Her name is Lori. It is 9.21am, just 4 minutes since the second hijacked plane impacted between the 77th and 85th floors of the south tower of the World Trade Centre which will collapse in 53 minutes and take just eleven seconds to fall to earth. Lori, along with her work mates, has been forced to lie on the floor, which has already begun to cook, in a desperate bid to breathe what little air remains.
The heat is becoming unbearable, an oven with windows which won’t open. While on other floors of the towers, people with this mercy are flinging themselves to their deaths. The 911 operator is trying to reassure Lori help is on the way. The operator knows what has happened. Everybody knows what has happened, but she needs her to understand it will take the firefighters a little while to reach the floor she is on, the 83rd.
The elevators are mostly unusable, gutted by burning aviation fuel. The only other route being the stairwell, miraculously undamaged, has become clogged with a slow moving procession of civilians and emergency workers. The firefighters, each carrying 100 pounds of equipment, will take an hour to climb the stairwell to reach the upper floors as the metal supports slowly warp and bend from the furnace eventually reaching temperatures of 2000 degrees.
The operator, just like anyone else, has no way of knowing the building will collapse, but if she has seen the pictures being broadcast then she must have a sense of the dire straits Lori finds herself in, and of her chances.
Lori says more than once she is going to die and asks the operator for confirmation of this, maybe as if her honesty might give some minute grain of comfort, but the operator cannot do this.
‘Say your prayers,’ she is told instead.
Lori thinks she can hear some voices and begins screaming for help. For a few, brief seconds the hopes of both women are lifted, but no reply ever comes. She asks the operator to find out whether anybody has reached the 83rd floor. The operator can be heard conferring with a third party (the firefighters only managed to reach the 78th before the building collapsed), but she can only tell her help is on its way.
Then Lori asks the operator if she will stay with her and in a small, trembling voice announces she is afraid to die. She will stay with Lori for the next 20 minutes as her words become fewer and further apart and she along with her colleges are slowly overcome by the smoke and the inevitability around them. Each breath now a rare commodity, each second dutifully falling away into the final minutes. Eventually, the line falls silent, and the operator is forced to conclude she has lost her.
You are rushing from your apartment; keys jangle from your busy hands. Maybe you had time for a parting kiss as you left and a few brief words about the evening’s meal. You can’t be late, you need to get to work, it’s all that matters right now as you emerge into the steadily rising warmth of the early morning sun. The air is fresh and feels keen against your skin, even raising a few goose bumps.
By the time you hit the main throng, the sun is beating down on your shoulders and every exposed part of your flesh. You wonder how long it takes for skin to burn. Now as you move along with the other commuters you see this Tuesday morning as the latest to be pulled from the shelf, uniform but undeniable, to where it will, you believe, ultimately return, bookended by 32 years of the past and the given future.
It seems you were in good time after all as you dab the sweat from your brow and check your perfect hair. The heating rays of the sun are muted by the relative cool of the long shadow you now stand in. You crane your head upwards, as always, at the tower of cement and glass rising above. Glad to get out of the heat, you emerge from the revolving doors and into the sunlit, air-conditioned lobby. You smile and exchange brief pleasantries with the security guard, as you do every morning, before moving off through the warm bodies of suits and uniforms as you make your way to the elevator. You break into a trot as the doors begin to close, until a friendly pair of hands holds them ajar and you gratefully squeeze inside the crowded, but airy space. Everyone is reserved and calm and is either minding their own business or chatting with their neighbour. The man who held the doors open asks which floor you want. He has a warm if unremarkable, face and something about him tells you he is a good man. It is 8.35 am and the good will you have received from this stranger has filled you with a welcome optimism. ‘The 83rd floor,’ you tell him with a smile as the doors finally close on you.