World Trade Center: an interview with survivor Nicholas Cagliuso

by Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.

On the morning of September 11th Nicholas Cagliuso was in his office on the 86th floor of the North Tower when the first plane crashed. To tell us his story about that they and its consequences, Cagliuso accepted our proposal for an interview we are today offering our readers.

We would like to thank Nicholas Cagliuso for his kindness and his time.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us an account of what happened to you on 9/11?

Nicholas Cagliuso:
At that time, I was working as a management associate for the Port Authority at the World Trade Center. On that morning, my father, who also had worked for the Port Authority and had retired in 1996, drove me from our home in Brooklyn to the front of One World Trade Center as he had done many times. I was married with a young child and my wife was expecting our second child. He dropped me off and he went to Jersey City, New Jersey, to visit his former colleagues.

I went up to the offices and it was maybe 8:20 or 8:30. I was at the 86th floor, 8647 was the suite we were in; I had only begun in July, so I had been there for only two months. I was in the office with one of my colleagues and our manager; we had an interior office with no windows. When the first plane struck rather than the sound, which was of course very loud, what I recall is the movement. At that moment I thought it was an air conditioner that had exploded, of course never thinking it was a commercial airliner. Our manager had a heart condition, and I had an EMS background, so immediately my colleague and I went to see her. She was fine, but same as us she was wondering “What was that?”

There were no announcements, and we started to smell smoke and to hear sounds. As the smoke got a bit heavier, we thought “Maybe we should try and get some of these windows open”. My colleague and I went into a corner office of a gentleman who ended up being killed on that day; between two file cabinets there was a hammer. I thought with my EMS and fire science background we might be able to break some of those windows; we went down the hall, the windows were floor to ceiling, and with all my might I started smashing one particular window. I will never forget saying to my colleague “When we come back here next week, they are going to say, ‘Who the hell broke that window?’ I am a new employee, that’s going to be a year of salary to replace that window.”

Lo and behold the winds up there are quite significant compared to being on the ground and they almost blew a door off its hinges. The smoke was clearing somewhat, I went to another corner office from where I could see the Verrazano Bridge and the Statue of Liberty when I saw something striking office furniture such as tables and chairs was coming out from above us and falling out of the building. We understood that clearly something was going on. We went to our pantry area, and we could hear people screaming, we weren’t sure what it was until we realized one of the walls was the elevator shaft and there were people trapped in the elevator. I remember climbing on a small couch saying, again unrealistically, “If we could just open this wall and get to the top of this elevator car, we could get the hatch and get these people out”. Again, in that moment I was not thinking logically.

A few minutes later, the second plane hit and that precipitated things because it meant “Whatever it was, happened again” and it was more impactful than our building being hit. We said “Okay, let’s get out of here.” We ventured out to the nearest staircase; the staircase was empty, now of course we know why, because very few people were able to descend from floors above us. There were a man and a woman, he was covered in blood because he had been hit with something. My colleague, our manager, and I started going down; lights were on, there was no smoke, nothing was hitting us, there was no water pouring on us. We got down to one of the sky-lobbies and went across the floor; there the building was pitch black some of the elevator shafts were open with no car, there were Port Authority people telling us “Be careful, don’t fall down.”

We kept going and going and crisscrossing, meaning changing the staircase that we were in because the building had shaken enough you could not get some of the doors open, so when you were in a particular staircase you could only get so far. We got to the fifties and there was no clear information about what was going, you would hear people saying “It was a plane” but you would think “Maybe a little Cessna” because it was a beautiful crystal-clear day.

We kept going and we reached the twentieth floor and Port Authority police and NYPD asked for people who could do CPR; I stepped up, they gave me a helmet but thankfully no one needed CPR. There was an older woman who could not ambulate; with three other people we each took one of her limbs and carried her down a few flights, unfortunately I don’t remember what happened there.

We made it down to the third floor and we were hearing these thuds which I am retrospectively certain were bodies hitting the ground . At the third floor we heard a tremendous earthquake like sound and the lights started to flicker; that was Tower 2 falling. I got cell service and I called my wife to say, “I’m okay”. She thought I had gone to the Trade Center and took a pool car the Port Authority owned to go to a meeting in Staten Island, so she thought I was there.

When I got to the plaza level, I saw on the ground an airplane seat, which wasn’t a small plane seat but a commercial plane seat. I made it down the “Survivor’s Staircase” to Church Street and the debris was up to my calf of so.

I walked five blocks or so among people screaming and the second Tower came down. I walked to Canal Street, I walked over the bridge and into Brooklyn.

Undicisettembre: What time did you get home?

Nicholas Cagliuso: A few hours later, probably early afternoon or so.

Undicisettembre: What was the reaction of your family when they saw you?

Nicholas Cagliuso: My in-laws were there; my mother was there and our son Nick III was in his crib jumping up and down and screaming “The buildings fall down! The buildings fall down!”, he was processing it that way. He was a year and a half old. My uncle Benny, from Sicily, came to the side door saying “The poor fellow! The poor fellow!” thinking I was gone.

My father ended up driving through New Jersey and northern New York through Westchester. He got home and he did not say much to me, but there was no need to speak. We both knew what just happened. He was watching the smoke from the other side of the Hudson River.

Undicisettembre: What happened to you on the following days?

Nicholas Cagliuso: The following days are one big blur. I can’t give you details because I don’t recall them, I recall phone calls from the Port Authority because I was on the “missing” list and that went on for days. I would answer “It’s Nick, I’m fine, take me off the list”.

One thing I remember was the smell, even though we lived in Brooklyn , miles away. A smell I’ve never sensed before, it wasn’t just smoke, but also human remains and a unique pungent scent that I had never experienced. I don’t remember when it ended but I never sensed that again since.

Undicisettembre: When and how did you restart working after 9/11?

Nicholas Cagliuso: It became an all-hands effort because those were our buildings. To me it was also very personal because also my father had worked for the Port Authority from 1968 to 1996, he was a materials technician on the World Trade Center, he was part of sampling steel, paint, concrete and things of the sort. So, there was a very, very strong personal component.

We ended up going to the Port Authority Technical Center in Jersey City and essentially just working on emergency management, business continuity and disaster recovery. I was there for several months, it was taking me two and a half hours each way to drive from Brooklyn, through Staten Island and through New Jersey to get there. Even with the unimaginable loss, everyone pitched in. With our colleagues killed and our headquarters gone, people just pushed on and The Port Authority made sure not one of us ever never missed a paycheck. There was a real, real sense of commitment and unity that was unprecedented.

Undicisettembre: Did you go to Ground Zero for the twentieth anniversary celebration?

Nicholas Cagliuso: I did not. I deliberately avoided it for years and I’ve never been to any anniversary ceremony, it’s my personal emotional decision. I think about it every day, I think about my colleagues, and how it changed the world. I started working in Lower Manhattan again in 2014; one day I was walking, turned around and “Woo, there it is!” and I got very upset. A few years ago my wife, my kids and I had gone to a restaurant right outside the World Trade Center; they sat us at the table, and, I looked out of the window and there was one of the pools and I got very upset. So, I think of this as a coping mechanism, I avoid the area. I haven’t gone to the pools or the museum itself.

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

Nicholas Cagliuso: I am a very evidence-based person and I am not aware of any evidence that supports any conspiracy theory. Simply because somebody has an opinion it does not make it a universal fact or an absolute truth. In twenty years, I haven’t seen anything that convinces me about those theories and those ideas.

Moreover, the fact that those buildings withstood those impacts and fires, and that so many people made it out alive is extraordinary. My father is now 90 years old and I talk to him every day, I tip my hat to him and those people, you couldn’t fathom that scenario, yet the basic physics of what those buildings withstood, the load and the heat, to have that rescue mission thanks to the hands of God working through FDNY, NYPD, PAPD, EMS and so many others, is extraordinary. Absolutely extraordinary.

Undicisettembre: What is in your opinion the standing of the USA in the world twenty years after? Is the nation stronger or weaker than before?

Nicholas Cagliuso: Well, you can’t rest on your laurels, you can’t say “We are the USA and so on and so forth”, that alone doesn’t cut it. The social divisions have been very detrimental for the US. Our full name starts with “united”, so we should be one. Not necessarily the same, but one. The recent social issues have not strengthened us. The good news is that the pendulum swings towards equilibrium and we regress to the mean, but I do think the divisiveness had divided us internally and externally. And I am a firm believer that families, teams and nations largely succeed from the inside out; it’s very easy to play victim and point externally to blame somebody else, but I think strength and weakness largely comes from inside. There are significant opportunities, particularly on social issues that the US needs to continue work on.

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