My two friends Roy Bell and James “JR” Richard stayed up late the night of September 10th, 2001 watching Monday Night football, and having a few drinks at a Jersey City bar a couple blocks from the Hudson River.
After the game–and after paying a large bar tab– they headed home, promising to meet each other for the 8 a.m. ferry from Jersey City to World Trade Center for work the next day.
The next morning JR was on time, and finding Roy was late, went on without him.
Roy arrived at the ferry for the 8:30 a.m. boat, which was going to make him late for his morning meeting at Windows On The World at the top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Hustling to make up time, he hurried off the ferry boat, and walked fast toward the twin towers.
He took the elevator to the so called sky lobby on the 78th floor, where riders had to change elevators to proceed higher.
Roy got on the elevator going up, last among a group of others. He stood right in front of the doors as they were closing, the elevator headed to the 101st floor.
As the doors were closing, an enormous force shook the building. He had no way of knowing, but it was American Airlines flight 11 slamming into the building only sixteen floors above.
All he knew at that moment was the elevators doors hesitated, leaving an eighteen inch opening. He dove through it as a ball of flaming fuel roared down the elevator shaft. One other person managed to get through the small opening of the elevator doors, a woman. She later said of Roy, “He ran like a deer and I followed.”
A flaming glob of jet fuel roared down the elevator shaft, incinerating everyone else in the elevator. A tongue of flame shot through the opening of the elevator doors and set afire the clothes of both Roy and the woman he’d led to semi-safety. Port Authority workers in the sky lobby quickly patted out the burning clothes, and Roy started to think of how to get out.
By now workers of the North Tower were calmly headed down the fire staircase. Owing to the obvious–their charred clothing and hair– people let Roy and the woman he saved go ahead, and they hurried down 78 floors to the ground.
By the time they reached the ground United Airlines flight 175 had slammed into the South Tower, and chaos had engulfed the World Trade Center.
Searching for help–EMTs, ambulances–they headed the wrong direction, toward West Street. A cop told them to go the other way. West Street was closed. Bodies were falling from the top floors, jumpers who chose death by free fall over death by flame.
When they got out of the building they were separated by triage workers who sent woman in one direction–her burns were more serious–and Roy in another.
Roy was put in an ambulance headed for St. Vincent’s Hospital, but only a block or two away the ambulance was called back to pick up more injured. Roy recalled a cop saying the building wasn’t sound and told the driver he’d get out and walk the few blocks to St. Vincent’s.
He remembers turning around, watching the ambulance speed back, and then seeing it disappear in a cloud of dust as the South Tower collapsed.
Roy Bell was almost killed twice that day.
He escaped both times by a the slimmest of margins.
Twelve years ago Roy Bell had teenage kids, today they are adults. Meanwhile, he and his wife have had a baby, a little girl. He’s one of those guys who has a little kid in his fifties. She’s the joy of his life.
It was a little luck and a lot of clear thinking that saved him that day. And made it possible for one more human to have a life.
I have told this story before. If you have heard it before, thanks for your patience. Let me assure you I think of Roy, and his wife and his little girl–and I tell this story to someone– every single year in early September.