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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Remembering 9/11 from a survivor's perspective

Of course, we all paused and reflected today on the 11th anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy, the darkest day in American history. We remembered all those who senselessly lost their lives, all those wonderful people who went to work that morning and never came home. I personally lost 18 friends that day, childhood friends, softball teammates, colleagues. It's a horrific time in all of our lives.

But it also caused me to remember someone who miraculously made it out of the Twin Towers, my good friend Donald Jodice. Here's the story I wrote about Donald's harrowing escape from the WTC.

When the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center's north tower two weeks ago, Port Authority employee Donald Jodice was on the 88th floor talking on the phone about Weehawken Recreation football. What followed was a seven-hour journey home that involved near-escapes, terror, and help from heroes.
"I'll always have that vivid picture in my mind," said Jodice, who will not be able to look at the space where the towers stood for some time. "People are saying that so many people died. They didn't die. They weren't killed. People die of illnesses and are killed in car crashes. These people were murdered."
Jodice, a Weehawken resident who has worked for the Port Authority's real estate department for six years, recounted his escape last week.
"I usually get to work around 7:30," Jodice recalled. "So I was at my desk, on the 88th floor and I was talking to my friend, Joe Light, about Weehawken Recreation football." Jodice has been involved in township recreation programs for some time. "All of a sudden," he said, "I felt this tremendous tremor. You couldn't even imagine how strong of an impact and explosion. It rocked the building. The whole building was bouncing, shaking."
The next few minutes, perhaps a half hour at most, became crucial.
"I was in shock," Jodice said. "I heard people screaming and yelling. Our office was only half full at the time, but we all knew it was some sort of an explosion. My instincts told me that the explosion was above us and that perhaps we should try to get out, but the corridors were full of flames."
Jodice added, "Because I knew the Trade Center pretty well, I knew that most of the materials, the furniture, the carpets, were not flammable. They all had to meet fire-resistance standards. So I knew that everything wasn't going to burn. But I could smell the strong smell of fuel."
Jodice then heard someone yelling in the office.
"They were saying that the stairwells weren't clear," Jodice said. "They said that the stairwells were gone. So about 30 or 40 of us found a corner office and huddled together in that corner office. We put papers and rags under the door to keep the smoke out as best as possible. We didn't panic. We just calmly stayed in that office for about 10 minutes."
Someone managed to open one of the doors just a hair, because he thought he heard something.
"It was one of our secretaries, burned head to toe," Jodice said. "She was burned so bad that I didn't know who she was. I worked with her for six years and I couldn't recognize her. She was in shock. Her hands were so badly burned that they looked like Playtex gloves."
Jodice and two other men pulled the woman into the office and the group remained huddled in the office for about 10 minutes, thinking they were safe and secure, when someone came into the office.
"He told us that he found a stairwell open, but that we had to move fast," Jodice said. "I knew he was a co-worker, but I didn't know his name. He had more than courage to even venture out to look. We all filed out orderly and headed for the stairwell."
On each landing
The woman who was badly burned got up and walked out, without assistance.
"I don't know how she did it, but she did it," said Jodice.
However, the man who found the stairwell for the others didn't make it out of the building safely.
Heading for the stairwells was also a chore for Jodice, who lost his leg to cancer when he was 16 years old and wears an artificial limb.
"Honestly, for me, it's easier to go down stairs than most," Jodice said. "More or less, I use my arms."
Before getting to the stairwell, the group walked through the corridor, avoiding burning debris. They had to avoid an open elevator shaft.
"We all made it safely to the stairwell," Jodice said. "And we proceeded to climb down the stairs."
Jodice said that the group was heading down the stairwell when the second plane hit Tower Two.
"I might have felt a little bit of a rumble, but I honestly don't remember," Jodice said. "I think we were all focused on getting out."
When the group got to the 78th floor, they reached an area where there was a sky lobby, so the stairwell stopped. They had to shift to another stairwell on the other side of the floor.
"As we walked across the 78th floor sky lobby, the area was filled with smoke," Jodice said. "I noticed that one of our friends, Tony, was stuck in the elevator. I ran over to the elevator to try to pry open the door. Two or three other guys also tried. We saw him in the elevator and tried to get the door open, but without tools or anything, we couldn't get it open. I never tried harder to do anything in my life, but we couldn't get it. Some of the PA personnel were yelling that we had to go.
"Tony said, 'The firemen are coming up here, they'll handle it,'" Jodice said. "I didn't want to leave him, but he insisted that we should get out. He was screaming at us, 'Go, go, get out, please.' Reluctantly, we left him there."
Jodice's voice tailed off and began to break.
"Tony's still among the missing," he said.
Logjam on the 40th floor
Jodice said that the group found the other stairwell and made their way down.
"The pace started to pick up a little, but the sprinkler system went off and everything was flooding," Jodice said. "It was like a waterfall coming down. There was plenty of light, so you could see where you were going. And it seemed like the lower we got, the less smoky it was."
Jodice said that they hit the 40th floor when the pace came to a complete stop.
"We hit a logjam of people," Jodice said. "The firemen were coming up the stairs, carrying their hoses and equipment. There had to be 100 firemen who went past us. They were babies. Some of them looked like they were barely out of high school."
Jodice paused again, his voice cracking with emotion.
"You could see they were exhausted coming up the stairs," Jodice said. "They lugged the equipment up 40 floors, but they were great, assuring us that they were going to take care of everything and we were going to get out. They administered oxygen to the elderly. Eventually, we kept moving and we got out."
The journey down took approximately 40 minutes.
When Jodice was outside, "I saw a bunch of pennies on the ground," he said. "And one of them was on heads. So I picked it up and put it in my pocket. You know, for good luck."
In the ensuing minutes, Jodice would need that luck.
"Within the first 30 seconds or so, our group got separated," Jodice said. "But I was walking outside. I was exhausted, but I was relieved. I made it out. I started walking and one minute later, people started screaming and yelling, 'Run, run.' I looked up and saw the tower was falling. I didn't know if it was going to topple over the other way or what, but it looked like it was going to fall on top of us."
The tower was imploding.
"It created such a massive plume of debris, dirt and dust," Jodice said. "I looked over my shoulder and the plume looked like it was traveling 100 miles an hour. I knew it was going to catch up to us. I tried to run out of the way, but it caught me. I felt the debris hitting me on the back and head. It was like a million pebbles hitting you. Right there and then, I thought I was going to die. I was all alone."
Added Jodice, "I couldn't see anything. It was pitch black. It was darker than midnight. I couldn't breathe. There was soot all over my face. I couldn't see, but I kept walking. I kept bumping into things, walls, cars. I knew I was walking east [along Vesey Street, next to the Trinity Church cemetery]. I was feeling my way up the block."
At that point, Jodice had only one thought in mind.
"I just wanted to see my kids," Jodice cried. "The whole time, that was all I thought about. If I could see them again, just for one minute. That's all I wanted. I knew that they were watching this unfold and were worried about me."
Jodice has three children with his wife, Rosemarie - daughter Rianne (16), son Chris (15) and daughter, Sheana (10).
Jodice said that the conditions were so bad that he almost gave up.
"I stopped walking for a second," Jodice said. "I thought that was it. I was going to die. I was ready to quit. I couldn't breathe. I figured I had maybe 30 seconds left before I dropped and I was going to fight like hell for those 30 seconds. I put my head down and walked, feeling the walls, looking for a door. The first door I knocked on, no one answered. I knocked on the second door and someone opened it and pulled me inside."
It was a clothing store on Vesey Street. Jodice stumbled through the door.
"The people inside were brushing me off and telling me to cough it up," Jodice said. "I was then able to breathe. They were very helpful. I was in there for about 10 minutes when someone else banged on the door and they let him in."
It seemed as if Jodice had a safe haven, but without electricity or a phone, the clothing store wasn't useful to him.
"All I wanted to do was call home and tell Rosie than I was okay," Jodice said. "I peeked out the window and it looked fine. I had new life. I was ready to move on and find a phone. I already thought I died twice. I had to keep moving."
Jodice said that he continued to move east, toward Broadway. However, more obstacles ensued.
"The other tower was falling," Jodice said. "I took maybe 20 steps and here comes the other tower and another plume. I had no strength left, but I figured I could make it to the corner [of Broadway and Vesey]. If I could make it to the corner, then I could hide behind a building. I made it to the corner and made a sharp right. And the plume flew past me. I didn't want to move. I didn't know how long the plume was going to rumble and I figured I was out of lives."
The plume of debris stopped and Jodice began to walk north, but not completely knowing where.
"It was complete madness," Jodice said. "You couldn't imagine what it was like. Everyone was running everywhere. I had one thing in mind, that if I could get to the Lincoln Tunnel somehow, that right outside the Lincoln Tunnel is little old Weehawken. I didn't care how I got there, but I had to get there."
Dazed, confused and totally stunned, walking on one good leg, Donald Jodice maneuvered his way north, trying desperately to get home.
"I kept on picturing my wife and kids," Jodice said. "I was so worried for them, because they had to be watching this, knowing that their daddy works on the 88th floor and that he's probably gone."
Jodice stopped and let out a sigh. Recalling the incident and his focus at that point was getting to him a little.
"I never turned back to look," Jodice said. "I didn't want to. By that point, I had heard that two planes had hit the Twin Towers. And I heard the jet fighters flying overhead and I didn't know if they were theirs or ours. It was like a dream, like out of the movies. I was hoping that I would wake up from it. But I was very determined to get home. The further north I got, the more determined I became."
Added Jodice, "Then, reality was setting in. I was starting to get mad, very angry, very upset. How could this have happened? I had to see my family."
Jodice said that he was asking people to use their cell phone, so he could call his wife. Because he was the first person to wander that far north, people looked at him very peculiarly.
"They asked me, 'Where did you come from?'" Jodice said. "I looked like a homeless guy who walked out of a flour factory. I was white, head to toe. I realized I was at 8th Street and 6th Avenue. I don't know how I got there. I saw a woman speaking on a cell phone and I was in tears, frustrated, tired, mad. I said, 'Please can I call my family?' She wanted to know how I got there. I told her that I walked."
Within seconds, Jodice said, the woman called a bunch of people over to help him.
"They all couldn't believe that I made it out," Jodice said. "No one had come that far north, so they had no idea."
The woman dialed the phone for Jodice and it was ringing. The woman handed Jodice the phone.
"Of course, you know what I got, right? Rosie was on the phone," Jodice laughed.
The message at the Jodice household says that if someone is on the phone, to leave a message and they will return the call.
"Someone's always on the phone," Jodice chuckled. It was refreshing to hear him laugh.
"I said, 'Rosie, it's me, I'm okay. Don't worry about me. I got out of the building and I'll be home as soon as I could."
Drove him toward the tunnel
The woman then grabbed her boss' van and told Jodice that she would drive him to wherever he wanted to go. She drove him to the Lincoln Tunnel.
"Of course, it was closed," Jodice said. "I thanked the woman and told her that I would get home from there. I heard someone say that the ferry was running, so I started walking toward the water. But some police officers saw me and stopped me. They sat me down and told me that they could provide medical attention."
Added Jodice, "I explained to them that I was fine and I just wanted to get home. I told them that my wife might still be worrying, that she might not have received the message. I asked them to call Weehawken police headquarters, because my brother is a Weehawken cop and my father is a retired captain. The police officers were great, tremendous. They washed the white stuff off me and made me blow my nose about 100 times. When we got to the ferry, there were 50,000 people on line, but the cops moved me to the front of the line."
Soon after, Jodice was standing on the NY Waterway ferry, heading back to his hometown.
"Once I was on the ferry, I kept looking ahead at Weehawken," Jodice said. "I started to think back to what I went through and realized that I shouldn't be on that boat."
Jodice's voice cracked a final time.
"So many of my friends died over there," Jodice said. "I should have died as well."
Jodice said that all the people on the ferry just looked at him in amazement.
"There were 500, 600 people staring at me," Jodice said. "I was a mess. But I could never look back. I was only looking up at the Boulevard [East]."
Jodice climbed off the ferry and was recognized by his next door neighbor.
"She looked at me and said, 'Donald, you made it,'" Jodice said. "She was crying."
Jodice found three Weehawken police officers who gave him a ride back to his home. By that time, the Jodice family knew that Donald was on his way. It was 4 p.m., easily the longest and most difficult commute home Jodice ever experienced.
"When we pulled up in front of the house, my son came running to me," Jodice said. "And it was the best thing I've ever seen in my entire life."
Young Chris ran to his father and picked him up off the ground, giving him the hug of a lifetime.
"My boy is getting a bit too big, when he can pick up the old man off the ground like that," Jodice laughed. "Rosie was there and my daughters were there. Everyone was waiting for me."
Calls from colleagues
Since 4 p.m. Tuesday, when Jodice made his way up the walkway to his family, he has tried his best to put the incident behind him. Many friends and colleagues have called, offering good wishes.
"They all thought I was dead," Jodice said.
Donald Jodice was asked if he felt lucky that he was able to endure so much in the face of tragedy.
"I feel more guilt than I feel luck," Jodice said. "How was I able to make it and others weren't? Every time I look at my wife and my kids, I have a different outlook. I am fortunate and they're fortunate."
Jodice said that he doesn't know where he goes from here. Of course, the Port Authority, which has lost approximately 250 workers due to the tragedy, will try to move on. The PA already was making for provisions for its survivors to return to work sometime last week, either in Elizabeth or Jersey City.
"They'll set up offices somewhere in Jersey and I'll be there, if there ever will be a sense of normalcy again," Jodice said. "I know I have a great appreciation for the firemen who are over there. There hasn't been a word invented to best describe their courage."
Added Jodice, "Will I forget it? I don't think so. I will always have certain pictures in my mind and I'll never lose that. So many people I knew were murdered. That I'll never forget."

I did that phone interview with Donald while I was vacationing on Martha's Vineyard that year. We didn't have long distance phone service in the house where we stayed, so I had to charge the call third party to my home number. The bill for the call was $64. I got paid $65 for the article. It remains the best dollar I've ever earned. Here's to all those, like my friend Donald, who survived that horrific day. And we will never ever forget those who perished 11 years ago.


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