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Port Authority Workers Remember

The Early Show: 9/11 Survivors
CBS/The Early Show
Last October, 48 Hours talked to Port Authority employees who helped evacuate civilians from the World Trade Center in New York at their own risk — saving thousands of lives.

Now, two of them tell The Early Show that they are doing pretty well one year later. Alan Reiss and Ken Greene said the best therapy was talking about the experience.

Greene and Reiss have talked a lot about their experiences and they continue to have conversations about Sept. 11 to help heal the psychological scars.

Reiss, who had worked at the PA's World Trade Center department since 1985, remembers that Sept. 11 started as an ordinary day. He left his office on the 88th floor at 7:50 a.m. to have breakfast at Fine & Shapiro, in the WTC concourse near the 8th Avenue subway. His back was to the mall, but his colleagues facing out noticed everyone running in different directions.

Reiss, who said he thought there had just been an armed robbery, ran to the police desk, which is on the second floor. When he looked out, all he saw was paper fluttering through the air and some on the ground, burning.

The desk officer told Reiss that someone reported a missile had been fired.

Ken Greene worked in a WTC office on the 65th floor. He arrived that day at 7:30 a.m. While in a colleague's office, Greene felt the building shake violently. For a minute, he says, it felt like the tower was falling over the side of a cliff. He thought the building could fall over. He ran to his office and saw debris falling — like confetti in parade. Figuring something above had exploded, blowing out the windows, Greene knew he had to get out of there. He made a sweep of his area, then went to the stairs with other employees.

The general mood was fear. Greene said he heard some people say, "Here we go again. Like the '93 bombing."

Reiss said he discussed evacuation plans with detectives and FBI agents at the scene. He said he didn't hear the second plane hit but he heard debris falling onto the building he was in. Reiss said he thought at first, "This is going to a be some-kind-of reconstruction." His initial instinct was to get the people out, put the fire out and fix. He never thought the building would collapse.

At that time, Greene was on the stairs - extremely dark, dirty and smoky, but the stairwell never lost lights. Greene said he felt like thousands of people were in front of him and thousands behind. People covered their faces to help them breathe. Greene said he thought something disastrous was happening. An operations person behind him with a radio told Greene a plane had hit the building. Greene figured it had to be a small plane that got lost.

It took him about 30 to 45 minutes to go down 30 floors. Some people stopped, unable to walk, but Greene and others urged them to keep going and helped if possible. Eventually Greene began to see firefighters and police. Greene said he would yell out: "Everybody on the wall" so people would move aside to let the rescue workers through.

The stairways let out onto second floor mezzanine level. Greene figured it took about 45-55 minutes to get down. From there, people walked around to escalators. Greene said he could see the windows, which were dirty and bright red with blood. The plaza was burning. Everyone knew something was very wrong.

And that is when people began to really panic, he said. Greene and others tried to keep people calm, to keep them moving to the escalators and then out. Greene was instructed by police at the scene to help evacuate people down the escalators and ensure they moved aside so firefighters could go up.

And then he said he heard this thunderous roar, like nothing he had never heard before and everything went entirely dark. Greene said he started swallowing smoke and debris and whatever was in the air when the South Tower fell. There were probably about a dozen people on the mezzanine where he was and maybe a dozen or more still on escalator, he said.

Meanwhile, Reiss said he and a police officer dove under desk when the South Tower fell. They thought it was another bomb.

When things seemed to settle a little, they tried to exit one of the door but it was blocked. They grabbed an axe from the police captain's office and used it to break through. In the hallway, they grabbed people walking in daze and helped them through Borders bookstore and out onto the street. Once outside, Reiss said, he could see that the complex was on fire.

A few moment before, Greene said was knocked onto the floor. He couldn't see anything and he started crawling in no particular direction. He said he felt as if he was under water, eyes closed tight, unable to breathe. For the first time in his life, Greene thought he was going to die.

Then he heard a firefighter shout: "If you can hear, follow the voice." Greene crawled toward the voice — not standing until he could feel something and make his way out of building.

As Greene stood, through burning eyes he saw the plaza, and disoriented, he ran toward the center of it. When he saw debris, he knew he was in wrong place. He got down on all fours again, tired and confused. Greene didn't see another living person, only carnage. Finally, his eyes cleared enough for him to see an overhang by the U.S. Customs building, just north of Tower 1. Greene stopped there, got his bearings, and saw the stairwell to the street.

Firefighters screamed "Get outta here" and he made for the stairs.

Once on the street, Greene's instinct was to sit and catch his breath but he couldn't. He saw other people running and they were told by firefighters to head toward the Hudson and go north. Greene said he ran — stopping often to catch his breath.

Reiss also walked to safety. He carried himself until he reached the PA bus command center where he was asked to determine the safety of the remaining tower. Reiss said he determined right away that it wasn't safe. Before long, it, too, had collapsed.

Greene and Reiss were taken by police to Jersey City — Greene headed to a hospital and Reiss went to a PA's offices. Neither knew how many colleagues had been lost. Reiss said he tried to call everyone who had been in the WTC that morning, but by the time he went to bed at 2 a.m., about 50 were people still missing.

In the end, 75 died from the PA staff, 38 civilians and 37 PA police officers.

When he looks back to the events of that day, Greene said, what strikes him most is the horror and fear that so many thousands of people experienced. He said he had never seen people so scared and confused. Some screamed, some cried, others just wanted to sit on the floor. But the overwhelming look was abject fear.

On that day, he said he saw the best in people and the worst. He says he will remember that day forever.

What strikes Reiss most about Sept. 11 was how quickly things went wrong. He said if anyone had even thought the buildings would have come down, they would have been evacuated at once.

But that thought had never occurred to him. He had been through the bombing in 1993. Then, a bomb placed right against a building support had produced only a slight crack, barely large enough to hold a dollar bill.

The building was built with enough steel to withstand hurricane-force winds, he said. And even after the plane hit, it remained standing. No one ever figured that the weakened building, further damaged by the hot fire, would eventually cause a collapse.

Reiss said there hasn't been a day since when he hasn't thought about his lost staff. He especially misses one friend and colleague with whom he commuted daily.

He says he is stronger than he would have expected but he has a good support system, not only at home with family and friends but at the PA. He talks to people and they talk to him. When he is feeling down, they check in – and that has made all the difference since Sept. 11.