CBSN

'An Emotional Armageddon'

Scene at Ground Zero WTC terror Oct 24, 2001
AP
Kelly Reyher worked on the 100th floor of the South Tower on Sept. 11, 2001, and he was one of a dozen people who escaped from the Sky Lobby on the 78th floor after the second plane hit. He visits The Early Show to share his reaction to the first anniversary.

At 8:30 a.m., when the first plane hit the other tower, Reyher, an attorney for Aon Risk Services, says he was standing in his office on the 100th floor with a colleague who didn't survive that day.

"We ran into my office that faced north and immediately saw a tornado of debris and paper," he says. "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."

Reyher says 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 2 to 3 stories," says 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 there were others who intentionally jumped to avoid being burned. "People were screaming in the office and I started to dial my fiance 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."

There was calm panic as people began to proceed down the stairwell, Reyher tells us. "No one really knew what happened, there were no announcements," he says noting that as the fire alarms went off, people were chatting in the stairwell. The stairwell, he says, did not go straight down but wound 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," he says. He decided to go back up to his office to get his Palm Pilot because some other people had already gone back up. He says he figured there wouldn't have been an announcement to return to the offices if things were bad. But he felt a blast hit as he stepped in the elevator.

"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," Reyher says.

As he came to his senses, he says he realized what had happened in the other tower had happened in this tower. "I realized I was trapped in an elevator and thought,'What a stupid decision to get in an elevator,'" he says. Noting that people have this desire to know how they will die, he says at that moment he thought 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 remembers.

"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,'" he says. "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 would asphyxiate and pass out and not know that I'm going to burn to death."

Around this time, he says 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 says. So he used his briefcase as a cover to protect himself and to crawl into the lobby.

Reyher says, "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 of the building only to die in the collapse.

After he survived that collapse, he says 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 says other people were helping until the National Guard told them all to leave because the other tower was going to collapse, too. About five minutes later, the North Tower collapsed.

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

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

In the year that has just passed, Reyher says, he has gone through "an emotional Armageddon".

"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 says.

He acknowledges the anger he felt after the attack, but more so, the disbelief "that people could do this in support of a cause that they believe is backed by a divine presence."

"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," he says.

"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 says 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 says. "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?'"

Reyher who got married in March, says the events of Sept. 11 have had an effect on his relationship. He says they love one another, but there has been some emotional distance on each side: You don't want to depend on someone one day and lose them the next. "You begin to recoil because you don't want to experience the loss," he says.