trevor was also trying to get in touch with his wife, Allison.

“My wife knew where my office was. I had taken her and the boys up there a month earlier, so she knew where my office was and so when the plane hit, she thought I was dead.”

Trevor said although his immediate supervisor called Allison to let her know Trevor was safe, Allison would not believe he was alive until she heard his voice.

“Then when Tower Two went down, I wasn’t out yet so she thought I was dead. Once Tower Two went down, we weren’t able to communicate via BlackBerry at all. Once we got out of the building, we could resume. So then she was told, ‘Okay, he’s out of the building,’ but then Tower One collapsed. So there were several points during the morning where she thought I was dead. So for almost six hours, she did not have the confirmation she wanted, that I was still here.”

At that time, Trevor said Gabriel was at Kindergarten and Lucas was at home with Allison. Several family members, friends and neighbors paid a visit to their home in Highland Park that day, or called their home and left messages.

“I remember riding the train home and I was still covered in dust, and it had been, obviously, a very long, very traumatic day, and Allison met me at the train station here in New Brunswick,” he said. “The next thing we did was walk over to St. Peter’s Church. We went in and we just prayed, and then I went home and slept for about four hours and then went back to work.”

Before going to sleep that night, Trevor spoke with his father over the phone.

“My father is an ex-Green Beret, US Army Special Forces. He was ROTC at Clarkson in upstate New York and did not serve in combat. He was between Korea and Vietnam,” Trevor explained. “I remember we were talking and he wanted to know how I felt. I don’t know why I did this, but I told a joke. I said, 'You know, Dad, I think I’ve seen more action now than you ever did.’ And there was this long pause and then he started laughing, and said, ‘Yeah, I think you’re right.’”

Trevor’s father, a retired engineer who worked for IBM for 31 years, was always very conscientious about being exact. Therefore, he wanted to know what to call his son after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“He wanted to know what was the right way to refer to someone like me. Evacuee? Victim? And I said, ‘Survivor. That’s the best word.’ And I thought about that a lot after I said that and one of the things I think is important is in one sense of the word, we are all survivors of what happened that day.”

LIFE AFTER THE ATTACKS

The next day, Trevor went back to the offices in Jersey City at 6 a.m. It also just so happened to be the 5th birthday of his son, Gabriel.

“I did not go to his party the next day. My wife tells me he wouldn’t come out of the house. He was very sad, he missed his dad. He’s 15 now and I don’t know if he has the same opinion about me all the time now, but he’s a good kid. I vowed I’d never miss another birthday, and I haven’t.”

Within the first couple of days following the terrorist attacks, Trevor said his office was answering a lot of questions about terrorism, when services were going to resume, about Port Authority Personnel who were missing and so on. But he and his colleagues were working with very few tools since their computers and files were gone.

“I remember the first few days, we had boxes to put messages in," he said. "Messages would be taken and thrown into these boxes. I remember there was a box that said ‘important’ and another box that said ‘very important.’”

Trevor said he was on a conference call with the Public Relations employees from various agencies in Trenton from Gov. Donald DeFrancesco’s office within the first couple of days following the terrorist attacks, many of whom he knew from previously working as a legislative reporter in Trenton.

After many asked how he and his colleagues were holding up, Press Secretary Rae Hutton asked if there was anything they could do to help.

“I had been on the phone for about 20 minutes and I already had about 30 messages sitting next to me, and I said, ‘Yeah, send people. We’re drowning here.’ A lot of them were saying they weren’t getting a lot of calls at that point because everything was focused on what was happening in Manhattan. I said, ‘If you have people who don’t have enough to do, can they come up here and help us? ‘And that’s what they did,” Trevor said.

For several weeks, Public Information Officers from various agencies went to Jersey City to help answer messages regarding the basic kind of information, dealing with tunnels, hours, and so on, while Trevor and his staff handled the more in-depth questions that required speaking with other Port Authority Executives.

“I don’t think we could have gotten through it without them. They did a tremendous job,” he said. “Everybody deserved an answer to their question, but there were just so many and they were coming in from all over the world.”

As a former reporter, Trevor said the response from the media in those first few weeks was tremendous.

“I have never been prouder of my former profession than I was during those first few days and weeks,” Trevor said. “People were very understanding. I mean, they asked tough questions, as they should; it’s a tough situation and there were a lot of tough questions, but they were patient about it, they were very gracious about it, they were very professional about it.”

In the weeks that followed, Trevor said he was working seven days a week, which eventually went down to a schedule of six days a week, 12 hours per day, although days were often longer than that.

Eventually, the Port Authority offices moved back into Manhattan, near Union Square.

“I don’t remember when we returned to a five-day-a-week schedule, much less a five day, 8 hours a day schedule,” he said. “A lot of that, even then, was even a blur.”

But that Autumn, Trevor said he recalls that there were several beautiful days. When he had the day off, he would go for long bike rides from his home in Highland Park to Johnson Park and back again on his new 21-speed bike he received for his birthday, earlier that June.

“I remember these bright, fall days where the leaves were striking. And you know, part of it was having been through a situation like this, you really do feel that sense of everything is just very dramatically clear to you, in terms of what you’re sensing. You really have a heightened sense of what you’re experiencing, both good and bad. I remember after the attacks, I used to react very negatively to cigarette smoke. It would just bother me so much. It’s interesting because I’m an avid barbecuer and that was never an issue.”

YEARS AFTER THE ATTACKS

Trevor said it was the smells that really brought it home for him in the years the followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Now the Senior Director of Media Relations at Rutgers University, he stayed with Port Authority until February of 2004. During his time there after the attacks, Trevor would regularly go to the site because it was his job to handle the promotion of the rebuilding.

“I remember taking a couple of New York Times reporters, [Glenn Collins and David Dunlap], through some of the parts of the Trade Center that were still intact. One of them was a stairwell that went down into the sub-basements,” Trevor explained. “This was part of the stairwell complex that we had evacuated through just below ground, but it went all the way down to the sub-basement. But I remember I was walking in there and being back in that location, with the lighting and particularly with the smell of the smoke and dust, that was very difficult. It was the smell, more than anything else, that was difficult.”

In 2003, Trevor took a group of Middle Eastern journalists on a tour of the site, which he said he will never forget.

“I was showing them the site, and I could tell there was some inherent tension. And I finally said, ‘Is something wrong?’ One of them finally turned to me and said, ‘Do you hate us?’ I started to tear up and I said, ‘Absolutely not. I don’t blame you for what these evil people did.’ But they were very worried about it. They were concerned that someone who had been through this experience would hold it against people from an entire region of the world.”

Trevor said at that point, he and the journalists on the tour were able to have a very honest conversation about what had happened on Sept. 11.

“I can't speak for them, but the sense was they were guarded because there was a fear that somehow this was going to be translated into some form of a universal dislike or distrust, and it couldn’t be further from the truth in my mind,” he said.

Since Trevor left the Port Authority, he has only been back to the site a few times. Still, he continues to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I’m still in therapy. I’m still on medication. I probably will be for the rest of my life,” he said.

Trevor said people have sometimes asked how he reacts to seeing the footage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on TV.

“For me, I can only speak for myself, what I experienced was in many ways the opposite of what most people experienced, which was most people were on the outside, watching what was going on,” Trevor said. “Our experience was on the inside, trying to get out. So a lot of those… iconic images, [such as] the planes hitting the buildings, the towers on fire, I didn’t see any of that. I experienced it, obviously. It is surreal.”

MOURNING HIS COLLEAGUES

Trevor lost many of his friends and colleagues from the Port Authority on Sept. 11, 2001.

He knew many of them because his responsibilities as a Public Information Officer included doing Public Relations for the Port Authority Police Department.

“I still have a photo of one of them on my wall here [at Rutgers]. Kathy Mazza, who was a captain. Prior to being a Port Authority Police Officer, she was an operating room nurse. She ran the Port Authority Police Training Academy for a long time,” Trevor explained. “She was the person who instigated the Port Authority Portable Heart Defibrillator Program. The agency had installed all these defibrillators for people who have heart attacks and they had saved, now it’s probably dozens of lives, at the airports and the other facilities.”

Trevor explained how Mazza, Chief James Romito and Lieutenant Bobby Cirri were at the Jersey City offices when they heard about the attacks and decided to go in to help.

“There were five or six police officers and commanders found together [in February of 2002] with a woman in one of those evac chairs, who they were trying to carry out,” Trevor says. “Based on the debris field, where they were found, the estimate I heard was they were within 10 feet of the door. It was very difficult.”

Trevor also spoke about Anthony Infante, who was the Superintendent for the Port Authority Police at Kennedy Airport, and Fred Morrone, who was the Superintendent of Police, who lost their lives that day.

“As you can tell, I even miss them now. They were some of the hardest working, most professional people I ever worked with,” Trevor said. “They were great to work with, they were wonderful people. Very conscientious, very caring people. They really cared about what we were doing and how we were doing it, and doing it well.”

Trevor said he could spend a whole day, telling stories about their heroism even before the attacks. But their actions proved what Trevor and Port Authority employees knew about them all along: “They were heroes to the end."

“One of the jobs I had to do after the attacks was put together biographical information about all the police officers and commanders who had lost their lives and again, we didn’t have the files because they were in the Trade Center,” Trevor explained. “So we had to rebuild them. That was a very painful process, but what it showed was these were people who, in their spare time, were volunteer EMTs, volunteer firefighters, little league coaches. All of them, without exception, they were all amazing individuals and it was a very sad aspect to it.”

Trevor said one important point to make is that most of the men and woman who lost their lives that day from Port Authority, including Port Authority Civilians, died trying to help other people evacuate and help other people who were in need.

When Trevor travels to other parts of the country and he tells people he used to work in the World Trade Center, he said there is almost invariably this same reaction, which is, “You must feel very lucky you weren’t there that day.”

“There is this assumption, and I’m not faulting them for it, this is just how things have been created, that if you were in the buildings, you died. And I always bring this up because an estimated 25,000 people were successfully evacuated from the Trade Center Complex that day,” Trevor said.

Trevor explained that it is because of the heroism of the uniform personnel and the civilians who were there — the Port Authority Police, the Port Authority Civilians, New York Police Department, FDNY — that so many people were evacuated successfully.

“People like me wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for people like them. I owe them my life and it’s one of the reasons I always make this point because if one assumes that everybody who was in the Trade Center died that day, then some people could reach the erroneous conclusion that the people who were rescuing others died in vain, and they did not,” Trevor said. “The legacy of their heroism is in all of us. All of those people, including me, who would not be here today if it were not for that heroism.”

Trevor said he and his family are eternally grateful.

“I pray for their souls every week in church and I ask myself on an almost daily basis, ‘Why am I still here and they’re not?’ I don’t know why. I don’t presume I’ll ever be able to answer that question, but I do feel an obligation to make that point any chance I get.”

OSAMA BIN LADEN

Trevor said he was lying in bed upstairs on a Sunday night, May 1, when his wife, Allison, called up to him and said, “The president is about to go on TV. They got Bin Laden.”

“I must admit, I was so overwhelmed by emotion, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t go downstairs. I actually laid in bed and listened from the TV downstairs, listening to the president describe what had happened. It was a very emotional time in a good way that he was finally brought to justice, but also a lot of sadness about what his evil had brought upon the world and the people it personally affected. I thought a lot about people like Captain Mazza, Chief Romito and Inspector Infante. It brought me back.”

SEPT. 11, 2011

This morning, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Trevor will walk, with family and friends, in the 4th annual Rutgers 5K Run for the Warriors, sponsored by Rutgers ROTC.

“It is a fundraiser to raise money for wounded soldiers. I spoke at last year’s and I’ve been asked to speak briefly this year,” Trevor said. “It is a tremendous cause. If people can support it, that would be great. It’s so important because so many of these families have suffered so much as a result of what’s happened in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Following the 5K, Trevor, Allison, Gabriel and Lucas are spending the day together.

“For us, it really has become, more than anything else, a family time. A time to really be together. Again, my prayer was to see my family and to me, that’s what’s more important about our healing, is to be together as a family so that’s what we’ll do,” he said. “My wife feels very strongly that she wants it to be a day with just the four of us.”

Trevor said he’s certain he will hear from his friends and family today as well.

“We get that every year. We have a lot of friends around the world who have been very supportive and that’s an important part of the healing process,” he said. “When you know that there are other people out there who want to help you, it’s very important, even ten years later.”

Tomorrow, Trevor and his family will celebrate Gabriel’s birthday, which Trevor said he will not miss, even if he’s working that day.

“That’s one of the nice things about working at Rutgers. My office is about a mile from home so I can get home for a party if I have to. Lucas would be offended if I didn’t point out his birthday is on Oct. 14, which is, of course, the same birthday as Dwight Eisenhower’s. He loves telling people that. I have no idea why.”

Trevor said he made the choice to leave Port Authority to work as the Senior Director of Media Relations at Rutgers University in 2004 so he could be closer to his family, be able to attend more of his childrens' games and school functions, and coach baseball and basketball.

“Plus, this is a great place to work. I have a terrific staff, they work very hard," he said. "People at Port Authority were terrific, too, but this is a great place to work and I think we’re doing great things here at the University and I’m very happy to be a part of it,” he said. “It does feel good to be close to home and close to the family so that if they need me, I can be here.”

LOOKING AHEAD

In his house, Trevor has three very valuable items that he hopes to someday pass on to his children and grandchildren.

“I do have some of my own artifacts that I kept from that day in plastic bags. I still have the blue tie that I breathed through and there was no way I could ever get my shoes cleaned so I put them in a bag, too. So in my house, I have the shoes, the tie and I have something my grandfather gave me, which was a baseball fouled off by Babe Ruth in 1922."

Trevor said his children did ask a lot of questions in the beginning and said they are very aware of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

He said if there’s anything he feels people, particularly children, should learn about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it’s that it was a successful evacuation and the towers were able to withstand the impact long enough for thousands upon thousands of people to evacuate.

Trevor recommends the following books to anyone who wants to learn about Sept. 11:

“102 minutes,” by New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.

“City in the Sky,” written by New York Times reporters James Glanz and Eric Lipton.

“The Ground Truth,” written by John Farmer.

“They are outstanding accounts of different aspects of the events of Sept. 11,” Trevor said. “I would encourage people to read, I would encourage people to talk to people who have first hand experiences. Sometimes, particularly children, have come up to me and asked me questions, and people say, ‘Oh, don’t bother him with this,’ and I said, ‘No, no, it’s okay’ because I think there’s so much information that’s available now that should be preserved and should be remembered.”

Trevor says the decade that's passed shouldn't keep anyone from thinking it can't happen again.

“One of the conclusions I’ve drawn from my own personal experiences from participating in these kinds of things is that, yeah, there are dangers out there and that we need to be vigilant,” he said. “I think one of the reasons we have to be vigilant is because this is a free society and I think that because the fact that it is a free society, that, in some ways, motivates some people who are not part of free societies to continue to threaten us.”

And while Bin Laden is gone, there are still people out there who are trying to do his bidding, he said.

“I don’t think it’s over,” Trevor said. “I don’t think it’s ever going to be over. Of course, there have been threats against free societies ever since there were free societies, and there will continue to be.”

While Trevor is moving on with his life with his family, he is still a survivor of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. But to him, we are all survivors of those attacks.

“Everyone’s experience differs,” he said. “I think for all of us, our experiences differ in degree and detail, but in some sense, we are all survivors of this. You think about the Paris newspaper that said ‘We are all Americans.’ This idea that somehow, this affected all of us and that this united all of us around the world.”

Trevor said people have asked him if he feels sad that the spirit of that time doesn’t exist all the time. But he said he takes a more optimistic view.

“I know that there is potential for our humanity to unite in something. I would hope that we would have the capacity to do it under circumstances that are not as dire and tragic, but at least it shows that yes, the whole world or the vast majority of people around the world can unify on something,” Trevor said. “To me, I’m a hopeful person and to me, that gives a very strong indication that we all have the capacity for hope, and we all have the capacity for love, and we all have the capacity to care for one another.”

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