A Thermographer's Experience at Ground Zero
Jersey Infrared Consultants
PO Box 39
Burlington, NJ 08016
As practicing thermographers, we expect
each day to provide new experiences and teach new lessons.
September 11, 2001, taught every American a life-altering
lesson. This paper presents an account of that day by an ordinary
thermographer who was working across the street from the World
Trade Center that morning and suddenly found herself in an
extraordinary situation. This paper details the thermographer's
thoughts and experiences while making the long journey home.
It was Tuesday. The sky was an incredible
shade of blue without a cloud to be seen and the haze that
so often hangs over the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area
was gone. The temperature was comfortable, the humidity was
low. It was an absolutely gorgeous day. It was September 11,
had worked in lower Manhattan the day before, starting an
infrared electrical survey which would be finished by noon
on Tuesday. It made me particularly happy to know I would
be beating the rush-hour traffic leaving Manhattan that day.
I was working in a building situated on the corner of Church
Street and Barclay Avenue - about a block north and across
the street from the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Built between 1966 and 1973 at a total cost
of $400 million, the North Tower - One World Trade Center
and the South Tower - Two World Trade Center, were 1,368 feet
and 1,362 feet tall, respectively. The World Trade Center
towers were the two tallest buildings in the world until the
Sears Tower in Chicago was completed in the mid-70s. Each
tower had 110 stories, 104 passenger elevators, 21,800 windows
and roughly an acre of rentable space per floor. Because the
towers were built on six acres of landfill, the foundation
of each tower had to extend more than 70 feet below ground
level to rest on solid bedrock.
The easily recognized communications antenna
was on the North tower; from the observation deck on the South
tower, it was possible to see 45 miles in every direction.
Each tower swayed approximately three feet from true center
in strong winds.
On Friday, February 26, 1993,
a bomb was exploded in the underground garage of One World
Trade Center, creating a 22-foot-wide, five-story-deep crater.
Six people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured. The
towers were cleaned, repaired, and reopened in less than a
The resiliency of the North tower after
February 1993 made both towers seem invincible...
Normal Becomes Surreal
I was on site and ready to begin
the day at 7:35 a.m. As normal, I took my equipment from the
truck, grabbed my lunch bag and walked in the side entrance
of the building. I signed in with security and took the elevator
to the 2nd basement to get set up. We got started around 8:40,
going to the lobby level where we had left off the day before.
The elevator doors opened and someone said, "Hey Bob,
did you hear that?" Neither of us had heard anything,
so we just chalked it up to a big truck going a little too
fast. A common happening in New York - most people who spend
any time there don't even hear it. I distinctly remember looking
at the clock in the lobby - it was 8:44 a.m. We went into
an electrical closet and I scanned the open panels. Bob told
me he was going to go check out the noise. I told him I was
done scanning and was curious too, so I'd go with him.
We walked through the lobby and outside onto
Church Street. For anyone who has never been there, the streets
in lower Manhattan are not very wide and it really is like
a concrete canyon. Everyone on the sidewalk was looking up
at the north tower of the World Trade Center. As I looked
up, I saw fire and smoke coming from a gash in the side of
the north tower as well as a lot of paper floating down to
of North Tower shows fire location in white.
Because the Trade Center Towers were just
over 1/4 mile high, looking up from the ground made what you
were looking at appear small. No one in my surrounding area
knew for sure what had just happened. There was talk that
a small plane had grazed the building or there had been some
sort of explosion. None of us felt particularly unsafe. After
all, this is America and nothing resembling what happens in
war-torn countries ever happens here.
It finally occurred to me that I was still
wearing both an infrared imager and a camcorder and should
tape what was going on. I recorded for awhile, then decided
to see if I could take a thermal image. Due to the heat I
was not able to get a temperature or even a good image, but
I snapped two thermograms from ground level anyway.
At about 8:59, I decided it was time for
me to stop wasting time and get back to work. I knew it would
be a long day for the firefighters, but I had a job to finish.
I worked my way through the crowd and back inside the building
and was told to meet Bob in the 2nd basement.
It was at
that moment - no more than a minute from the time I walked
back into the building - that suddenly people were stampeding
up the streets. I saw this through all three sets of lobby
doors and wondered why people were all of a sudden running.
Still not comprehending what was going on, I got on the elevator
and went downstairs. When I got there, everyone was gathered
around the TV. They said the report was there had been an
explosion in the south tower. We watched, but from the vantage
point of the newscast, we could not see it was a plane that
had been flown into the tower. I didn't find out for sure
what had happened until much later.
I said I'd like to get a better look
- but not from the ground. Everyone else in the room agreed,
so we took the elevator to the 11th floor and went onto the
roof. There were about five of us there - just watching. We
were all trying to use our cell phones, but the circuits were
jammed, so no one was really sure exactly what had happened.
As we watched, people were jumping or falling out of the north
tower. None of us could understand why. We saw a few people
at about the 105th floor waving a white cloth out of the window.
They seemed so far away, but when you realize that although
it's only a block away on ground level, the towers were just
over 1/4 of a mile high. I began taping again but didn't fully
understand the horror that was going on right in front of
me. Everyone on that roof felt as if they were watching a
movie. We still didn't feel we were in imminent danger.
image of east side of South Tower
shows heat from fire in orange/red.
As a thermographer, I felt compelled
to add some thermographic images to my tape. In addition to
the running tape, I snapped two more images: one of the north
tower and one of the south. It did not occur to me, until
someone said it later that day, these might be the only thermograms
in the world of this event. The world had taken a turn for
the surreal - it now seemed as if we were in the movie
- not just watching.
The real world broke in and my pager went
off. Someone from my office was trying to reach me, but I
just wanted to watch what was happening and knew I would have
to go down to the basement to get a land line. Five minutes
later, my pager went off again - this time 911. It finally
occurred to me that I should let my office know I was safe.
I went back down to the basement and was able to get a land
line to call the office. It was decided to call it a day and
arrange to return next week to finish the job. It was decided
I should take the equipment with me, make arrangements to
leave the truck overnight and walk over the Brooklyn Bridge,
where I'd be picked up. The intention was to go back up the
next day and retrieve my truck. A co-worker of mine was in
the Bronx that day, so the plan was for him to drive into
Brooklyn and pick me up or, as an alternate, I would take
a taxi and meet him in the Bronx. I was asked to notify the
office when I was on my way. Knowing cell service was hard
to get - if not completely down, I told the office I'd call
when I could get a line.
As I was packing up my equipment, someone
ran into the office where I was and said an airplane had just
hit the Pentagon. Hearing that, I began feeling a little nervous
but was not in a panic or in a great rush to get out of there.
Remember, no one there was sure a plane had hit the north
tower and we all still thought the south tower was burning
due to an explosion. I was told the only way out of Manhattan
now was on foot. The announcement to evacuate the building
came over the PA, so I got my gear together, washed up and
took the elevator to the lobby, which was swarming with FBI
agents. I remember wondering how so many of them had arrived
so quickly. An agent had blocked off the exit I needed, so
I told him I had to make arrangements to leave my vehicle
which was parked across the street. He told me to go -- but
be careful. I exited the building and crossed the narrow street
over to the parking lot. The noise level on the ground was
much higher than it had been on the roof, but I still didn't
feel as if I was in much danger. It was about 9:55 a.m.
The lot attendant saw me and came over.
That day happened to be election day in New York, so there
were only a few cars in the lot. He said I could leave the
truck overnight and retrieve it in the morning. He only asked
that I move it against the back wall. Before going to move
the truck, I changed from my work boots into my sneakers -
something I always do, which was a very lucky thing that day,
I was soon to discover. The attendant walked back to me and
said that they were letting people drive out onto Church Street
going north so, if I left immediately before the area was
overrun with emergency equipment, I could drive north and
find some way off the island. I opted to go with that plan
and locked the equipment in the box of the truck and opened
the door. An FBI agent was yelling for quarters for the phone
- funny how loss of cell service affects everyone - even the
South Tower Falls
It was about 10:00 a.m. when I
opened the driver's door and was ready to get into the truck
that I heard an unbelievable cracking sound behind me. I turned
toward the sound, and the only thing I could see from the
lot was the southeast corner of the south tower. I watched
it buckle and start to fall. It looked as if it were coming
directly towards me, in slow motion. It finally dawns on me
I am really in danger and the adrenaline kicks in along with
reflex actions. The reflex was to run - I remember thinking
the building was tipping over - not coming straight down.
I ducked under the sideview mirror and ran east on Barclay
Street. There were about a dozen people on that little street
with me and we all starting running.
I still had plans of using the Brooklyn Bridge,
but as I got to the corner of Broadway and Barclay, I would
have had to go straight. I looked south down Broadway and
saw an extremely high, billowing cloud of smoke and debris
coming towards me like a tidal wave. I stopped to consider
whether I should go across Broadway towards the bridge or
duck into a doorway that was directly in front of me. I then
looked down Barclay and into that same cloud. There was no
think - the survival instinct kicked in. Someone screamed
to run north, so I took off up Broadway with the debris cloud
closing in fast. It was like trying to escape from a runaway
freight train. When the cloud caught up, breathing was nearly
impossible. The smoke burned my eyes and my throat. I had
my fisted hand over my mouth and nose trying to catch a breath
of air that was not thick with debris or smoke. Every so often,
I came into a void area in the smoke and was able to get a
whole breath, but then the void was gone and I was back in
the cloud. This lasted for what seemed an eternity, but in
actuality was probably about two minutes. There were people
all around me, but I felt completely alone until I could see
again. When we emerged from the cloud and started walking,
the police were yelling for us to get into the street and
keep running. I asked why and was told we were in front of
the Federal Building and were still in danger. I ran a total
of about eight blocks and then slowed to a walk. There were
many people on Broadway with me - the sidewalks and street
were full, but there was no panic. Almost everyone I saw looked
single-minded. Our goal was to get off the island of Manhattan.
I considered going back for the truck but thought better of
it. There were rescue personnel passing me going down Broadway
with that same single-minded look.
Many of us were walking backwards,
just watching, but all we could see of the north tower was
the antenna on the roof. I got to Canal Street and stopped
for a minute to catch my breath and considered heading back
down and over the Brooklyn Bridge. However, we were still
being herded north and I found it hard to think of anything
other than what had just happened. I finally decided to meet
up with my co-worker, Dick, in the Bronx.
I knew I had to check with my office because
they would have known the south tower fell around the same
time I was supposed to have been on the street. I was at 4th
Street and felt there was no possible way for me to walk all
the way to the Bronx, which I knew was in the 130's block,
but I figured I'd walk awhile and then get a cab.
At about 10:15, I turned around and could
still see the antenna on the north tower. Around 10:20, I
looked back down Broadway and could see the Woolworth Building,
which was just behind where I was working. The whole bottom
half was covered with the debris cloud, but the upper section
was visible -- then it wasn't. I thought the north tower had
collapsed but was not sure. No one on the street knew. I felt
utterly alone in the middle of a huge crowd but also knew
I was now part of the one being which the whole city of New
York had become that day. People were parked on the street
with their car doors open and their radios blaring the latest
reports. We would gather and listen for a minute, then move
on. Around 10:25, I gave up trying the cell phone and decided
to stand in line for a public phone to call the office. Once
I got a phone, all I could get was the fast "all-circuits-busy"
signal. I continued walking north on Broadway, which turned
into Park Avenue.
My lungs were full of dust and I knew I needed
some water, but I just couldn't make my feet stop for that.
The Empire State Building was now to my left and the MetLife
Building and Grand Central Station were directly in front
of me. Knowing they are also prominent buildings in Manhattan,
I really started to feel unsafe and needed to get off Park
Avenue. I had thoughts of going to Grand Central Station and
getting a train or taxi north but just couldn't do it. I stopped
just short of Grand Central and finally got a bottle of water
from a street vendor. I turned right and walked to 3rd Avenue.
I stood in line again for a phone and was
able to get a line on the first try. I checked with my office
and let them know I was safe and at 54th Street. I told them
I'd try to catch a cab and meet with Dick in the Bronx. As
it happened, that was much easier said than done. The traffic,
which had been mostly pedestrian, was suddenly bumper to bumper
vehicles - all gridlocked. I figured I was better on foot
anyway. Once the traffic thinned out, every cab that passed
me was either taken or off-duty.
By now, I was running on autopilot - I'd
look back downtown every once in awhile and just see the smoke
in the air. Some people were in the street aiming cameras
downtown, but there was only a distant cloud of dust to be
seen. I went past numerous subway entrances but couldn't even
entertain the thought of going down there. Besides, I was
pretty sure they were still not running. By the time I got
to 82nd Street, I was starting to get out of midtown. I still
couldn't catch a cab and thought I might have better luck
on Park Avenue, so I walked over there.
At about 1:00 p.m., at the corner of Park
Avenue and 85th Street, I thought I'd try my cell phone again
because I still had to let my ride know where I was. To my
relief, cell service was back up. I told him where I was and
he said to find a place to sit and wait. He'd drive into Manhattan
and get me. There was a church on the west side of Park, so
I sat there on the steps, in the shade. I called my mother
and my son to let them know I was safe. They were able to
give me bits and pieces of what had happened and what was
currently happening, but I wouldn't get the full story until
later. My ride called me around 1:50 and gave me the bad news
that no one was able to drive into Manhattan. I would have
to walk out. We decided I'd walk to the 3rd Avenue Bridge.
Every so often during my walk, I would hear
F16 fighter jets overhead. This sound made me stop - it made
everybody on the street stop and very nervously look up and
cringe. It was then that I realized an F16 and a falling skyscraper
make a very similar sound. I found out later that they were
flying circles over Manhattan trying to protect the airspace
from any further attacks. I was now in Harlem and was starting
to hear snippets of conversations from women complaining about
how many blocks they'd walked from midtown after an aborted
shoe-shopping trip. It seemed odd they were talking about
buying shoes. I stopped and got another bottle of water. It
seemed no matter how much I drank, I literally couldn't get
the taste of the World Trade Center out of my mouth. Reality
was starting to come more into focus and I realized my feet
were screaming and I had sharp pain in my side, but I kept
walking. The need to get out of Manhattan overrode any discomfort
I was feeling.
Where 3rd Avenue starts to go over the bridge,
there is a parochial school. The students and teachers were
out on the sidewalk passing out little cups of cold water.
That struck me as so un-New York like. It seemed to me that
they thought they were doing the only thing they could.
It was foot traffic only on the 3rd Avenue Bridge, and the
nearby Triborough Bridge was open to outgoing traffic only
but was severely gridlocked. At 2:30 p.m., I crossed the 3rd
Avenue Bridge and met my rescue driver, Dick. I'd never been
so happy to see a familiar face.
The street sign read 3rd Avenue and 135th
Street. I had walked about eleven miles in just under four
hours. I remembered standing at the corner of Broadway at
14th thinking there was no way I'd be able to walk into the
100's block, but here I was. I worried about the men I had
left at the job site. It wasn't until the next day that I
found out the building was still standing. We sat in the car
for a few minutes trying to figure out how to get out of the
Bronx. Traffic cops had no idea what was open and what was
not, but we hoped the Tappan Zee Bridge, being farther north,
was open. It was and we got home in record time.
No matter what you think you would
do in a certain situation, until you are faced with it, you
just don't know. My instinct was to run and save myself. Luckily,
I was able to do just that. My number wasn't up on September
11 and I got to go home. Too many others did not.
The Day After
I was back at work the next day
because I needed to be around people. That same day, my manager
went into lower Manhattan with the plan of seeing whether
an infrared imager would be of any help in locating victims.
Unfortunately, it wasn't. There were too many mountains of
concrete and debris and too much heat. He was, however, able
to retrieve the truck and equipment I had left behind. He
says he came around the corner and there it sat .intact,
covered with dust and debris, but intact. It started right
up but was so clogged with concrete dust and debris that the
air-conditioning fan wouldn't turn. The truck spent a week
in the shop being cleaned and fixed but is now running fine.
The equipment that had been locked in the workbox was not
damaged at all.
Things get easier as time moves on.
Many memories of that day still upset me, but I'm thankful
both that I'm alive and that the towers didn't come down immediately.
If they had, I believe the death toll would have been in the
tens of thousands because I remember how many people were
running from the area for the hour before the south tower
My Return to Ground Zero
By mid-October, my site contact
was ready to finish the job we had started on September 11th.
I let my manager know I wanted to be the one to go back -
it had become a mission for me to complete this job. On October
25th I returned to the job site - now a part of what had been
dubbed Ground Zero by the news media. As soon as I got to
Broadway and Canal Street and opened my truck window, the
smell hit me. It brought back all the memories of that day
and again reminded me how lucky I was to have gotten out.
They were wetting the streets down to try to keep the dust
under control, so it made the smell of pulverized concrete
even worse. I got as close as I could in the truck, then parked
and walked the rest of the way. There was no problem walking
into Ground Zero. The roads were all barricaded, but the sidewalks
were not. Since I knew I was going to be late, I had called
twice to give them my progress and when I finally walked into
the building, security was waiting for me and said how happy
they were to see me again. I went down to the Engineering
office and met with my contacts. It was like a family reunion.
The first thing they asked me was where was my tape from that
day. I had completely forgotten I was supposed to send them
The first thing that caught my eye in the
office was a cylinder shaped object on the top shelf of the
wall unit. I asked what it was because I knew it hadn't been
there before. This story was to
be the first of two close calls I didn't even know I had.
They said it was part of the plane that hit the south tower.
They found it on their roof in the same section where we were
standing. Evidently, it was there while we were on the roof
but none of us noticed it. The piece was at least four feet
long and was heavy. The building I had been working in only
sustained minor damage - some windows along Church Street
had been blown-out. Obviously, on that floor, everything had
to be cleaned and/or redone due to the dust and debris. The
Army Corps of Engineers had checked the structural integrity
of the building and declared it safe. Those dedicated maintenance
and engineering men were back in that building a week after
recovered from roof of building.
Later on, my contact asked me where I had
been after the first plane hit. He knew we were both standing
on Church Street watching. I told him I had been on the sidewalk
but went back inside the building about a minute before the
second plane hit. I realized I'd had my second close call
when he told me he'd been standing in pretty much the same
place as I had been and was talking to a man about four feet
away from him. When the second plane hit, he watched the man's
white shirtsleeve go red - he'd been hit by shrapnel. Had
I not gone inside, I might have been hit by flying debris
or likely trampled in the ensuing stampede since my mobility
was limited by my camera equipment. He also asked me where
I had parked. I told him I had left my truck in the lot across
the street and we came up the next day and were able to get
it. He told me I was very lucky to even get the truck and
equipment back - had I parked on the street, the vehicle and
equipment would have been gone. Apparently, within 24 hours,
they bulldozed every vehicle off the streets to clear the
way for the big emergency equipment.
The silence in lower Manhattan the
day I returned was deafening. There were quite a few people
standing around, just looking, but all were quiet, respectful,
disbelieving. Being there was something I had to do that day.
There is still a part of me that doesn't believe this happened,
and I saw it in person. Although I refuse to live in fear
and hide under the bed, I am much more aware of my surroundings
We, as a country, have lost our
innocence, but life goes on
We, as citizens of the world, must adjust to the new reality
that America is not immune from terrorist attacks.
We, as Americans have banded together and gotten stronger
- the exact opposite of the intentions the terrorist cowards
had for us.
We, as human beings are now all too well aware that life,
as we know it, can change in a New York minute
The author wishes to thank everyone at Jersey
Infrared Consultants for their concern and their prayers for
her safety and well being that day and in the days to follow.
A special note of pride and appreciation is also extended
to everyone at the job site who refused to be knocked down
by this and were back at work as soon as possible, and willingly
shared all the pictures they had in the preparation of this
We continue to pray for those lost
on September 11 and their families. We look to Heaven for
strength, wisdom and guidance as we move forward more keenly
aware of our daily blessings.