World Trade Center: an interview with survivor Marvin Pickrum

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

We continue our commitment to preserving the memory of the events of 9/11 by publishing the account of survivor Marvin Pickrum, who was in the North Tower at the time of the first impact.

His vivid report is an important step towards understanding the feelings of those who directly experienced the World Trade Center attack.

We wish to thank Marvin Pickrum for his kindness and willingness to share his harrowing story.

Undicisettembre: What do you remember about 9/11, generally speaking?

Marvin Pickrum: I was working for a trading company of the 85th floor of Tower 1, I was getting ready to head to my trading floor which was on the lower floors, at the fourth floor of the tower. I was heading out of my office and going to the restroom and as I walked out of my office my building was hit, and when it was hit the building leaned forward. I knew and I could tell it was something big because I am an ex-military, I had been in the army and in the navy and I had been around explosions and stuff of that nature before and I knew it was something pretty serious. In addition when I was in the hallway the jet fuel from the airplane was filling up the elevators, it was traveling through the elevators shafts when the plane hit the building and I literally had to run down the hallway to escape the flames that were filling up in the hallway. Well, having served in the service I can tell you I’ve never felt that heat before. So from the building leaning and the heat from the flames I knew it was serious. In my life I rarely panic but that was one of the few times in my life I panicked.

My initial reaction was to try and head back to the office to see if my coworkers were ok, but when I turned around flames were filling up the hallway. It was if I was looking down the mouth of a dragon – literally! It was at that point I panicked and what went through my mind in that instant was there is no way they survived that, they must be dead. I never would have separated from my co-workers if I believed they were alive so I went into a survival mode.

So after the initial impact I was just trying to figure out what was going on and was basically trying to find out how to get out of the hallway and not burn by the flame, once I got at the end of the hallway I kind of collected myself, I got into an office that was down the hallway, looked outside to see what was going on outside, I didn’t see anything, the sky was clear. I collected myself and I decided I was getting out of the building, I knew right away I needed to get out of that building.

Before having all the facts people were making assumptions about what had happened, we started to hear the stories that a plane hit the building but we didn’t know how big it was. Nobody really knew. At that point people starting filling up the stairwell to get out of the building. There was no chaos in the stairwell, people were very orderly, once we were in the stairwell people were coming out of all the levels on the way down. It was very calm. On one of the floors I hooked up with one of my coworkers and through her I heard that everyone got out of our office and that they were okay. We connected when she was getting out of another floor and I was heading in her direction.

There was no immediate threat and we were just moving out of the building. We got to an area where we couldn’t continue down the stairwell, we had to move across in one of the lower levels and that was kind of being in a movie: there was fire everywhere, the corridor was broken up, there were people covered with ash. We got across that level, we ended up in a different stairwell to continue going down. When we were in the forties or fifties, or even lower than that, we started seeing firemen coming up; at that point I was confident we would have made it out because I thought “if the firemen are getting in it means there is a way out of the building”. At that point nobody considered that the building would have collapsed.

When we got to the fourth floor, at the time nobody knew it, was when Tower 2 collapsed. I was on the fourth level and I will never forget this. I was going down the stairs, I was looking at my coworker and she was standing against the wall about to turn down the stairwell and the building started shaking and the wall started to crack behind her. At that point people panicked, everyone was trying to get out of the building. We didn’t know if our building was also coming down. All the lights went out, there was smoke everywhere. There are images of that day you will never forget. We got to a point where there was so much smoke and no lights and we didn’t know what the path was to get out of the building. Firemen had light-sticks and emergency lights to tell you were the guy in front of you is, in the service that’s how we track each other at night. I saw one light-stick and I went that direction and that’s how I knew what was the path to get out of the building.

Se we went out of the building and I didn’t know and I couldn’t figure which side of the building it was, there was so much going on that I don’t remember how we got out of there. I just remember seeing the fireman and the next thing I know is we were out of the building. Out of the building there were debris everywhere, chaos. I remember telling my coworker “We are in a war zone.” We started following the crowd that was getting north, away from the building, we were trying to get as far away from the building as we could because of the thick smoke. A few minutes after that, when we were far away from the building, a little bit safer and the air was starting to get not as thick with smoke I thought “Okay, maybe I can turn around and take a look at the building to see what is going on.” I turned around and looked up and saw this huge hole and the buildings in the flames and fire. And our tower started to collapse. As you can imagine people went back into panic and we started running north as far away as we could to escape the collapsing building. My coworker lived in Brooklyn, I lived in Jersey City and there was no way I could get home, so we headed across the Brooklyn Bridge, we made it to her place, turned on the news and tried to process what had happened.

Undicisettembre: When did you eventually get home?

Marvin Pickrum: I didn’t get home until the weekend. We had just gotten bombed, so we went to a store and got alcohol because we needed to decompress. We went straight to a store and got beer and vodka, set on the couch and listened to all the stories and kind of processed it. I didn’t get back until the weekend, Saturday I believe it was.

Undicisettembre: What happened to you in those days, when you could not get home?

Marvin Pickrum: I just hanged out with my coworker, we listened to the news on CNN. I called my mother to let her know that I got out of the building okay and that I was staying with a coworker. The city was on lockout, there was no public transportation and going home wasn’t even a priority. I was trying to decompress mostly from what had happened.

Undicisettembre: How long did it take you to get your life back to normalcy?

Marvin Pickrum: Well, how do you define what normalcy is? I moved to New York because my goal was to become a trader, I was working for a trading company and that was my priority. I graduated from law school, I had a financial background and I wanted to be a trader. After 9/11 my emotional sense was to leave New York right away, a lot of people felt that way. Everybody was on an emotional edge but I didn’t want to take an emotional decision. I decided that I was going to take time and decide whether or not I wanted to stay there. New York is a very stressful city to live in, it’s an amazing city but also very stressful and there are a lot of people: it’s the best and the worst of everything. So 9/11 changed my life, I wouldn’t be here in San Francisco if it wasn’t for 9/11, I would have stayed in New York to become a trader.

So after 9/11 I stayed there for a year and then I said “It’s not worth it. This is too hard of a grind, I’m moving back to California, find a job there.” And I got my life back together, so when you say “When did you get back to normalcy?” my answer is “I never got back to normalcy.” It changed the course of my life, there was no doubt in my mind that I ultimately would have landed a job to do trading somewhere and it didn’t happen. I’m now an auditor with an IT company. But that’s not the vision that I had for my life, that’s not the goal that I had: 9/11 changed it.

So if you ask me if my life is normal, yes, I go to work as everybody else, I enjoy outdoor and all that California has to offer. Now my life is normal and it took a while because I spent a year in New York after 9/11 and moved to Los Angeles and worked as a trainer because I always wanted to be an athlete, so I worked as a trainer in a gym for a year and a half and you would never expect someone with my education and my background to have done that. But then I got back to a job that was in line with my education and background.

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

Marvin Pickrum: Well, I came very close to being a Navy SEAL and for personal reasons I left that program. After 9/11 I wanted to go back into the service but at that point I was too old and physically I couldn’t do the things that I used to do when I was in my early twenties but I was angry, I was mad, I couldn’t believe that these guys targeted civilians.

Every single day I think about this whole thing with ISIS and what we are doing and I hope we are doing enough behind the scenes to really deal with that threat. Having almost become a special forces guy I have a different perspective on what our policies should be and when you hear there was another attack and that the whole world on the social media are encouraging people to commit this kind of terror against civilians I hope that the United States and the global community are doing everything that is necessary to eliminate, and I mean eliminate, that threat. I live in San Francisco but I lived in the East Bay where I had to catch a tunnel into the financial district and I don’t like being of those trains anymore because to me its such an easy target to hit. I think about this things while I don’t think other people think the same way.

But I go on with my life. We have been at war for I don’t know how long, we’ll continue to be at war. They are using tactics that are a sign of the times, I cannot worry about things I can’t control and I have to go to work like everybody else.

Undicisettembre: What do you think about wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Marvin Pickrum: It’s complicated, to me what’s happening in the middle East has given rise to these groups but I don’t understand the nature of why there’s so much conflict and I also feel it can never be resolved. When you try to follow “Ok, well, this group arose out of what happened in Iraq”, then there’s war in Syria, who’s supporting who it’s incredibly confusing. I believe we might have made some mistakes in terms of our policy but I don’t think I have the experience to really know the history behind that region and the basis for the conflict and the animosity towards us. Having said that, as an ex military I love my country, I’m a patriot and I hope we do all the necessary to eliminate that threat.

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

Marvin Pickrum: I’m not a big believer in conspiracy theories unless there is proof. Well, I’m a lawyer and I ask these people “Show me some evidence. Is there any evidence that this was an inside job? If it is a conspiracy let me see the hard evidence.” Until then to me it’s just conjecture to sell newspapers and get people excited.

They have to show some evidence, it’s that simple. In my mind there was a group, we know who they were, they were tied to a very specific terrorist group.

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

Marvin Pickrum: Well, I survived it, so I don’t fear it. We have threats as we always had, the United States have always had enemies, we are always going to have enemies, that’s why I support the military. That’s why I believe in having a strong, solid, effective, capable, competent military. Having said that I believe we need more intel to face this threat. I have no experience in that but I believe that good intel provides you with targets. I don’t think we have to repeat Iraq and mobilize huge masses of people and materials, I don’t think that’s the war of the future. So money should be shifted away from that into intel, to get information about who these people are where they are based.

As for the rest of the country I think people live their lives the way they always had. They get to work, have bills to pay, take care of the kids, education, but we are always going to face threats.

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