Escape from Ground Zero

Fire marshal.

Not a glamorous job, but someone’s got to do it.

Luckily for Frank C. Chou ’96, it was his job. Because it meant he knew the way out of the 61st floor of World Trade Center II, the second building to be hit in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“When the airplane hit Building I, there was a little boom —not very loud, because these buildings are so well soundproofed,” said Chou, 29, a vice president for national sales training at the brokerage house of Morgan Stanley.

“Then I saw paper flying everywhere. And I knew it wasn’t a ticker-tape parade.”

Chou, who began work at Dean Witter (which then merged with Morgan Stanley) right after his graduation, was relatively new to the World Trade Center office, which occupied floors 44 through 76 of the now-destroyed tower.

Three months ago there was a building-wide fire drill. “We were supposed to check that everyone was off the floor,” Chou said, “and we realized that one person per floor was not enough when there are more than 300 people on a floor!” So he became one of four fire marshals for Floor 61.

American Airlines 11 hit World Trade Center I on its south side, which couldn’t be seen from its twin tower. So when Chou saw flying scraps of paper, he contacted building security. “She kind of hung up on me,” he said. “So that’s when we started evacuating, just as if it was a normal fire drill.” The occupants walked down the emergency stairwells to Floor 55, where they’d been told to go in the event of a fire.

“We swept the floor twice. To my knowledge, everyone made it out. I was one of the last four people who left the floor.”

Meanwhile, no one was yet sure what had happened to World Trade Center I. According to Chou, the public address system reassured them that though Building I had been struck by an airplane, Building II was secure. “We were told to stay where we were,” he said.

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Frank Chou '96

The corner of Rector and Washington Streets, looking toward the West Side Highway. Chou said the people in the photo, who could look up Washington Street, screamed at him to get indoors; the World Trade Center was falling.

The glass doors of Chou's apartment buidling after the collapse of the second tower. The darkness had cleared enough to see into the street.

Spetember 11, afternoon: Greenwich and Rector Streets, looking north, American Stock Exchange on right.