Here are the stories of two men, Ed Beyea and John Abruzzo, both wheelchair users who were working on separate floors of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. True to the human drama of that day, one lived and one died, ...
John Abruzzo, a staff accountant for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was working at his computer on the 69th floor of One World Trade Center when the first hijacked jet sliced into the tower. "It felt like the building was punched," he says. "My desk faces north ... the side the airplane hit. Paper was just coming down." Worse, the building swayed and only in one direction.
By the time Abruzzo, a C5 6 quad, had maneuvered his power chair into the hallway, he saw only 10 of his coworkers -- everyone else had already evacuated. Someone found the office EVAC+CHAIR and transferred Abruzzo out of his new, customized Arrow into the rescue device, which resembles a large, folding baby stroller with rear wheels that pop up and a sled like component that takes their place when going down stairs.
Nine of his 10 coworkers worked in shifts of three to four, carefully lowering Abruzzo down each flight of stairs. One of them couldn't help physically, so he scouted ahead. When he returned, he warned of heavy smoke around the 40th floor, so the group, with Abruzzo in tow, cut across to a stairwell on the other side of the building.
Somewhere near the 30th floor, the crew of coworkers carrying Abruzzo had to move aside as firefighters rushed up the stairwell. "We saw them carrying hundreds of pounds of equipment axes, hoses and they were trying to catch their breath, they were exhausted," Abruzzo says.
At the 20th floor they heard a rumble that seemed to come from the other tower: steel and concrete collapsing. At the 10th floor they heard another rumble but kept going. "Nothing was going to stop us." Finally they made it to the lobby, where Abruzzo had to be carried over chunks of fallen concrete. Damage and debris had made the exit impassable. Firefighters directed Abruzzo's helpers to lift him still in the EVAC+CHAIR through a knocked out window and out onto the sidewalk.
They looked up and saw fire engulfing the top of the tower. "We thought we were fine now, we were out, but a fireman said, 'Get out, GET OUT!'" They squeezed into the mob streaming up the streets away from Lower Manhattan, taking turns pushing Abruzzo, still in the rescue device. At one point the group stopped to look back. "It was like Christmas, everything covered in white. Except we saw debris coming down," says Abruzzo, "and bodies falling."
They didn't look back again until they reached the corner of Vesey and West. "We couldn't see the tower I was in, but that's when it came down. There was a cloud of debris chasing the firemen and policemen. One of the firemen grabbed my chair, carried me into Stuyvesant High School, and then everything just went black."
Once the blackness lifted, an ambulance took Abruzzo to a hospital for smoke inhalation. Gone was his new power wheelchair, left on the 69th floor. His van, parked three blocks away, was never found.
Ed Beyea, 42, had just celebrated the 20th anniversary of his diving accident. Many of us do it look back and celebrate how far we've come. Beyea, a C3 quad, had logged 14 years at Blue Cross/Blue Shield since his injury and was now a high level program analyst working on the 27th floor of One World Trade Center....
(Abe) Zelmanowitz ( a close friend) had just arrived at Beyea's side when a man approached and asked, "Can I help? Can I take you down the stairs?"
Beyea said no, he would wait. He was a big man nearly 300 pounds, very difficult to lift. Irma (Beyea's personal assistant) knew he wanted to be carried properly so he wouldn't break any bones, which had happened before. "He needed more than one man to carry him," she says. "He needed at least two or three firemen. And knowing him, he wanted others to go first. He didn't want to be in the way. None of us were thinking then that the building might collapse."
Zelmanowitz volunteered to stay with Beyea, suggesting Irma leave because she was coughing. When she reached the lobby she found a fireman and told him where Beyea was. "Please take care of him," she pleaded. "He needs oxygen." Usually he required oxygen only when sleeping at night, but conditions were severe. The fireman said he would find him. A chain of men directed people outside. Irma got caught up in the crowd of people evacuating the building.
Back on the 27th floor, Zelmanowitz was talking on his cell phone, telling his family he was OK. His elderly mother pleaded with him to get out, but he was determined to stay by Beyea's side. He would wait with his best friend of more than 12 years. (Neither Ed nor Abe were heard from again).
Reprinted with permission from New Mobility, "September 11, 2001: A Day to Remember", By Josie Byzek and Tim Gilmer, V15, 98. pp. 20-21