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Marc Gallagher ’93 is assistant project engineer for Langan Engineering & Environmental Services, Inc., which was on the 15th floor of 90 West St., across the street from 2 World Trade Center (just south of the towers).

“About a quarter to nine our building shook. There was some work being done on the roof and fa├žade of our building, so we thought the work crew had blown up a propane tank or compressor. Looking out the window, “stuff” began falling off what we thought was our roof or facade. However, when we saw a cell phone and body parts on the scaffolding, and debris on roofs of other buildings, it seemed to be a bit bigger problem. We had windows on three sides of the building, but none on the north side facing the towers so we couldn’t see what was happening. Police were rushing up West Street, stopping to drop sheets in the street.

We gathered at the receptionist’s desk and were about to go downstairs to see what happened when the second plane hit. As the south tower is much closer to our building, and the plane came in directly over the building, it was much louder, and there was stronger shaking of our office. At this point, we still thought it was now a major problem with our building, so I called our main office to tell them we were evacuating, sent a one-line email to my wife, and herded everyone down the fire escape.

Once we got outside it was eerie. Police were telling people to run south to the Battery. There was a piece of landing gear from a plane right outside our building. There were plane parts and body parts on the street everywhere, some covered in sheets, some not. The damage caused by the planes was incredible. The debris projected well over 1,000 feet from the towers. Numerous people were jumping from the towers to escape the flames.

We walked about four blocks south towards the Brooklyn Battery tunnel entrance. Twelve civil engineers, staring at the towers and none of us thought the towers would fall down. Our actual quotes were, “Guess we’re not getting back into our building today.” We made our way to the Financial Center ferry terminal, passing several hundred thousand people just staring at the buildings. The wait at the ferry was only five minutes. Very few people were leaving. The ferry we were on was about halfway across the Hudson when the first tower began to fall. The sound was unbelievable. The sight was unbelievable. I had finally reached my wife on my cell phone and started yelling, “It’s coming down! It’s coming down!” Then the cell phone cut out, probably because the cell was on top of the tower. The tower just disappeared and then the whole lower part of Manhattan disappeared in a cloud of dust and smoke. All we could think about was the hundreds of police, firemen, and everyday people we had just seen. It was painfully apparent that very few would come out.

We were the last passengers on the ferry before the terminal was closed and the ferries commandeered to help evacuate the wounded to New Jersey hospitals. Of course that never happened.

The next day we gathered at our Jersey headquarters in Elmwood Park when the 90 West building manager called and asked if anyone had heard from Maria Ramirez, our office manager. I had been in our conference room the previous morning when Maria had gone downstairs to get milk for the coffee, at about 8:30 a.m. When we evacuated, she had not returned and we thought she was already out of the building. However, the next morning the building manager said he had seen her come back in and go up in the elevator right before the first plane hit. The elevator apparently tripped and she was trapped on the fourth floor. The Manager, maintenance crew, and fire department knew she was there and were trying to get her out. When the first tower collapsed, 90 West was heavily damaged, causing the workers trying to free Maria to evacuate the building. The building manager thought she might still be in the building, trapped in the elevator the next morning. Calls to NYC were futile and even a trip by our local police department to Ground Zero could not produce a definitive answer.

By 3:00 p.m. we had not received a satisfactory answer that the elevators had been searched. Five of us decided to drive into the city and look for Maria. We grabbed respirators, hard hats, gloves, etc. and a company van. We got into the city without much problem, but were stopped at the first checkpoint at 14th Street and were told volunteers had to go back to Jacobs Center. So we went down another block to another checkpoint and told them we were with the Ironworkers burning the steel by 90 West. We went as far as we could in the van, then walked the rest of the way around the site from the Federal Courthouse area, across West Street at Chambers Street, down Battery Park City along the waterfront, through the marina and finally out to Ground Zero at Liberty Street.

It was an unbelievable sight. The debris was everywhere. We were surrounded by devastation. Fire trucks and ambulances stacked three high. A five-story pile of debris. You don’t get the same view on TV as you do when you’re looking at 360 degrees of devastation. Working in construction I know how large the construction equipment is, but it looked like ants on top of an anthill. There were fires burning. Pieces of the WTC “skin” sticking out of the Financial Center. The Bankers Trust Building (next to 90 West) with a gash down the middle, two column bays deep and 20 stories high. Broken glass everywhere, papers and dust two to three feet thick. You’d look down and there’d be a memo on the ground or a picture frame with photos that had been on someone’s desk. It was very surreal.

The firemen we met were eager to help us search for Maria. I found the fire chief in charge of that quadrant of the site. He said the building had already been searched, but finally he gave us a team of firefighters to recheck the building. We stayed in the lobby while the fireman searched. They came back and said there was no one in the building. So two of us went up the stairs to find the elevators with the firemen. We found the elevator. Inside we found Maria and another gentleman from the building, who turned out to be the business partner of the assistant basketball coach of the team my wife coaches. They had suffocated from a lack of oxygen from the smoke and debris in the air. So I had to call his widow with the terrible news as well. We brought Maria down to the morgue. She was 26, from Brooklyn, and engaged to be married.

On the way to the morgue we went through the financial center and through the Wintergarden. It looked like a movie set. The palm trees were covered in dust. Part of the towers were actually coming through the glass atrium and sitting at the top of the marble stairs. The lights from outside were casting an eerie glow about the large room. We just stood there and stared for a bit. Everything was so large, so overpowering that my mind could not grasp what I was actually seeing. I knew the towers had collapsed, yet looking at the scene, I just could not get my arms around what that really meant.

After three months, the amount still left to clean up is staggering. The area is still devastated. I returned to Ground Zero this past weekend and to 90 West to retrieve some files. The pile of debris is now an excavation, extending about three to four stories below grade. The slurry wall that everyone was concerned about seems to be in good condition and new tie-back anchors are being installed to secure the wall. The excavation is continuing 24-7.

Our building is in OK shape compared to some in the area. The New York Times did an article about 90 West and how it withstood the devastation better than the surrounding buildings, even though it was built at the turn of the century. When the second tower collapsed, part of it fell onto our building. It blew out windows and the power went out. Part of the building caught on fire, but the water mains were broken so there was no way to fight the fires. There was limited structural damage, just fire damage, so the building will be renovated. But it will probably take at least a few years before it can be occupied again.

Our floor is in good shape. No fire damage, only minimal water damage. Most damage was caused by looting, by whom we do not know, that was done after the time the area/building was supposedly secured by the National Guard and New York City Police. All the laptops, digital cameras, video cameras, etc. are gone. Every drawer had been searched and every container, down to the small box holding my professional engineer’s seal, had been opened and the contents searched. That was actually one of the most disturbing parts of the trip. The devastation was bad, but to realize the office was also looted was difficult.

We are looking to get a new office established in Mid-Town. In the meantime, we are working in the New Jersey headquarters. I go to the city a few times a week. North of Ground Zero area things are essentially back to normal. Streets are crowded and people seem to be back in the routine. Will I ever work in a high-rise again? Yes, but I’d think twice about the 100th floor.”

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