October 1, 2001
A witness to history
by Jeanette Knutson
He didn't have to sit calmly erect and look me in the eye, though he did. He wasn't chain-smoking or tapping a pencil or drumming his fingers on his desk, though I half expected him to. For him, the terror of Tuesday, Sept. 11, was not a far-off terror, like it was for us. For he, Joe Lyons, 23, a polite and soft-spoken Woodinville resident, was in the second tower, 61st floor, of New York's World Trade Center that day ‹ the day two fully fueled hijacked airliners flown by terrorists purposely crashed into each of the center's twin towers. Lyons, along with thousands of others, walked to safety. Here is his story.
A relative newcomer to the Woodinville Morgan Stanley financial firm, Lyons was in New York for what was supposed to be three weeks of corporate training, he and 280 or 290 other people from across the country. The company had a suite of rooms with audio and visual connections and "big dogs" (my term) lectured while attendees sat at desks listening or taking notes. The group had convened around 7:15 or 7:30 the morning of the 11th and expected to carry on until 5 or 6 p.m.
"New York was a great place to be. We were back there to learn. Everyone was pretty excited," said Lyons.
"I still don't know what time it was. We were on a break after the first lecture when we heard an explosion. We felt a jolt and people began going to the windows. Looking down and around, people saw debris, paper swirling around, no one knew what it was from. It was really odd. At that point some people left.
"[We were instructed] to remain calm, to assemble and await instructions. Shortly after, we were told to evacuate and people headed for the stairs. I went to go down the stairs like everyone else, but it was really crowded. So I went back to my desk and collected my day planner and stuff and returned to the stairwell. It had cleared out a bit so I got in the stairwell.
"Pretty much people were two by two on every other stair. They went down in an orderly way. People for the most part were calm. Still, we didn't know what had happened.
"When we got down to the 52nd floor, we came to a stop when we heard the intercom. 'Damage was sustained in Building One. Building Two is a secure building.' At that point everyone stopped in their tracks. There was a gentleman passing paper towels for people to wipe their brows. It was pretty hot in the stairwells. There were even a few people who tried to turn around and walk back upstairs, but they were greeted with a mass of people and they couldn't move upwards. Everyone was still stopped.
"That was when our building was hit. The building shook; we heard an explosion. There was screaming in the stairwell, but people resumed their descent. It was still orderly. It was really amazing. Only now we went down with a little more motivation. There was no pushing, no shoving. If people saw someone who looked as if they might have issues, people stopped and said, 'Hey, are your OK'? or 'Do you need help'?
"Somewhere in the 40s we saw a wall in the stairwell that was buckling in. It had sustained damage. When we started to get down in the teens, that's when the stairwell started to have smoke in it.
"On the way down, I didn't see firemen going up or people coming out from other floors to go down. When we got to the bottom, we were met by World Trade Center Security [personnel] who were directing us through the mall. As we got closer and closer to the exit out of Tower One, we started to see firemen and policemen showing great concern that we get out of the building. 'Hey, you've got to get moving.'
"For the most part, people were pretty calm. We exited through Tower One and when I got out I walked about a block away. There was debris, glass, emergency personnel everywhere. It was then that I looked up and realized how bad it was ... fire, smoke and a giant hole in the building. Stepping out and actually seeing the damage brought the magnitude of the situation home.
"I was in shock. I still didn't know airliners had crashed intentionally into the buildings. There was some speculation that maybe it was a two-seater, a little Cessna [that did the damage], but standing out there and looking up, it was clear it was something larger.
"I hung around in that general area, just looking up, confused. I started to see people around crying for family or loved ones inside, confused. That was when it hit me that I needed to get to a phone, contact my family and girlfriend, and let them know that I was OK.
"I started to walk north on Broadway, stopping every so often to turn around and look back. Every so often I'd see people crowded around cars, listening to the radio, or people in stores watching TV. Finally I got to a phone that wasn't 10 to 15 people deep waiting to get on the phone.
"I got a hold of my parents and told them I was OK. I think my girlfriend was driving over there because she heard something on the radio. Then, not long after I got off the phone, I was looking at the towers and I saw one was starting to get shorter. I saw clouds of dust and debris go into the streets.
"I wasn't in harm's way. Originally I told myself I wanted to be 110 stories away from the tower. After it fell, I knew I had to call my parents again to let them know I was away from the building. I didn't want them to think I had called from right outside the building or that I was calling from the lobby or something.
"By then I was numb. I was in total awe. I was still going down Broadway when I met a gentleman who had been on the 51st floor of Tower One. We talked for a while and after that I was on my way back to my hotel [in Midtown Manhattan]. Then, this might seem odd, but, I was thinking how my roommate was hungry, so I picked up a couple slices [of pizza] and sodas.
"Then I heard what sounded like fighter planes and looked up and saw a jet banking against the skyline. I had a sigh of relief ... ah, I'm probably done for the day. I overheard a British gentleman say, 'Oh, no, here come more planes!' But I said, oh no, those are OK, those are our planes.
"When I got back to the hotel, I started contacting more people. There were plenty of meetings to figure out travel. I scheduled flights to come home. I had quite a few cancel because of airport closures. Finally, I was scheduled to leave on Friday the 14th, but I assumed I wasn't going to get home because the President was coming to New York that day. I figured all the airports would be closed. So I went out to lunch with a family member [in New York on business]. When I got back to the hotel, I overheard that the airports had opened and quickly got a car and checked out."
Lyons took a direct flight back to Seattle, saying "I felt it was fine to fly. If anything, it was going to be a safer time to fly."
He was met at the airport by his parents, Greg and Peggy Lyons, and his girlfriend.
"They were real excited to see me," he said.
"I just wanted to say, walking up Broadway, I saw so many emergency vehicles rushing to the scene and I hope that as many people who were there to help were able to get out of harm's way. Their efforts were very, very greatly appreciated," he said.
Lyons grew up in Woodinville, attending Wellington Elementary, Leota Junior High and graduating from Woodinville High in 1997. He played on the baseball team, the football team and was on the '95 and '96 wrestling teams that earned the KingCo title. In addition to being a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley, he takes classes at the University of Washington in economics.
He is not partaking in any stress counseling, "Though it definitely is being offered," he said. "I'm doing as well as I can be," he said modestly. "I'm ready for the next challenge."
Lyons' corporate training has been rescheduled for late October in San Francisco.