A 9/11 survivor’s message
It was a combination of luck, several key decisions, and help from God that Joe Dittmar said allowed him to survive the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Dittmar, 56, now lives with his wife in Chatham County. He works in the insurance industry, and uses his own time to speak at schools, service clubs, professional groups and churches about his experience
His message is that people should be on their guard. And nothing is guaranteed, and nothing should be taken for granted. And that the people who died should be remembered.
“Whether they were an insurance person or a banker or an accountant or a firefighter…they showed up for work,” Dittmar said in an interview Tuesday. “That’s the biggest decision they made, and because they made that decision that day, they lost their lives. Something’s not fair about that. They need to be remembered.”
The day of the attacks, Dittmar, then a Chicago-area resident, was scheduled for an 8:30 a.m. meeting of insurance executives on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. Fifty-four people were in a conference room at the New York City offices of AON, he said.
There was just a flicker of lights when the first plane hit the North Tower of the commercial complex, Dittmar said. That was minutes before the second plane would hit the South Tower.
The buildings were hit by two of four hijacked commercial aircraft in terrorist attacks that together killed 2,977 people, according to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation Inc. website. Both of the World Trade Center towers would eventually collapse.
An employee came in urging everyone to evacuate, and Dittmar said the reaction in the room was, “it’s New York, stuff happens, let us have our meeting, we’ll be fine.” The employee led them to the fire stairwell, he said.
There was no cell phone service, so he said no one knew what was going on. On the 90th floor, he said he chose to look out the windows like everyone else, and saw the plane lodged in the tower with smoke billowing out, flames, and people falling.
“It was just an unbelievable, gruesome sight,” he said. “People were screaming, and yet, they seemed to be frozen in fear, traumatized; mesmerized.”
Dittmar said he just wanted to go on. Another man who had been in the meeting with him decided to go to the bathroom. An announcement was made that the South Tower was considered safe, Dittmar said, but he continued.
“I was not going to hesitate, I was leaving,” he said. “I had no doubts.”
At the 78th floor, there was a lobby with express elevators, but Dittmar chose to continue down the stairs. He said he was only several floors below where the second plane hit the South Tower. The stairwell shook violently, and material came down like snow. The shaking felt, he said, as if it lasted forever.
He said he believed people didn’t know what was going on.
“What we didn’t know, didn’t hurt us,” he said. “It just kept us moving.”
At the 35th floor he first saw firefighters, police and paramedics going up the other way, and he realized that something was very wrong. When those fleeing reached the ground level, they weren’t let out of the building. He said he could see concrete, twisted steel, and blotches on the ground through the windows. They were told to go to a level below-ground where he said he saw wounded people and “so many” firefighters, police and paramedics.
Dittmar said he was told to go to a corner of the complex and where people were being let above ground. Outside, security officials were yelling for people to run. He said he turned around to look, and saw material and people falling.
He was eight blocks away when he heard on a radio that the buildings were hit in a terrorist attack. Then he said they heard the South Tower coming to the ground, and people on the streets screaming.
A man he knew led him to a friend’s apartment, where they watched TV. After an announcement that the subways were opening again, Dittmar said he took a train to his parent’s house in Philadelphia. The next morning, he drove home to a Chicago suburb and met his wife and children at church.
“My wife, who’s a real quiet person, jumps over the pew and to the back of the church and (gave me) a big hug and kiss,” he said. “That was the moment I knew I was home.”
From the experience, Dittmar said while people should be on their guard, “we have to be who we want to be.” He said he believes he’s traveled more and gotten on more airplanes than in the past. He said he doesn’t hold a grudge.
“You got to pick your battles, and know what’s important in life, because at the end of the day, it’s who you love,” he said. “You need, and the people that you love, need to say, and to hear, ‘I love you,’ every day. It’s the most important thing; it’s the most important thing.”