World Trade Center 7, An Eyewitness Report: Michelina Russo

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

Undicisettembre continues its collection of eyewitness interviews, talking to the people who directly experienced history's most tragic terrorist attack. The vivid, emotionally intense words of eyewitnesses are always very touching and are the best way to ensure that the tragedy caused on September 11, 2001 by a group of terrorists is not forgotten.

This is the story of that day, as told by a survivor who was in Building 7: the skyscraper that according to conspiracy theorists contained state secrets that had to be destroyed. Her name, published with her permission, is Michelina Russo. We thank her for her time and her kindness.

Undicisettembre: What do you remember, generally speaking, about that morning? Can you give us an account of your experience?

Michelina: I worked on the 34th floor of 7WTC. My desk had a window facing buildings WTC 1 and 2. At the time the first plane hit the North Tower, my boss and I were the only ones in the office. The sound of the explosion sounded like a truck bouncing over a metal plate in the street, amplified a million times louder.

Immediately, a ball of flames shot out towards our building seeming like it would come right through our windows. I actually covered my face, slid back in my chair, jumped up and proceeded to tell my boss we need to leave the building. However he just stood there in shock, staring out the window. Finally, he left with me. Something inside told me it was terrorism.

Many people working on my floor were smart enough to find the nearest stair well exit, however, many were waiting for elevators. Several of us convinced many to take the stairs, but not all would listen. Walking down the stairs, I held hands with a woman I had never met. No crying, just comforting one another, in silence. It felt like it took forever to get down those stairs. All I could think of was that I was married only 4 months, and I was going to die.

Once down on the street, a half a block away, looking straight up at the North Tower burning and all the smoke, I and of course, the others standing with me, heard the second plane, low flying sounds of engines, and then BOOOOM! The South Tower was HIT!!! Fire, pieces of metal, WE RAN and ran, and ran, north... I was about 3 blocks from the new disaster. All I thought about at this time was that I needed to get in touch with my family to let them know I was alright. By the grace of God, I found a pay phone that was being used by 3 people and I waited and was able to call my sister collect, and let them know I was ok... Then the rest of the nightmare began. People started to jump. Although, blocks away, I could see it.

Then the impossible happened, the South Tower started to crumble. That's it panic... Time to run, and I mean run. It was like you were living in a movie... you saw the way it was crumbling, but who knew if it was going to tilt, or if metal was going to shoot out and kill you and cover you up and smother you, OH MY GOD, I can't tell you what was going through my mind. My family knew where I was at the time of my call to them and thought that if I was still in that area, I was surely dead. Fortunately, I made it to one of the last ferries going to Staten Island where I reside. However, on the ferry, we were engulfed in residue from the dust, and I didn't know if there were any other planes that would come to kill anyone trying to get out of the city. I really thought I might die trying to get home... I just sat on the floor of the boat and prayed.

Undicisettembre: You said it took you quite long to leave the bulding. During that time, how was the evacuation: ordered or chaotic? I understand evacuation drills were very frequent: did this training somehow help?

Michelina: The evacuation in itself wasn't so chaotic. The chaos seemed to be caused by people who were alone. Once everyone was assembled in a group, the stairwell evacuation was orderly. We walked down in two rows. I absolutely believe the frequent evacuation training our company provided aided our organized evacuation.

Undicisettembre: Your office was in Building 7. Do you remember at what time it was evacuated and if an official order to leave the building was given? If so, how long did it take before there was no one inside?

Michelina: To the best of my memory, it took about 5 minutes for my floor to start the evacuation process. I don't remember any official announcement, but I can't imagine there weren't any alarms going off. In any event, by the time we got out of 7, I know I was looking up at WTC1 in shock and amazement, for about 5 minutes before building 2 was hit.

Undicisettembre: While escaping from Building 7, did you see or hear anything unexpected, such as explosions or casualties?

Michelina: No, not at this time.

Undicisettembre: Once you got out the building, how was the situation in the streets? What can you tell us about the people who came out of the Twin Towers?

Michelina: The exit we came out of was on the side of my building. The crowd there was enormous. People either running north or just looking up and just staring (I was one of these people). At this point, though, I didn't have contact with anyone directly out of the Twin Towers.

Undicisettembre: When the second Tower was hit, you were already among the people in the streets. Maybe before that moment someone believed the first crash was just a terrible accident, but after the second crash it was obvious it was terrorism. How did the situation change at that point?

Michelina: Yes, a lot of people thought the first crash was an "accident", but once in the street, it was obvious that most people realized that the United States was under attack. The magnitude of that explosion could not have been an accident.

Undicisettembre: I know this is a pretty weird question, but some crazy people on the Internet say the planes that hit the Trade Center were fake. They claim the towers were hit by missiles or that bombs exploded inside and that the planes shown on TV were just holograms. From what you saw or heard, I guess you can rule out this crazy idea once and for all, right?

Michelina: Of course I rule this out. These type of rumors come from people that need attention. No sane person would take them seriously.

Undicisettembre: You saw the South Tower collapse. For what you know, was it giving any signs of being unstable or did it just collapse at once? Was somehow the collapse somehow expected?

Michelina: No, there were no signs whatsoever. People were running away from the buildings, but some were still only a few blocks away. I was so close because I was lucky enough to find a pay phone to call home to let my family know I was ok. Others in line for the phone were crying about the people they knew in the building on the top floors. One woman's husband worked on the 104th floor of the North Tower...so did a friend of mine.

Undicisettembre: How did people react after the South Tower collapsed?

Michelina: Since it was so unexpected, we were no longer onlookers in shock, we were now in flight mode again. It was horrible. Everyone scattered, screaming, running north, hiding behind cars. Once on the street, and my phone call was made telling my family I was safe, I had a new battle of survival to overcome. This building was coming down and I couldn't see how it was falling. Was it tipping over? If it was which way? There was so much dust! Should I hide underground in the train station? Should I run as fast as I can North and slip down a side street? I actually felt like I was in an action movie. Luckily, I ran into a friend that lives near me and we walked as far north as we could and back around south away from the towers, to a ferry that could take us to Staten Island, where we reside.

Undicisettembre: How does it feel to see the most recognizable skyline in the world changed forever?

Michelina: It makes me very sad and angry. When I see a movie made prior to 2001 that has a scene of the NY Skyline, I just can't believe that anyone can be so hateful. The buildings are just material, look how many lives were taken. Whenever there is a documentary on 9/11, I have to change the channel. I just can't watch it anymore. It was enough that I lived it.

Undicisettembre: What's your opinion about the new World Trade Center 7 which opened in 2006? I find it truly beautiful and I love the way it reflects sunlight. Also I appreciate the fact that the last building to be destroyed is the first one to be rebuilt. But this is just my opinion and I would like to hear yours, since you used to work in the previous one.

Michelina: I think it's beautiful. Once it was erected, I went to see it. That was the first time I was back to the Trade Center site. It has been a very, very painful road for me.

Though, I am extremely grateful that I am here today. A lot of guilt goes along with that, though. I'm told it's called survivor's guilt. It's a tricky kind of feeling.

Undicisettembre: How did the city and its inhabitants react? Do you feel that New Yorkers are still proud to consider NYC as the world's leading city or is the scar too painful?

Michelina: We banded together, and helped one another. It was truly wonderful to see how people come together and show that they can remember that we can't take our lives for granted.

Undicisettembre: What do you think about conspiracy theories that claim 9/11 was an inside job? Most conspiracy theorists believe the Towers were intentionally demolished with explosives, some of them even claim no aircraft ever crashed into the towers and all the videos that show them are fake. What's your opinion?

Michelina: I think that these conspiracy theories are ludicrous. America is the land of the free... We do not kill our own, we only defend our country when we are attacked by others, as we were by terrorists on 9/11. Conspiracy theorists have nothing better to do, but try to make money and a name for themselves out of a tragedy like this.

Undicisettembre: Conspiracy theorists also claim that Building number 7 had been filled with explosives in advance in order to be demolished; according to them, the reason for this demolition is that in Building 7 there used to be FBI and CIA offices, so it contained secrets that needed to be destroyed forever. In your opinion, is this theory plausible?

Michelina: No, I do not believe this theory is plausible, It's ridiculous. First off, asI said before, we do not kill our own. Hence, no inside job. Secondly,the FBI has never resided in building 7, however, the CIA was a tenant. If it was so important for our government to intentionally destroy "secrets" contained by the CIA, why would our government need to go to such extreme measures to accomplish such a thing?

Undicisettembre: Have you met any conspiracy theorists and tried to debate them? If so, how did it go, and what is your impression of these people? Have you found an explanation as to why these "inside job" theories seem to be popular even among people who you would not normally classify as nutjobs?

Michelina: No, I have not met any.

Undicisettembre: We're trying to understand the effect of these theories on the general public in the US, because we see commentators such as Glenn Beck and the "birther" movement, and it's hard for us to figure out from here how serious this stuff is. Do you have the impression that these theories belong only to a fringe movement, or are they fairly mainstream?

Michelina: I think only to a fringe movement. Not many people here in the US doubt that the mass murders on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, was a cowardly act of Terrorism, arranged by Osama bin Laden. Especially from the families that lost loved ones, the heroes and surviors that witnessed it.