World Trade Center: an interview with survivor Alexander Spano

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

For the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11, we wish to offer our readers the first-hand account of a survivor, Alexander Spano, who worked in the South Tower and was in his office when the first plane struck.

The survivors' direct accounts of their experience are the best way to avoid losing memory of the events and to prevent them from being twisted by conspiracy theories, which, as Spano confirms, only take hold among those who weren't there and didn't live those events personally.

We wish to thank Alexander Spano for his kindness and willingness.

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

Alexander Spano: I was working for a company called Oppenheimer Funds, I was the operations manager for them and my office was on the 33rd floor of Tower 2 on the south end of the tower overlooking the Hudson river. My main view was on the Statue of Liberty, which was very nice! I was a kind of workaholic at that time, I was usually the first one in and the last one out, so I used to get there at about 6 or 6:30 in the morning and be the first one to turn the lights on, get the office up and running and set up. So when employees started to come in on that day I was in my office and at a certain point we heard a very loud rumble and we felt the shake. Being the operations manager I was also the designated fire marshal for the four floors that we occupied.

I didn't think too much of it until I saw the debris flying around the buildings, all you could see was debris flying around the building. In the World Trade Center the air filtration system was seven stories below the bedrock of Manhattan and both buildings shared the air, so when the first plane hit the first building our building started right away getting of the smoke coming into the building from the air conditioning system. At first we thought it was a small plane, like a Cessna plane or a news helicopter, at that point we didn't know what it was.

I started to evacuate my people and had them starting to go down using the stairway because we were not allowed to use the elevators. It took about a good half an hour to get everybody down to the bottom. Once at the ground floor I checked all four floors. I had a couple of people that were with me: a friend of mine, Bill, and a girl, Valerie, they were helping me and making sure everybody had evacuated their floor.

While we were at the ground floor I saw there was some police, so I went to one of the cops and asked them “What's going on?” and he just told me “Get the hell out of here, get the hell out of here! Get out of the building right away!” But I said “Hey, wait a minute. The speakers are saying to get back to offices.” and he told me those were pre-recorded messages and told me “Forget about them, just get the hell out of here.” and he also started running away.

So we went outside on Liberty Street and while I was like ten feet from the door the second plane came over my head and hit the building right overhead of us. Some of the visions that I saw in those moments are haunting, I still have post traumatic stress disorder, I still suffer from that very much. I wish I could cut a piece of my brain from my head that stores all that so that I never hear or see it again but unfortunately it is something that I carry with me every day. It's hard and it's very, very scary but when I walked outside the first thing I saw were bodies flying around and on the floor. When I first walked out of the doors somebody's body fell from the sky and landed ten feet in front of me. I have a vision of an arm, just lying in the street and I saw it in shock and horror. The next thing that happened is this huge airplane flying right over my head and flying into the building right over me.

We started running but we couldn't get too far, I got hit by a piece of either building or airplane in the head and in the lower spine. Still today I'm paralyzed in my right leg and I wear an external prosthetic and I had five back surgeries. That happened when I covered two people when the debris was falling down: my friend Valerie and an older lady.

Anyway since I saw and heard this airplane directly it upsets me when I see these conspiracy theorists. It upsets me a lot because if you were not there you have no right to comment on what happened. They should speak to people it actually happened to. I find them insulting and rude. I would love to sit across a table from a conspiracy theorist and I want to hear what he has to say. I would love to do that one day.

So, after running for a while I wanted to call home and check in with my family, I knew some friends of mine a couple of streets away and I went over there but even their phones were not working. At that point what Valerie and I were going to do was to catch a ferry to New Jersey because the both of us lived there, but the police told us that we could not. We stayed there just looking up and watching the buildings burn: we saw bodies falling and people jumping out. It was very horrifying and it's something you never, ever want to see in your life.

As I was standing there and I was arguing with this police officer that the only thing I wanted to do was to get across the street to catch a ferry to go to New Jersey, all that we could hear was the sound of the slamming floors within the building.

I want to clarify this because a lot of people say “There was a bomb that triggered the floors to start falling”. That was not the sound of bombs. It clearly sounded like one floor dropping on top of another, it was just “boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom”, you could hear it from inside the Tower before it started falling. It didn't sound like a blast, it didn't sound like an explosion of any kind. It just sounded clearly like floors falling on top on one another. My building, which was Tower 2, started to come down. I was only one block away.

We found shelter inside a restaurant where we closed the doors, and we ended up getting locked in there because the smoke and the debris was so heavy it jammed the door shut, and we couldn't get out. We were stuck there for a half hour until the police broke the windows and we got out. When we got out Tower 1 started to fall down, it was the same exact sound of the interior floors falling and then the rest of the building coming down.

Undicisettembre: What happened next? What time did you go home?

Alexander Spano: We walked to Battery Park where they had buses, we took a bus that brought us up the East Side of Manhattan that is called FDR Drive, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive, they dropped us off and we walked to Midtown by Times Square. We walked across Manhattan to the West Side where we took a ferry that took us home. By the time I got home it was five or six o'clock at night.

My family didn't even know if I was alive or not until four o'clock when I found a pay phone close to Times Square that was working, it was pretty scary.

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

 Alexander Spano: As I mentioned before I would love to sit across a table from one of these people, I want to sit down and see where they are getting their evidence, because I was there and they were not. Do you know anybody who is a conspiracy theorist and needs to be told and proven? Let me know! I would be more than happy to get on the phone with them. They are going to discount me being there and my first hand account versus what they just think happened just for fun or giggles. I want to have a one-on-one talk with one of these people.

There's nothing more frustrating than to know that people out there think that our government did this to us or that this was done on purpose for some other strange reason. None of these people saw what I went through and what many other people went through. I would love to have a talk with one of these people because there's no way they can discount what the heck I have to say.

Undicisettembre: In your opinion how popular are these theories in the United States?

Alexander Spano: They are considered a joke. They are not that popular but people who come out and say it was a conspiracy are discounted right away as jokes or as kooks.

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

Alexander Spano: Absolute heroes! Absolute heroes! If I were asking you “Would you give your life to save somebody else?” it would be a tough question to answer, but that's their job. These people wake up in the morning, wear a uniform and serve the public. They are pure humanitarian heroes.

Undicisettembre: What happened to you in the days after 9/11? How long did it take you to get back to normalcy?

Alexander Spano: To this day there's no normal life. I still wake up in the middle of the night with night shakes and sweating, loud noises for me are very tough.

Even just a few days after that date my responsibility as operations manager was to get the company back up and running. We had a contingency site in New Jersey and I had to get that up and running. I drowned myself in my work, this is what I ended up doing. I didn't feel much of the post traumatic stress disorder until much later, around six weeks later. But in the first days my main goal was to get my company up and running and in that period my body started to take the toll. I didn't know I had a broken spine and that I needed an operation right away until six weeks.

Within 48 hours my company was back up and trading. Thank God nobody of our company died, we got everybody out and nobody died.

Undicisettembre: Have you been to the 9/11 Memorial Museum yet?

Alexander Spano: I am planning on going. Soon. I just haven't had time to go yet unfortunately. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be a day of emotion and tears. It's going to be a day full of crying and I'll be in an emotional mess for the following two or three weeks. It's not going to be an easy thing to do.

Undicisettembre: What do you think about the new World Trade Center currently being built? Do you like it or would you have preferred to have the Twin Towers rebuilt?

Alexander Spano: At first I was more on the side of “We are the strong America, let's not show any weakness. They knocked down those buildings, let's build them right back up again”. But now if I think about it again I like the fact that they built a memorial where the two towers were and I do like the new tower, I think it brings pride back to New York. I like it.

Undicisettembre: You already told me your life never got back to normalcy, so how does 9/11 affect your everyday life?

Alexander Spano: Besides the physical part, emotionally it's very hard to live with that. Every anniversary I don't answer the phone anymore, I don't want to talk to people on that day anymore, I don't want people to tell me “Oh, I'm calling you for the anniversary, I'm glad you are here, bla bla bla...” I don't want all that. I want that to be a normal day. It's behind me, I want to go on.

I already have enough stuff in my life that reminds me of this. I don't know if you noticed but when we started this phone call it was 9:11 Eastern Daylight Time. And it happens me at least every day that I look at a digital clock, either in the morning or at night, and it says 9:11. My wife and I were looking to buy a new house and we went looking at one that we absolutely love and the address was 911 Ashburn Lane.

I know it's coincidence and that it might sound silly. I'm not a superstitious person, but it's just kind of weird that this kind of things just pop up.

I've spoken to people who were on D-Day, older gentlemen, veterans who were in World War 2, or people who were in war in Vietnam and they say that post traumatic stress is something you never get rid of. You cannot get rid of a thought in your mind, you can ignore it, you can put it in the back of your mind but it's always going to be there. People just told me “This is something that is now part of your life and it won't get away because it's in your brain, you are never going to get rid of it. You have to learn how to deal and cope with it on a daily basis, and the way you deal and cope with it is the most important thing.”

Undicisettembre: Do you think the country is still living in fear or has it regained its standing in the world?

Alexander Spano: Since 9/11 the country is living differently. We are more aware, it is unfortunate that even if international terrorism is scary enough we have our own problems like kids shootings in schools, or people going haywire. We are living in a much different age today, I tell my son often that when I was a kid, when you were 7, 8 or 9 years old, you could go outside and play and no one cared and you were fine. Today we are in a much different world. Even with my son being a teenager we always want to know where he is and that he's okay and that he's in an area that is okay.

Undicisettembre: Do you think bin Laden's killing helped healing the wound?

Alexander Spano: Oh yes! Oh sure, by far! I think America owed that to the people who lost their lives because of him and I think President Obama has done a wonderful job in working with the prior administration and with his administration in keeping up the fight and looking for him and finding him. I'm glad he wasn't captured alive, I'm happy he was shot in the head. A special operation like that, with a few of our soldiers, was the right way to do it.

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