A Sept. 11 Survivor's Tale

Not all at or above the section of impact at the World Trade Center towers perished on Sept. 11.

Kelly Reyher worked on the100th floor of the world trade centers' south tower and is one of a dozen people who survived being in the sky lobby on the 78th floor after the second plane attacked.

Reyher told The Early Show that at 8:30 a.m., he was standing in his office on the 100th floor with a colleague who didn't survive the day, when the North Tower was hit. "We ran into my office that faced north and immediately saw a tornado of debris and paper," he said. "We couldn't believe it. It looked like a post office truck exploded and there was just swirling black smoke. It was so thick you couldn't see much. As the wind blew, you could start to smell it and you could feel the heat on the window."

He believes there were people who did not intentionally jump out of the North Tower, but fell because they couldn't see, they couldn't breath and they were looking for fresh air. "As we watched in stunned horror, you started to see people walk up in the hole of the building with their hands over their faces...The hole was two to three stories," said Reyher. "The first guy was in a blue shirt and jeans and he walked up to the edge with his arm over his face and just fell." But, Reyher also saw people intentionally jump instead of burn.

"People were screaming in the office and I started to dial my fiancé and hung up and said 'let's get out of here.' We were in the quadrant of the building. I told them to get to the fire stairs and there were other sorts of people directing," said Reyher.

He said there were some calm people and others that paniced as they began to proceed down the stairwell. "No one really knew what happened," he said. "There were no announcements. There were fire alarms and people just chatting in the stairwell. The stairwell didn't go straight down and it winded around the elevator shaft. When we got past the 77th floor, past the sky lobby, there was an announcement that you could go back to your office. A group of us stopped because, as far as we knew, the building was safe. We took the express elevator. We decided to stop and understand what happened and a group of 20 people walked back to the Sky Lobby and there were lots of people in various states of panic."

Reyher said he decided to go back up to his office to get his palm pilot because some other people had already gone back up. He figured there wouldn't have been an announcement to return to the offices if things were bad. When he hit the elevator button, he felt a blast hit as he stepped in. "You didn't know what it was then, other than it was a huge concussion blast with a searing sort of heat wave. It sort of blasted me to the back of the elevator and it visibly crumbled. The side was split wide open and you could see in the shaft door and the floor buckled. The doors were sort of bent."

He said that as he came to his senses, he realized what had happened in the other tower had happened in the tower he was in. "I realized I was trapped in an elevator and thought what a stupid decision to get in an elevator." He said that everybody has this desire to know how they will die and he thought that now he knew he was going to die trapped in an elevator. "A fire was raging in the elevator shaft and since it had split, you could see it and the flames were starting to come in the elevator," he said. "Ashes and hot smoke were coming in, rising to the top and through the floor. I wasn't in a state of panic. I thought this is it.

I realized what was happening in trade center one as the flames came in and the hair was getting singed off of my arms and head. I thought, if I stand up, maybe I will asphyxiate and pass out and not know that I'm going to burn to death." Around this time, he realized there was a chance of getting out by pulling the elevator doors open.

"They were mangled, but I was able to pull the inner door and the outer door with my briefcase," he said. He used his briefcase as a cover to protect himself and to crawl into the lobby. "When I got there, I went into a little alcove and the flames were shooting into it and facing me. There was about a foot of debris on the floor. As I wiggled my body, I tried to stand up. The smoke was so hot that it just about closed my throat and I put my shirt over my mouth to try to breathe. I was trying to figure out where the staircase was in the lobby I had been in. As I crawled along and as I came from the alcove into the Sky Lobby, that's when the magnitude hit me. There were bodies everywhere. It was deathly quiet, except for people screaming and moaning and you could only see 10 or 15 feet. As I crawled, I checked to see if some people were alive, but they weren't. There was one woman who was up on her knees saying, 'Please, don't leave me' and we got her over to the stairs. As soon as I got there the door opened and I saw someone was there and I found two of my colleagues who were alive. Both were very injured, bleeding, limping and burnt."

"As we got into the stairwell, you couldn't see much because it was full of smoke and the question was whether to go up or down. Because no one knew where the fire was, some people made the decision to go up because some people were yelling that the stairwell was blocked below. It was blocked because the wall and ceiling had come down. But, it wasn't so blocked that with good strong hands you couldn't move it. So that's what we did and we started to dig the debris and help other injured through the debris, about five people in all."

"We went down 78 flights of stairs and got out of the building...I sat there on the curb and finally looked up to see what was happening and listened to people on the ground saying what happened, because we didn't know. I remember saying to my colleague, 'It looks like God wants us to live". Reyher then walked up Broadway and about five or ten minutes later, the South Tower collapsed. He said that he just ran for his life and wondered if he was 1500 feet away from the tower. A cloud of debris knocked him down and he wondered if he had made it out the building in vain because he might die from the collapse.

After he survived that collapse, he found ambulance workers who washed his blood off. Then he walked back to help the policeman and firemen get out of the debris for about 15 to 20 minutes. He said other people were helping until the National Guard told them all to leave because tower one was going to collapse too. About five minutes later the North Tower collapsed.

He said that his wife was almost catatonic and overjoyed to hear he survived. "She thought I was calling from a pocket of air with a death call," he said. His injuries were moderate. He had first-degree burns on parts of his arms and small cuts on his head.

His company, Aon Risk Services lost about 180 people. The company had floors from the 98th to the 105th floor of the tower.

When asked how he feels about the first anniversary of Sept. 11, he said, "I guess the way to look at it is, I almost believe that I didn't have control over whether I survived that time and I probably won't in the future. I won't ride the subways, avoid taking public transportation, I won't walk by the Empire State building. I walk on the opposite side of the street of buses. I don't put myself in harm's way." He said that he doesn't know how he will feel on Sept. 11.

Reyher described his psychological state as "an emotional Armageddon." He said, "Things go through your mind about survival and the reasons for it and gosh, if I had been at the elevator five seconds later, this would have happened, if the plane had been 50 feet to the left that would have happened. These are all of those things that add up to the one saving grace about why you survived."

He said that he also felt angry after Sept. 11, but more so, disbelief "that people could do this in support of a cause that they believe is backed by a divine presence."


He explained, "When you see the carnage, you think we've got it all wrong as humans. It's had a profound effect on how I think about things. I have been in therapy for the last year, which hasn't gone that easily. Besides, all of the rhetoric about assistance, it's been difficult to get it."

He said that up until recently, he has paid for all of his sessions with a psychotherapist. "On the first anniversary, what is being provided, is a forum for people to further their own interests," he said. "I have found personally that nobody has come to me, and I have been pretty available in the media, and not one person has come to me and said can we help you?"

When asked how he felt about the first anniversary approaching, he said, "It's becoming more of a presence than it was. It never really goes away. There is an avoidance of activity and places where you think there will be a propensity for attack ... I'm more sensitive to loud noises and vigilant to where I am."

He got married in March and he said the events of Sept. 11 have had an effect on their relationship. He said they love each other, but there has been some emotional distance on each side because you don't want to depend on someone everyday and lose them the next. "You begin to recoil because you don't want to experience the lost," he said.
  • Rome Neal

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