Friday, September 12, 2014

Always Remember: Joe Dittmar's story

Joe Dittmar / Image from The Pilot
For many of us, 9/11 is an aberration in the historical road of world peace – one that sparked off a massive spurt of violence in many parts of the world. 

For Joe Dittmar, 9/11 is a personal story: a reality that he saw unfolding before him, a reality that he experienced up, close and personal. 

At 8:48 AM on September 11, 2001, there was a slight flicker of lights in the conference room on the 105th floor of the World Trade Centre. In moments, the American Airlines Flight 11 ripped into the North Tower, just 120 feet away from it. The massive explosion it caused remained unheard inside the conference room – when just a few moments later, Joe Dittmar and his 53 colleagues were asked to leave the conference room with immediate effect because of an explosion in the other tower. 
Resisting being forced to abandon their conference, Joe was among the last to leave the room as he spent time shutting down his laptop and collecting his papers. His colleagues and he had barely any idea how bad the scene outside was. They began making their way downstairs, a journey where out of 54, only 6 would make it alive. While leaving the building, his colleague told him that this was nothing compared to the 1993 bombing – back then, there were no lights in the stairways. By the time they came down to the 90th floor, all of this changed. 

Through the open fire door in the stairway, Joe looked through a window that faced the North Tower – staring right into the gaping hole that was left. People fell from the tower, there was fire – and the entire scene was simply too much to take. Joe found himself overwhelmed – all he wanted to do was to go home, back to his family in Chicago, or his parents in Philadelphia. He braved on, nevertheless, reaching the 78th floor where hundreds of others were waiting to get on the express elevators to the lobby. He paused briefly, refusing to stay back with other colleagues that remained there. When Joe reached the 74th floor, the second hijacked flight – Flight 175 that travelled at 600 miles per hour, blasted through floor 77 until floor 85, just three floors above where Jooe was. Everyone on floor 78 died instantly – the 2000 degree fireball burned them to death. Joe recalls the scene on his floor. The staircase he was on shook, as handrails broke from the walls. Heat waves blasted over everyone, as the smell of jet fuel lingered while the building rocked back and forth. There was a stunned silence in the air – as everyone was numbed by what was happening before them. 

And yet, Joe recalls, frightening as the atmosphere was, it was also the environment where the spirit of humanity shone through and thrived. Everyone helped everyone else, selflessly coaching the others around them to make it out of the building alive by banking on their own reserves of strength.
When Joe made it to the 35th floor, he went through a very emotional episode. Police officers and fire-fighters passed them all on the staircase. They were heroes who put the lives of the civilians before their own. One look at their eyes, Joe recalls, they knew that they were going to fight a fire that they could not stop, that they were attempting to save lives that they couldn’t save, and that they were never coming back alive. At the 18th floor, Joe heard a voice on a megaphone singing “God Bless America”. Every now and then, the voice would pause, and then encouraging everyone to keep moving and telling them that they would make it. The singer was a security guard – Joe has no idea what became of him. 

When Joe got to the lobby, he was prevented from leaving the building because of the number of falling bodies. He navigated through the underground concourse, eventually making out through an exit. He passed a Starbucks outlet on the way – taking in the strange scene where people were still lining up for their coffee needs even as thousands of people scrambled out of the complex. When he walked about half a mile away, the South Tower began to collapse – the sound of concrete and steel crashing, mingled with blood curdling screams from New Yorkers remained in Joe’s ears long after.
Today, Joe carries this story with him as an intricate part of his own life narrative. The founder of the “Always Remember Initiative”, Joe keeps the voices, spirits and memories of the 3000-odd victims of September 11, 2001. Watch this space for an interview with the inspiring soul.