The Elevator Man's Tale
Featuring the unabridged transcript and audio.

Robert Jones
Age: 52
Hometown: Montgomery
Family: Two children
Occupation: Elevator mechanic for Ace Elevator in the World Trade Center
Was in the south tower when the first plane hit.


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I’m from Montgomery. I work for Ace Elevator.

I originally started down at the trade center in 1973 with Otis Elevator when the towers were just about completed, and I was transferred out of the trade center in ’75. After that I worked for Otis Elevator. I came back to the trade center in ’98, and up ’til September 11 was working as a mechanic on the elevators.

On the morning of September 11 at about a quarter to nine, a partner and I came out of a motor room and walked over to the windows overlooking the Hudson River.

That was on the 43rd floor. And as we turned to walk away, that’s when the first plane hit and we heard the explosion.
We turned to look out, at least I did, turned and looked out over the Hudson and at the other tower, which was nearby, which overlapped B Tower. A Tower was hit first. Within a few seconds, shards of the plane and pieces of the building started to impact B Tower.

You could hear the explosion. You could feel it.

And naturally the pieces of the whatever, the wreckage or building parts starting to impact B Tower started to create tremendous banging noises.

I started to back away from the side of B Tower. The mechanic I was with was there in ’93, and he thought immediately that that was an explosion or a bomb or something went off.

I remember looking down at the ground, seeing a shadow of a plane, and I was about to turn to him and say, “That plane is flying low,” and that’s when we turned around, that’s when the plane impacted.

I made that statement that I thought it was an airplane at that moment of impact, and he kind of put it off because he thought it was a bomb, but I told him I thought it was an airplane because now I remember seeing the shadow. Plus the fact that right after the plane had hit A Tower, pieces of the plane coming down and then suddenly tons of paper.

The sky was quite literally filled with paper, and the Hudson River, the landscape and A Tower disappeared in eight and a half by eleven sheets of paper. It was a waterfall of paper.

And we went to the windows before we left, and I looked down on the top of this hotel, and I could see pieces of burning parts of the plane. We immediately turned around and started to go toward an escalator, and as we started to go up the escalator, people were coming down not knowing. We were leaving that floor because, by this time, I realized that we had to now to get upstairs to get down we had to go up from 43 to 44 which was the sky lobby, the second-zone sky lobby.

And we decided at that moment after that impact that we’d better get out of there. As we started to go up this escalator, I started to tell people to evacuate, to get down out of the building. Some people thought I was crazy, others started to realize as they looked down at the bottom they saw people starting to run up, come up that escalator very quickly. So a lot of people did, in fact, evacuate that 43rd floor.

As we got into the sky lobby area, there were shuttle cars that had come up from the first floor from the lobby. I started to shut those down at that 44th floor. People in the local elevators coming down from the floors above in the second zone, now there were more people in fact coming down out of those elevators than there were going up because usually it’s a very busy time of the morning when people are coming up into the building. A lot of people were coming down out of those local cars, some of them were trying to get into the shuttle cars. I shut them down.

The shuttle cars were those cars that would run from a lobby up to a zone. They had three zones in the building. They had the first zone which ran from one to 42, then the second zone started from 44 up to 76, and the third zone started from 78 up to 110.

They could hold, theoretically – I remember reading this years ago when I first got there – they could hold up to 60 people, but there was no way they could put that many people in. They were talking about, I think, load capacity. They could, those cars themselves, could hold up to 12,000 pounds of weight.

The local cars were smaller cars. Now the shuttles were designed to run at a high speed to get the people from the first floor up to the sky lobbies, the designated sky lobbies. And then once they disembarked the shuttle car, they can go to their local bank of elevators. In other words, they would be on a particular floor, they would take a group of six cars, and they were smaller cars, naturally, but then they could go up to their appropriate floors. At the time when I started to try to get people to get out from the elevators down the staircase, I also started to shut down some of the local cars that were taking people down and take them out of service so there was no chance of people getting stuck in a car.

We were in B Tower at the time A Tower was hit. B Tower had suffered no real damage that it shut the building power down. A lot of people wanted to take elevators down, and I stopped them.

Other people as well. A partner of mine was standing there, we were doing this together. At the time, there was maybe within a 10-minute time period when things started to quiet down on the 44th-floor sky lobby. When people, in fact a lot of people, came down from the second zone and headed down the staircases from the 44th floor.

That’s when we decided to go down. And that may have been within a minute, about a 15- to 20-minute period after that impact of A Tower and before B Tower got hit.

When I got downstairs, I received calls on my radio from my bosses. They wanted everyone to meet in the lobby of B Tower. This is a plan that they had designed years before ’93, and when the bomb went off there, to get a certain area to meet, to have all the personnel meet either outside the building proper or within the building to meet and plan their next move. Basically in ’93 they got the people outside and then they decided to set up a plan where certain teams were set up to go up and help evacuate people.

At the moment, we were in B Tower. Not all personnel were there, naturally, because this was within a 15- 20-minute period after A Tower was impacted. We had at least maybe two-thirds of the total personnel that were there – close to 70 to 80 people that work for Ace at that time. We had repair, maintenance and monitorization people there. So there was a big crew of personnel.

In the lobby, some of the bosses were calling, they were taking head count, they were trying to figure out who was there, who was missing. They would come up with a name, they would call him on the radio. And in most cases, nobody was answering.

Apparently, the radio system we had entailed a repeater that was stationed someplace around the towers. I think it was on the rooftop of 7 World Trade. And that was damaged, but some people were receiving calls, some couldn’t.

In the meantime, the bosses that were there in the lobby were trying to take a head-count, trying to consolidate their different groups, either repair or maintenance, trying to coordinate an activity where everybody would be in a certain spot in the lobby.

I decided to walk over toward the south side of B Tower to look out to see what kind of damage was outside the building.

And when I looked out, there was pieces of debris everywhere. And all of the cars, just about all the cars parked across the south, the other side of the street, on Liberty Street, near a small Greek church, they were all on fire.

And there was only one person. I remember looking back and walking down the middle of Liberty Street, looking down at all these pieces of debris, I’m assuming body parts, ’cause I really didn’t go outside at that moment, ’cause we were trying, everybody was being held within the building, in the lobby.

As I turned around to go back toward the core of the building in the lobby, the second plane hit, and that shook the building.

We heard the explosion and within a matter of seconds after that impact, I heard – and as well as everybody else heard – this noise, this increasing sound of wind. And it was getting louder and louder. It was like a bomb, not quite the sound of a bomb coming down from a bomber. It was a sound of wind increasing, a whistling sound, increasing in sound.

I’m looking from the lobby up to a mezzanine area or the second floor where they lined up all the people to go up to the rooftop, and I’m looking up expecting something, building parts to be coming down, because I wasn’t quite sure what that noise was.

But I found out later, when the plane came through the building, it cut the hoist ropes, the governor ropes, of (the) 6 and 7 cars, which was the observation cars.

Every night they would park those two cars up on the 107th floor. At the time the plane impacted B Tower, the observation deck wasn’t open yet, which was another life-saving factor. At the time it impacted the building, they hadn’t opened the observation deck.    

Had they, there would’ve been many, maybe another 1,000, 2,000 people on the rooftop, because it was a clear day. It was a beautiful day.

What we heard was 6 and 7 car free-falling from the 107th floor and they impacted the basement at B-2 Level. And that’s the explosion that filled the lobby within a matter of two or three seconds, engulfed the lobby in dust, smoke.

And apparently from what I talked to with other mechanics, they saw the doors, the hatch doors blow off in the lobby level of 6 and 7 car.

So right after that explosion, we were ordered to leave the building.

There was a story that came out in USA Today that said we all ran out like cowards. The reporter, Dennis Couchin, has been advised as to what had happened and he’s going to rewrite his story. I’m just putting this in right now because I feel it’s necessary, because the men that were there in ’93, most of them, a lot of them were still there.

I regret that we had to leave the building. This is something I still feel a lot of heartache over. And there’s not much we could’ve done. And there is nothing you could do.

I know a lot of the other trades had contingency plans as well, and they were trying to get their personnel together. And there was mass chaos, mass confusion all around.

I exited with one of my bosses, with another mechanic, on Church Street. We went underneath on the concourse level where all the shops were. And we came up on Church Street which was on the east side of the complex. That was, Church Street was the avenue that runs north and south, parallels Broadway. And we came up outside, and both A Tower and B Tower are on fire.

You could see A Tower, the outside, the columns were glowing red by that time, because that had been on fire for at least a good 25 minutes by that time. B Tower, I could see tremendous structural damage to the outside of the building. We stood on the corner across the street from the towers.

There were about two or three bosses, I believe, trying to count heads again, trying to get as many people together, calling on the radio, trying to consolidate all the manpower as much as they could, which was really almost an impossible job because of the thousands of people that were coming out of the trade center on the street. There was mass confusion. And we were right on the perimeter of St. Paul’s Church, and we started up not Cortlandt Street, Fulton Street.

We were ordered to go from Church Street up to Broadway. We stood there for about 20 minutes or so, and as we started to go up another block, we were about a block and a half away when B Tower finally came down. By the time we got that block and a half up, thousands of people started running toward us. I saw a little bit of B Tower coming down.
We started to go with the flow, go with the crowd, because it was overwhelming, the number of people running back toward you. We ended up down on the South Street Seaport Museum.

As much as we tried, there were quite a few people, must’ve been about 20 or 30 people from our group, Ace Elevator, in the museum area.

There wasn’t much we could do at that moment other than watch the crowds and people covered with dust and whatever, so we ended up going into PS 17 and sitting down. Everybody had soda and some drinks, and a lot of the men decided to leave, try to get out.
The interesting thing was we were on the end of Pier 17 overlooking the East River. There was at least maybe 20, 30 tugboats sitting near Pier 17, and it was incredible because it was almost like Dunkirk when they came in and tried to get all the British soldiers off France, the continent.

This is what the tugboats were coming in, because people were trying to get off Manhattan Island, and you could see thousands of people crossing the bridges, the Brooklyn Bridge. People literally, quite literally, jumping over to get on to these tugboats to get off Manhattan Island.

Some of the other workers that I had worked with, the mechanic that was up on the 43rd floor, ended up going to Staten Island. He lives in Jersey. He was telling me horror stories, people leaping off the ferry. The end of the dock where the ferry boat was pulling out, they would just run off trying to grab the ferry boat, it was unbelievable. They actually stopped a few times in the bay to pick people up in the bay, throw life preservers.

People were serious about getting off Manhattan. So it ended up, the one boss, my boss, and another mechanic and I stayed. We were the last of the group.

My boss decided he was going to go back to find the head of the elevator division for the Port Authority, Joe Amatucio. This was at maybe 11, 11:30, maybe 12, we decided to go back toward the trade center.

From what my boss was telling me, he remembers Joe Amatucio coming out of the building, but I’m not sure if he had talked to them or overheard them on the radio, but he was going back into the complex to try to find some of his own people, but he never made it out. He was one of the few that I know of.

There were a couple of people I knew that worked for the building. You did a story on Carmen Griffen, one of the elevator operators, I know her. So this was, she was lucky to get out, very lucky.

And some of the operators then, people in 50 car – 50 car was the car that ran the entire length of the building when the planes came through. In B Tower, they cut the hoist ropes on 50 car A and B – there were two cars in each tower. Basically the buildings were very similar in design, and as far as their elevator structure, it was very similar. So you had matching elevators in each tower. And 50 car, in each tower, ran all floors from B6 up to 109. So that was, again, one of the cars, like 6 and 7 car in A Tower, they ran up to the Windows of the World. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like when the planes came through.

Well I’m not sure about B Tower 6 and 7. They may hopefully been just sitting there idle at that time, I hope. In A Tower, Windows of the World was open. There were people up there. And I think they opened 6 or 7 in the morning for breakfast, and there were people, some people would line up coming out of the hotel, Vista Hotel, they’d come into the lobby of A Tower, and I’m sure, I’m sure that, you know, there must’ve been people on board.

Well you’re talking seconds now. It could take you on an average trip up, if you went non-stop at full speed, these cars, these elevators, the shuttle cars were designed to run at 1,600 foot per minute. I’m not sure how long it took to get up to the 107th floor, full speed. I think it was less, little less than a minute, little over a minute, I believe. But coming down at that rate, you’re free-falling and it’s dead weight, so it came down like a bomb, and that’s what it sounded like.

And the noise, the wind noise we heard was, you have to picture that there are two cars or cabs in a hoist length. And a hoist weighs only so big, and it’s encapsulated by walls, so as these two cars came, fell together, the air pressure underneath would cause that sound that we heard.

And this is one of the problems they had in the early days down there where they had two shuttles running side by side. They had to get the dispatching set up. And during construction, they hadn’t quite gotten that system set up yet.

So every once in a while, they’d have two shuttles running down side by side and scare the heck out of the people, you know. It wasn’t free-falling, but it made the wind noise, made it sound that way. And the vibration and the pressure.

So I got out of the city the next day. I stayed in the city, I stayed around, I waited, we went back, my boss and I walked back toward the trade center. We got as far as Broadway.
The fire department now had set up a perimeter around the trade center, a block away. He tried to cross at certain streets, Fulton Street and Cortlandt Street. And he came back and we went up to the other corner of St. Paul’s Church which is Vesey Street, which is on the north side and it borders the north side of the trade center complex.

The firemen told us, “Go ahead, if you want to kill yourselves, go ahead.”

And so the two of us went down and we got to Church Street. I got as far as Church Street and Vesey Street. I’m looking at the northeast plaza, which was No. 5, which was totally engulfed in flames, and it was only two trucks. One truck kept running out of water pressure, the other truck was trying to fight a fierce fire with one hose. You know, it was just incredible, and the heat was intense and the smoke.

I had to put a handkerchief over my face just to block the smoke from inhaling that. And my boss disappeared into the smoke. He went south to try and find his friend.

It was, if you could envision that picture of right after they fell, the big, you know the sides of B Tower laying in the middle of Church Street, piercing the structure, then the street, it was incredible.

So I stayed around there for at least another two hours hoping that my boss would come back up that way, but he never did.

He ended up going south and I went north. I stayed up in midtown. I knew a couple of job sites from my days working with Otis, so I stayed up there. I stayed on one job site up there. And then I went home the next day.

I look back at it sometimes. I think about the potential that was there, and I worry. But I don’t know why. Some of the people I work with, they do have problems, did have problems.

I’m working at a different job site now. But every once in a while when I hear something bang in the building, I jump.

It’s incredible, because it stays with you. And I don’t know how to explain it.

It’s just, I, when I looked up at the towers, it was, what I tell my friends was, I saw them go up and I saw them come down. Because quite literally, I worked in the city in ’68, ’69, ’70.
I worked in Wall Street. And I saw them going up in ’73. I took pictures from when the building was still under construction. They still had a kangaroo crane, that was when I first got there. They were just finishing off A Tower and they were finishing off B Tower. So I was still there during the construction phase. And I came back, it was kind of ironic coming back and then being there the day they fell.

I’m working, basically, working in a tall building now. You’re riding in a horse, you gotta’ get back on if you fall off type of deal.

I visited a friend on a job site up on 58th Street a couple of months ago. It was the Time Warner AOL Building on Columbus Circle, and they were taking up a load of steel and the steel shifted.

And I almost ran down the block because I was outside and they was behind me and all of a sudden I heard that banging noise, hearing that steel coming down that time.
And it spooked me, quite literally.

© 2002 Orange County Publications, a division of Ottaway Newspapers Inc., all rights reserved. An abridged version of this transcript appeared in the Sept. 8, 2002, editions of the Times Herald-Record. *The Times Herald-Record is not affiliated with RealNetworks and is not responsible for any difficulties involved with using its product. Please refer all technical support questions about the player to RealNetworks. Click here to see the system requirements for the RealOne Player.