Port Authority Heroes: Part 2

An All-Encompassing Black Cloud

The quick actions of the Port Authority workers had saved thousands of lives. But suddenly these men were in danger themselves.

When the south tower began to collapse, Alan Reiss, who oversaw building operations for both towers, was in a nearby command center, talking to people trapped in elevators and on upper floors in the north tower. "All of a sudden, the lights went out and we heard this unbelievable noise," he says. That was 2 World Trade Center falling."

Suddenly, he was trapped himself. Part of the raining debris fell on top of the building where Reiss was. "The ceiling came down and some of the walls and we realized we were trapped," says Reiss, who thought he might die. "But I wasn't gonna give up that easy. There was two or three feet of debris in front of this heavy, bulletproof door."

Reiss and others used an ax to push the door open, and then ran through the clouds of dust. Says Greene: "It just completely engulfed the north tower where I was and I started crawling."

When Reiss made it outside, the chaos continued: "I got caught up in this dust cloud. It was just like this evil black cloud that was racing at you, but this police captain and myself we dove behind a fence and we just hugged each other for three or four minutes. It was pitch black. We'd just touch each other and say, 'OK, I'm alive, you're alive.' And then it started to lighten up a bit."

Ken Greene, the Port Authority's assistant director of aviation, had been directing crowds out of Tower 1. Suddenly he couldn't see a thing: "I started feeling along the window. There was no point in opening my eyes and just as I started to feel along the window, I hear a voice: 'If you can hear this voice, follow the voice.'"

The voice belonged to a firefighter who led Greene to safety. Blocks from the devastation, Greene met his boss, Ernesto Butcher, who had also escaped by following a firefighter out of the darkness. Security Manager George Tabeek and Firefighter Andy Desperito were continuing to rescue others. They raced into an overpass above West Street, just as the second tower began to collapse.

"All of a sudden, all hell broke loose," says Tabeek. "We got hit with debris, couldn't see. I couldn't get air. I was choking. He was there one second. Next second, he was gone from my side or from behind me."

Tabeek held onto a column while debris rained down on him: "It kept building up on me when it was coming down, almost up to my shoulder blades. And I kept pushing it off. All of a sudden, everything just stopped. Dead silence. I got hit with a blast of heat and I got burnt on my face and my hand."

Shaking free of the rubble, he looked everywhere for the firefighter who'd been at his side for the past hour. Desperito was nowhere to be found. "I started calling, 'Andy, Andy. Where are you? Tell me where you are. Let me help you. Where are you?'" says Tabeek.

Desperito, 44, died on that overpass. He was married with three children.

"He was a wel-liked man, a good firefighter, didn't worry when you were working with him, he was going to take care of you, make sure to do the right thing," said one firefighter of his colleague.

Many good men and women died on Sept. 11, among them 74 Port Authority employees, who never left the buildings that day, as they guided thousands to safety.

"They knew what danger they were in, every last one of them knew what danger they were in," says Tabeek. "But their job was to protect and save those people. Somebody was destroying our home and hurting the people in it."

Go back to Part 1.

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