9/11 eyewitness (opinion): 'I could see silhouettes of people ... on the plane before the impact'

I find it ironic that I was born on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, fifteen years after it occurred, and later witnessed what happened at the World Trade Center 45 years later from an office building not far away.

If Pearl Harbor was my alpha, I vowed that the World Trade Tower attacks would not be my omega. It was not an easy road for me. I defy any eyewitness to say they did not suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Thanks to ordinary people, most of us who survived made it through the other side.

It started as a typical day. A rush to the train to take the trip to Grand Central Station, and then the subway ride on the No. 4 or 5 train to Wall Street. The sky was blue and the air was fresh. I was scheming to leave work a little early so I could get to the beach for a walk before the sun set. I had just started at a law firm on the 57th floor of the Chase Building as an associate, having gotten my law degree a year before. I was late to the law profession, but finally landed a job in the city. Leaving work early was not going to be easy.

I managed to get a seat on the subway at Grand Central and began the trek downtown. The subway was slower than usual, so I didn’t get to Wall Street until 8:46 a.m., just after the first plane hit the North Tower. Oblivious, I exited the subway station to the sight of black smoke powering down onto the street. Thinking the building over the subway station was on fire, I rushed across the street. Papers were streaming from the sky. I thought it odd that memos and files were falling around me. I looked down and saw a plane ticket, which puzzled me.

I could see an angry black hole in the North Tower. The streets were filled with people. As I crossed to Liberty Place a fireman held back the crowd so a fire truck could pass. I still remember the faces of the men hanging off the truck as they raced toward the building. Their truck was later found in the debris. My mind has blocked out other things I saw, though images sometimes push through.

All of us thought the plane strike was an accident. I helped a woman who had been in Deutsche Bank and wanted to get through to her husband to tell her she was OK. My cell phone worked (one of the few that did). But I told her to come to my office so she could call from there. We arrived at 9 a.m. We could see the towers from my office and watched as she called her husband. At 9:02 a.m. I saw a large, gray plane fly down the river, bank left, and aim directly for the South Tower. It leveled off, and I could hear it throttle down before it slammed into the South Tower. I could see silhouettes of people sitting in their seats on the plane before the impact.

I grabbed my briefcase and left. I could have taken the elevator but decided not to, in case another plane was heading for our building. I walked the 57 stories to street level (no easy task). It was pandemonium.

I decided I should not hang around that area and started the long walk to Grand Central. The decision probably saved my life, as the South Tower fell when I got to the City Hall area. I ran as fast as I could ahead of the plume of dust and debris billowing through the area. I did not look back as I continued uptown.

Silence followed as I walked toward Grand Central, which was closed due to fears of bombs in the station. I continued walking, until I flagged down an express bus to the Bronx. I called my parents to tell them I was OK and I would be in the Bronx. I made it home later that day physically unscathed, but mentally bruised.

In the days and months and even years to follow I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. I did not speak of that day and cried myself to sleep every night for months. I had to go back to work three days later. The sights, sounds and smell remain with me 20 years later. To say going to work in a war zone is unnerving is an understatement. Instead of my usual Wall Street subway stop I took the subway to Fulton Street and walked the rest of the way on a route where I would not see the pile. It did not shelter me from the soldiers with semi-automatic weapons and the smoldering rubble that remained for weeks. For the remainder of my time at the law firm, my office shades remained closed as I could not look out the window to where the World Trade towers once stood.

I was lucky to have a family that was patient and I was able to emerge from the darkness, vowing to make a difference in my town. I left the law firm in New York and ventured out on my own. The events of Sept. 11 have led me on a journey of public service — first as an elected volunteer on Greenwich’s Representative Town Meeting and now as an elected volunteer on the Board of Estimate and Taxation. I have performed countless hours of pro bono legal services for those who are mentally ill and find themselves in the court system, and have counseled those who find themselves unable to help themselves and face conservatorships.

Every Sept. 11 I watch the ceremony at the former World Trade site and listen to the names of each person who perished. This year will not be any different. I witnessed their murders and feel it is my duty to make sure that they are remembered by me for as long as I am blessed to be on this Earth. I have not yet been able to go to any public ceremonies. The memory is still too raw, even after 20 years, for me to be in public. But I carry the weight of that day and the weight of what I saw every day since. I did not know the people who died, but they are a part of me and shall be so forever. I will never forget them. We all should never forget them.

Karen Fassuliotis is chair of the Greenwich Board of Estimate and Taxation.