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A Special 9/11 Memoir

At a 9/11 Memorial Service held at the DeSales campus on September 11, 2020, student Brittany Welsh '21 read this very personal first-hand account of the 2001 World Trade Center attack written by her grandfather, Hugh H. Welsh. He survived both the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing and the 9/11 terrorist attacks and is now retired after 33 years with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, where he served as the First Deputy General Counsel. 

9/11 Remembered for My Children

by Hugh Welsh, grandfather of Brittany Welsh '21

“Try to remember the kind of September When life was slow and oh, so mellow. Try to remember the kind of September When grass was green and grain was yellow. Try to remember the kind of September When you were a tender and callow fellow. Try to remember, and if you remember. Then follow...”

It’s odd how that song has become imbedded in my mind since 9/11/2001. I want to write this while I still have a vivid recollection of the events of that day in September so that my children and children’s children will have a contemporaneous account of what happened by someone who they know and was there. As I’ve often preached to them, there is a lesson in everything.

We had been blessed with warm weather and the morning of September 11 was more like spring then early autumn. One of those days when you didn’t need a topcoat and it was a joy to be out. The air was clear and the sky a vivid light blue. From my office facing south in the North Tower of the World Trade Center I could see for miles across the harbor and over Staten Island to the Highlands in New Jersey. The Statue of Liberty stood proud on Liberty Island almost right under my window. The sun sparkled on the water of the harbor and a few ships could be seen at anchor near the entrance to Kill Van Kull. It was the kind of September to remember.

I arrived at my office on the 67th floor before 8:30 and was about to start a routine day. I took a few minutes to look at the view and was about to start my computer when a very loud noise, a combination of crash and explosion shook the building. I was looking south from my window when it happened and felt the building sway from the force of the impact. Tower Two, which sat immediately southeast of my office, was a reference point and I realized that we actually had swayed a number of feet before the building corrected itself. It felt like being on a ship at sea.

The explosion in 1993 went off directly under my office window and didn’t have anyway near as dramatic an impact on the building as the one I felt. There was a scream from outside the office from one of the secretaries. Looking out the window I saw a scene almost surrealistic but horrible. Paper filled the air as if a blizzard had suddenly struck the city. Looking up I saw that the air was filled with blowing paper, thousands of sheets, some being blown upwards by drafts that were being created from somewhere.

It was almost hypnotic to watch the paper blowing and then being caught in the wind and carried up and away. Then I saw objects falling past my window, through the clouds of paper. The first thing I noticed was that there was building material; fiberglass insulation and what looked like pieces of room dividers and sheetrock. It was then that I saw that there were many other objects falling and realized that they included what appeared to be body parts.

Looking down toward the hotel roof directly below I could see some landing and past my window fell what looked like a portion of a human torso with one arm attached. I began to smell the distinct aroma of jet fuel, like kerosene, and then it began to smell like burning napalm, an aroma that I remembered well.

I picked up my cell phone that was on my desk and went out of the office and told the secretaries to prepare to leave immediately. One began to collect a shopping bag, the other her coat. I grabbed my suit jacket and took them to the stairwell in the hall and told them to go down immediately, not to stop, and to keep going out of the neighborhood as quickly as possible. They did and both made it. The fire alarms had not yet gone off. Fortunately not many people were at work yet.

I went back to the office area and walked by all the offices on the east side of the floor to make sure everyone had left. I remember yelling asking if there was anyone there and looking in each of the offices. I was the only one left on the floor and then I started down the long stairway myself.

People were amazingly calm on the way down. There was no pushing or complaining and the lights remained on. I remembered the lessons we learned in 1993 when the Trade Center was bombed.

After a few floors I heard noises above and someone yelled that they were bringing down injured people.

I yelled for everyone to move to the right and there was immediate compliance. Then when I saw the burn victims, I knew that the fire was serious and there would be many dead.

All had their skin blackened. On some the skin was peeling back and you could see raw flesh. The smell of the fire followed everyone down and I could see the effect that the sight of these victims had on others.

They were suddenly very quiet as they walked down. I tried several times to use my cell phone, but it didn’t work. A few other people tried but were also unsuccessful.

As we descended to about the 20th floor level some firemen were beginning to come up the stairs loaded with gear. . I know now that most if not all of them would never come down alive.

I remember thinking how young some of them looked.

Toward the bottom of the stairs the landings were wet from water now pouring down the walls and stairwells. It was a few inches deep at the bottom.

There I saw a very frightened looking police officer who was yelling at people to just keep moving. I told him to tell them to get out and keep going away from the building. I’m not even sure why I told him that but in retrospect it was good advice.

There was confusion in the lobby. Firemen were coming in from West Street. People were trying to get information, but few people seemed to know what was going on.

A second plane had hit the South Tower while we were in the stair well but we didn’t realize it. I walked off to one side to see where I could help and if a command center had been set up. I felt a burning sensation in my knee and remembered back to 1993 when I hurt it carrying a wheelchair down the stairs.

I noticed that the doors to some elevators seemed to have been blown out and some of the lobby windows were smashed. There was the smell of the fire in the lobby and people were now shouting to keep moving out of the building.

Looking around I saw the Chief Operating Officer, the director of the Port Department, the Chief Engineer, Assistant Chief Engineer and head of the Medical Department. I remember waving most of them over.

We went from the lobby into the Marriott Hotel lobby, which connected, directly to One World Trade Center and sat directly at the base of Tower Two.

This was where we established the first command center in 1993. There we found that the Fire Department had set up a local command center and they were dispatching firemen from the consignor’s desk.

It was a scene that seemed controlled yet chaotic.

Hoses were laid across the floor and equipment were being carried in from West Street. I could see some fire equipment parked outside at the West Street entrance.

Orders were being given but you couldn’t help get the feeling that no one was truly sure what to do next. There were eleven of us there and most of us tried to use phones to call out but none had circuits working.

In the lobby I suggested that we move back to get out of the way of the firemen who were coming in the main door of the hotel. Looking back it was a very fortunate suggestion that saved our lives.

There was an instant when we were talking and an instant later I heard an incredibly loud roar and suddenly it was pitch dark, debris was falling on us and so much dust filled the air that it was difficult to breath.

The sound had been deafening and horrendous, probably the loudest noise I have ever heard. It sounded like the roar of a hundred jet engines.

At first I thought that there was another plane coming in. There was a high wind that almost knocked me down. I felt something come down across my shoulder and I fell, more to protect myself then from the force of the blow. I realized that a portion of the building must have fallen and all I could think of was that we were under attack and there had been some kind of explosion -- In Vietnam we were trained to be careful going into a scene of a terrorist attack because of secondary explosions designed to kill rescuers.

I could feel the coat of a fireman lying next to me and felt him begin to move and try to get up. We were all virtually blind and now there was dead silence except for coughing.

It was the most utter and strange silence I have ever experienced. I learned later that the heavy dust in the air suppressed all noise after the original roar.

I had trouble breathing in the heavy dust and used my tie as a filter. My eyes were burning but I tried to keep them open to find a way out.

The fireman tried to turn on a light he had on his helmet but the dust was so thick that it just reflected back. We began to move trying to figure out how to escape.

One by one people were grouping trying to feel where they were and where others were. All sense of direction was lost by then and I remember moving up to and feeling a wall that I recognized from touch as the rear wall of the lobby.

The fireman was next to me and I told him that we were near the back wall and had to do a 180 and go in the other direction.

I grabbed his coat and turned him. We turned and herded along others who we ran into. One I could hear by that time and recognized as our Chief Medical Officer. He was gasping very loud by then.

I took hold of his jacket and kept him moving. My eyes now began to burn intensely and it was difficult to fight to keep them open.

I could feel grit in my mouth and had trouble breathing as I struggled to move debris out of the path feeling my way in the dark. At one point we reached what felt like a piece of angle iron that was horizontal about a foot from the floor.

I grabbed it and picked it up to about shoulder height so people could pass under. I think it was the two firemen who wedged something like spikes under it to hold it up and I crawled under. I believe it was a roll up steel security fence that had fallen down. I still don’t know how I was able to lift it.

I kept fighting to keep my eyes open in spite of the burning feeling I had from the cement dust. I couldn’t rub them because it was so abrasive and by now it was extremely painful.

Breathing at that point was very difficult. There was a faint light ahead as the dust began to settle and we worked our way out from under the debris. One of the firemen kept saying, “head for the light. We’re trained to head for the light”. I had the Chief Medical Officer ahead of me and he kept saying something about not being able to make it.

I kept him in front of me to try to keep track of him and hold him up and told him to keep going. Suddenly I didn’t see him and realized that he had fallen into a crater about four feet deep.

Everything was very slippery from the dust and he was having a difficult time climbing out. The dust had the consistency of graphite it was so slippery.

I went down into the crater and pushed him out and told him to keep going. I then climbed out myself and got behind him. He kept saying that he lost his glasses and I told him the hell with the glasses there was nothing to see anyhow. Some of the floor was gone and it looked like beams remained that we had to walk on.

By then there was more light and when we finally crawled out from under the debris I looked up and saw a traffic light and realized that we were almost on the other side of West Street, across from the World Trade Center.

I remember looking up and not being able to see Tower Two although I could see the smoke coming from the top of Tower One.

I stood up after going under some steel that had fallen and yelled to everyone to keep moving. I was concerned that more debris would be falling and obviously we were under where it was coming from.

I still had trouble seeing. A fireman ran up to me and threw water in my face. It was a shock but I think he may have saved my sight.

The cement dust turned into a mud on my face and I could feel the water running down under my shirt. Looking around everything looked grey. Cement dust was covering everything and everyone. I learned later that Tower Two fell on top of the Marriott Hotel causing a portion of it to collapse. Someone told me that 25 firemen were killed in front of the hotel about 30 feet from where we were. The entire front portion of the lobby was crushed.

I walked a little south and heard someone; I think a fireman, yell, “don’t walk that way.” I looked up at Tower One and could see people jumping, some appearing to land on the West Street side and others on the plaza. I could hear a noise, a dull thud, as they hit. That sound will stay with me always.

So hard to describe but impossible to forget. Fire engines and other emergency equipment parked along West Street were covered by the gray dust or crushed by debris and everything in the world seemed to be gray.

People, the ground, equipment, and the air. I could see part of the steel wall that had fallen. I expected to feel broken glass under foot but interestingly there was none. Nor were there large pieces of cement. It had all been pulverized and was a fine powder by then.

A beautiful clear September morning had been turned into a gray hell. The cement dust in the air seemed to muffle sounds and there was a strange quiet broken by shouts and the occasional thud of a body striking the ground.

These sounds and the sound of sirens all seemed to be distant from me not unlike the sounds one hears under water. And again I heard the bodies hitting not far from where I stood.

I walked toward the river and found some of our people standing on the esplanade near a fireboat that was being used to evacuate the injured.

It was amazing how few injured there were at that point. I later realized that in fact most were dead. It was then I looked up at where Tower two should have been and saw it was completely gone.

It had collapsed and I could see that a portion fell on the Marriott, which fell on us. I turned to whoever was standing next to me and said simply, “Tower Two is gone.”

I tried again to use my cell phone to call but no calls were going out. I was tempted at that point to throw it into the river.

I told everyone to walk north to the Holland Tunnel. In the case of terrorist attacks part of the contingency plan is to close the tunnels and bridges.

I knew the tunnel would be closed but we could get transportation from the Port Authority police there to the police command center.

By now there was panic, and people were running along West Street along the Hudson River. Just a few blocks north of Tower One I stopped and looked up at the fire still burning near the top.

Smoke was still pouring out and blowing south away from us. Then I noticed that the top of the building appeared to be tipping slightly toward the east. One of the engineers yelled “it’s going to go” and I yelled “hit the ground”.

I dropped near a car just when the tower collapsed. The noise was like that I heard while in the Marriott. If one can imagine the roar of a hundred jet engines you can appreciate what it sounded like.

It may have only lasted seconds, but it seemed like hours. I don’t think I have ever heard anything that loud before.

With the noise came a rush of air, a wind that seemed to blow like a hurricane carrying more cement dust out from the site. Pieces of metal were falling around me and I heard screams that were soon muffled again by the dust.

It became dark as the dust blocked out the sun; I lay on the ground covered with cement dust and debris.

Soon it began to settle, and I stood and tried to look where Tower One had been. There was only a cloud of dust and smoke that was now billowing up from the dust and debris.

It looked like a picture of hell with clouds of smoke pouring from the ground and the air gray and heavy with the dust that had not yet settled By now I was so covered with gray cement dust that I had to look like something from a science fiction story. I was told later that my eyes looked like two red coals.

The tower had fallen almost straight down in what the engineers later described as a controlled demolition. If it had fallen any other way I would now be dead along with thousands of others. 

As we walked along Canal Street on the way to the Holland Tunnel, I heard a siren coming north from the site. Mayor Guiliani’s mobile command center, a specially equipped bus, sped past us as it quickly evacuated the scene. It almost ran us over.

As I saw other Port Authority workers I told them to fall in and walk north. We were walking east on Canal Street when we passed a building that had been converted into an office for a small electrical contracting company. Two men were standing outside and when they saw us, I asked if their phones were working and was told that their circuits were open and they had just used them. I asked if we could use them and they were very gracious and told us to please do.

That’s the first opportunity I had to call to say I was alive. It was about two hours after the first plane hit.

We went on to the Holland Tunnel and found as I expected that it was closed. One man, our risk manager, was hurt with a cut on his head and I asked them to take him to Christ Hospital in Jersey City thinking that the Manhattan Hospitals would be overwhelmed. I was wrong about that -- There were fewer injured then anyone would expect.

Triage Centers were eventually set up in New Jersey and injured were evacuated by ferry. They put him in van and rushed him to Christ Hospital.

We packed other people in a van and drove them through the tunnel. I went behind them in a police car traveling about 80 mph through the tunnel.

The Port Authority police had a headquarters at the Port Authority Technical Center in Jersey City near the Holland Tunnel. We went there and tried to establish communications and establish the extent of the damage.

The police had a grasp on what was happening even though the top three men of the force were missing and later learned to have been killed.

Their communications with other Port Authority facilities were extremely valuable. Their primary concern at that point was the possibility of secondary attacks. After the 1993 attack on the Trade Center we found that there had been a plan to blow up the Holland Tunnel.

We tried to communicate with New Jersey Transit to see if the trains could be put back in service.

The Path (rapid transit system) World Trade Center station was under the rubble and we didn’t know if the tunnel under the river was still intact.

My fear was that as night set in panic would take over and people would turn desperate to escape the city out of fear not to mention hunger and a desire to get home.

We immediately began to work on getting Path back in operation. Some didn’t want to do it fearing another terrorist attack and the possibility that reopening it prematurely would be criticized.

 I, and a few others, argued that the need to move the people out outweighed the chance it would happen, and all packages could be banned from the trains that night. That’s what we did and by 3:00 PM had Path ready to operate.

It was only when moved the Operations Center to Journal Square did, I realize that I hadn’t eaten that day. My eyes were hurting more by then and I tried to wash them out again.

The cement dust down the back of my collar was rubbing on my neck now and felt like it was sawing through my skin.

We established communications and began to organize what staff we had -- We also had a concern about security at the three major airports we operated as well as the welfare of the thousands of people stranded there when the FAA grounded all air traffic.

As the day went on, we received the grim news regarding the extent of the losses. One of the most difficult times was having to talk to the wife of one of our attorneys who was missing.

She was understandably frantic and kept asking if we had contacted the hospitals and other emergency sites.

We found him with some others not long ago. He had been killed when the elevator he was on was caught in the initial explosion that must have come down the elevator shaft.

Later that night I didn’t want to tie up a police officer to drive me home so I decided to take Path to Newark. People on the train just stared at me until one woman asked me if I had been in the Trade Center.

I blurted out that I was under it. I noticed that people looked very weary and silent. Later getting off the train a young well-dressed man asked me to initial a program of some sort he was carrying.

I did and asked why. He said, “You have to be the luckiest son of a bitch in the world. Maybe it will rub off.” - My first real laugh of the day –

 Later on, the New Jersey Transit train no one seemed eager to sit by me but fortunately by then it wasn’t crowded. The conductor came into the car took one look at me and went back into the other car. I thought for sure that he was going to call a cop and ask me to leave the train.

By then I had been issued a police id and was reaching for it when he came back. He handed me a bottle of water and just said, “I think you can use this.”

My neck was worn raw from the abrasive effects of the cement dust and my eyes had been burned from the lime in the cement and irritated by the abrasive effects of the dust.

I felt that I had to close them, but I could feel the abrasion when I did. My throat felt raw and I had been spitting up what could only be described as cement mud. My shoulder and knee hurt but I wasn’t sure why.

When I finally got home to Cranford it seemed like a calm island in a sea of confusion. But when I got home that I found the house was filled with people and the kitchen table filled with food.

People were even on the porch and the American flag was flying there. One of my sons had the best line of the evening when he said, “Dad, you should die more often. I never ate so well.”

The kids later told me that they assumed that I was dead by the time the second plane hit but Kathy, my wife kept telling them to keep the phone open because I’d be calling.

When I finally got in a shower that night I noticed that I could feel a throbbing in my knee. Then I realized that it was black and blue and swollen. My ankle was also swollen and black and blue.

I felt no pain during that day but did the next day. In the shower I could see the streams of cement running into the drain. The dry cleaner tried to clean the suit I wore. He said he had to run it through seven times to clean it.

I still found cement in the pocket and will have to figure out what to do with the lucky suit.

I finally collapsed from exhaustion and slept soundly that night. I was up early the next morning to go to work to start the recovery.

9/11 started as a beautiful day. Now it appears that I lived through a day and an experience that will be remembered for a long time for an event that will forever alter the way we, and our children, view things.

It was not the day that our country lost its innocence as some commentators are suggesting.

I think that it will however be one of those days that we will remember by the date like July 4th, or December 7th. And one when we should have learned that there are those in the world who hate so intensely that they will kill innocent people who did nothing more than go to work one morning.

We have to do all we can to protect our children and our nation from this or be willing to live in terror forever.

I hoped that I fought a war so perhaps my children never would have to. Now it seems that we are at war with an enemy that is vicious, cruel and immoral and will have to be eliminated from the world of civilized people if there is to be peace for my children.

I hope that we all remember well this date and what happened.

This is only my attempt to record what happened to me on 9/11, now not long after it all happened while I still remember it clearly.

“Deep in December, it’s nice to remember, Altho’ you know that the snow will follow.” Deep in December, it’s nice to remember, Without a hurt the heart is hollow.

Deep in December, it’s nice to remember The fire of September that made us mellow. Deep in December our hearts should remember, And follow...”


Published on September 11, 2020 with the permission of the Welsh family.

Brittany Welsh Class of 2021
Brittany Welsh,  Class of 2021 reads her grandfather's first-hand account of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center at the 911 Memorial Service.