The Tribute WTC Visitor Center provides daily tours around the World Trade Center site led by people affected by the Sept. 11 attacks: survivors, family members, recovery workers, neighbors, volunteers. Here is one survivor's story.
Walter Masterson remembers the World Trade Center as “an extraordinary place to work,” a complex of seven buildings dominated by the 110-story twin towers that rose 1,360 feet into the sky. On an average day, several hundred thousand people passed through the center's below-ground rail transit hub. The retail stores offered anything a person could want. “If you worked there,” Masterson recalls, “you never had to go outside the building.”
Masterson, now 65, then worked as a senior business analyst for an investment bank, on the top floor of a nine-story building. On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, he was in the office early for a conference call. Many others who worked in the complex were coming in late. Some parents were taking their children to the first day of school; others were voting early in the statewide party primaries.
At 8:46 a.m., “an explosive sound, louder than anything I'd ever heard before,” startled Masterson. He looked outside and saw nothing. But above his line of sight, five Al Qaeda hijackers had just crashed American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston into the north tower, between the 93rd and 98th floors.
A few seconds after the crash, Masterson saw a chunk of concrete “the size of an automobile” crash into the courtyard. “Debris hit so fast I couldn't see the plaza,” he says. “There were millions of sheets of paper flying through the air.”
Walter Masterson, a tour guide at the new World Trade Center site, was a business analyst when he witnessed the Al Qaeda attacks from a nearby office building. Now a therapist, he says, “If you have something you want to do, do everything you can to have it.” (CQ Press/Kenneth Jost)
Masterson fled along with others; no one in Building 5 was killed. People in the lower floors of the north tower also began to evacuate. With the uppermost stories now in flames and the stairwells blocked, however, many others faced the terrifying choice of leaping to their death or perishing by incineration.
Quickly, hundreds of firefighters, police and rescue workers began to converge on the scene even as employees in the complex rushed out. Confusion reigned. The crash was initially thought to be a ghastly accident — a badly piloted small private aircraft. People in the south tower were initially told to stay in the building, but then a few minutes later to evacuate. First-responders’ communications devices were not interoperable, or failed to work.
Then at 9:07 a.m., United Flight 175 hit the south tower, carving a hole extending from the 77th to 85th floors. Images of the crash — in real time — were viewed by uncounted millions of people throughout the world.
By 9:59, the south tower had begun to collapse; floor after floor pancaked onto the one below in a matter of seconds. The north tower followed to the ground at 10:28. By then, two other hijacked airplanes had crashed. American Flight 77 cut a gaping hole in the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. United Flight 93 crashed shortly after 10 in rural Pennsylvania, near Shanksville, after passengers tried to overpower the terrorists.
For Masterson, some of the day's events are a blur. “I went into shock,” he says. He cannot recall seeing anyone jump from the towers, but he heard what he came to realize were the sounds of bodies hitting the pavement. He does remember going into a nearby Catholic church and, uncharacteristically, kneeling to pray. Eventually, he called his teenage daughter's school to say he was all right. A second call, to his ex-wife, would get word to his three older children.
The message to his daughter at school was never delivered. Hours later, Masterson finally heard from her. She was still at school, held there with other students as a precaution against an attack of yet unknown dimension. “All she could do was cry,” he says, choking up himself. “I didn't even know she liked me.”
Reflecting a decade later, Masterson says the cataclysm brought out the best in the people of New York. He is most in awe of the first responders who braved the terrifying scene, including 343 firefighters who lost their lives. “What heroism they had to walk into that, I cannot imagine,” he says. For the civilians, he remembers efforts to maintain order amid the chaos. “People were rushing to get out, but they weren't trampling” each other, he says.
For days after, New York City was on its best behavior. “Rudeness vanished,” Masterson recalls. “Everybody helped. Nobody wanted for anything.” Thousands of New Yorkers donated blood, but little was needed. People had either escaped to safety or died at the scene.
The events of the day changed Masterson's life. In college, he had hoped for a career as a therapist, but he set the idea aside after marrying young and starting to raise a family. With 9/11 in mind, Masterson went back to school for a degree in social work. Now he has a part-time psychotherapy practice in Manhattan.
“That was the last day of their life, and they had no idea,” Masterson says of those who died on 9/11. “The thought occurred to me that if you have something you want to do, do everything you can to have it.”
He adds: “Every day is an opportunity, and every day could be the end.”
— Kenneth Jost