9/11: Eyewitness: Firefighter survived North Tower collapseWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
NEW YORK CITY — Sifting through the debris at Ground Zero in the days following Sept. 11, 2001, Lt. Mickey Kross was amazed to discover a pristine playing card amongst the ash and twisted wreckage.
The veteran firefighter picked it up — a two of clubs — and stuck it in his pocket.
Later, he wrote on it a quote from Shakespeare’s “Richard III”: “I have set my life upon a cast/And I will stand the hazard of the die.”
“That’s my philosophy,” Kross, who donated the card to the 9/11 museum on the site, told Toledo Free Press.
Kross would know something about beating the odds.He was a first responder to the World Trade Center terrorist attacks and was inside the North Tower when it collapsed.
Hundreds died as the building fell, but a portion of a central stairway between the first and sixth floors sheltered 14 people — Kross, 11 other firefighters, a port authority police officer and a secretary who had worked on the 73rd floor — from the collapse.
Their story was later featured in the History Channel documentary, “The Miracle of Stairway B.”
Today, the 64-year-old Kross, who retired in 2006 after 28 years with the FDNY as well as four years with the New York City Police Department, spends most of his time talking about 9/11.
“Everything I do is related to 9/11 in some fashion,” Kross said. “I used to do other things that I have just lost interest in — photography, watching films, visiting museums. This has in a sense consumed my life. Not in a negative fashion; it’s just what happened. All I do is interviews.”
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Kross was working at a fire station on East 29th Street in Manhattan. He was on the phone with his longtime girlfriend when the call came to respond to the North Tower of the World Trade Center, which had just been hit by a plane.
The second plane hit the South Tower at 9:02 a.m., just as Kross and his unit arrived at the scene. Kross, facing north with his back to the towers, didn’t see the plane hit, but heard a huge explosion and recalls being showered with flaming debris.
“We didn’t know if the South Tower blew up or what the hell happened, whether a bomb blew up,” Kross said. “Crazy as it sounds, people watching it on television in San Francisco saw more and knew more than I did, and I was right there.”
The resulting scene — the South Tower struck, the North Tower burning — was surreal, Kross said.
“The sights were mind-boggling. I thought for a second a movie was being made. I didn’t know if it was actually happening,” Kross said. “I’ve seen a lot of crazy things in my career, but nothing to compare to this.”
Kross gathered his firefighters for a pep talk — as much to calm his own nerves as to help steady theirs — before they headed into the North Tower.
“I can’t remember exactly what I said. I normally don’t do that. The guys know what to do,” Kross said. “That’s not a normal thing to do, but we did a huddle like the football players do. It was very brief. Just something like ‘Everybody take care of yourself and watch out for the guys next to you.’ There was not a lot of time, but I knew we were going into a very, very bad situation.”
At 9:59 a.m., Kross was on the 23rd floor of the North Tower when he felt and heard a massive rumbling. He thought the building’s elevators had cut loose and were falling and worried he might be pulled into the nearby open shafts by the vacuum created.
The sound was the South Tower collapsing.
About this time, an order was issued to first responders in the North Tower to get out, so Kross turned around. He was on the third floor when the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m.
The firefighters inside could hear the floors above them falling and hitting one another, faster and faster. Kross had forgotten to snap his helmet and it started to fly off. He yanked it down and pulled himself tight into a corner.
“I thought I was going to be dead in a few seconds and I remember feeling ‘I hope this is fast’,” Kross recalled for the History Channel documentary.
The 110-story tower fell in 10 seconds. Kross found himself trapped on a ledge away from the others in the stairway. In total darkness, the survivors began calling out to one another.
Hours later, a radio message got through. The group reported their position as Stairway B of the North Tower, only to overhear the responder pause and ask someone, “Where’s the North Tower?”
“That’s when we found out how bad the situation was,” Kross said. “We didn’t know the whole building had collapsed. Very often building collapses are partial collapses. They were trying to give a description of where we were and were telling them to go into the lobby. We didn’t know that stuff didn’t exist anymore.”
As rescue workers attempted to locate the group’s position, Kross spotted an unexpected but welcome sight — a ray of sunshine.
“It was all peppered with this dirt and debris running through it, but it was the most beautiful sight in the world,” Kross said in the documentary. “A 110-story building fell down on top of us and I’m on the third floor looking at sunlight.”
The opening had been there all along, revealed by a wind shift that allowed light to shine through the ash cloud. Kross and the others started crawling toward the opening, where they emerged to find a vast debris field where the towers used to be.
Dazed, Kross came across a fire chief manning an improvised command post. When Kross stated his name and unit, the chief just stared at him.
“He has this list of names and says, ‘We have you missing as presumed dead,’” Kross said. “I said, ‘No I’m here!’”
Kross didn’t get back to the fire station until about 9 p.m., where he was reunited with his girlfriend.
“I remember banging my coat against the brick to get dust out of my coat and then I walked home,” Kross said. “I don’t remember anything else.”
Kross has mixed feelings about the 10th anniversary of the day he cast his die and won, against all odds.
“Sometimes it feels like it’s been 10 years and sometimes it feels like it just happened,” Kross said. “Sometimes it feels like it never happened — like it was in a movie. But it was real.”