Remembering 911: First Person

John Chatterton At work in front of  Twin Towers, NYC 911

Me at work in Brooklyn with the Twin Towers in the background, in the summer of 1999.

It was only months since I had finished treatment for cancer, and after all the surgery, chemo and radiation, I had not only survived, but I was starting to feel sort of like my old pre-cancer self.

I was working as the diving supervisor on a job under the World Financial Center, across West St. from the World Trade Center. When they built the World Trade Center, instead of trucking the fill from the excavation to Jersey, they used it to make more Manhattan. Back in the 70's when they built Battery Park City they used the fill from the WTC excavations. However, they left a 200' wide clear path above each PATH tunnel. All of the fill was contained with heavy timber bulkheads, with pilings supporting the building overhead.

The Hudson River actually ran under the World Financial Center above the two PATH trains, all the way into the old West St. seawall built in the 1940's. From the Battery Park Promenade along the river, back to the old seawall, was almost a quarter mile. Under WFC, the river rose and fell with the tides in a lightless cavern-like environment covered in concrete, timber, and steel.

Over time, the timbers began to fail, and some of the fill was leaching out, so our job was to dig down to expose the timber bulkheads, and then encase them in a steel reinforced concrete wall. There was one bulkhead running along each side of the two tunnels, so we had 4 bulkheads to work on, each running about 900 feet in length. So, we had something like 3,600 feet of bulkhead to work on, but to make it even more difficult, we had to do it all from the two access points buried beneath the lawn of the WFC along West St. On the river side was the North Cove Marina, and we could not work from that side, without shutting down the Marina. The Marina was a big money maker, and shutting it down was unthinkable, especially for years. All in all, it was a cool job, and being on a job in Battery Park for a few years was serious job security for a commercial diver.

On Tuesday morning, I was running late, which was not unusual, and was pulling on my wetsuit in my office in the construction trailer right along West St. when I heard a huge roar, then an explosion.

John Chatterton's view of 911 tower 1 after hit From the trailer

View from the door of my trailer only seconds after the first plane hit Tower 1

I went to the door of my trailer and looked up to see a large black and orange fireball that was high up on the south side of Tower 1. It was shooting out to the side, to the south, not up. It was fierce, and I had no idea what I was looking at? Then, the debris started falling. I went back into the trailer, and when I no longer heard debris bouncing off the trailer roof, I came out. There were already people injured, and I assume dead, in the street.

Four Japanese tourists who did not speak English came up to me covered in blood. They were hysterical, but none of them seemed injured? I could not find out where the blood came from, so I assumed it was from someone else. They were in shock, and needed help, so I just sat them down on the curb. I had 10 guys under WFC working, and I had no idea if they were okay or not, so I had to get moving. The police and firefighters were on the way.

I went to the Comm Shack and had the Tender locate everyone, and confirm that they were okay. Everyone was to drop what they were doing, return to the dive station, and take the boat to the exit ASAP. One of the operating engineers told me that he saw a plane fly into the north side of Tower 1. Already, we could see bodies falling from the upper floors to the street. They were all black, colorless, lifeless shapes, falling from the raging fire above. I do not think anyone jumped, I just think they could not hold on anymore.

I was counting heads when one of my guys shouted, “Here comes another one!!”

By the time we got everyone out of the water, there were cops and firefighters running all over the place. We used the crane to place a steel road plate to cover the entrance opening so none of the emergency services guys would end up in the water, and I was counting heads when one of my guys shouted, "Here comes another one!!"

I turned around right as the second plane hit. At least now we knew this was not some aviation accident, we were under attack. Most of us made our way from West St back to the Promenade on the river where the ferries were transporting people out of Manhattan over to Jersey.

John Chatterton Looking at Tower 1 from Jobsite

Looking at Tower 1 on 9/13/01 from the old job site

Another dive company was doing the same job we were doing under the WFC, but along the riverside bulkheads. They had a barge tied up along the Promenade north of the Marina. I saw another commercial diver friend of mine, John Kvartek, on the barge. We all discussed our options in case things got even worse, and talked about the possibility of swimming across the Hudson, and over to Jersey?

I was out on the Promenade when Tower 2 fell. It seemed strange that the second Tower to be hit, was the first to fall. There was a tremendous amount of dust and smoke, and I kept thinking when it cleared, that both Towers would somehow still be there. What I did not know was that Tower 2 had fallen on our construction trailers. One of our trailers was taken over by the NYFD as a command center, and when Tower 2 fell, the top 5 Firefighters in NYC lost their lives in that trailer.

From the barge, we pulled a guy out of the water. He was covered in gray dust, and the water made it like clay. He looked like a statue, and I was amazed that he did not sink like a stone. He told us that he worked in Tower 2. After the plane hit Tower 1, they were told to evacuate. He almost got out of the building when they said everyone could go back to work, so he started back up. Then the second plane hit, so he headed out of the building for the second time that day.

He told us that the electric had been knocked out, and the stairways were dark, filled with smoke, and full of people heading down while firefighters were heading up. When he got out of the building, he ran. Some people were sitting or laying down after the ordeal in the stairwell, but this guy ran and said he told the others to run. He ran to the river. Behind him, he heard the building collapse, and he was surrounded by dust and beaten by debris, but he kept running. He kept running even though he could not breathe. Then he hit something. He recognized the railing of the Promenade, and to escape the dust, he jumped over the railing, and into the water, and that was where he was until we pulled him onto the barge. He was convinced he was the last one out to the building to make it out alive, but who knows?

One of our trailers was taken over by the NYFD as a command center, and when Tower 2 fell, the top 5 Firefighters in NYC lost their lives in that trailer.

Fire Engine at the fallen Tower Site 911  NYC

Fire Engines 9/13/01

The collapse of Tower 2 also threw a huge amount of debris and dust towards the river, all down Vesey St, and wiped out the ferry boat loading station. By now there were lots of ferries, but no dock to load people, so the ferries started nosing up to the Promenade bulkhead, and loading people over the handrail. Because of the tide, it was a 6' drop and very difficult and dangerous to get people onto the boats.

There was no panic. It was women, children, handicapped and the elderly people, first. It was organized chaos. As people were loading, you would hear things like a call from the back, "I have a woman with a child back here!", and it would be like a sea parting right up to the boat. Then all sorts of help to get them over the rail, and onto the ferry. I am still humbled by the honorable conduct of the people on the Promenade that day.

John Chatterton Battery Park NYC job site before construction 911

My job site, pre-construction

John Chatterton Job Site Two Days after 911 NYC

My Job Site, and WFC, two Days after 9-11

I had cut up my sweatshirt to make something to help keep the dust out of our mouths, and passed it around to the guys I was with, and strangers nearby. I had jeans, a T-shirt, underwear, my knife, my glasses, a chapstick, and shoes with no socks. No wallet, no cell phone, no money, no keys, no car. I did not plan my evacuation very well. Eventually, I made my way home to the Highlands, NJ, which is by Sandy Hook, across from NYC. From the Twin Lights Lighthouse, I could see the plume of smoke originating from the WTC site, drifting past the Jersey shore and south as far as I could see. It lasted for more than a week. Somewhere, my wife still keeps the shoes I wore that day. They still have the distinctive smell of dust and smoke of 911.

To all the men and women who have served in the military in the twelve years since 911, you have my sincerest thanks and my utmost respect. Many of you decided to serve specifically because of what happened on 911. All of you have had to sacrifice something while some of you have had to sacrifice everything. You are better than we deserve.


Photos by Danny D'Aquila and John Yurga