When Richard Huber got to the ground after evacuating the North Tower of the World Trade Center, he thought he saw a pair of jeans lying on the street. After a second, he realized it was the lower half of a body.
That was when he knew he had to get out as fast as he could.
Up until then, the Springfield Township Committee member said, the day had been calm and orderly. Huber, a construction supervisor, had been working on a project at a restaurant at the World Trade Center. He had just returned to his desk at the 57th floor when the first plane hit. The impact from the crash knocked him over.
“I’ll never forget the creaking sound,” Huber said. “You heard it squeak.”
He went upstairs on a service elevator to check on his employees, then returned to his desk, where he had a television, to watch the news.
But there were announcements over the public address system. There were no alarms or sprinklers going off. He didn’t know the severity of the situation.
“We were talking about going golfing later that afternoon,” Huber said. “All of a sudden, the TV said a plane had hit the tower.”
Despite the news, everyone remained fairly calm. Huber said there was no confusion among employees. While the sprinklers never went off, Huber said he noticed the elevators were emitting a peculiar odor, which was almost certainly jet fuel from the crashed plane.
Huber considered boarding up the windows by his desk, but instead grabbed his cell phone—he didn’t often carry it in the towers as the buildings’ steel interfered with the signal—joined others on the floor who headed for the stairs.
Huber faced unique personal challenges in the flight out of the building.
“I had real bad knees at the time,” Huber said. “I could walk, but not too well.”
The descent was orderly and cordial in spirit; Huber remembered office workers running upstairs to retrieve bottled water for fire fighters.
Counterintuitive though it may seem, the evacuation of the floors below where the plane hit before the towers fell—the one Huber took part in—was a remarkable success, as this USA Today article from 2001 illustrates. The stairs at the World Trade Center had been modified after the 1993 attacks on the building to be larger than required by code. The World Trade Center had updated its evacuation procedures after the attacks. Many of the people that were in the towers on floors underneath where the towers struck survived the attacks.
Huber and his co-workers descended the 58-plus floors down to the ground steadily. They had to cross a floor when the stairway was blocked. But otherwise, the walk down was steady, slow and calm.
“There was no panic,” Huber said. “People walked down the stairs orderly.”
They came to the mezzanine, where the orderliness and calm was shattered. In addition to the severed legs, he remembered a hysterical woman covered in debris and crying. On the street, everything was chaos and carnage, coated with white dust. Adrenaline kicked in. Huber grabbed the people around him and said they had to run.
Huber and his group rushed away from the scene. After some time among the chaos, he felt a sensation he described as akin to pebbles hitting his back.
“Everybody was saying ‘run, run, run,’” Huber said.
It was tower two falling down. Huber didn’t know until two weeks later that he was there when it fell. His glasses had broken and he was disoriented in the horrific scene.
“I had dust all over me, but I didn’t realize it until I got to 34th Street,” Huber said.
He got into a ferry and made it back home to Springfield. He was safe, but he couldn’t shake the experience. He was obsessed with small details about being so close to so much death, like the realization that his then 13-year-old daughter was only person who knew where his car was parked, and would have had to go there to claim it if he had died. He had trouble sleeping, and would walk around the rooms in his house late at night, making sure his family members were still breathing.
“For the first couple of days I watched any TV,” Huber said. “My wife is very good. If not for her, I’m not sure what I would have done.”
He was wracked with survivor’s guilt, unsure His wife encouraged him to speak with Father Robert Stagg, the Pastor of St. James the Apostle Church in Springfield. He said that he still sees a psychiatrist every once in a while, and he has marked every Sept. 11 anniversary by meeting with other people who were with him in the towers that day.
“Have I gotten over it,” he asked. “My wife and my kids will tell you that I’m a changed person. Maybe part of me died that die. I don’t know.”