I adore this speech. It touches my very sad heart.
Meet Tim, a 9/11 survivor from the 61st Floor. I first printed his story in 2001 when I was a mere newspaper reporter, traumatized by the attack on my country and commissioned to keep my emotions detached and do my job. It wasn't an easy couple of weeks. Instead, days after 9/11, days without sleep, I went home as the sun went down, turned on my TV, and mourned my country like an American, not a reporter.
I heard the first notes of panic listening to a morning show on my drive into work that infamous day. By the time I had arrived at the news room, our country would never go back to the lackadaisical world only an hour earlier. Dispatched to the Tulsa International Airport, I watched the towers collapse in a crowded airport restaurant standing shoulder to shoulder with Americans from all over the country grounded on their way to a different destination.
Standing in a daze, numb with shock like the rest of the country, I overheard a man talking to a stewardess. He was a safety officer for American Airlines, grounded and confused and worried about his fellow airline personnel. I chased him down the crowded lobby, cornered him near a exit door, and pleaded for a few minutes in the midst of national frenzy and panic.
Graciously, he talked to me about what he KNEW had happened. Those pilots were dead, he said. Long before they flew into the buildings, they were dead. No way would any of them release their command of the plane other than through physical force. Safety had been breached and here's the truth, he told me, it wouldn't be all that hard to accomplish.
His co-workers were dead. And many more might be, as well. I learned this moments before the Pentagon attack report, moments before the crash in Pennsylvania.
Americans bonded then. All of us. We joined together and realized, no matter our personal political views, we all wanted to live. We wanted our families safe. We wanted the glory of America to rise again.
And it has.
What we can never do is trivialize the tragedy for politically-correct purposes. We must remember. So here, yet again, is my time with Tim Veldstra, a 9/11 survivor from the 61st Floor. His story will always be a part of our own.
A WITNESS to INFAMY
Tim Veldstra watched burning papers flap against the window from his view on the 61st Floor. It must have been an explosion. It could have been an accident. It had to be coming from the other building.
He walked out of the coffee room inside the World Trade Center, second twin tower, on September 11, 2001, and looked for an explanation. It was 8:45 a.m. on the infamous morning and Veldstra had no idea of what was happening.
He had been thinking about his wife and daughter back home in Tulsa when he heard a boom.
"It was like a ticker tape parade falling down in front of my window," Veldstra said.
He had flown into New York from Tulsa three days earlier on a three-week trip. Veldstra, a financial adviser, had been only briefly oriented with the building the day before.
"The first day up there the first thing you want to do is look out those windows," Veldstra said, concerning the World Trade Center. "We went around to all the windows on our break." From one window you could look down on Staten Island and the Statue of Liberty.
Now beginning his second day and taking his coffee with creme and sugar, Veldstra left the break room and walked into the hallway to see a broken window and shattered glass on the floor. Believing an explosion had occurred in the other building, he walked around to the windows still looking for an explanation.
He was unaware of the dramatic sequence of events that had started their decent into history. The second tower, his building, would be attacked in a matter of minutes.
"I was in trouble and did not know it," but God did, Veldstra said.
Still on the 61st Floor, he heard the intercom system switch on and a man saying, "We need to evacuate the building. We need to use the stairs."
But where were the exits?
"I didn't see any exit for stairs, This was my second day," Veldstra said. He headed back into his office to grab his briefcase before heading to the exit. "Everyone else left everything - purses, wallets, laptop computers. They thought we would be back in a couple of hours."
Through the single door exit, he stepped into the small walking area.
"The staircase was no bigger than you would have in your house."
He had walked the sidewalks of New York his first night in town following a late dinner and had been shoulder to shoulder in a crowd. Now again he found himself in the midst of a crowd, many of them panicking, as they headed shoulder to shoulder down the narrow staircase.
"We headed down, turned a corner, at Floor 60 there were people coming in. We headed down, turned a corner, at Floor 59 there were people coming in."
Outside the narrow staircase now jammed with people, the world had begun watching. Every radio station broadcast the breaking news, every television program was interrupted, every life had tuned in to witness Veldstra's life.
"I had no fear at all. Some people did. Some people were terrified," he said.
Before he had left Oklahoma, Veldstra's trip had received a lot of prayers.
"My wife was just not feeling good with letting me go," he said. Every person they knew, every person they met, she would say, "Tim's going to New York. Pray for Tim." They would go to Wal-Mart and see people they knew and she'd say, "Tim's going to New York. Pray for Tim." Someone would call their house and she'd say, "Tim's going to New York. Pray for Tim."
As he walked down the stairs, Veldstra knew her feelings had prompted thousands of prayers on his behalf. When he had arrived in New York days earlier, he had called her the first evening, "See? I'm fine."
But now he understood.
The intercom switched on again. The man said, "Your building is secure," then incomprehensible words, and then a repeat, "Your building is secure."
The noise level in the staircase was too high, too crowded, too garbled for many to understand. Nonetheless, some turned away and headed back, perishing when the tower collapsed.
Veldstra kept on.
Feeling he had not yet found his explanation, Veldstra continued, one step at a time behind the person in front of him like the person in front of them, and so on, and so on.
The air had become muggy. It would eventually take him half an hour to climb down the tower.
Past the 31st Floor, Veldstra met with the second event.
Inside the staircase, the entire building moved from one side and then swing back to the other side, absorbing the shock from the second plane. However, inside, the wall to wall crowd knew nothing.
"People started screaming, pushing and shouting," he said. He needed to stop. he wanted to take a minute and consider stopping.
Up against the wall, Veldstra said people continued "coming by like a herd of cattle, pounding into my chest."
The panic had caused an increased pressure from people behind to move quickly. Although he considered stopping on a floor to escape the crowd, Veldstra started the descent again.
"We just kept going floor by floor by floor all the way from 61."
Less than 10 floors to go, smoke filled the already stuffy staircase. At Floor Seven, the smoke started and grew thicker as they continued down. Some covered their mouths with handkerchiefs or articles of clothing. He just prayed for an open door at the bottom of the staircase.
"I still did not have any fear, but I had all kinds of people praying for me," Veldstra said.
In the lobby, he was directed by security, firefighters, and police officers to head through the mall instead of exit out the front where feet of debris had been piled.
Now blocks away, the crowd was no longer pressed to keep moving.
Meeting up with fellow co-workers from Oklahoma, Veldstra and the group headed toward the hotel as he glanced up at the holes in the building, still unaware of what had caused it. Walking away, he heard a woman scream and turned around once more.
"There was something falling and I did not even know what it was," he said.
Then he comprehended. People were jumping out of the building.
"Seeing those people fall is the most sickening feeling. They fell so long," Veldstra said.
The seriousness of the situation met him at Ground Zero.
Although he would soon understand, Veldstra said he found it difficult to absorb the idea the situation had been hopeless for these people, so dire was the circumstance they leaped out the windows with no hope for survival.
A mile away, Veldstra and the Oklahoma group walked from behind several buildings to get their last chance at seeing the towers, but they had disappeared. The landmarks were gone, vacating the New York skyline.
"The first thing I see from the television in (my hotel) lobby is the plane flying into the building."
Now he had his explanation. now he knew what the rest of the world knew. He had escaped, thousands had not.
Veldstra said his experience is his testimony of God's goodness, a testimony he tells frequently since that day, a testimony he'll tell until his last day.
The World Trade Center site is shown Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008 in New York on the seventh anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Presidential candidates Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill) are scheduled to visit the site Thursday.
(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)