“I still have a lot of visions of the firemen going up to their death while we went down to carry on with our lives. Their lamps lit the way for us.“ Eighty-third floor World Trade Center Survivor Fred Eichler.
By Noel Young in Boston
Of all the many astonishing stories to come out of 9/11, the most remarkable is that of Fred Eichler. He actually looked straight at the hijackers as they flew their plane right into the North Tower, 70 feet above him on that horror morning, 10 years ago today.
On TV this week he said, "I still have nightmares, looking into that cockpit."
Yet miraculously, Fred escaped. Only one other person is thought to have made it from the floors above him in the North Tower.
Fred ran a financial company , employing 35 people. But on 9/11 only a few were in the the office. He himself got in at about quarter after eight.. “That was pretty typical for me, " he told me.
" At about 20 to nine I was actually headed for the men’s room,
when I noticed that three outside auditors were in our conference room. I sat down at the table to chat with them . The room faced north, and about 9.46 we noticed a plane flying just to the left of the Empire State building.
"Somebody in the room said, ‘Gee that plane is flying awful low” and I remember saying - I don’t know why - ‘Oh it must be a plane from Kennedy Airport that’s got into trouble.’
“We stood up and just kept watching it, wondering where it was going to go. It was all in slow motion. I am told the plane was flying at 600 mph towards us yet it seemed like an eternity getting to us. I suppose it was 15 seconds.
"None of us ever really expected it to hit the building, obviously. But it just kept coming and coming. Most of the time it was even - right in line with with the window we were staring out of . Then it was almost on us. I could make out the seams on the wings and all the American Airline markings. I looked right into the cockpit.”
It would have been very emotive for Fred to say he eyeballed Mohamed Atta, the hi-jacker believed to have been at the controls of Flight 11. But, says Fred, “I couldn’t really make out the exact figures. They were tiny windows and the sun was shining on them. . I guess the plane was maybe 200 yards from the building when it reared up and banked to the right. We were now looking at the belly of the plane.
" It hit the building at an angle and the tip of the wing hit the offices about 70 feet above where we were . There was this tremendous explosion. We were thrown to the ground. “
“Truly even until the last second we couldn’t bring ourselves to believe that the plane would hit the building. It was just incredible. Nobody can comprehend it. I still can’t comprehend it. Right after it hit, I staggered to my feet and was able to call 911. I could see the hall ablaze through the glass door of the conference room. The operator connected us to the Fire department and I told them we were trapped on the 83rd floor.
"Then my wife called , one of my daughters called and my parents called . I told them I was OK but I didn’t tell them what the situation really was. In all honesty I thought that was the last time I was going to speak to them.
“Just then three strangers burst into the room. . Their lift doors had just opened on the 83rd floor when the plane struck and they saw the fireball.. Our office was the closest one so they just piled in.”
The three strangers made the total in Fred’s conference room eight. Apart from the auditors, there was another of Fred’s colleagues. They group never exchanged second names. Calmly they discussed their prospects. All amazingly , were to get out alive.
“One of the guys who ran in to our conference room was crying .’My wife’s just had a baby. I am never going to see my wife or baby again. I went up to him put my arm around him and said ‘ We are gonna get out,” said Fred.
The new dad Jonathan Judd, a lawyer, later tracked Fred down to thank him. The two became friends and appeared together on TV, one year after the disaster.
Said Fred, "He tells me, “Every time I look at my baby I think of you, Fred.” Today the families are even closer and were on TV again together again this week.
For the eight in the conference room there at first appeared to be no way out.
Fred said, “Right outside our doorway, the hallway was an inferno . We were stuffing wet towels and rags at the bottom of the doors , trying to keep the smoke out. We wrestled with the idea of breaking a window to get more air but the eight of us decided against it.
"We thought it might fuel the fire, bring it into our office. But nobody panicked, we took these decisions together. Then at about three minutes after nine, we heard this massive explosion. We thought it was the floors above, crashing down on us. We didn’t know it was the second plane hitting the other tower.
“At that point the sprinklers had doused the fires a bit in the hallway , the lights were still on and we headed for what we thought was a stairwell. As we got there, all the lights went out. It was suddenly pitch black. We couldn’t make out if it was a closet, a wiring room or what. The smoke was everywhere.
The feeling us was that they knew we were up there and either we would be rescued or we would die. We groped our way back to the conference room. . Ceiling tiles were falling all around us. Some of us sat on the floor, under desks.
"No-one said a word. Fortunately I was sitting in a chair facing the door. At about 9.30 a.m. I saw a flashlight. It was a fireman and a building worker. To this day I have no idea who they were, or how they got there.
"Some elevator must have been working down below but nobody knows. They told us we could not take anything , we had to leave everything we had. They said the stairwell between 83 and 78 was absolutely treacherous and it was. Floor 78 was a sky lobby where you had to go to a different elevator bank to get to our office.
"The fireman took us to the door which we had identified earlier , led us halfway down, then turned back up the stairs himself. He had said once we got in to the skylobby we had to go right to the other end where we would find another stairwell .
At 78 we checked to door before opening it. It wasn’t hot, there was no fire. We went through the lobby right to the other end of the building and found the next set of stairs, where the fireman had said.
“Firemen were coming up the outside of the stairwell and we were going down the inside. The only light was from their flashlights. We tramped down 73 floors with other people fleeing. Everyone was polite.
"At one point an elderly woman was making her way slowly down, I and a few others offered to carry her, she said no, so everyone just carried on down at her pace. On floor 5 the lobby was completely filled with smoke. We thought we had got so close and we weren’t going to make it. Then the firemen directed us to a different stair well.
"Our party split up here and me and another of the eight carried on the last five flights. By the time we got to the main lobby the building was beginning to collapse, an elevator shaft came crashing down down , and there was debris falling everywhere. We got out through a broken window.
"I was walking away from the trade centre when someone lent me a cell phone. I phoned my wife to say I was out of the building . All she said was, ‘Run, Run, Run! ‘ She knew the first tower had already collapsed, I didn’t., Then fireman and police began shouting .Run, run, run; and we ran. Four minutes after we left it, the second tower collapsed.
Watching the horror on television, Fred’s eldest daughter phoned his youngest daughter to say, “Daddy’s dead.”
But he wasn't . Injured , he later had to have surgery for hernia after battling down the stairs. But he was alive.
Fred said he had never had any worries about working in the WTC. “It was a wonderful building, very very good. A great place to work. The security was phenomenal, but I’m not quite sure you can stop a plane.
On the new building at One World Trade centre , Fred said “I have very mixed emotions about that . I drive past every other day and I try not to look. Personally I am not sure if I would want to work on the 83rd floor of a building at this point but I honestly don’t know.
Would it become a target again? Who knows? That would be my concern.”
The disaster totally changed Fred’s life. I first interviewed Fred a year after 9/11 at the kitchen table , of his home in Marblehead, a beautiful seaside town near Boston, 200 miles from New York. All around were packing cases.
The next day Fred was moving to Manhattan, so that he can spend more time with his wife Eileen, a college professor in Long Island.
Fred said. “When I was in business up here in Marblehead, just outside Boston, my wife and I used to be content to be together at weekends or during the school holidays. I realise after 9/11 that every moment of every day is a gift and we wanted to spend as much time together as possible.
“My wife had been ill, so I moved to Manhattan and that’s where we still are. I miss Marblehead but Manhattan is home now ”
“The disaster really changed my outlook in life. I spent much more time with my wife and my kids. "
His oldest girl Michelle is now 36 and has two children. Fred is a devoted grandfather to a grandson aged 21/2 and a new baby girl Her sister is Mindy is now 33.
"Work is secondary now. I was very much a driven man. Now we are taking vacations,. We both play golf and would like to play more but you can’t play much golf in Manhattan."
Fred talked of the anniversaries. "The trouble is you are always reminded of 9/11. First there was the six-month anniversary, then the nine-month anniversary then the year anniversary. It just goes on and on and on."
Now astonishingly it's ten years. “One good thing now is that people are now focusing more on the survivors , not those who perished.”
“You just can’’t get away from it. I think people would like to get away, they just can’t. I know I can’t and probably never will.
"You are always reminded of it. On our floor there were 15 people who were killed, 10 were seriously burnt, one of them in the men’s room. If I had gone there, I might not be hereon. Somehow the eight of us got out. None of us panicked . We all got out. It’s beyond comprehension.
“I I still get uptight when I see planes flying low but I still fly. I try not to think about it, I still have a lot of visions of the firemen going up to their death while we went down to carry on with our lives. Their lamps lit the way for us.
."I still feel guilty sometimes that I survived It’s an incredible tribute to the fire dept and police and port authority workers that less than 3000 lives were lost.
"I get really angry when I see articles and reports criticising them over communications.. Unless you were there you just cannot criticise them. They did a miraculous job.
“Somehow one of them got up to our 83rd floor and showed us the way out. I have no idea who he is but I know he is dead. Jonathan Judge didn't even realize he was a fireman. He thought he was an angel. If he had been five minutes later all of us would have died.
“I guess you should really do what you have to do and try to enjoy yourself because you never know what tomorrow is going to bring. ”
Fred (not Frederick just Fred) saw his own company was destroyed on 9/11. He now works for an insurance company, Everest National in New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan.
He took part with a number of other survivors in the 90-minute “I Survived” film on the Biography channel on American TV.
“It was very well done,” said Fred. “It really captured what it was like to be there. At the the end, we all agreed, ‘It just doesn’t go away.”
By Noel Young in Boston
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