September 11 survivor: ‘As I left the south tower I heard a plane roaring towards the World Trade Center — I thought it was the end and screamed out my mummy’s name’
Louise Traynor tells BEN LOWRY about her experience as one of those 9/11 survivors who had been above the impact zone in the south tower of the World Trade Center, but who escaped just before a jet hit their building:
At 8.46am on September 11 2001, Louise Traynor was on the phone on the 101st floor of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.
She was speaking to an old friend Sarah Jane from south Armagh, who had called and who was also living in New York.
“Then there was the noise,” recalls Louise. “It was like a roll of thunder, a rolling, echoey sound, and then like an enormous explosion, bang.”
Sitting alone in a cubicle of desks, Louise stood up, to look across the wider office around her.
Louise was in the south of the twin towers, and the windows nearest her looked out in a southerly direction across Hudson River towards the Statue of Liberty and on towards the Atlantic (see picture on this web page).
But from her section of the 101st floor it was not possible to see the north tower, which was to the northwest. Louise and no-one around her could know that a plane had just slammed into the replica skyscraper 100 or so metres away.
The 101st floor, which was occupied by the insurance giant AON, was far from full of people at that time. While Louise’s start time was 8.30am, many other people on the floor began work from 9am.
None of the six people in the communications department, which Louise had joined months earlier as a freelance (then becoming staff days before, on September 5) was in work. Two of them, including the head of department, were working elsewhere.
Louise, who was then aged 24, does not remember the phone chat with her friend, who worked for a construction company. “There was always drama in her work,” she says. Her friend later tells her that the line went dead after the bang.
“I don’t know if I put it down or disconnected. But I remember getting up to see over my computer and one woman screamed,” recalls Louise. “No other noise.”
The building would sway in high winds, says Louise “which you got used to. That morning the building really shook, then settled”.
She walked over to some co-workers who were not in her immediate department, but who sat nearby and with whom she was friendly. No-one knew what to do.
Then came signals that something was badly wrong. Louise could see paper floating outside her windows, “more like ticker tape”.
She went back to get her handbag from her desk. “It was then that I smelt smoke. Obviously it was coming through the air conditioning vents.”
Louise did not know that the World Trade Center (WTC) had been bombed in 1993, because she had only been working in the complex for months. In fact she had been in America for less than a year.
Louise was living a dream. She had applied for a work visa via the lottery system and had been successful. In New York, she had a brother (one of her four siblings) living in Queen’s, across the East River from the towers, and was able to move into a shared apartment in the Bronx with a bunch of girls she knew from Northern Ireland.
Even better, an employment agency that works with Irish people had found her the temporary job at AON. Louise (nee Woods) had graduated from the University of Ulster in Communications and Marketing a few years before, then worked in Dublin, before flying to the States.
“I just wanted to go out there,” she recalls from her sister Virginia’s house near the NI border with the Republic.
On Tuesday September 11 2001 Louise was reading Harry Potter: The Goblet of Fire, which she was enjoying: “The train journey was very quick down.”
It was sunny so she crossed the plaza between the two towers to get to the south skyscraper instead of using the mall. .
Louise would lose her Harry Potter book that day. Much worse, she would soon lose colleagues.
And she came within a whisker of losing her own life.
But in those moments after the first plane struck, it was that smell of smoke that made Louise sense there was danger.
She thinks it is the fact that she grew up in Northern Ireland that made her deduce there had been a bomb down below, perhaps in a building nearby. WTC was near to the Wall Street financial district. “I was thinking a bomb had caused papers to blow up.”
Louise went back with her handbag to co-workers including her friend Tara, an American of a similar age. “Tara said: ‘People are leaving’.”
Louise was keen to get out, as was another colleague called Leonard (Len). “I was thinking it is a long way down. If there is a fire, we need to get out.”
Still no-one in the company or in the building had ordered them out.
Across the entire WTC complex, people were coming to learn that something catastrophic had happened in the north tower — a passenger airline had slammed deliberately into that nearby tower, hitting it at floors numbered in the 90s, a similar height to the AON offices the parallel tower in which Louise was now standing.
Hundreds of people had been killed instantly in the blast, on the plane and in the worst affected towers. Hundreds more were burning or choking to death. And hundreds more were trapped (not a single person lived from level 92 and up in the north tower, almost everyone in level 91 and below escaped).
Louise and her colleagues moved to the windowless core of their floor, where the was a inter-section of two long corridors, three lifts and three stairwells.
A crowd of people had already built up at the lifts. This meant a queue and delay.
Len, the most anxious of the group, led the way into one of the stairwells. “He was saying I need to get home to my family,” recalls Louise. “I just said to the [two other] girls, come on.”
They all started walking down.
“The other girls were saying: ‘I didn’t even get telling my boss we’re leaving’. I said, everyone is leaving, we will go across for a tea or coffee and then come back, they’ll understand.”
Louise remembers people coming down from above. There was a stream of people on the narrow stairs. No-one was in panic — or almost no-one. But during their descent Louise passed an older woman crying on the stairs and being comforted by another woman.
“Tara said, this must remind them of the bombing here.”
It was the first Louise had heard of the 1993 terror attack, which damaged the base of the towers.
But unknown to anyone in Louise’s group, some people in the south tower with windows overlooking the north tower had just had an up-close view out on to a hellish scene of an inferno in that neighbouring skyscraper, and of people flinging themselves out of the fire and into a certain death, 1,000 feet below.
Len was now ahead, so far ahead they lost sight of him. The group all came out of an open door on to floor 78 lobby, which was where the express lifts down to the lobby and the local lifts met.
“There were people on their phone, standing with coffees or getting on the elevators.”
Louise does not know the exact timings but she probably began her descent some time after 8,50am and travelled down the 23 stories to 78 in under 10 minutes. “You could now see concern on people’s faces,” says Louise of the scene on 78.
But while there was now a sense of urgency, there was none of hysteria there would have been had people known that another passenger jet was coming straight at them, soon to slam right into floor 78 (and impacting up to 84).
“That’s when the announcement came,” says of being on 78.
Louise did not even know there was a tannoy, she had never heard such messages previously.
“It said the building is safe, please return to your offices.”
This message has later been explained by the fact that even then many people in security did not know the collision in the north tower had been deliberate. All they knew was the debris falling and that if the thousands of people in the south tower fled in a panic, they might stray straight into danger. “I did see people listening to the announcement, turning round and talking about it.”
Confused by the announcement, Louise’s friend Tara hesitated. “She kinda looked at me but I said no, no, we’re this far now, we’re going down.”
The doors on an express lift down were closing and Louise barged in, bringing Tara and the other woman co-worker with her.
“I remember there was an older man in a suit who wasn’t very impressed with me pushing on but I just pushed on to get in.”
The lift, which held perhaps 50 people and was the size of a small room, was full.
At the bottom, in the huge lobby of the south tower, two security men were directing people right,
“Usually there were people milling about, queuing to get in. But there was no-one around, The two guys were just going: ‘Out. Out’.”
The guards were directing them to the subterranean shopping mall, instead of left into daylight and out on to a road called Liberty Street. Louise noticed in the mall that the shops were already closed.
The News Letter has watched videos of the mall which suggests it takes about a minute to cross to the east side of the WTC complex in the mall. This tells us that Louise was a minute or so from death.
Because as she exited into, she thinks, Church Street, which had a major store called Century 21, Louise had time to look back.
This was the first time that she saw the north tower, first to be hit, covered in black smoke.
“Everything was grey. There were mounds of dust on the street, lots of papers, smoke, It was like a war zone.” This was debris from the first plane’s impact.
Then Louise heard an approaching, roaring plane.
In the confusion caused by echoes from the surrounding tall buildings, Louise did not know where it was coming but ran.
“You have no view. I could see people across the road looking up.”
She recalls thinking: “Where do I go to get away from this. I thought this was the end. I remember screaming out my mummy’s name.”
Then the United Airlines second passenger jet flew straight into the north tower, She doesn’t know if she fell or was knocked off her feet but Louise stumbled in terror to a small abandoned lorry on the street, and ducked under it with another man. The two never said anything to each other and Louise later noticed that she had oil on her clothes. “You could see the feet of people running past.”
Louise then saw Tara. “She was in an awful state because her brother worked in the other tower.”
They took shelter in a shop before being ordered out of it, and heading towards friends of Tara’s who were staying in a hotel the middle of the city, near Grand Central station. They went there by a subway line that was still running.
On TV in the hotel, she saw footage of the attacks but it was not yet 9.59am, when her south tower collapsed (the second tower to be hit was first to fall).
Louise got access to a phone and could only remember her friend Sarah Jane’s number, and called asking her to let her parents in Armagh know she was OK. She also let her brother’s wife know she was well.
“My family had been watching, not knowing what tower I was in. They were thinking please God, let it be tower two. They knew I was in the 101st floor. Then the south tower was hit. Mummy was at work and heard it over the radio and was sure I was dead.”
After trying to get a phone message home, Louise “wanted to get out of the city. There were reports of lots more planes coming”.
She got a train home to the Bronx.
“I was at home before I knew the towers had collapsed.”
Louise’s urge to dash home was influenced by growing up in NI in the Troubles. “Mum and dad had told us when anything happens get out of there, get home to safety.”
Louise had been on one of the south tower last lifts down to safety. Scores of people were killed on level 78 waiting for the lifts by the plane impact.
An estimated 200 people were killed in lifts themselves (almost all of the 100+ elevators in WTC were made inoperable by the jet impacts, and almost everyone trapped inside remained there until the towers collapsed).
In fact, if Louise had even been in the lobby as she exited the lifts she might have been killed too. The plane impacts sent fireballs down the lift shafts which exploded out on some levels including the lobbies, burning people alive at ground level.
No-one in Louise’s immediate communications team of six died but Len (Leonard Snyder) was never seen again. Like so many people who died, no-one knows exactly where he was when the towers toppled or how exactly he died. Louise does not believe he returned to the office after the tannoy announcement, as others died, because he had been too determined to get out.
Len left a widow and two young children.
“There were other people who died I knew their faces.”
AON lost 175 people.
“I went to a lot of memorial services.”
Around 600 people died in those upper floors of the south tower.
Ironically, Louise recounts all this in front of a poster of a football top, with AON as sponsors, something she had not even noticed on the wall. “The company was very good,” she says. “They offered counselling.”
But she did not find it much help.
Louise flew home to Ulster after the attacks to see her relatives, then returned to New York. “I loved America.”
But the city did not have the same allure after the attacks “It was never what it was before September 11.”
Louise herself was never again as care free. “It changed me as a person.”
For a long while she “would have flashbacks, nightmares of being trapped in the buildings, having to jump or get burnt”.
It is only now, 20 years later, that Louise feels able to talk about it all in such depth. She stayed in New York for a few years but it was not the same. She met a man from Armagh, Paul, out there in October 2001 and they came home in 2006 after a year in Australia to get married. They have John, 11, and Kate, 8, living back in south Armagh (“they are great”).
Louise would like to go back to New York to see the memorial, but she now thinks when she sees the news that America has “become very separated”.
Asked if she sees herself as damaged she says:
“I probably would have seen myself as damaged. Now I don’t.
“It shaped the person I am now. For a long time I was angry that I had to go through that.
“Now I realise it has made me a stronger person in terms of what’s important. Material things don’t matter.
“What makes me happy is my family, my children, simple things.”
• Louise loved her job at AON (pictured on this web page is one of her 2001 WTC security passes), loved living in a big city with old friends, liked her colleagues and even enjoyed her commute — a bus to the subway, then, because it was the far end of the line, a guaranteed seat on the train which took her all the way to a station near WTC, from where she would walk to a bank of elevators that whisked her up first to level 78 (in an express lift), then to level 101 (in a lift that stopped at different floors).
“I loved working in the towers. It was always sunny and I had views out over the Statue of Liberty,” says Louise. “I was loving life, couldn’t have been happier.”
Two friends Mary and Paula from home, Derrynoose in south Armagh, had come out that weekend and were due to come to the twin towers that day, Sep 11, for lunch.
More September 11 stories:
• September 11 20 years on: ‘Dad said goodbye from floor 103 as tower crumbled’
• Ex News Letter editor: I was in New York on September 11 2001 to celebrate my 50th
• Charlie Lawson: ‘People who grew up in the Troubles got 9/11 it right away’
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