World Trade Center 3: an interview with survivor Frank Razzano

di Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

The Marriott Hotel stood right between the Twin Towers, and every day it was thronged with guests, visiting or on business in Manhattan.

The hotel was completely destroyed by the 9/11 attacks, yet many of its guests survived, and their personal accounts contain many precious details of what happened that day.

Undicisettembre now publishes the account of Washington lawyer Frank Razzano, quoted with his consent, who was in New York for a very important case.

We would like to thank Frank Razzano for his availability and kindness.

Undicisettembre: Can you give an account of what you saw and experienced that morning? What do you recall, generally speaking?

Frank Razzano: I'm a lawyer. I do primarily white collar criminal defense and securities litigation. I had a very large case pending in the Federal Court in Manhattan in 2001. We were getting ready for a trial that was going to start on September 11th and I was staying at the Marriott Hotel, which was between the Twin Towers.

I worked late on the night of September 10th, about 11 at night. The witness we were preparing said he was unable to stay any longer because he had a doctor's appointment the next morning and that he would have been in the office by eleven o'clock. We said that was fine and I decided I was going to sleep late the next morning, so I went back to the hotel and went to bed.

Then early in the morning I heard a huge banging sound. I got up, I went to the window, I opened the drapes, I looked out and there were papers fluttering down to the ground. I had stayed at this hotel many, many times and in that part of lower Manhattan, which is right on the harbor, strong winds would blow up off the Atlantic Ocean, through the harbor, and would hit the buildings, so I thought it was a pane of glass which had shattered and opened a hole, and that's where the papers were coming out of. So I didn't think very much of it and I went back to bed. When it was more or less twenty minutes later I heard an explosion. I got up, opened the blinds again and this time I saw fireballs falling into Liberty street. These fireballs were falling into a parking lot that was directly across from my room; there was a Greek Orthodox Church and there was a parking lot surrounding it, fireballs were falling into the street and were setting cars on fire. So at that point I knew there was something wrong.

I put the TV on and I put on “Today Show”, which is a morning television show in the United States, and they were reporting that two planes had hit the World Trade Center. One had hit the North Tower, and it was the first plane which I described as a big banging sound because it was on the opposite side of the hotel from where I was; and the second hit the South Tower and it was 80 stories above my head. Initially they were debating whether this was a terrorist attack, they weren't sure, in any event they were saying the firemen were on their way and they would have put out the fires. I looked out of the window again and sure enough I could see the fire trucks and the emergency vehicles down in the streets.

At this point I was just standing there in my underwear because I had just got out of bed. I thought to myself: “Well, what am I going to do?” I had a case that was going to trial and I needed to prepare the trial and I thought to myself: “The best thing to do is to get dressed and to go to my meeting at 11 o'clock.” I took a shower, I shaved, I got dressed and as I was about to put my jacket on, I was watching TV, and they were saying it was definitely a terrorist attack. And a thought occurred to me that if that was a terrorist attack, like had happened in 1993, the FBI was going to cordon off the building and I would not be able to get back in the building that evening. So I wasn't going to leave all the papers for my court case in the room. I was staying in a suite room and I went to the living room portion of the suite and I packed up all my papers and boxes and litigation bags. I was standing there and I thought to myself: “I wonder if I can get a bellman to help me to get all this stuff out of the room.” Suddenly the building began to quiver and shake as if there was an earthquake. I looked out of the windows and I saw a curtain of concrete and steel falling out of the sky. It was like a curtain of a theater coming down turning what was a bright and sunny day into total blackness.

I ran to the office side of the room, pressed myself against the wall and I could feel the building breaking up as if the building was being hit by artillery fire. My first thought was: “I'm going to die in this building” and I thought to myself: “Have you led a good life? Have you led a kind of life that our parents could be proud of?” Next thought was that my daughter had just gotten engaged two weeks before. I thought: “I'll never see my daughter get married.”

I wasn't panic stricken and I wasn't afraid. I was kind of resigned to “This is the end.”

This went on for about a minute with the hotel being hit by the rubble of the South Tower. Then it stopped, and when it stopped I was still alive. The room was a shambles and I made my way to the door. I got out of the door and I yelled out, a voice came back to me and that was Jeff Johnson, a fireman, he was under debris and in the doorway of the fire stairs.

I didn't know that at the time, but when the South Tower came down it collapsed the entire center portion of the hotel. There was a chunk of the hotel that was still left standing next to the North Tower, and then there was only a very small spire that was left standing up to the nineteenth floor on the south side of the building. And that's where I was. I was on the nineteenth floor, the floors above had collapsed, and the rest of the building, except these small slivers, had collapsed. Jeff, the fireman, told me I had to make my way down the fire staircase, and not to worry about him because he would be down after me.

I made my way down the fire staircase, the emergency lights were still on so I was able to see to make my way down the stairs. When I got down to the fourth floor there was debris in the stairwell, I called out and a group of people on the third floor landing called back and said: “There is a group of people here on the third floor landing, but we can’t go down any further because the stairs collapsed down to the ground.”

Moving around the rubble which was on the fire staircase, and creating an opening that was large enough to get through, I made my way down to the third floor landing. On that floor there was the banquet manager of the hotel and three hotel guests: one was an older gentleman who had worked for a law firm in Manhattan, and had come up from his retirement in Florida to visit his old partners; another one was a businessman from Denver, Colorado, and I don't recall where the other gentleman was from.

When standing at the third floor landing there was a huge hole in the wall, the entire wall had collapsed and we were looking directly on the same scene as I had seen from my room. We were looking out across Liberty Street and to the parking lot where the Orthodox Church was.

There was an I-beam that was lodged on a ledge on the second floor of the building and it was leaning up against the third floor landing. A few moments later Jeff Johnson, the fireman that I had seen on the nineteenth floor, came down the stairs with another fireman. Jeff came down, he walked up to the landing, looked outside and climbed down the I beam, when he got down to the ledge he walked along the ledge, disappeared for a moment, then came back. He looked up at us and said: “This is the way out. We have to get out of this building on our own, nobody is coming for us. Anybody who was in the streets is dead and no one will come for us. We have to get out on our own. What I want you all to do is to crawl down the I beam to the second floor landing, just the way I did.”

So we walked along the ledge on the outside of the building, just a few feet away there was another gaping hole in the wall. We would go back into the building through that gaping hole, and we would try to find our way out, through that gaping hole which was on the second floor. So the banquet manager of the hotel got onto the I-beam and made his way down, I got on the I-beam next and then the fellow from Colorado came down. We walked along the ledge and a few feet away there was the hole in the wall; we reentered the hotel from the ledge, and we were standing there, waiting for the other fireman and the other two men to come down the I-beam. All of a sudden I heard what I can only describe as a freight train coming at me out of the sky. I had no idea what it was. Jeff, the fireman, said to us: “Get on the ground”. We all got to the ground inside the building and you could hear the clackety, clackety, clackety, clackety sound of the North Tower coming down. It was not a freight train but the North Tower which was falling, with the floors falling on top of each other and that was causing that clacking sound. We got buried by debris, the hole in the wall from which we had come though was now gone, it was entirely filled with debris, and we had like three feet of debris on top of us. We fought our way out of the debris, and we were standing waist deep in debris, barely able to breath, there was a ton of smoke and debris in the air. Literally every time you took a breath it was like drowning, you couldn't get air into your lungs. That was probably the most terrifying moment I had that whole day: not being able to get any air and not being able to breathe, having your nose and your throat and your mouth filled with the debris that was in the air.

Anyway, we cleared our breathing passages and we were able to get some air. The banquet manager, the guy from Colorado and I stood there in the debris hugging each other, Jeff began to get his legs out from under the debris and he began looking around the room and he said to the banquet manager: “Where is there a door in this room? We have to get out.” The banquet manager said to him: “We are on the second floor, we must be over the restaurant, so this has to be the garden room. There should be a door at the end of this room.” Jeff fought his way across the debris field and got to the other side of the room and the door was blocked. There was very little light in the room, but in the center of the room there was a steel beam, a huge steel beam, a supporting beam from the hotel. Jeff looked at that steel beam and, I'll never forget this till my dying day, he said “We got to get the fuck out of here right now! That beam is buckling, the rest of the building is going to come down.” And he began looking to see how we were going to get out. On the West Street side of the building he found a small hole in the wall, maybe three feet by three feet. He took a rug, he lodged it in some debris, and he threw it over the side of the building. He looked back at us and said: “This is our way out.” One of the men that I was with said: “Oh, you got to be crazy, it is too dangerous to go down that rug.” The banquet manager went down that rug first and he made it down, I went second, then went the other man and then Jeff came down.

It wasn't as harrowing as it may seem because there were fifteen feet of debris in the street. The climb down the rug was probably only ten feet to the debris pile. We made our way across what was West Street which was now only a debris pile, as we moved across the debris pile again there was one of the most horrifying moments because there were still stuff falling out of the air. I remember thinking to myself: “God, I made it out of that building and now I'm going to die getting hit in the head with something.” We got across the street and Jeff hooked up with another fireman he knew, and he took off. He told us “Walk over to the Hudson River.” We walked to the Hudson River where there was a policeman who told me “You are bleeding from the head.” I hadn't realized I was bleeding up to that point. He said: “We are going to evacuate you out of here on a Police boat. We are going to take you across the river to New Jersey, we cannot take you to a hospital in New York because all the streets are blocked. There's no way we can get you to a hospital in New York.”

The other two men I was with were told: “Walk down to the end of the island, to the Battery, an aid station has been set up there.”

I got in on the Police boat, and they put several other firemen who injured themselves in the rescue attempt on the Police boat, and as we were going across the Hudson River I looked back to the city and I said to a guy: “Where is the World Trade Center?”

“What do you mean where is the World Trade Center?”

“I know the tops of the buildings fell down.”

“The tops of the buildings didn't fall down, these buildings collapsed down to their foundation.”

That was the first time I knew that the buildings were gone. I had gone to high school in New York City and I remember distinctively from one of the classrooms in my school I could see the World Trade Center being built. It was a tremendous landmark for New York City and it's almost inconceivable that in the course of a morning it would be gone.

We went to Ellis Island first where they set up a triage center, I was examined there and they put me in an ambulance, and took me to the hospital in Bayonne. When I got there they did an MRI and I had bleeding in the brain cavity. So they put me on intensive care and they had two possible treatments: one was the way to see if the bleeding had stopped naturally and the second is if it didn't, so they go in and they cauterize the wound.

In my case I was fortunate enough that it stopped and I was released from hospital three days later. My wife and daughter came up from Washington where I live and they got me out of the hospital and they took me home.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of conspiracy theories which claim that 9/11 was an inside-job?

Frank Razzano: It's not true. It's preposterous to think that that's how it happened. It's just not true.

Undicisettembre: You described the noise of the collapses as “clacking sound”. Were they explosions in your opinion?

Frank Razzano: No, no. Clearly not. I'm not an engineer but what I understand is that the supports of these buildings were on the outside. One of the advantages, one of the big selling points is that you can have one acre of office space unimpeded by steel beams in the middle of the floor. What was holding the buildings up was the shell on the outside. So when the planes hit the buildings they undermined the structural integrity of the buildings, when the top portion of the building began to fall they fell one floor on top of another floor on top of another floor.

Undicisettembre: What are your thoughts about the firefighters and the rescuers who risked their lives to save others?

Frank Razzano: These guys are the most incredible human beings. Until this event I'd never thought too much about firemen. At the World Trade Center now there's a memorial with the names of the firemen that died. On that day over 300 firemen in NYC died trying to rescue people in the buildings. It's incredible to think that these guys risk their own lives on a day to day basis to help other people. The Jesuits have a saying that they are men for others, but also these firemen and police officers are truly men for others. Every day they go to work and they risk their lives, most of us don't do that.

Undicisettembre: How did 9/11 affect your everyday life?

Frank Razzano: I try to be nicer to people, kinder to people, more understanding. I used to think that I wanted to die at my desk, I don't want to die at my desk now. I want to enjoy life. That's how it affected my life. I became more religious as a result. It took me a few years to do it but I made the pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain, I walked the “Camino” in honor of the other people who didn't make it. So I think this is the way it has affected my life.

Undicisettembre: What are your personal thoughts about the new World Trade Center?

Frank Razzano: I think the new buildings are very nice. United States has been attacked by external enemies three times. Once the British invaded Washington D.C. and they burned down the White House during the war on 1812; then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and in 2001 terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. I think it was very important for United States to rebuild, every time we've been attacked by foreign enemies we have not given up, we've rebuilt and it has made the country stronger and that's what we've done this time. This new building is a symbol of the American strength and American determination, they will not be defeated by anyone.

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