<i>48 Hours</i>: Unsung Heroes

Port Authority Workers Could Have Run

Among the people who worked at the World Trade Center were 2,000 men and women of the Port Authority, the agency that runs the bridges, tunnels and airports of New York and New Jersey.

Seventy-four Port Authority employees were killed in the Sept. 11 attack on the towers. Many refused to evacuate, choosing instead to help the 25,000 people who escaped from the burning buildings. Today, nearly six weeks after the disaster, the Port Authority employees are among the unsung heroes. 48 Hours reports on their story.

"They knew what danger they were in," says George Tabeek, who was the Trade Center's security manager. "But their job was to protect and save those people. Somebody was destroying our home and hurting the people within it. They stayed."

Until a recent sale, the Port Authority owned and operated the Trade Center and was still responsible for its security.

Sept. 11 wasn't the first time the World Trade Center had been attacked. In 1993, a terrorist truck bomb killed six people and forced the evacuation of the twin towers.

"My vow to myself was that it was never going to happen again like in '93," says Tabeek. More than $100 million dollars was spent on security and fire safety. Stairway lights had backup power; handrails were painted with glow-in-the-dark paint, and every wheelchair bound person was given a special evacuation chair.

"We were prepared better than 99 percent of the buildings in the United States. We were already looking into bio-chem," says Tabeek. "We were talking about weapons of mass destruction. Just two weeks before, we talked about ever getting hit by a plane but it was never in our wildest dreams, a commercial airliner."

"We used to say to one another, no one is ever gonna touch these people again, like they did before."

When the attack occurred, Tabeek was walking on the plaza between the towers: "I heard the plane, like the engines of a plane flying low. But I didn’t think anything of it at that instant. And all of a sudden, we heard this massive hit. All I saw was this big ball of fire coming from building No. 1."

Alan Reiss oversaw building operations for both towers. He should have been in his office on the 88th floor of Tower 1, barely below where that first plane hit. But instead he was having coffee in the underground mall: "I was in this restaurant. Everyone's running on the concourse in every different direction. First thought, someone has a gun 'cause no one's running in the same direction. I sprinted out, went up an escalator, directly to our police desk."

Ironically, one of the first Port Authority actions that saved lives happened miles away from the towers – across the river in Jersey City.

By 8:50 a.m., trainmaster Rich Moran knew the danger facing thousands of people on underground commuter trains that were streaming into the World Trade Center.

He gave instructions to four trains in about 30 seconds and we went back to confirm that each peron knew what the instructions were. The instructions: “Not to let anyone out at World Trade. Two trains had to be offloaded on the Jersey side. On one train, the doors opened but people were warned not to get off the train.

Within minutes of the first plane hitting Tower 1, Port Authority workers had kept 5,000 people from the destruction. But their work was just beginning.

"I went with a detective right away out to the plaza and we opened the door to the plaza and looked up and the tower was on fire," says Reiss. "And there was a nose wheel laying on the plaza in front of us. And that's when we realized it was a plane. The detective and I dragged this nose gear back into the police desk and said, 'We were hit by a plane.' Didn’t know it was a 767 at that time."

"I'm in our offices on the 65th floor of the morth tower, and there's this incredible thunder hitting the building," says Ken Greene, the Port Authority's assistant director of aviation. “And the building didn’t move a little bit. It moved. You got the sensation that it was going to go.

Unlike 1993, this time the stairwell lights remained on, making it much easier to get down.

"We get into the emergency stairwell," says Greene. "There's a lot of noise, concern and confusion but it's reasonably orderly. The stairwells are lighted, and as we got to the lower floors, as we got to the 20th floor, actually the smoke starts to clear up a little bit and you don’t have to have your hand over your mouth."

People began to relax; some even joked about the possibility of missing work.

"I got the sense that everybody started feeling a little bit comfortable because the air was clearer and you could breathe. We get down to the plaza level and that’s when everything changes dramatically.

On the street level but still inside Tower 1, the crowds were just steps from getting out of the building but they froze when they saw what was outside.

Says Greene: "I heard screaming, I heard some people say, 'Where am I?' 'What's going on here?' And at some point, I turned around and I could see out onto the plaza and the windows are bloodied. There’s carnage out there. There’s wreckage out there. There are limbs on the plaza."

Out on the plaza, at street level, Tabeek could not believe his eyes. “I looked up at the building to assess the damage. And I saw the building twisting. At the same time, I saw a rainbow effect of the glass shattering on different floors. I saw people just coming out of the windows. I saw three people like that.”

He isn't sure if they were jumping, or falling. "I don't know. I don't know if they were leaning too close to the windows."

The building was flexing, he says: "It was literally twisting, OK? I saw the first two people come down and hit the ground. Third person was down, and I was getting sick. I had to get back on the radio, and I said, 'Tell people to stay away from the glass. Stay awafrom the glass. People are coming out the windows.'"

"There's chaos everywhere," says Greene. "I just knew there were a lot of people trying to get out." As the scene unfolded, Greene spotted his boss, Ernesto Butcher, the chief operating officer of the Port Authority.

"I saw people coming out and I realized that they were beginning to panic as they came out of the stairwell and then I knew that we had to do the job of keeping them moving without panicking," says Butcher. "We're in the business of moving people."

That's what they did. Butcher stationed Greene at the top of the escalators where a bottleneck had formed. "I'm screaming at everybody, ‘Focus on the stairs, I don't want you to fall!'" he says. "And really what I’m thinking is, 'Focus on the stairs, I really don't want you to look at the window.'"

In another part of the tower, Tabeek ran into the lobby to help. "As I ran through the lobby of building one, I was hearing things popping, like rubber bands. So I assumed the elevator cables were snapping."

He got a call that three Port Authority workers were trapped in a command center on the 22nd floor. He informed a fire battalion chief that he was going up to rescue them. The chief assigned a group of firefighters, led by Lt. Andy Desperito.

The men walked up to the 22nd floor. Tabeek didn’t know that a second jet had just struck Tower 2. When they reached the 22d floor of Tower 1, Desperito and his men tunneled through the debris and opened up a path for those trapped inside.

Meanwhile, Reiss was at another Port Authority command center talking to those unable to get down from the upper floors.

"We told them to sit tight, we'd get to them," says Reiss, who told them to put wet towels under the doors to keep out smoke. All of a sudden lights went out and there was an unbelievable noise.

Standing near a window, Tabeek witnessed the same thing: "We literally saw the top 20 stories of the building virtually blow off. It was horrible. You saw the underbelly of the floor and then it appeared as if the whole building came over on its side." Tower 2 was beginning its collapse. Each floor weighed 4.8 million tons.

Tabeek suggested that they leave: "I said to the lieutenant, we probably should go and he says, 'Without an order from command, we do not evacuate. And if we don't get an order from command, if necessary, we stay here and die with our brothers.' That put a chill up my spine. That was Andy."

At that very moment, a call came over the radio to evacuate the command center and they all scrambled down the stairs, taking anyone and everyone they encountered to safety.
"My job was to make sure I took care of those people," says Tabeek. "By getting the firemen up there and getting the people down in an orderly fashion was the way we were gonna save people’s lives."

Find out what happened next: Part 2.

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