Special Reports

Events of that terrible day left indelible impression on retired teacher

A year ago today, Roberta Krause was in her room on the 16th floor of the World Trade Center Marriott Hotel when the building was struck by a hijacked jetliner. In the year since, Krause has spoken to dozens of groups about her experiences on that day at in the days that followed. This is her story, in her own words.

Sitting by the window of the 16th floor Marriott Hotel room, I slowly savored the last bites of my scone. My sister Jane had already finished hers and was brushing her teeth in the bathroom. I glanced at my watch, almost a quarter till nine, every day of our brief vacation we had managed to be out and going by 9 a.m., and this day would be no exception.

Suddenly, a huge concussion shook the room. The window seemed to buckle. I could see debris raining past, and I ran to the bathroom, calling to my sister, "Jane, either we are having an earthquake or we have been bombed!"

We embraced each other tightly, and I said to her, "I think we are dead!"

At that moment, we heard footsteps in the hallway. Quickly we opened the door and saw hotel maids running past. We ran behind them, finding the stairway, and joined others already racing down from upper floors. We picked up more people at each level. Uniformed hotel employees urged us to move quickly, but to stay calm. We wondered later if they escaped. There was no yelling, screaming, pushing, or shoving. An orderly stream of people flowed down the staircase.

Fumes began to fill the air. A man yelled, "It's aircraft fuel. I know that smell. We've been hit by a plane."

It was difficult to breathe. I was afraid we might suffocate. Down a couple more flights of stairs, we opened the door to the mezzanine level and raced across the carpet and down the staircase into the lobby where, again, employees urged us to get outside. No prodding was necessary. We ran like hell out and across the street, where we turned and looked up to see the first tower of the World Trade Center in flames.

A great ugly wound in the side of the building gaped open, vomiting flames into the clear morning sky. People were waving jackets and papers out the windows to get attention.

"There's no way they can get fire equipment to that level," I said to Jane, and turned away.

She was still staring at the building when people began to jump. She paled, and now says that the picture of those falling bodies is painted on the inside of her eyelids.

A few minutes before, when we left the hotel room, we had gripped each other's hand to avoid separation. We looked down to see our fingers still entwined tightly, and our free hands clenched. I opened my left hand to find the last of my scone and a paper napkin; Jane was gripping her electric toothbrush! Those were the only items we saved from the inferno, those and the clothes and shoes that we were wearing, and that we would be wearing for the next three days. Fortunately, Jane had on her glasses - her vision is far worse than mine. My glasses were still on the bathroom counter in our room.

It seemed that all the air around us was jammed with noise, people yelling, crying, explosions, roaring flames, and then, impossibly, the enveloping roar of a low-flying jet just above our heads. As time shifted into slow motion, inexplicably the plane plowed into the side of Tower Two, into and through the building from which we had just escaped. Immediately the crowd that had fled the building seemed to come to a common realization that this was no accident This horrible nightmare out of a very bad movie was the culmination of a terrorist plot.

Fearing that one or both of the towers was in imminent danger of falling, we began to run. Two possibilities presented themselves: Go north toward the uptown forest of skyscrapers, or south toward the Battery area, and the Hudson River boundary around the bottom of the peninsula. The smoke was pushed by a north wind, and south didn't seem the better choice, but we had done a 10k Volkswalk there the previous day, and felt more familiar with the area, so we ran with the crowd moving in that direction.

We remembered a small park - the Robert Wagner Park - a few blocks away, and the fact that it had a public telephone where we could get word back to my sister's firm in Topeka, Kan., that we had escaped the initial hits on the buildings. In turn, they would notify her kids in Kansas and Connecticut, and mine in Redmond and Bellingham. Our calls were some of the last to go through prior to the destruction of the central telephone equipment in the Trade Center.

At the park, we stood transfixed with several hundred other fearful spectators, watching the two magnificent buildings engulfed in flames. Explosions continued - fueled by the airliners' fuel tanks, which had been filled to capacity for cross-country flights. Pinpointing the time of events becomes increasingly difficult as impossibility piles upon impossibility. Sometime during the period at the park, someone with a radio called out, "They've hit the Pentagon!"

Our minds immediately shifted to the larger picture. What was happening in the rest of the country? What was happening in Seattle or Kansas City or Chicago? Was the whole country going up in flames?

Suddenly another roar began to swell to fill the air space, and we watched in total horror and terror as Tower 2 collapsed straight down into itself, as if it were a carefully executed implosion played and replayed on the weekend newscasts. At the culmination of the collapse, mammoth clouds of dust and ash began to roll our way, clouds apparently composed of pulverized concrete, fiberglass, and asbestos. These clouds were taller than the surrounding skyscrapers. The narrow streets created funnels through which the ash poured toward us.

Again, we began to run - this time trying to stay ahead of the all-enveloping gray masses - a futile effort. The debris began to rain down on us. People removed shirts and jackets - dipping them in fountains or pools - wringing them out to cover noses and mouths so that they could breathe. I tore my paper napkin in half and handed part to Jane. Rescue workers began to appear, ripping open cases of bottled water, and handing them to the running people.

I pulled off my jacket and yelled to Jane to run close to me so that we could use it to cover our heads and protect our eyes from the falling, irritating, dense fog of ash. I tore in half the napkin that I had held in my clenched fist when we fled, and we used some of the bottled water to wet the pieces we were holding over our faces. We could hear babies crying, and we knew how small children hate having their faces covered - but this time, it was a matter of survival. There was a very elderly lady - probably in her nineties - in a wheel chair, being pushed by her caregiver. She was confused and fearful, and the nurse frightened as she tried to protect her charge.

The world was totally gray. The sun was blocked out. Breathing was difficult. Then it began to settle. The fall of ash diminished. The sky lightened, and we could again see through the air. But it didn't last long. Great clouds of dust and ash continued to roll through the narrow passageways, and we sought places where we might be able to escape the frightening mess. People were confused. Which way to move?

When you come to the river, your options narrow considerably. And to move back toward the north was impossible. Then, just when it seemed it could not possibly get worse, it did. The first tower, too, collapsed inward in a carbon copy of the destruction of its sister skyscraper. The New York City skyline was changed forever.

"A ferry, a ferry!"

The cry began to be heard up and down the edge of the river waterway, and boats of every size and description that might be used to carry passengers began to move to the edge of the river. Almost unbelievably, when people were so frightened for their very lives, orderly lines formed at tall iron fences which separated us from the boats that would carry us away from the destruction. Two husky men lifted Jane and then me up and over the fence, dropping us into the waiting arms of other men on the deck of the small ferry. When the rocking boat was filled to capacity, we cut a bouncing path across the wakes of other boats, making our way to the docks at Jersey City, away from the smoke, ash, and destruction that had nearly paralyzed us with fear. The true meaning of the word terror was now a reality in my consciousness.

We offloaded into a crowd made up of fleeing Manhattanites as well as the New Jersey residents who lined the piers to watch the spectacle across the river. At this point the realization hit us that we were truly "homeless refugees." No money, no ATM card, no driver's license, no plane tickets for tomorrow. We began to walk toward area hotels. Perhaps we could use a phone - we might even need a room for the night. But lobbies were too crowded with others having the same needs, and we continued to walk.

We walked to Hoboken, a name I had heard since childhood, moving through industrial areas, some shabby shops, then into gradually more attractive neighborhoods. I spotted a senior center with an open door. "Maybe we can get directions to a bank, or call a taxi."

A very tall and attractive young woman named Michelle offered to take us to a bank, much against the advice of her co-workers who kept telling her, "Don't take strangers in your car! Don't take them!"

Michelle firmly informed the other women that she was taking her lunch hour, and, furthermore, she was taking us to a bank.

It was our first experience riding with a native of New Jersey or New York, driving like a bat out of you-know-where through impossibly narrow one-way streets, lined on both sides by parked cars.

Suddenly, we found ourselves faced with barricades keeping everyone out of the uptown area and away from the vicinity of City Hall. We told Michelle to just let us out near a bank, and we would walk the rest of the way, and we did so, only to find that the banks were already closed and locked, even though it was only mid-day.

We turned and began to walk back down the hill toward the Senior Center. I spotted three young rescue volunteers who were just returning with their emergency van to the station house. Jane and I approached them, asking for the location of nearby hotels, causing a lot of consternation in the group who couldn't recall having seen any in the vicinity. They began trying to get a cab to take us to some accommodations farther away, past a neighborhood where "ladies such as yourselves woudn' wanna go." In the middle of the search, the bulletin came over the two-way radio that the Senior Center was to be designated as a shelter for people displaced by the tragic events across the river.

We thanked the guys for their help and began the walk back to the Senior Center where, for the next 24 to 30 hours, we were nearly loved to death by the volunteers, under the most able direction of Vinny Barbo.

We had full use of the telephones (and other facilities). Food and drink appeared, thank goodness, since tourists without resources in New York City can get pretty hungry. We asked about the location of a Western Union office where Jane could wire American Express for some money. The response was that there was one in the A&P Food Store just down the street about four blocks. We made the trek. The next hour was spent negotiating the transfer of dollars into our now-needy hands.

We had pizza and/or peanut butter sandwiches for dinner at the center. About 30 other displaced persons joined us, and we all slept that night, or tried to, on the gym floor upstairs. Two Japanese gentlemen in their gray business suits; a couple with their junior high-aged daughters who spoke another language; an older couple who were on their way from San Diego to a vacation in Belgium, and others.

The next few days were a jumble of trying to let our kids, grandkids, and offices know where we were; trying to get picture ID - What is it people don't understand about "We have no driver's license. It burned with the building." - walking miles and miles searching for a Western Union office that would let me get money from my son without that same picture ID. Airports were closed. We were continually making and remaking reservations as flights were canceled.

The other people who had stayed at the shelter left on a bus the next morning to go to homes or hotels that had been inaccessible the previous day. We were now the only remaining refugees. Two young women from The Jersey Journal came and interviewed us and took our pictures for the next day's edition. Vinny began trying to find us real beds in which to sleep Wednesday night.

Ultimately, we became the first two women ever to spend the night in the rectory of the church of Sts. Peter and Paul. Father Frank, Father Joe and the visiting Father Benedict were wonderful, gracious hosts. Friday morning, as we came down the stairs, we found Father Benedict making omelets for everyone (resulting in the nickname "Eggs Benedict."). After breakfast, Father Joe walked us to the PATH (subway) to ride back into midtown Manhattan.

All this while, the terror continued in the background. There were 90 telephone bomb scares in the city on Thursday. The Empire State Building was emptied when a bomb-sniffing dog found a suspicious package. The scream of sirens was incessant. Busloads of rescue workers shuttled back and forth. Lines of trucks extended for miles as they waited for each to be searched. Military jets circled overhead to guard us, and to keep the skies clear of planes that didn't belong there.

The Martinique Holiday Inn became our temporary home the last night. The manager gave us New York City T-shirts so that we could put on something clean. She hesitated as she handed them to us, not knowing how we would feel about wearing the pictures of the Twin Towers across our chests. They offered us food and coffee. Later, we learned that they had had to evacuate when the Empire State Building was ordered to do so. We were staying one block away. We slept in our clothes again that night, with the few belongings that we had stowed in back packs that the priests had given us. The packs and our shoes were placed by the door in case we again had to run for our lives.

Together, and we will forever thank God that we were together the whole time, we took a cab back to LaGuardia - a very nearly deserted LaGuardia - to begin negotiations for flights back to our homes. Mr. Marini at the United desk worked so very hard for me - by this time it was noted in my records on the computer that I would not have picture ID. Ultimately, I was sent to JFK to wait for a flight directly to Seattle, scheduled to leave at 5 p.m. Jane called her daughter in Connecticut to come and get her, and to take her to Providence, R.I., the next morning for a flight back to Kansas City.

There was just one adventure left. We were sitting at the gate, having cleared Security and the X-ray machines, when four dark-skinned, Middle Eastern-appearing men came and took the four seats next to me. The woman on the other side of me was uncomfortable about that, yet, like me, did not want to fall into the trap of stereotyping people into undeserved roles. However, shortly, airport security men and police began coming to talk to the men, taking them one at a time into a hallway, and releasing them to walk back to their seats. Another gentlemen of the same physical description sat down across from us, and they began checking his papers, as well. I heard one guard say to the man next to me, "I saw you in LaGuardia last night. Your passport doesn't look right."

After 15 or 20 minutes of these proceedings, several uniformed policemen converged on the scene and told the men, "You aren't going on this flight. Come with us."

I pray for the many decent, honest Americans who will be enduring experiences such as this, just because they don't look like the average Joe.

At long last - now two hours late in departing - we boarded the plane. We sat. We sat some more. We still sat. Finally the pilot came on the intercom. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are trying to match people with luggage. A man put two suitcases on this flight, but he is not on the plane. Please excuse the wait while we remove his luggage."

As one, the passengers clapped and cheered. And we clapped and cheered again when we touched down in Seattle around 10 p.m. PST.

All of our lives are forever changed. Everything in this country changed at 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. It can never be like it was. Pray for us. Pray for the leadership of this wonderful nation. And pray for a change in the hearts and minds of people who would commit terrorist acts anywhere in the world. Pray for America!

There were miracles that happened continuously, saving my sister's and my lives. But one of the biggest miracles was the wonderful group of people who helped us every step of the way. I would like to acknowledge them:

The staff of the Marriott Hotel World Trade Center (I pray that they lived!)

The rescue workers who began to appear immediately after the first plane crashed into Tower One.

The men who lifted us onto the boats, and the courageous men who piloted us across the river to safety.

The wonderful people at HOPES Inc., and the Senior Center in Hoboken.

The volunteer emergency rescue personnel who tried to find transportation for us.

The priests at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, may God richly bless their ministry.

Virginia at the Washington State Driver's License Bureau in Olympia who figured out a way for me to get picture ID.

Lynn Smith at AAA Travel in Bellevue who worked around the clock trying to get me a way home, also doing the ID work with Virginia.

My friends at the Wa-ACTE office in Olympia who found phone numbers and notified people at home that we were safe.

Tara Williams and her manager at the Martinique Holiday Inn.

The cab driver willing to negotiate traffic and take the risks that went with returning to the airport.

The United Airlines staff who were so helpful even after losing so many of their own friends and co-workers.

The British Airlines official who found a phone for me to use in an airport where there were no phones, since they went down with the communications systems located in the World Trade Center.

And the crew with courage beyond the telling who were willing to take us home.

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