Escape from Ground Zero (cont.)

But since so many people couldn’t stand indefinitely in the stairwell, Chou started checking doors as they descended. As in many office buildings, most were locked as a standard measure of building security. But he found the 55th floor open. That allowed his group to cut through to the elevator, which took them to its next platform, the lobby on the 44th floor.

And within five seconds, the second plane, United Air Lines 175, plowed into the upper floors of the building, right where they all had been just moments before.

“I’ve been in earthquakes,” said Chou, who grew up in Taiwan, where “you get a decent-sized earthquake at least once a year.” When the airliner hit Building II, he saw the same destruction: smoke, dust, flying objects. “The building rocked,” he said. But when it stopped shaking, he remembered the words from fire marshal training: “Panic is your worst enemy.”

“We were all a little shaky,” he said, “but we walked down 44 flights of stairs. And we cut through the underground mall and came out at the corner of Fulton and Church streets.”

He tried to call his family on his cell phone, until it was requested that people stay off their cells so that communication channels for the police and fire squads could remain unobstructed. “All the pay phones had long lines,” he said, “and then I remembered that I live three blocks away.” So he headed for his apartment at Greenwich and Rector streets.

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September 11, afternoon: Rector Street and Trinity Place, looking north.

Broad and Wall Streets, looking east, Federal Hall on left.

William and Cedar Streets, Chase Manhattan Plaza on left.