9/11: Eyewitness: Accountant recalls escape from North TowerWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
NEW YORK CITY — Accountant Peter Bitwinski was at his desk on the 69th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower when a plane slammed into the building about 20 floors above him.
“I didn’t see it because my window faced west and the plane came from north to south, so it came at my back and literally thrust me onto my desk. That’s the first thing I felt. I’m at my desk writing something and all of a sudden, I’m thrust into this whirlwind of not knowing what exactly is happening to me,” Bitwinski told Toledo Free Press. “The thing I remember most was just the feeling after the tower was hit. It was like the floor was rolling and the building rocking back and forth. The building used to sway on heavy windy days, but you immediately knew it was nothing like that.”
As the building continued to shake, Bitwinski, a supervisor in accounts payable for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, got up from his desk, his mind racing.
“You’re not thinking about what happened, you’re thinking about what to do. Should I run for the exit? Should I just grab onto something?” Bitwinski said. “I knew exactly where I was. I was 70 floors above the ground. So you’re saying to yourself, ‘This is where it ends.’”
“I’m saying to myself, ‘It’s a clear day. What’s happening? Why is the building moving back and forth? Why was it impacted? Was it a plane?’ You just don’t know what’s happening,” Bitwinski said.
After several minutes, the shaking stopped. Someone appeared and told everyone to evacuate. Someone else, who had been facing the windows, verified a plane had flown into the tower.
“So within five minutes, I knew what had actually occurred,” Bitwinski said. “It’s just it was odd because planes never came close to the building. There were days when the fog and the storms were so intense. Those were the days I used to think a plane could accidently hit the Trade Center, but they never did. I think when we reached the staircase that’s when it started to kick in that this was probably a terrorist attack.”
Carrying a paralyzed co-worker, Bitwinski and several others moved slowly down the stairs. As they descended, they passed firefighters going up.
“The firemen, they were heroes. I don’t think anyone had an idea that the building would come down the way it did,” Bitwinski said. “On some of the floors, they were leaning against the landing. They were carrying all this equipment and they were exhausted. They needed a break before they could move up even further.
“I remember asking one of the fireman going up, ‘Is the building stable?’ Looking back, that’s probably the stupidest question I could ask. But your mind just kind of goes.”
When the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m., Bitwinski’s group was on the 21st floor of the North Tower, having moved off the staircase to allow firefighters with equipment to pass up the stairs. Minutes later, they continued their descent, exiting the North Tower at 10:15 a.m., an hour and a half after the impact and 13 minutes before the tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m.
That short window between life and death is part of why Bitwinski feels compelled to share his story as a volunteer docent at the Tribute WTC Visitor Center near Ground Zero.
“My life was spared,” Bitwinski said. “The one thing I always said is I am no different than the other 2,977 names. Many of them, whether they were rescue people or just workers in the tower, all they did was come to work, just like me, and by fate I was below the impact line. My timing — I made it out 15 minutes before — how do you explain that other than there is some kind of force that wants you to be alive? So if I can share it by talking to you and by answering your questions, I am willing to do it.”
Bitwinski was working at the World Trade Center in 1993 when a bomb detonated below the North Tower.
Compared to the 1993 evacuation when smoke filled the stairwells clogged with fleeing people, the 2001 exit was calm and organized, Bitwinski said.
Improvements made after the 1993 bombing — including lighted stair strips, stairwell speaker systems and a revised evacuation plan — helped.
“It was fairly calm, I’ve got to say that,” Bitwinski said. “As bad an event as it was, we were trying to stay calm, trying to duplicate what we needed to do, which was to exit. There wasn’t a lot of panic. You saw some shocked looks on people’s faces because you know where you are and you know where you’ve got to get to.”
Upon exiting the building, Bitwinski was surprised by how few people he saw compared to 1993.
“It struck me: Why there is no one outside? Because in ’93 there were flashing lights, emergency vehicles, everything,” Bitwinski said. “I didn’t know the other tower was down. You could understand, no one wanted to be outside that building because, with the other tower already down, they figured the same thing might happen to this tower. But fortunately I wasn’t aware of all that until later.”
In the minutes between Bitwinski exiting the building and its collapse, people were jumping from the tower.
“It’s so high up it looks like just debris or wood or metal coming down, but then when you look again, you realize its people jumping,” Bitwinski said. “That hurt, because you realize it’s could have been you. Suppose these terrorists knew what they were doing and hit lower? Then I could have been at the line or above. I don’t know. How do you explain it? How do you know why you’re alive and why you’re not? You just move on.”
Bitwinski’s 9/11 experience has inspired him to live in the moment.
“It teaches you to live for the day because you just don’t know,” Bitwinski said. “It taught me a lesson about trying to do things I never did before and to live my span of life in a way that I could feel I’m gaining something out of every day.”
Still working for the port authority, where he has worked since a few years out of college, Bitwinski has since been promoted to manager of accounts payable. His department signs off on bills for the rebuilding and construction at Ground Zero.
Bitwinski now beseeches people, especially young ones, to forgo violence and be good to others.
“Setting an example is infectious,” Bitwinski said. “The more good people you’ve got in the world, hopefully will counteract the bad people who try to do things like what they did to the Twin Towers. I’m no preacher, but you’re hearing from me to try and make your world a better place. Just try, that’s all you can do.”