10 years after surviving the collapse of the North Tower
by Staff Writer
by Frank DeLoache
Ten years later, sitting at a Starbucks off Providence Road, Warren “Smitty” Smith can instantly call to mind two moments on Sept. 11, 2001, when he thought he was about to die.
The first came on the 35th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Smith, then a veteran lieutenant with the New York City Fire Department, was leading the eight-man crew of Ladder 9 up one stairwell, threading through the office workers on their way down, still not knowing how far up they would go or what they would find. The crew, carrying their oxygen tanks and other equipment, stopped on the 35th floor to regroup and talk to a battalion chief when the building quaked violently.
At the time, Smith thought another plane had hit the building. Not just a tremor, the entire North Tower “shook like a rag doll” and all the firefighters “dove for the nearest stairwell,” Smith said.
Smith would learn a few minutes later that the South Tower had collapsed.
The second came a few moments later, when Smith and some members of his crew emerged back in the North Tower lobby. The fire department command center was gone, and Smith knew they had to get far away from the tower as fast as possible.
With civilians all around them, Smith and his crew moved as quickly as they could up West Street. He saw two firefighters sitting in the median and had just told them to get moving when an unearthly roar came behind them.
“We began to run. As we ran, I turned to see what it was. I saw a mountain of dust, rubble and debris chasing after us,” Smith recalled in a diary he wrote a few days later. Then the cloud caught up and enveloped him in “utter darkness” and dust. Though he was still wearing his mask, Smith was completely disoriented and didn’t know if he’d ever see light again. He expected a piece of debris to find him at any second.
Not the same
But he eventually “reached light,” and today, 650 miles and a career away, Smith knows he and four other members of the Ladder 9 crew were simply lucky. He can point to moments in time that proved fateful later.
For instance, as they were descending the stairwell to get out of the North Tower, the power went out and, for some reason, people stopped moving at the 11th floor. Then, a firefighter tapped Smith on the shoulder and led him across the 11th floor, to the other stairway, which was open. A few more minutes of delay might have made a difference.
They happened to get out and get about three blocks away before the North Tower collapsed.
A number of senior department chiefs, who moved their command center from the lobby of the North Tower across the street, died thinking they were safe. Firefighters who stayed around the command center or hadn’t managed to get far enough away perished.
He also wonders what could have happened to his wife, Maureen, who was five months pregnant at the time and worked only blocks from the twin towers. But she took Sept. 11, 2001, off for a doctor’s appointment. Still, she watched the horror unfold in front of their TV at home, not knowing if her husband was dead or alive.
Their son, Tyler, was born three months to the day later, early but healthy.
Fourteen months after 9/11, Smith retired from the New York City Fire Department. NYC firefighters can retire after 20 years, and Smith had 21 1/2. Before Sept. 11, 2001, he really hadn’t thought about retiring.
“I loved being a fireman. It was a great job,” he said last week. But the fire department wasn’t the same. He lost three men on his crew, and six firefighters in a second, seven-man crew from his station also perished, meaning his station took one of the highest casualty counts of all fire stations.
Smith spent his entire firefighting career in Manhattan and knew many of the firefighters who had died. He grew up with many of them in nearby Staten Island.
“I played ball with most of them. I drank beers with them. One guy who died met his wife in a bar I owned on the Upper East Side,” he said. He knew who was missing from any station he visited.
And though he was happy to be alive, he and other members of those companies who lost so many comrades had to deal with guilt.
Smith had always liked to write, and putting his feelings on paper helped him deal with them. Five months after the attacks, Smith wrote to Maureen: “For the most part, I’m doing pretty well. Two things are on my mind the most, though: No. 1, will it ever just go away? No. 2, why did I survive?
“… I know it will probably always be there. The question is: Will it always permeate my mind as much as it does now and if it doesn’t, to what degree? I guess only time will tell.
“No. 2. This is the big question. Why me? Sometimes I think of what people would say if they eulogized me. ‘He’s a great golfer. He had a good sense of humor. He was a nice guy.’ All good things, for sure, but nothing earth shattering.”
Then, Smith writes that he knows why he’s here: his son, Tyler. “It makes me realize that’s the No. 1 reason I’m here. God chose me to take care of him, alongside you.”
Slowing life down
Plus, the normal rush of life in New York City bothered him now. That hectic existence just added to his stress, more than he wanted to deal with.
Maureen Smith’s parents had retired to Pinehurst, the golf community in eastern North Carolina. They had visited and thought Charlotte would be a good place to settle.
“I just decided for our family, it was the best,” he said.
They moved in the spring of 2003, and today, he knows he made the right decision.
Though he hears Charlotteans bemoan the city’s traffic problems, Smith said the pace of life in the South is much slower and the people much friendlier. Smith and his family bought a home in Providence Country Club, and in 2004, he started Smitty’s Painting and Powerwash as a part-time job.
Through word of mouth and referrals, his business grew enough for him to hire a three-man crew.
Smith’s stepson, Kevin, just left for college, and Tyler, who will be 10 on Dec. 11, and his younger sister, Shea, 7, are happy in school.
He hasn’t returned to New York City as much as he would like, but he also notices that bad feelings come back to him every time he goes back. He’s not sure how the firefighters still living there have coped.
Smith also wants people to know that he’s doing OK and that federal, state and New York City authorities are doing a good job of monitoring the health of survivors like himself.
Once a year, he goes back to the same medical center in New York City, where the same team of doctors gives him a complete medical workup. The team is tracking him and the other survivors of the attack in New York – emergency workers and civilians. So far, Smith has experienced only “minor health issues,” though in the long run, doctors are watching to see if he inhaled asbestos fibers while fighting his way out of the dust cloud.
“But I think it’s very important for people to know that we’re being taken care of,” Smith said. “And I can’t tell you how lucky I feel all the time. … I have a great family, and I consider myself a very lucky man.”