What are those blips?
As fire consumed the upper portions of the World Trade Center, Gary Fitzgerald stood in the street, trying to make sense of the tiny shapes tumbling from the buildings.
He asked the man next to him what it might be.
“That had to be people,” the man answered.
In time, it would be determined that about 200 people jumped to their deaths from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, after two jets slammed into the towers. The 150 mph fall was not enough to lose consciousness, but death was instantaneous.
“You heard whomp,” Fitzgerald recalled. “And as it was really happening, everyone around you starts saying, ‘Oh my God, they’re jumping! Oh my God, they’re jumping!’”
That was 10 years ago. He pauses now to reflect.
“You know what? It might not have been the worst decision. It might not have been the worst decision — you knew you were gone.”
At first, a joke
Fitzgerald is the president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 862 in Newport News. He was in New York on Sept. 11 for a conference, and that morning he decided to have breakfast at the Downtown Athletic Club with two elderly colleagues, both men in their 80s.
As they waited for their breakfast, sirens began to wail outside. The waiter said the World Trade Center was on fire.
“I said jokingly, ‘Well, I’m not a fireman. We can leave if y’all want or we can stay and have breakfast. They agreed with me. We’re not firemen and it’s just a fire, so we stayed there.”
The waiter returned a few minutes later to say that a plane had flown into the building. They still didn’t alter their plans.
Ten minutes later, the entire building began to shake. The second jet rumbled right over the Downtown Athletic Club and struck the second tower. Fitzgerald looked at his two friends and said, “We gotta get out of here.”
All hell broke loose
Outside, the street scene was chaotic. Fitzgerald and his friends joined the crowd of gawkers. But even after he saw those falling “blips,” he was surprised at what happened next. The longshoreman didn’t think that something made from that much steel would collapse, but it did.
“When the building started falling, to me, it looked like an avalanche,” he said. “That’s all I could think of. You see an avalanche on television, you see it building up, and you see the smoke coming at you and all of a sudden you’re engulfed. That’s totally the way it did us. I was standing there and one minute I could see everything and the next minute I could see nothing.
“I knew everything could change then.”
There he stood, stuck in a dust cloud with two men in their 80s, having picked up two more companions, two women in their 60s. One he knew from the longshoremen’s office, another woman had just latched onto them.
The dust was choking. Fitzgerald saw his companions needed a break, and he found an unlocked car. He told them to sit inside for a minute and both women objected. They were New Yorkers, and told Fitzgerald that sitting in a strange car was something you just didn’t do.
“I said, ‘I don’t give a damn about your New York rules. You’re gonna sit in this car today because we got a problem.’”
As they climbed inside, he went around to the front and noticed a placard on the windshield.
It was the car of a Catholic priest.
“I go back to them and say, ‘If this ain’t the best car to be in, I don’t know what is,’” he said. “That satisfied them a bit.”
A horrific journey
Leaving them in the car, he saw a man leaning against a tree, breaking up in grief. He had been talking to his mother when he lost contact. His mother was in the World Trade Center.
Fitzgerald gathered his little band and moved on. They climbed aboard one of the tourist boats and he came across another woman in the throes of grief.
“She told me one of the worst stories on Earth,” he said. “She had been going up the escalator in the World Trade Center ... and the lady in front of her got decapitated. And she’s looking right at this. Her head got blown off in front of her.”
It was twisted journey back to Hampton Roads and Norfolk International Airport, where Fitzgerald and his colleagues they had left their cars. The New York office of the Longshoremen’s Association found a limousine service that would make the trip from New York to Virginia for $800.
Back home the next day, Fitzgerald got a call from the Marriott Hotel in New York, where he registered to stay during the conference.
“They wanted to verify that we were alive. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Jesus Christ.’ That wasn’t the real thing they were verifying. They knew I was alive, number one, and then number two, somebody had already stolen my credit card and charged about five or ten thousand dollars within a 24-hour period.”
It all became too much. After running on adrenaline, Fitzgerald ended up in the hospital for several days. Doctors thought he might be having a heart attack. It turned out to be hypertension and stress.
“I couldn’t think,” he said. “It was terrible. All you could think about was that smoke coming down – and people. It was unreal.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun