Tonya Young -- Manhattan World Trade Center survivor September 11, 2001

Tonya Young -- witness, survivor
World Trade Center disaster 9/11/2001

Tonya didn't know why there was smoke and the noise of fire alarms when she stepped off the train 2 levels below ground at World Trade Center 1. After she made her way around the debris and emergency vehicles outside, she would witness an airplane crashing into WTC 2. This is her story.

  • Dad's story
    (not knowing)
  • Unseen angels
  • Life after 9/11
    Caution: this story may
    not be suitable for children

    September 11, 2001... just another work day. I walked from my apartment in Hoboken to the PATH station and boarded the train (subway) for the World Trade Center. It is a short walk across the street from the World Trade Center to 1 World Financial Center where I worked at Lehman Brothers. Map

    WTC PATH train - click to zoom in
    WTC PATH train - click to zoom in  
    When I got off the PATH train at WTC (World Trade Center), I smelled something funny but wasn't sure what it was. I assumed something was going on in one of the tunnels and continued on as normal. I took the first set of escalators up to the regular subway level (PATH trains always run under the subway). It looked a little hazy and I definitely knew it was smoke that I was smelling. There is a restaurant at that level and I saw a flashing fire alarm light going off there, so I thought they must have burned some food pretty bad or even started a fire.

    As I was walking to the next set of escalators that lead to the WTC mall at ground level, people behind me started running and yelling to "get out." There were a couple of building security and fire wardens telling all the people running up the 2 flights of escalators to "remain calm but get to the nearest exit." I started walking my normal way to work towards a south exit that was just east of 2 WTC. I noticed that the shops were closed and the mall looked empty. Before getting to my normal exit I looked to my right side toward 1 WTC, the way I used to walk when going to 3 WFC (World Financial Center). There was a lot more smoke that way so I was worried about what had happened but really had no idea. I guess I couldn't let myself think it was a major incident. As I continued on through a corridor, I saw one of the building officials trying to help a man that was sitting against a wall. He was holding his head which I think was bleeding a little, but it didn't look too bad. I guess he must have been outside when something hit him from the first plane and he ran inside.

    When I got to the exit door, I was stunned. The street was covered in papers and little pieces of debris. I remember looking outside in shock and slowly walking out the door. I guess it wasn't the smartest thing to take time to digest what I was seeing but everything at that point was slow motion. My first thought was that it looked like a war zone. I went ahead and walked outside and saw another building fire official motioning people across the street. At that time, I noticed a woman standing looking up toward the towers, so I looked. I saw a lot of black smoke coming out of the corner of 1 WTC (the north tower). I continued to walk slowly across Liberty Street through the papers and debris, my shoes crackling on the tiny metal pieces.

    Once I was across Liberty Street, in between the Deutsche Bank building and a fire house, I stopped to pull out my cell phone so I could call work and look up at the building again. I dialed my work number and started to walk west toward the walking bridge that would take me across the West Side Highway to 1 WFC. As soon as I turned to walk, I noticed there was something on fire right in front of the entrance to the bridge and a couple of people were roping that way off to pedestrians. There were several people standing on this same corner just looking up and watching. I didn't know why my call to work did not get through. It didn't occur to me that the phones were overloaded.

    I decided to walk south to the next street and then head west toward West Side Highway so I could cross at a light and get to work. Since I didn't know what had happened and couldn't call my work, my goal was just to get to work. It didn't cross my mind that I should forget work and try to get back home by taking the ferry that runs from a dock on the Hudson River beside the Mercantile Exchange to Hoboken. That would have been the fastest and easiest way home for me at that point, but I didn't know I was in danger. I had no idea what had happened and even though the thought of a bomb went through my mind, I wasn't able to entertain it for long. It just seemed impossible.

    I started walking south, still trying to reach work on my cell phone. I had to stop because a small piece of metal got in my shoe. After I got it out, I continued south and turned the corner west behind Deutsche Bank. I had about 2 blocks to reach West Side Highway. There was still debris made up of tiny pieces of metal and I don't know what else that made my shoes crackle and flapping papers, and the more I walked the worse it got. I saw some bigger pieces of metal. I saw a couple of white sheets covering something on the ground. I knew it must have been bodies but it still didn't register too much. I also assumed what had happened was several minutes ago because someone had time to cover bodies. I was getting more upset and decided to try calling my parents instead of work. I was very confused and obviously not thinking properly because I was still trying to walk to work. I started seeing some blood and internal body parts and then a bare foot just laying in the middle of the road. I wasn't prepared for what I saw and began involuntarily sobbing, now thankful that I hadn't seen the bodies that had already been covered.

    I reached West Side Highway where a policeman was directing traffic as cars were dodging metal pieces in the road. I made it across so I was on the southeast corner of the building where I work, 1 WFC. There were several people standing on this corner looking up at the trade center. I asked someone if they knew if my building had been evacuated. They didn't know. At that time, I looked up at the building again to see someone jump out. I heard the crowd's reaction around me and someone behind me said that was the third person they had seen jump.

    I had just thought to myself that I wasn't going to stand here and watch that when I heard an airplane. We all looked up and behind us to see what I would find out later was the second plane to hit the towers. It came from the south at an angle, the direction of the Statue of Liberty. It was low and a little to the right of where I was standing, but almost directly over my head. I followed it until I saw it go into 2 WTC. I couldn't believe it and immediately turned to start running because I was scared that what I had just seen in the roads would happen to me or a piece of debris would hit me. Everyone on the corner started to turn so they could run the other way, too.

    The people who were running as fast as they could would run into slower runners and knock them down. I was among those knocked to the ground. I felt my knees being scraped on the concrete. I was trying my hardest to get up because now I was afraid I would be trampled to death or left out in the open where a piece of debris would hit me. At first I kept being knocked back down as I tried to get up. Luckily, I was able to scramble up after a couple of tries and run to the west which was the south side of 1 WFC.

    There was a wall along the south side which became part of the building and I heard a man scream, "Stay against the wall." I ran closer to the wall but kept going west. I quickly came to an opening in the building where deliveries were made and jumped in. There were 2 other people there and I remember looking at a man and asking what was going on. I know I looked like a crazy person because I was crying and just scared out of my mind. I thought, "Oh my God, I am going to die and I am not ready to die." I started praying and begging to God. "Dear God, please get me off this island. I promise to leave here so this won't ever happen to me again."

    I had been carrying a book and cell phone which I had almost lost when I fell. I put them in my purse and started walking southwest.

    I was in the Battery Park area of downtown which is a very nice, expensive residential area surrounded by the downtown businesses. Once I got to the Hudson River, I continued south on the walkway that follows the river. I eventually came to a big open area by the Jewish Heritage Museum where a lot of people had stopped to look at the towers and try to use their cell phones. I still did not feel safe because I thought whoever was doing this would be able to kill a lot of people if that was their goal and we were all just standing out in the open. I stayed right up against the rail, thinking that if I saw another plane heading toward me, I would just jump in the river because that would be safer.

    I saw a couple of people from work that I didn't know well, but either recognized or had talked to one or two times in recent months. One girl from work, Jeannine, was sitting on a bench almost in tears. She said her brother was traveling by plane that morning and she just knew he was gone. Apparently, he was flying US Air and someone told her it was a US Air plane that hit the first tower. By this time, I had been told that a plane had hit 1 WTC and I had seen the second plane, so I knew we were being attacked, as crazy as it seemed.

    One girl, Sherry, that I did not know who also worked at Lehman was talking about getting home. She mentioned she lived in Hoboken so I told her I did too, but that I was scared to try to go back north to get to the ferry. I told her that if she was willing to try it, I would go with her. There were some people with Walkmans who were listening to radio reports and telling others what they were hearing. One person told us that a plane had hit the Pentagon and there were 8 more planes coming, but to where we didn't know. We were also told the city was being shut down and sealed off. I was concerned the Hoboken ferry would have already been shut down because of its location. Another Lehman employee I didn't know but Sherry knew told us that he had heard the ferry was no longer running. Then we saw one of the ferry boats empty, going south away from the dock. We tried to yell out to them to find out if the ferry was running, but they couldn't hear us. We decided to go on the assumption that it was no longer running. Sherry mentioned she had an uncle on Staten Island and that if we could get there, he could drive us to Jersey.

    We stood around awhile longer and one lady was able to get through to her husband on her cell phone. She told us all to come over and give her our name and phone number of someone to call to let them know we were all right. I gave her my info and then tried to reach my parents on my cell phone. I was finally able to hear ringing instead of a fast busy signal. I let the phone ring at least 10 times but no one picked up, not even an answering machine. I figured it wasn't ringing on the other side so I ended the call and tried to call my mom's parents. Again, the phone rang about 10 times and nothing, so I gave up.

    The people I was with were all trying to make plans on how to get home or how to get off the island. Jeannine had lost her shoes running out of the building. I had my gym bag with me so I gave her my sneakers. I would wear sneakers for the long walk from my apartment to the Hoboken Path station, and on the train I would change into my dress shoes for the short walk from the WTC Path station to my work.

    We all set off to Battery Park because some of us were going to the Staten Island Ferry and others were going to the east side to then walk up to their apartments or to try to get trains to Long Island. We separated and said goodbye in the park and 4 of us continued to the ferry. There was a huge group of people on the top and bottom levels ready to board the next ferry. We were told the normal ferry schedule had been canceled and that they would be running ferries to get people off Manhattan. Again, I was nervous to be standing out in the open with so many people, and now there were a lot more people all standing very close together.

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