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

34 Responses

  1. Thanks for posting John. I have heard this story before in bits and pieces from various guys on the Seeker, but I appreciate your writing it down in one coherent article so that I can share it.
  2. Unbelievable story John. I didn't realize how close you were to the whole thing. Wow!
  3. Dawn Callahan
    Thank you for sharing your incredible story in such detail for those of us who only witnessed this horrible event on television. It is imperative that we know the stories of the brave people on that fateful day, and I am certain your courage helped many people evacuate and saved lives. You are an amazing guy, JC.
  4. Jim
    Wow, is all I can say. Thank you for sharing your story, it really adds a personal twist to such a historic event, and day.
  5. Lance Lemcool
    John, Wow...your story brought back the memories of that day so vividly for me. I cannot imagine the horror you and the others in southern Manhattan endured that day. Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for your actions that day. It no doubt saved lives. While our acquaintanceship was brief, I am proud to have known you and I'm confident that my son, Cameron, looks back at his time he spent with you and the crew of the Beacon fondly, kicking himself that he didn't make the best of that opportunity. I look forward to reading your posts. Lance Lemcool
  6. Jeff Raffa
    Excellent narrative John. Thank You.
  7. Gregory Weidenfeld
    I knew you were close John, but not close. Thank the Lord you came away from the day without a scratch!
    • Gregory Weidenfeld
      I meant not THAT close
  8. Thanks John, the part that really stuck out was you were "humbled by the honorable conduct"....because when it's " go time" , that's America. Thanks for sharing that incredible story. My brother, Bill Conradi, shared this link with many.
  9. Jacky Ingram
    Wow! I can't comprehend what it was like in your shoes that day. Seeing the trailer you had been in flattened along with NY's finest and seeing the bodies falling from the towers - let alone EVERYTHING ELSE - I just can't fit it all in my head! It's distressing beyond belief. I was in the air at the time flying from Cleveland to Phoenix. We had been in the air about 45 minutes when we were told what was happening. When we learned aircraft were still possibly being hijacked, naturally there was a lot of concern on board for our lives. Obviously we were very lucky to not have been involved. My deepest respect goes out to you John (I'm extremely glad you weren't one of the victims) and to all the heroes, victims and others who witnessed this horrific event. God bless America.
  10. David Hambly
    Outstanding story. Outstanding Patriotism. You make me proud.
  11. Tracydr
    Thanks, John. I was stationed at Ft.Sill at the time. I was at home on surgery leave so I saw the whole thing on TV as it happened. The base that week was crazy with inspections at the gate. It would take at least an hour to get through the bomb check each day. I sure hope we never go through anything like this again. I lost a lot of friends in the first months of the Iraq war as well.
  12. Edward J. Palumbo
    I'm 66, and was born and raised on the lower East Side. I remember the docks that lined the Hudson River because my father was a longshoreman, as were most of my uncles. I watched the foundation being excavated and saw the WTC towers gradually rise until I relocated to the West Coast. A friend's office was on the 92nd floor, but he missed his usual LIRR commute and was late for work that morning, arriving after the first aircraft struck but before the second made contact. I was stunned to watch them struck, and shocked to see them collapse. My last visit to Manhattan was Year 2000. I haven't been back there since 9/11. I'll remember it as it was. Thank you for being there, John...for doing what you could. Ed Palumbo PADI Rescue Diver
  13. I will never forget that day. Yesterday I spent a lot of time thinking about the people who were forced to jump.
  14. Debbie Gray
    What a story. I ready Shaddow Diver and can imagine how well worn your horseshoes must be.
  15. Wow John, what a moving post. Thanks for sharing your experiences that horrible day. I'll be sharing this with our Dolphin Dive friends. Have a great day! Nicole
  16. Mark Potter
    Thanks John, incredible!
  17. Matteo Indelciato
    Wow, it moved me. Thanks for sharing.
  18. Ed Gibson
    John,I am almost 70 yrs old and you are my hero.I was not aware that you had cancer.I am so happy that you are still here with us and will be for some time.I always look forward to your work on tv.You and Richie make a GREAT team.You have made it your lifes work to educate us,thrill us and like Cousteau....make us make us want to take up diving.Be well my friend...Gods best.
    • John Chatterton
      I am flattered. Thank you. JC
  19. Mitch Scott
    How are you John?Knowing a little about you from Shadowdivers(0ne of the best books ever),your experiences in Vietnam,being a medic,all your diving experience,i'd say a lot of people down there on that day were very lucky to have a guy like you with your presence of mind assisting them.Obviously your not a man who panics under pressure,so your failure to evacuate with all your personal items was more of a testament to your caring about helping the it too late for a 56 year old type 1 diabetic to learn scuba diving?you and Richie make it utterly riveting. be well man
    • John Chatterton
      I am good, thanks for asking. Since you are diabetic, make sure your doctor approves of you diving, but I don't see any reason why your youth should hold you back? Go for it if you can. Cheers JC
      • Mitch Scott
        Thank you for the encouraging words.
  20. Amy Broughman
    I had no idea you were underfoot on 9/11. I have a good friend who worked at the stock exchange at that time and he told stories similar to yours, how people were helping and taking care of one another that day. Made me proud to be an American. Also had no idea you had cancer (you never write, you never call). I hope your health is tip top these days, I'll continue to keep you in my prayers. Thanks for sharing this story.
  21. Great write-up of a very tragic and difficult event. Very moving. Thank you. Stay well!
  22. I knew you were there, but had got the idea you were actually in the water, being diver myself, it would be interesting to know what the guys down under thought. When I read this, I had the thought: "some people, in their life, seem to live under the cloud of extra ordinary experiences. I thought about you as a child, in Vietnam, the wreck diving adventure of Hitler's U-boat, and on and on. I will be 75 next month and many times in my Navy career I had doubts of making through the next day or week. Your ethics and examples to us all who will pay attention are, when reduced to simple sounding terms, someone who gets the job done wherever and whenever life demands or presents them. Thanks from this old Master Chief, and call me whenever you need to talk to someone.
  23. Wondered if you had any picture of Bear the NYC Parks SAR K9 from your times in the harbor or responding to WTC incident? do you know Adam Brown?
    • John Chatterton
      I do not, and I do not know Adam Brown. Pretty much all the photos I have, are on my site. Sorry.
  24. John I have enjoyed your work and you gift for telling a story for many years but this is one of the most amazing stories you've told. Thank you for sharing that moment with us. I wonder about the many stories that will never be told and the heroic acts and the selfless compassion shown by strangers that day. They are a testement to humanity at its finest and an example of how we all should live our lives.
  25. Wow! That was some account of what was a day in history that changed our world forever. I remember watching it on tv - my wife and I sitting together in disbelieving silence with with tears rolling down our faces (which happened again just now reading your story). Thanks for sharing this story John. I have been a longtime follower of your adventures but did not know you were this close on that day. We are in another attack right now, that is proving to be devastating around the world and again and in particular your home state and New York City. Stand strong and stay safe! Your friends up here in Newfoundland, Canada.
    • John Chatterton
      Thank you for the very nice comments, Tim. JC
  26. First time I had read this account of 911 by you. The striking thing (to me) is I don't think it was an accident you being there on that day having that job etc. Sometimes we are used in ways that we don't understand. Your skills made you a great first responder. Take care
  27. Read your account of 9/11. We still live in Gateway and we escaped with our two young kids and German Shepherd on 9/11 as the South Tower came down on us. We met John Kvartek, the diver, before 9/11 and spoke to him a number of times on the Esplanade. He and his girlfriend also had German Shepherds and we met them once in Sandy Hook, NJ to run our dogs on the beach together. I often wondered what happened to him. If you see him, tell him we send our regards.
    • John Chatterton
      I used to go spearfishing off the beach in NJ, and stop by John's house to share my catch with his mom. We worked together a lot, and were good friends. He was working for another company along the bulkhead near where the ferries landed passengers at the end of Vessy St.on 911. Before Tower 2 fell, we ran into each other and discussed the possibility of us swimming across the river to Jersey if we had to? After 911 I only continued working in the City for another year or so before moving on, so I did not see much of John after that, and have not seen him in years. JC

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